What Every Husband Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.

It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.

As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.

Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly.  If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.

The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.

Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!

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Long Term Marriages are Different

From Madeleine L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage: 

Speaking of her 40 year marriage to her husband Hugh Franklin:

“We were not a latter-day Heloise and Abelard, Pelleas and Melisande when we married. For one thing, the Heloises and Abelards, the Pelleases and Melisandes, do not get married and stay married for forty years. A love which depends solely on romance, on the combustion of two attracting chemistries, tends to fizzle out. The famous lovers usually end up dead. A long term marriage has to move beyond chemistry to compatibility, to friendship, to companionship. It is certainly not that passion disappears, but that it is conjoined with other ways of love.

Of course, the culture tends to glorify the passionate whirlwind romance, rather than the steady committed marriage. Anyone fortunate enough to share in the latter, to enjoy true love, realizes how empty is the former.” 

When To Get Marriage Therapy

Most couples come to therapy when they have completely run out of steam. While there is a great deal that MFTs can do to help, it’s not a time in the family when people feel resilient, optimistic or energized. In order to create permanent change, one needs a good deal of hope and energy. And so does one’s partner.

I’ve observed that for many couples (especially those who have had a less-than smooth relationship history, full of stops and re-starts, difficult emotional turmoil, previous long-term partners and/or huge life stress) there are much better times to come to couples therapy and have a much bigger chance for successful growth.

They are:

1. Before marriage. PLEASE consider pre-marital counseling, whoever you are. There are fabulous tools available to me as a therapist to assess your relationship as it is now, help you understand your unique partnership in basic system and personality terms, and help you enter the marriage more awake to your strengths and weaknesses.

2. After the FIRST really big, painful, emotionally threatening argument. Happier couples, those whose likes and dislikes, personality styles, family of origin patterns and conflict themes are more similar to each other may never even have one of these blow outs. Ever. That would be ideal. The moment a frightening, threatening, abusive fight happens, think: Help. We need help.

3. When one of you feels as if you are drifting away from your partner and couplehood in a big way : a job that takes you away from home for days or weeks at a time; when new parenthood strains the closeness; a crisis of faith or health or employment. Couple relationships are always managing their own sense of healthy emotional distance from one another. But the marriage should always feel quietly, confidently connected. If it doesn’t, don’t let it drift without comment and professional support.

These are the times I have noticed in marriages of change and opportunity, when both partners may be open to learning new things about each other and themselves, and still see the relationship as positive, life-affirming, permanent. These are the points at which relationships can be strengthened, renewed, matured. Don’t wait until you can’t stand it any more to reach out for counseling. Chances are, your chances of recovery get lower with every week you wait.

Getting the Love You Want : A Guide for CouplesGetting the Love You Want : A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

Hendrix and I have preaching and church ministry as a young adult in common. I love this about him. What I don’t love is that his psychology model is born of psychoanalytic and Freudian models. He believes that we marry unconsciously to heal the wounds that our early lives have inflicted upon us, and that good marriages heal those wounds.

I believe instead that we marry others who feel instinctively familiar, like family, to us. In both good and bad ways. And that is our own work, our individual, relational and spiritual work, to heal our wounds. I think that is too heavy a load to lay on one relationship, particularly your spouse!

I am indebted to him, however, for teaching us/me the Imago Dialogue model. I use it almost daily in my practice to slow partners down, get them to listen to each other without reflexive defense, problem solving or arguing points of fact. It’s the best thing about his work that I value.

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Willing to Risk Again

Several times this week I have found myself talking to new couple clients about their relationships, and how hurt has caused them to feel withdrawn from their partners. Sometimes this distance has lasted for years, the human need for support, connection and understanding no longer expected from their spouse. 

One of the most important aspects of relationship repair is the willingness to risk being open to a partner who has been months or years at odds with our needs and hopes. Couple therapy at its best keeps both people focused on their individual efforts, while being confident, through actions and words in the therapy room and out, that the partner is doing the same hard work. 

It can feel like being open to injury. Like you are just asking for your partner to hurt you again. Many people resist, and for every right reason! But repairing such pain means turning toward your partner and feeling what you feel, expressing your hurt and disappointment, asking for what you need again, and being willing to see if your openness can be met with a similar effort of apology, repair, and affection by your partner. That’s what a good couple therapist does every day with couples, with compassion, encouragement and patience. It’s not a free-for-all in therapy sessions. If it is, run in the other direction. 

When deciding whether to go to couples therapy, this is one question you will need to answer: am I willing to be open again to this person, this one I once loved, and see what I feel, what they have to say, what they have experienced, and work together for new, common ground? 

You’d Be Proud

We put our one and only (in every sense of this phrase) 16 year old daughter on a plane to Germany two weeks ago. She has been traveling with a group of German language students and their teacher to the motherland, a trip that has been all year in the making.

It was a rather anxious start. Worst was the torrent of rain that she and I drove in from home to the Minneapolis airport. It was probably the worst rain I have ever driven in. If we hadn’t had to meet an international flight, I would have pulled over and waited it out. It was as bad as night-time blizzards here in the Midwest, for those who have had that very unpleasant, life-threatening experience. It was all I could do to follow the tail lights of the car ahead of me. Poor daughter. She was already nervous, and she wisely put her head down, closed her eyes, and (I hope) prayed her way through about 15 miles of serious crazy. By the time we arrived at the airport, my head was buzzing with adrenaline, cortisol and every other emergency hormone the human body can pump out. But we made it, and so did everyone else.

They left relatively on time, but arrived exhausted and hungry in Amsterdam, and then had to drag their considerable luggage and weary selves over hill and dale, through airport, tram, train and street to their first stay, a rather nice hostel. Our daughter and I have Blackberry phones, and have been able to text at no cost internationally (RIM, you still rule, don’t give up!) and that first night she shared freely the stresses and strains of the day.

Wonderfully, it all improved with food and sleep and she has been having a remarkable, life-shaping experience visiting Germany and her surrounds. She returns this coming Monday, and we can’t wait to hear every detail she cares to share. 

What this trip also did was thrust my husband and I back to the future, being child-free for over 2 weeks, the longest we have been alone together since 1992 when our son was born. That’s a long time, and I’m happy to say, it has been a pleasure to talk to each other about more than work, home and our children’s lives and schedules. It’s been nice to remember what it was like to live, the two of us, before children, and what, God willing, it will be like for much of the time in a couple more years when both our children will be collegians.

We’re praying every day for both our children, who, though on very different paths, and very different persons, are at the center of who we are as people. We are forever different because of them. But happily, our lives didn’t come to a screeching halt because they haven’t been home. We are family, wherever we are. And when empty nesting comes, we’re going to be alright.

Monogamy: It’s Not for Everybody

Back in the day when I performed weddings, starry-eyed couples would come to my church office to do premarital counseling and plan their (elaborate) wedding ceremony. I guess I never stopped to consider it much, but I assumed, as did they, that the promise to be “faithful until death parts us” was seriously considered and solemnly promised before and during the wedding service. They only had eyes for one another.

Yet, I knew that about half of all the weddings I would perform over the years would end in divorce. That statistic didn’t stop anybody, it seemed, from being certain about themselves. We can do it, the couple assumed. We can be each others’ partner for life.

I now have been in the marriage counseling field for 8 years, and practicing full-time for 6. It’s not a lot of experience, but believe me: it’s enough. Enough to feel like I have a new sense of the difficulties of pledging a life-long partnership, and the challenge of not only growing and aging in some kind of parallel line with one another, but often raising children, dealing with work demands, managing health issues, sometimes moving across town or across country, or going to war, or dealing with trauma and grief.

I now think that it’s pretty awesome that 50 percent of those marriages make it a life time. In fact, I think that is nearly close to miraculous.

I’ve been thinking about the various, very human, reasons that marriages don’t make it a lifetime. And the list keeps piling up. Now, granted, my sample of the human spectrum is rather narrow, since happy couples are generally not calling me for appointments. And I do practice in a very narrow economic and cultural range in Dakota County, MN. So, that said, here are a few thoughts on the matter. I hope to write some more about it later.

1. Monogamy, sexual exclusivity with one partner, isn’t for everyone. I used to think that monogamy was just a choice, and that adults could manage it. I now believe that some of the most devoted of husbands and wives suffer from sexual struggles around having just one partner for ever. And that sexual simplicity drives them to have affairs, or other kinds of sexual acting out. What I once thought of as a cop-out I now consider a simple fact of human sexual life. Not everyone will enjoy monogamy. Many people get around this not by having affairs, but having multiple marriages, amounting to a serial monogamy with several marital partners. Half of all marriages go this way.

2. When partner family of origin preferences are very different, whether around matters of alcohol, or vacations, or habits around conflict or gender roles, or religious practice, child rearing or politics, I see those habits beat out intention more times than not. The power of family habits is hard to resist.

3. Personalities are notoriously hard to change. We are individually shaped by our genetics, our nurturing by parenting, good, bad or indifferent, in families, and all the unique things that happen to us in our lives. Many people marry their partners, despite clear problems and pain, believing that they will change their partner for the better. While we do influence our partners all the time, I have never seen a marriage based on the belief that “marriage will change them” work. Never. EVER.

With all the things getting in the way of a successful lifelong partnership, I have become a person who sees the 50% success as a definitely glass-half-FULL issue. It’s amazing that that many people getting married stay married, and say they are happy. If you are one of them, congratulations. You are a relationship rock star.