Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The Slow Marital Death of Indecision: When Your Partner is Ambivalent about Staying Married

ambivalent couple

My job would be much easier as a marriage therapist if every couple came in with a unified set of desires for their marital futures.  Unfortunately, many couples come in with mixed agendas.  Commonly, one partner is entirely committed to saving the marriage, while one partner is ambivalent.

Ambivalent partners can be absolutely crazy-making for their spouses. They seem paralyzed about deciding whether or not to continue the marital relationship, because often they don’t like the looks of any of their options.  They commonly report that they don’t want to get divorced because, “It’s not the right thing to do,” or because they “Don’t want to mess up the children,” but at the same time, they don’t feel like getting close to their partners either.  Sometimes they are emotionally attached to partners outside the marriage.

Because neither option looks desirable to them, they show up to therapy physically, but tend to drag their feet in therapy, staying emotionally disconnected and inaccessible in the marital relationship.  They show up just enough to keep their spouses hopeful that they will fully engage and the marriage will eventually improve.

The more committed partners often get stuck in the partner’s indecisiveness, because their own decisions seem contingent on the ambivalent partners’ decisions. Over time, those more committed spouses report feeling like they are being manipulated and forced into making a decision about divorce due to the ambivalent spouse’s indecision.

In my opinion, some ambivalent partners are hoping their spouses will decide to pull the plug on the marriage so they don’t have to make that decision or take responsibility for that decision.

Ambivalence can last an indefinite amount of time, and in the meantime, the clock is ticking, children are growing up, and spouses are getting older.

I never have great answers for people in this situation.  It’s never my job to talk someone into staying in a marriage they don’t want to be in.  I’m not a marriage salesperson, even though I’m happy to help people stay married that so desire.  I’m also not the marital therapy godmother.  As much as I would like one, I don’t have a magic wand to make someone fall instantly “in love,” with a long-term partner.

I treat ambivalence in part by having the ambivalent spouses clarify and own the ambivalence.  By identifying and verbalizing the parts that want to stay married and the parts that don’t, they can sometimes over time decide whether or not they want to lean into the marriage or get completely out.  I try to get them to identify their fears, which often keep people stuck.  I will clarify that failing to make a decision is making a decision–it’s just a more passive (and painful) approach to decision-making.

Sometimes, if the marriage starts to feel safer so ambivalent partners can engage with more acceptance, they will.  This isn’t always the case.

Being married to an ambivalent partner is incredibly stressful.

Here are some practical suggestions for people who see their marriages dying the slow death of ambivalence to try to gain clarity for moving forward.

  1. Gather information.  I tell people to use what is available to get intentionally informed, and to write it down.  Past behavior and present behavior are valuable information.  Past behavior is also highly correlated (though not predictive) with future behavior.  If you realize that two years ago your spouse was saying the exact same thing as today, and that actions haven’t changed, that is important information.  By explicitly identifying patterns, you can gain clarity about future decisions.
  1. Ask trusted others close to the situation to help you make sense out of what is happening. Identify people close to you who understand your situation and have your best interests at heart and ask what they think.  Are several people seeing and telling you the same thing?  That’s important.
  1. Write down what life will be like in 5 years or 10 years if nothing has changed, except now you and your children are that much older. When people actually write this down for me, they develop more clarity about decision-making.  Often the response is, “Oh……yeah.”
  1. Identify your own greatest fear and create a plan for dealing with it. Many, if not most of us, get stuck in indecisiveness because we are afraid.  The anxiety we can conjure about what might happen is almost always more mentally painful than actually experiencing it.  Face the fact that your worst fear could happen, but create a plan for what you will do when it does, even if it will be uncomfortable.  For example, are you afraid your kids will be adversely affected by a divorce?  Then imagine how you will talk to them to mitigate negative effects and identify resources for helping children in divorce scenarios.  Score more points for actually imagining this case scenario over and over until you can imagine handling it.  (Kids are always affected, which is why divorce isn’t my favorite choice, but sometimes it’s a necessary choice, and there are resources to help)
  1. Identify your support resources. Friends and family are obvious choices, but some people overlook broader community support.  Now there are even support groups online for just about any challenge.  Find out what is available to you.  Look up websites and books.  If you are afraid of earning capability, talk to people who have been where you are now and have moved past it.  Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people.
  1. Identify your identity outside of your marital relationship. If you aren’t in a romantic attachment relationship, what are your other meaningful relationships?  What kind of friend do you want to be?  What kind of parent or grandparent?  What kind of community member or human being at large? What skills do you want to develop?  What are you curious about?
  1. If your marriage has spiritual or religious significance, reinforce that spiritual or religious relationship in order to achieve peace and confidence. People who see their marriages as spiritually significant can develop confidence that Deity, or whomever they honor and respect as a guiding force, understands their pure intentions.  I believe people in these situations can attain peace they need to move forward in decision-making, even if the decision is painful.
  1. Allow yourself time and space to grieve. I don’t believe we get out of this life without feeling deep grief and loss.  Losing relationships are some of the most painful emotional experiences we have as human beings.  It’s normal to feel pain that a relationship is ending.  I’m big on creating grieving rituals to make space for allowing yourself to feel pain while setting boundaries around grief in an intentional way so it doesn’t take over your life.  Since it’s common for some pain to hang on indefinitely, I’m also big on a mindfulness approach in which you can feel pain but still know that you can function.

I really, really, really wish this were easier.  It’s just not.  Many people end up having to make decisions they don’t want to make.  Even though it’s not likely to bring comfort, I want to end by pointing out that ambivalent marriages, while painful, are actually not uncommon.  You may feel alone, but I can assure you that you are not.  There might be someone out there who can benefit from your experience.  Finding that person may actually help you feel more resolved.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>kmiragaya / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

The Art of Noticing: Putting the “App” in Appreciation

thanks photo

“See?” exclaimed a husband in therapy, “It will never be enough for you.  No matter what I do, you will always want something different or more, so I might as well just give up trying.”

There is a process that I regularly witness between couples in therapy that genuinely saddens me.  What happens is that I will observe one partner really trying to please the other partner, but the efforts are viewed as disingenuous or minimal, so they are disregarded or criticized, at which point the partner gives up.

This phenomenon occurs with both partners in a marriage regularly.  Here’s a typical example:

Sandy was exhausted from caring for her young children, driving them around, and keeping the house picked up.  She was hurt that her husband didn’t make a bigger effort to support her in daily household chores, and that it seemed like he was content to ignore her all night while expecting sex before bedtime.  She was offended that he wanted to be physical with her after seemingly preferring to be alone most of the time.  When she tried to talk about it, he would withdraw by leaving the room or just refusing to engage in conversation.

Her husband, Sam, admitted that he gave up on household chores because, “It’s never up to her standards,” and the criticism he received was painful.  He added that he did reach out for physical connection because it was the only time he felt really accepted in the relationship.

It’s common that after a session of therapy, partners will gain a little more courage to try again.  The problem is that when they do try, their efforts do seem small.  That’s because after years of rejection, making small shifts can feel like enormous risks.  Then, their partners either don’t notice the small efforts, or actively reject the efforts because they are afraid that if they “reward,” the small effort, their partners will think it’s enough and stop there.

So, with the above example, Sam returned to therapy and explained that he volunteered to do household chores without asking, and instead of his wife noticing and expressing gratitude, she asked why he didn’t do a few more things.  In return, Sandy explained that she tried to risk being more physically affectionate with her husband by hugging him when he came home, but that he “pouted,” all night because she didn’t want to have sex.  Thus, both partners experienced more rejection and felt discouraged to continue.

Change can be very tricky between couples, because the two people are so sensitive to each other emotionally.  No one wants to feel like he or she is making efforts to change while the other person doesn’t notice or isn’t trying to change as well.  Both partners want love and acceptance.

It’s important to know that NOTICING is a skill that can be actively expanded and implemented.  Then, people need to realize that APPRECIATING and ENCOURAGING is powerful in priming more change, but nothing will destroy a partner’s desire to try faster than criticism, even if the criticism seems small.  Most people don’t realize the huge impact their criticism has on partner withdrawal and disconnection.

So, why aren’t people better at using encouragement and accepting their partners’ changes instead of criticizing?

  1. They want so much more than their partners are often willing to give up front that they really don’t notice their partners are trying to change.
  2. They are afraid that if they accept the small effort, the partner will think that’s good enough and stop trying.
  3. They are afraid that if they accept the larger effort, it won’t last.
  4. They don’t trust the change, because it may be viewed as manipulation.

Here’s how to implement the art of noticing and appreciating in order to promote change:

Look for and acknowledge ANY change efforts.  People want their efforts to matter.  Many times, I have pointed out, “You see, he’s here right now with you in therapy trying to improve his relationship with you—this is him trying to change.  You are experiencing it right now.  Especially since couples therapy is the LAST place most men want to be.”  Or, “Did you notice her reach out and put her hand on your leg when you were talking about how painful it is when she rejects you physically?  That is her trying to reach out to you and comfort you in a way that you desire.”  When I point this out, most partners acknowledge, “Yes, this is hard for him (or her) and I can see he’s trying.” I can also help them add, “I just get scared that he will stop trying or things won’t ever get better, even though it helps me to know he’s here with me right now.”  This helps the rejected partner understand what is happening more clearly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think in PARTS.  For example, “There’s a part of me that can see you trying and gets excited that thing might get better, but there’s another part of me that gets afraid it won’t last or this is as good as it will ever get, and that thought is so scary that I want to make more demands.”

Understand SHAPING.  There is a behavioral concept called “shaping,” in which people reward approximations of behavior in order to move someone toward the desired behavior.  It is used a lot in parenting, but it actually applies in all our relationships.  I reject pure behavior therapy as an application for change, because our emotions interact with our behaviors in complex ways, but it is true that acceptance and praise are rewarding, and we are more likely to become approaching and try harder in those circumstances.

Understand that criticism and contempt are more powerful in a toxic way than appreciation, praise and encouragement are in a relationship-building way.  In other words, one line of criticism can wipe out a month’s worth (or more) of genuine effort in seconds.  People give lip service to this, but then behave as if their criticism shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIIFED OR NOT.  For emphasis, I repeat, CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED OR NOT.

Even if you notice and encourage your partner when you see a change, EXPECT RELAPSE into old patterns.  People need to be allowed to get it wrong without being severely punished even if they have been nearly perfect.  Sometimes people won’t try to change, because they are afraid that they won’t be “perfect,” at it and if they aren’t, their partners will flare up (because they do).  Most patterns change like the stock market—a general trend upward with lots of ups and downs in between.

Recognize that NOTICING really is a skill that you can acquire.  If I asked you to watch your spouse’s or child’s behavior and notice what they were doing well, you would be able to tell me.  Everyone knows how to do this but we forget that noticing does take some effort on our part.  It’s rarely natural.  Instead, we tend to view partners through a lens based on an accumulation of interactions over the years, and we don’t notice variations in the present.  Also, undesirable behavior always gets our attention more readily than desired behavior.

It is highly unlikely that your partner will even try to fully meet your expectations until he or she believes that you notice and appreciate his or her efforts.  People need to feel safe from rejection and criticism to take relationship risks.  This is the standard.  Your partner is not an exception.

Lastly, I complement you on finishing this longish article and by doing so implementing a small immediate change to make your relationship better.  See, I noticed!  Did you notice?