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

Them’s Fighting Words: Marital Disarmament as a Noble New Year’s Resolution

Man and girl against a bright yellow wall. Stylish young couple standing back to back on holding hands in the form of arms

My husband and I were sitting in bed at the end of the day a few months ago when my teenage son walked in and asked out of nowhere, “Mom, I have a question. What weapons do you have that you think you use against dad?” My clarifying, “You mean besides my mouth?” was overshadowed by my husband’s simultaneous, “She has a lot of them,” delivered with the unabated zeal of a child high on the expectation of reciting his Christmas list to Santa.

I furrowed my eyebrows at him, “Whoa-a! It sounds like your father has something to say. Is this about my recent Hamilton obsession? Because I haven’t blasted it at 7 a.m. for weeks now, and I already forgave you for not fully appreciating the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

“Well,” he replied, “I’m always telling you that you should have been an attorney. Enough said.” I looked back at my son, “I was right—my mouth.”

I must admit that I experienced a slight “ouch” to hear my husband’s enthusiastic reply, like he had been preparing for the 31 years of our marriage just to be asked that particular question. It was still bothering me the next day. I approached with, “I’m a little disturbed at the rapidity with which you answered that question. Do you think I try to hurt you?”

He laughed and tried to soften the initial blow, “Honey, no–I heard the question and answered. I didn’t say you hurt me all the time, I just said you know how to do it—you know you can hurt me more than anyone because basically you’re the person I care the most about–so where do you want to go to dinner?” (predictably attempting to maneuver me toward a less controversial topic)

I retreated into my head, where I live much of my life, recollecting the times I had hurt him, self-flagellating with a hefty dose of shame and regret, and reaffirming my commitment to work harder to increase my positives-to-negatives ratio in our communication.

The fact is, a bonded romantic relationship can precipitate the most emotional safety but also the most pain. We rarely set out to hurt our partners, except in instances in which we strike back to show how we are hurting. It is very hard to be reminded about pain we have caused to the people we love the most. I believe it’s at least in part because we know we aren’t at our best when we hurt people, whether it is intentional or not. In return, our partners tend to know our vulnerabilities and can hurt us the most.

There are infinite ways to cause harm to a spouse. ANYTHING, and I do mean ANYTHING can be weaponized. Even a shield can appear as weaponry to a spouse. Here are some common weapons partners use:

  1. Language—name-calling, labeling, and using aggressive and absolutist terms (“always,” or “never,” anyone?) are nearly ubiquitous.

 

  1. Withdrawing and withholding—anything can be withheld. Compliments, gratitude, sex, and basically any physical and/or emotional contact. It sends the message that, “You are so bad that I cannot even deal with you and you don’t deserve my positive acknowledgment. When you are behaving properly, perhaps then I will grant you the gift of my presence.” Withholding also tends to serve as justification for some twisted moral high ground—people who use these methods can sometimes feel more virtuous because they see their partners as the aggressors stooping to morally compromised behaviors. However, refusing to engage can be just as cold and punishing and cruel as the presence of aggressive behaviors.

 

  1. Bringing up the past to reinforce that your spouse is flawed and unchanging—this is tricky, because if a couple doesn’t have a good way to heal past injuries, the past will come up. Partners are often afraid they will get hurt again. Potential triggers for past pain are everywhere. However, the way the pain is communicated can either draw a partner in for potential connection and soothing, or push them out further. Bringing up the past is necessary to build safety, but most people use it as a way to shield themselves from injury and to justify staying disconnected rather than using it as a bridge toward future connection.

 

  1. Using other people to strengthen your case against your partner—For example, “Even your children think you are a robot, just ask them,” or “You are exactly like your mother.” This never helps, even if it’s true. The verity of the assertion is irrelevant. Anything between you and your partner must stay that way. Unless, of course you would like to hear about all the people that agree with your partner about how awful you are.

 

  1. Using non-verbals to express disapproval—Tone and facial expressions are common ways to communicate our disapproval to our partners, and they can be cleverly disguised as “Your skewed misperception.” See: passive-aggressiveness.

This is not an exhaustive list. People will even use marital therapy as a weapon. Common uses are, “You didn’t even do the homework or read the book the therapist recommended,” which is critical and blaming. I have not once seen a client respond to any version of this with an assenting, “Oh, I see the light now! You’re right! I didn’t realize it before, but now that you showed me the error of my ways, I will be 100% engaged. Thank you for pointing that out!” Instead, I can predict with a high degree of accuracy that a statement like that will elicit a highly defensive and counter-blaming response.

Sometimes I will have clients ask me to give them specific “communication skills,” in a desperate attempt to quickly repair the marriage. Unfortunately, this was really all the field of marital therapy had to offer back in the 80’s, and it was usually only useful in cases of newlyweds without a history of challenges, or vapid couples, where neither escalates (which is somewhat rare). When it is useful, it’s often only in the short-term or in instances in which the emotions are low. I absolutely know how to “teach communication skills,” and have various methods to do so, yet rarely recommend an explicit didactic approach for “skills” or “love languages,” except in low-distress marriages. Why? Because the “skill,” will either be tossed to the wayside in extremely emotional conversations, or weaponized to injure a spouse. Examples of this are parroting one of the skills sarcastically or criticizing a partner’s employment of the “skill,” as in, “You’re not doing that the way the therapist taught us.”

So why do we use weapons against each other and what can we do instead?

Some of the common reasons we hurt our partners are:

  1. We don’t realize we are doing it. We can’t experience the world exactly like our partners. We can unintentionally trigger pain by scraping up against vulnerabilities that are rawer than we realize. To make matters worse, when it happens, we tend to become defensive instead of validating the pain we caused, in an effort for our own intentions to be validated. However, this will escalate further argument or disconnection. If your partner approaches you by bringing up something that hurt them, a soothing response is to acknowledge the pain and try to understand it better and plan for the future. For example, “Oh, I hadn’t realized that was painful—It’s hard for me to hear that I hurt you—help me understand it better so it doesn’t keep happening,” is always more useful than, “Well, you are in charge of your own feelings—It’s not my fault if you choose to have your feelings hurt by me. Besides, you are always hurting my feelings—should I tell you all the ways you hurt my feelings?” Trust me, I have heard all the arguments for why a spouse should be able to give the second response, and my answer is that if your intent is to make the marriage worse so you can disconnect, then by all means, stick to that answer.

 

  1. To protect ourselves. The things we do to protect ourselves look like weapons of war to a partner. This is a predictable paradox. For example, withdrawing and refusing to communicate by either leaving or refusing to respond are protective for someone who is experiencing distress from a partner’s emotional behaviors, but that type of wall looks like aggressive shut-out to a partner. Conversely, getting louder or more repetitive as a desperate response to make an impact on a partner looks aggressively weaponized. If you believe your partner doesn’t care about your feelings, anything you do to manage your own difficult emotions can look weaponized. Instead, try having a discussion with your partner about what methods you use to manage your own distress in the marriage and whether it may look like a weapon from the outside. Then vice versa.

 

  1. Sometimes we use weapons to communicate how much pain we are in. Criticism, blame, name-calling, and aggressive language are all ways of saying, “I am in pain in this marriage and I don’t have a good way to tell you so that you will really hear me.” Most partners get into a tug-of-war about whose pain is bigger. Regardless of justification, this never works. Instead, externalize BOTH partners’ pain by writing it down and acknowledge the pain as “couple pain,” generated and experienced over time together. The goal is to understand how to NOT continue to cause pain for EITHER partner.

 

  1. To communicate that this feels like a “life or death” situation in a hurry. In short, we use weapons when we feel threatened. The loss of love and acceptance and connection in a bonded romantic relationship feels threatening to most individuals. The type of reactivity induced in couple arguments is such an automatic response to threat, that speed can be one of the biggest barriers to connection. Sometimes to try to help people slow down, I will ask them to not say anything in response to a partner’s triggering words, but to just notice inside how they are experiencing it, in their thoughts and in their physiological responses (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Then, once they have noticed, they can slow down and choose responses differently. People can improve by noticing their reactivity and regulating their emotions in order to engage at a slowed-down pace, which is more helpful for connection.

Unify together to make the stressors the enemy instead of allowing the stressors to make your partner the enemy

Once, I had a couple begin an argument about money, which is one of the most common areas of couple conflict. I said, “It would be great if you could be a team fighting the enemy of economic scarcity together, rather than fighting each other over your individual fears related to money.”  I explained that to ever feel like a team, I believed they needed a way to write down and acknowledge that they both had fears about money for different reasons. I believed they would feel more united when they could BOTH care take each other’s fears. There is also a need for ongoing evaluation to make sure both partners are still validated and working together. This environment also increases safety, which helps people become more flexible when working with their partners.

Shifting the paradigm from preservation of “myself” to preservation of “us,” can be a helpful way to think about it. Ultimately, marriages in which it’s “Us against the enemy,” have more potential for staying connected while solving problems. The “enemy” can be the economy, extramarital temptation, past affairs, the exhausting and crazy-making state of parenting, or any other content area. If partners villainize each other, they will sit in a homeostasis of monitoring each other for potential threat while keeping their weapons drawn, which will maintain the ongoing threat.

Exchanging weapons for compassion

Ultimately, I’ve observed that people are their strongest when they are compassionate, and compassion is a no-lose application. Compassion doesn’t mean staying in an abusive situation, but in a non-abusive environment, compassion is the balm that soothes and fosters healing required for safe emotional bonding.

Trading in weapons of war for joint compassion can be a helpful way to begin 2019. Think about it.

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Couples, Holidays, marriage

How Some Fireworks of Conflict in Marriage can be a Good Thing

11881838 - sparkling love heart pulls a pair of hands at the rope.Around the 4th of July several years ago, my husband and I were out walking in a new development where homes were popping up right next to several charming storefronts.  We saw fireworks in the distance and walked closer to take a look. Several families were gathered, providing a show with aerial fireworks.  The setting was dreamlike—perfect weather in a shiny new neighborhood glowing with an idealistic, quasi-Seussian quality.

The mood shifted entirely when one of the aerial fireworks fell over, shooting into the open garage where the rest of the fireworks were stored.  My husband and I both felt sick as we watched a chain reaction of igniting fireworks which quickly started a larger fire.  In under a few minutes, the entire garage was in flames threatening to engulf the whole house.

There’s no question that fireworks come with risk.  The potential injury to body and environment is exactly why they must be managed so carefully.  However, despite the risk, they are still a common part of many festivities, because in general the celebratory aspects outweigh the risk.

In a way, this is a metaphor for marital conflict.  Too many fireworks can ignite a marriage into aggressive and destructive conflict. However, there can be such a thing as too few fireworks, which doesn’t just leave the marriage dull but potentially harmful in a different way.

In graduate school, one of the first things we were taught is that we had to worry more about the couples who weren’t having any conflict than about the couples that were having some conflict.  The absence of conflict is too often indicative of too much distance in a marriage, or an imbalance of one partner continually sacrificing individual desires for the other partner.

It’s so important to realize that if you are married to a partner who has a “peace at any price,” mentality, this is high risk for negative elements to creep into the marriage.  It’s easy to pick up on this dynamic in therapy.  One partner will start complaining that the other partner isn’t complying with a rigid set of rules for something, and when the other partner begins to state why he/she doesn’t think it should be such a big deal, the louder partner gets more upset and emotional and the other partner backs off and goes quiet and gives up trying to protest.

Partners who require compliance from their spouses unfortunately don’t even realize that they are creating damage, because their partners aren’t saying enough, if anything, about it.  When one partner is allowing a continual boundary violation, it’s bad for the marriage.  Over time, here’s what happens.

  1. Resentment builds in the quieter partner, but it’s not worth risking conflict to talk about it, so it continues to grow.
  2. The partner who gives in all the time is more likely to hide behavior from the other partner to avoid facing conflict.
  3. Overall trust in the relationship diminishes because the louder partner never quite knows what’s going on with the other partner, so the dynamic generates suspicion, which generates more control, and the cycle repeats, pushing the quieter partner away.
  4. The quieter partner is more likely to turn away to connect to someone or something else because the louder, more demanding partner feels too risky to connect with—there’s a continual feeling of conditional acceptance, i.e., “You will only love me if I do what you want.”

No one wants to be parented by a spouse.  Be aware that if you have a partner who gives in all the time, and you never have conflict, you might be creating resentment without even realizing it.  I see this happen over and over and over—and it can take decades before the quieter partner finally can’t take it anymore and disconnects from the relationship completely.

Couples who live together in close emotional proximity are going to step on each other’s toes.  It’s highly unlikely to be able to get close to someone without conflict.  Conflict can help you know your other partner better and can provide the possibility for negotiation.  It puts the relationship on center stage rather than the desires of one partner.  Think of it like sandpaper, smoothing away rough edges for a better fit and finish.

Years ago, a friend of mine who overheard a marital spat between my husband and me declared self-righteously that she would “not have any arguing,” in her home because it was just unacceptable.  I felt terrible for days afterward until my husband and I went out with her and her husband.  All night long I observed that anything she told him to do, he did without protest, and she had a long list of rigid demands.  She monitored what he wore, what he ate, and how he behaved in social settings.

I never cease to be amazed by wives who think it’s their job to manage their husbands so carefully.  I just did not grow up with that kind of control, and as a therapist, I view it as very unhealthy and intrusive.  A spouse is a separate, unique individual–not an idealized extension of oneself.

When we got home, I whined to my husband, “It’s not fair—it’s easy for her to not have conflict in her house because her husband just does everything she says.  She’s ten times bossier than I am, but you’re not compliant like her husband—if I had a husband like that, I wouldn’t have conflict in my home either.”  “Do you want a husband like that?” my husband asked.  “No!  Boyfriend needs to get a backbone!”  I exclaimed.  “Exactly,” he agreed.

About 15 years later, that couple got divorced.  The husband got tired of not having a voice and by the time he let his wife know, all his feelings for her were coated with resentment and he was unwilling to work on the marriage.  Any variation of, “my way or the highway,” comes with risk of slowly destroying interpersonal relationships. High control can be a lot more problematic than people realize.

This is a co-created dynamic.  The partner who doesn’t set boundaries to avoid conflict is as much at fault as the partner with the demands, because failure to communicate is unspoken agreement.  It’s easy to blame the more demanding partner, but the placating partner has as much to do with keeping the negative pattern going.

Evaluate your marriage.  If you are always getting your way, there is something seriously wrong.  If you are always giving in, you’re hurting your marriage.

I’m not promoting contention.  High levels of conflict can be as much or more damaging.  I’m merely encouraging the acceptance of normative conflict in close relationships and suggesting that it can provide some value for eventual intimacy.

In short, be willing to risk a few sparklers now to prevent an M-80 of resentment from blowing your relationship apart.

Reference:

Reconceptualizing Marital Conflict: A Relational Perspective by J.A. Ostenson and M. Zhang (2014) in Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34(4), 229-242.

photo credit: Copyright: refat / 123RF Stock Photo

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.