Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Couples Engage in Self-Sabotage and How to Fix it

cardiogram love

One of the saddest aspects for me as a couples therapist is watching couples engage in self-sabotage, creating the very thing they don’t want in their relationships.  It’s common to see a lonely wife who really wants to be connected her husband yell and protest in desperation in a way that absolutely pushes him farther away.  I witness husbands who are anxious about approaching their wives at all for fear of rejection, so they withdraw emotionally and increase the likelihood that their spouses will become angry and protesting, generating the very behavior they are trying to avoid.  Couples do it ALL THE TIME.  It might even be the rule rather than the exception.  I have been known to point out this paradoxical behavior a time or two in a therapy session.  (i.e. “Do you see, you are wanting him with you right in this very moment, and yet you are pushing him away….can you see it?” or, “You can’t find the words to tell her how difficult it is for you to see disappointment on her face, so you find a way to numb yourself and disconnect, which just leaves her feeling lonelier and angrier than ever.”)

To help illustrate the antidote to this vicious cycle, I have a favorite video clip I routinely show in public presentations.

The clip is from the film, “Something the Lord Made,” which my son brought home to watch with me several years ago because he wanted to see the performance of musician/actor Mos Def.  The movie also includes Alan Rickman playing the part of cardiologist Alfred Blalock, known for pioneering a procedure for treating “blue baby syndrome,” at Johns Hopkins in the 1940’s, with the help of assistant Vivien Thomas (played by Def).  His wife is portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick.

Although the movie is really making a statement about ethnicity and discrimination in the history of American medicine, what caught my attention was a brief exchange between the cardiologist and his wife, and is a scene which I use to illustrate how to prevent a negative escalation in couple interaction.

As the movie progresses and the cardiologist and his assistant become determined to find a way to treat an infant patient with a congenital heart defect, they spend hours away from home at the research facility.  The singular focus of the groundbreaking task predictably replaces time with family and other pursuits.

The scene that caught my attention was one in which Blalock (played by Rickman) arrived home late yet again, and found an ambulance in his driveway.  He rushed into the house to see his wife (Sedgwick) sitting up waiting for him.  As she looked up at him, I found myself bracing for a marital argument.

The doctor questioned his wife about the ambulance and she calmly explained that she had been driving it as a volunteer.  Then, the dialogue immediately shifted to a discussion about the fact that the doctor was away from home so much that his daughter (asleep on the couch next to his wife) had asked if she could be a patient so she could see him.  When the doctor agreed that it had been “a couple of weeks,” that he had not made it home before 11 p.m., his wife corrected him and said, “No, it’s 23 days.”

This was the point at which I expected the conversation to become more heated.  It was the perfect storm waiting to happen:  A “workaholic” husband, a strong-willed wife, and a daughter neglected by her father in favor of his career.  Even though medical doctors (and especially those who engage in research) are routinely challenged with a notable work/family balance struggle, this picture had been painted for me many times in therapy with husbands representing various professions.  I turned to my son and predicted, “This is not going to go well,” as the wife got up from the couch and approached her husband.

His internal conflict was evident on his face.  He appeared as if he were expecting a flurry of accusations to be hurled his way, and I imagined that he was internally summoning his defensive responses.  In just microseconds, I had already constructed in my head an anticipated dialogue based on my experience as a marriage therapist that went something like this:

Wife:  See!  Your own daughter can even tell you care more about your patients than you do about her.  Is this what you really want?  Are you willing to just throw your family down the drain for your own vanity?  All you care about is advancing in your career! (I want to point out that the wife’s triangulating in the daughter instead of talking about her own feelings is a classic and ineffective strategy marriage therapists witness over and over)

Husband:  You knew I was going to be a doctor when you married me.  I asked you before I took on this project and you told me to do it.  What do you want me to do, quit my job?  By the way, who do you think is paying for this fancy house you live in and that fancy private education for our daughter?  I don’t hear you complaining about my paycheck.  Do you think you can do better?  I have the chance to make a difference here—to save lives!  Do you want to call and tell this baby’s mother that her baby is going to die because you can’t spend one more evening without me at your side catering to your whims?  Is that what you want?

Or something like that.  I could write an infinite number of variations.

Except it didn’t go like that.  Instead, to my surprise, as the wife approached, she muttered, “It’s not as if I don’t know the lot of a doctor’s wife,” but then she said something that shifted the conversation, prevented escalation, and turned a potential argument into a bonding moment.  She looked him in the eye, gently said, “I miss you,” and reached up and kissed him.  The scene concluded by him softly answering, “It’s going to change,” and her (equally softly) musing, “It’s probably going to get worse.”

When I watched it for the first time, I thought it was a great example of risk-taking with vulnerable emotions in a relationship.  The wife undoubtedly had experienced her own level of personal rejection and had probably many times felt as if her husband’s work was more important than she was, yet instead of becoming accusatory and blaming and critical, she stayed with the primary loneliness that so often does escalate into a protective shield of anger and blame.

Here’s why it was so powerful:  When she softly expressed that she missed him, it drew him closer to her.  It created an environment in which she increased the likelihood of connecting with him in the future.  As the husband felt more wanted, he was more likely to hear his wife and adapt his schedule to accommodate her.  If she had expressed anger, the likely result would have been his defensiveness, argumentativeness and more relationship withdrawal, increasing a cycle of disconnection.

This is not to imply that the wife in this instance was solely responsible for the husband’s behavior, because the reality is that couples recursively impact each other constantly, and either one of them can change responses to change the pattern.  Both partners contribute to negative cycles

If the husband had been able to disclose to his wife more about his ongoing internal struggle, and how difficult the career/family demands were for him, and possibly how fearful he was that he would let her and everybody else down, it could also have increased her patience with the situation and increased the possibility that the couple could bond around the struggle and work together.

Unfortunately, men in our culture get socialized out of ever acknowledging these feelings, much less talking about them, and if they did have the awareness and skill, their socialization to “be independent and figure it out yourself,” would preclude the possibility of eliciting support from a spouse.  However, when they learn to do this, it also increases bonding and connection in dyadic relationships.

Sometimes couples silently power struggle over who is going to be vulnerable first.  Neither wants to risk getting rejected, because in negative cycles, both partners feel unwanted by the other.

I think the example in this clip has broad range applicability for just about every couple.  By saying, “I miss you,” the wife was also saying, “I want you.  I love you.  You matter to me.”  I am confident that if I could increase this authentic expression in marriage, more couples could climb their way out of the deep ruts in which they get stuck and reorient sooner to a pathway of safety and trust.

Watch the movie.  You’ll see what I mean.

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