Avoiding facing marital problems
Some married people avoid expressing their unhappiness to "keep peace." Although well intentioned, this concealing of your feelings and pain from your spouse month after month causes serious harm to your marriage. The quiet one is denying the truth, pretending to be happier than he/she is, minimizing the marital problems, endangering his/her own health, avoiding a vital task merely because it is stressful, trying to play it safe, acting uncaringly and hostilely towards his/her spouse, and reneging on his/her sacred vows to preserve the marriage. This is kind of keeping the peace is the kind of behavior that causes problems. Honest openness is needed to maintain a marriage. Don't cop out. Learn about "I" statements and empathy responding in chapter 13, then get to work.
Some writers, e.g. Cole & Laibson (1982), believe that the hiding of disagreements between husband and wife also gives children a distorted view of marriage and deprives the children of the chance to learn how to handle conflict. We need to realize that (1) all thinking people disagree occasionally and (2) anger doesn't have to destroy love. Many happy couples fight verbally or argue. Cole and Laibson think parents should "fight" (disagree or argue but not get verbally or physically abusive) in front of the kids and especially show the children that arguments can and should lead to workable solutions. Children shouldn't witness certain arguments, however, such as about sex, child-rearing, money, relatives, or divorce, nor should the children become involved in the argument if it is just between the parents. Always assure the children that they aren't causing the marital problems. No parent should ever involve a child as an emotional substitute for the spouse, an ally against the other parent, or as a pawn in the marital wars. The rules for fair, good, constructive "fighting" are given in chapter 13; two psychologists have written a book on how to conduct effective, beneficial family fights (Rubin & Rubin, 1988). If you can't follow these rules and the arguments become vicious, name-calling, destructive battles, both partners should get counseling.
Judith Siegel's new book, "What Children Learn from Their Parents' Marriage," may help frightened or irritable or distant spouses uncover the source of their emotions. Her point is that, as young children, we observe closely the interactions between Mom and Dad. Those experiences form a lasting basis for our expectations and fears of marriage and intimacy. Unfortunately, many children accurately see unhealthy relationships between their parents... plus, and causing even more problems, the child him/herself probably has distorted perceptions of the parents'interactions and many children go beyond mere misperceptions into gross distortions and horrible fantasies about their parents' relationship, e.g. possibly imagining that the angry spats of their parents could turn into dangerous out-of-control rages, making the child very afraid of having disagreements with anyone (as a child or later as a spouse/lover).
As Freud observed, we are, for unclear reasons, prone to repeat the disturbing problems we observed or experienced in the past--presumably so we can try to find a way to resolve the troubling situation. However, if we come to realize what we are doing, for instance, carrying our distorted fears as a child into our own marriage, maybe we could find a way to avoid this "repetition neurosis." Siegel's book should, at least, help some people review their childhood experiences of their parents' marriage and, hopefully, find the childhood origins of their current difficulties with intimacy. Siegel's basic purpose, however, is to help parents realize that their children are not only affected by the child's relationship with each of them as individuals but also deeply affected by the way they see Mom and Dad relating.
Loveless marriages; lasting doesn't mean loving
With divorce being common, why would anyone stay married to someone he/she didn't love or even like? There are lots of reasons, according to Florence Koslow, a well known marriage counselor. This would include the same reasons young people do not break engagements or leave boy/girlfriends when they suspect they haven't made the best possible choice. If there are children, there are powerful reasons to stay married, even if the marriage is strained or dead. Even in a loveless marriage both parents can preserve their close relationships with the children. Divorces often strain and even destroy parent-child relationships as well as terminate a marriage (see the discussion of step-parents later). Many people are also trapped in marriage by their own fears: fear of the unknown, fear of losing status (people gain status by marrying an attractive, successful partner), fear of criticism, fear of being alone, fear of intimacy and sex with someone new, fear that all marriages are unhappy, fear of losing income, fear of doing harm to the children, and a fear of raising children alone. These are serious matters to consider.
Even though surveys vary greatly in their estimate of infidelity (from 25% to 70% of partners), the Kinsey Institute estimates that about 35% of husbands and 30% of wives have been unfaithful. Janus & Janus (1993) also found that more than 1/3 of husbands and more than 1/4 of wives have had an extramarital experience, but less than 1/4 of divorces are caused by affairs. Of course, as time goes on, more of the faithful will become unfaithful. It may be hard at first to separate the chronically unfaithful from those who have only one brief affair in 50 years, but these are very different people. Pittman (1989) distinguishes between adulterers and womanizers. Adulterers (males) usually have one affair, typically during a crisis--when passed over for a promotion or when his wife is very busy--and then feels guilty. Womanizers compulsively seduces women as a full-time avocation and hide this from their wives. They often claim to have a high sex drive and a lust for sexual variety. Their therapists say such men often don't like women or even sex. Womanizers have a disease or an addiction, in which they see women as the enemy. They think of "being a real man" as escaping a woman's control and as being someone who can powerfully manipulate and deceive women. Like a rapist, he seeks power and superiority. Many had fathers who escaped their mothers via work, divorce, or alcohol. There are some 12-step programs for womanizers. Advice for therapists of people who have had affairs is given by Eaker-Weil and Winter (1993) and Brown (1991).
On the positive side, Greeley, Michael, & Smith (1990) report that a high percentage of married people (ranging from 91% and 94% for men and women under 30 to 95% or more of both sexes over 30) were monogamous, i.e. had only one sex partner, during the last year. But, the years roll on and those 5% and 9 percents add up. However, most marriages today are faithful and the belief in being faithful to your spouse has steadily increased during recent decades, even during the time that premarital sex was being approved of more and more.
Unfaithfulness is always a devastating blow to the partner. We feel crushed, like a part of us had been ripped out. We may be very angry or sad or both. It isn't just that our partner wanted and did have sex, the ultimate expression of love, with someone else, but he/she lied to us, betrayed us, and had so little concern for our feelings. Yet, two thirds of marriages survive infidelity. Many people say they would "immediately throw the b------/b---- out." The situation is more complex than that. A brief affair doesn't always mean there is a serious problem with the marriage. Men having an affair are not more unhappy with their marriage than faithful men; women are more unhappy. Nevertheless, infidelity is a huge problem even if the marriage survives. Putting love back together is a long-term, difficult task in our culture (it's no big deal in some cultures).
We need to realize how widely the rules about sex differ from culture to culture: we expect our spouse to be faithful, but 75% of societies are polygamous.
Frank Pittman (1989) clarifies some of the misconceptions about infidelity:
- No, not everyone has affairs; about one third to one half of us do (although some new research suggests maybe up to 73%) over a period of years. Women, especially younger employed women, are having about as many affairs as men, but the difference is that men frequently have brief affairs or one-night-stands while women are more likely to get emotionally involved. Only about 20% of married men are continuous, compulsive philanderers or womanizers. Pittman's experience is that womanizers usually get divorced (often after many years). Faithful partners rarely get divorced.
- No, having an affair doesn't always mean that love is gone. Both men and women sometimes just want sex, not love. Occasionally, a spouse has an affair as a warning or a "wake up call" for his/her partner. Often an affair reflects an ego that needs inflating. Or, a person finds him/herself in a tempting situation or in a friendship which gets out of sexual control. Affairs frequently mean that the wayward spouse has a problem, not that he/she doesn't love you any more. Nevertheless, it often inadvertently ends in divorce. Pittman says with honest work on the marriage, couples therapy, and with forgiveness (once), the marriage can gradually revive.
- No, the "other woman/man" is not always beautiful/handsome or sexually "hot." Pittman says the choices are mostly neurotic or a mishandled friendship. Sex is not usually the main purpose. No, the deceived faithful spouse did not "make me do it." The unfaithful one makes the decision to "act out" his/her feelings via an affair. No, it isn't best to keep your affair secret or to pretend you don't know about your partner's affair. For sake of the marriage, the mess of the affair and other problems need to be dealt with. Affairs often die when exposed; marriages often die when problems are unexposed. Only 1 in 7 new marriages resulting from an affair are successful.
- No, the best approach is not to "keep it a secret ." In fact, the suppressed emotions erupt and the marital problems multiply; thus, much honesty and work, usually in couples therapy, is almost always needed to salvage the marriage. (An isolated, meaningless one night stand may be another matter.) If you are tempted to be unfaithful, read Pittman's book or one of several others, e.g. Lawson (1989) or Linquist (1989), before doing so, to find out what you are facing and why. It's seldom worth it. If your spouse has been unfaithful to you, read Golabuk (1990) or Dolesh & Lehman (1985). Pulling your marriage back together is possible (Reibstein & Richards, 1994; Weil, 1994; Spring, 1997--recommended), even trust, forgiveness, and intimacy is sometimes possible.
Lessons from lasting marriages
Rather than studying failing marriages, several people (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1995; Gottlieb, 1990; Hendrix, 1991; Klagsbrun, 1985; Lauer & Lauer, 1985) have explored successful marriages to see why they last. Both men and women give the same basic reasons:
- My partner is my best friend and I like him/her as a person; I put him/her first over all others, over my work, over TV, over everything. It isn't just "you're # one" in spirit; I actually give him/her my whole attention and make time every day.
- I regard marriage as a deep, almost sacred commitment; we've had some disagreements but never for a moment did I seriously consider divorce. We worked it out. To love, you must feel emotionally safe--totally accepted, respected, and supported. Therefore, we don't criticize or strike out in anger, instead we gently request a change (see method #4 in chapter 13).
- I enjoy my partner, we laugh and touch, we confide, we agree on values, goals, and sex. We look for the good in each other and in life; thus, we are optimistic. We have wide interests and try new things. We try to have fun.
- We have equal power; we respect our partner's wishes and know we can't always have our way; disagreements are negotiated (method #10 in chapter 13). Decisions are made fairly, some together, some by me, and some by him/her. We both make changes when needed, tolerate losses, and accept unresolved conflicts. We are patient and forgiving.
- We accept and trust each other, permitting honesty and security; I tell him/her everything (methods #6 and #7 in chapter 13). I love the closeness; we share our minds, hearts, and souls. We listen to the other (see method #2 in chapter 13).
- We are equally dependent on each other in ways that enrich our lives; and we are equally independent from each other in ways that enrich our lives. We do so much together and agree on most issues, but we have a clear sense of self and do things by ourselves. Clearly, we think for ourselves.
- We cherish our time together, expressing our appreciation of each other for little acts of kindness as well as major sacrifices. We treasure our memories and frequently remind each other of the good times.
Note: Of course, everyone would stay together if they were getting all these benefits. No one has it so good but some come close. These are ideal goals which require a good psychological adjustment, great skill, and effort to achieve. In this sense, good marriages are not "made in heaven."
Interestingly, these lasting marriages challenge several ideas put forth by professionals. For instance, less than 10% say that good sex keeps their marriage together. Few buy the idea of fighting fairly; they say intense anger would hurt their relationship. Many said that the egalitarian relationship notion can be damaging, if it is understood to mean everything is 50-50, because the truth is that both partners need to give in 60% or 70% of the time, at least it seems that way. About 33% of these older women feel the women's movement has helped their marriage, 22% say it has harmed, and 21% see good and bad consequences (Sangrey, 1983). Marriage experts stress that spouses need separate interests and activities; these married people say they do some things independently but the emphasis should be on trying to spend as much time together as possible (Lauer & Lauer, 1985, 1986).
Maintaining intimacy throughout marriage
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed the theory that attachment to another person is our primary motive in life. Between 6 months and one year of age, human infants who are "securely attached" to mommy (or a caretaker) begin to explore the world in brief excursions, starting the process of gaining self-confidence and independence. If a child of that age is taken away from his/her mom, however, they usually respond with crying, reaching out, and other protests. When mom is brought back, they want to be close--they hug, cling, look at her with hurt eyes, and then they turn on the charm, cooing and smiling. The point? We need attachments (intimacy). We don't all respond that way to detachment, however. About 40% of infants are very upset when separated but when re-united with mom, they approach and reject her, presumable because she is sometimes attentive and affectionate and sometimes not. They are considered "insecurely attached" and have trouble exploring the world. These attachment styles supposedly last a lifetime. So, perhaps 40% of us adults respond with anger when we feel rejected.
Marriage therapists (Johnson, 1994), following the attachment theory, consider anger expressed by a spouse to be an effort to restore closeness and intimacy to the relationship (although the attacked spouse is likely to see it and feel it as tearing the marriage apart). Anger is considered a natural protest to loosing security or love. So, if both partners can re-interpret or "reframe" the spouse's anger into being a cry for regaining lost love and attachment, then the angry partner can become aware of the loneliness behind the anger and the criticized partner can be more sympathetic, a better listener, and more open about his/her own insecurities. Thus, the cycle of attack, building resentment, and counter-attack is broken. If both spouses can disclose their tender underlying feelings, such as the fear behind silent withdrawal, the couple is well on the way to a "secure attachment" and a good marriage.
There are lots of detachments in life. In a mobile society, we often leave our families of origin at 18, never to return. With marriage, we often lose contact with our college and casual friends. We never get over our need for intimacy, however, and in today's culture, we seem to be looking more than ever for continuing intimacy with our spouse. Ordinarily lots of disclosing occurs early in a relationship, but within a few years it fades away. In the past, there were many barriers to intimacy in marriage: gender inequality (e.g. men more educated), false or unreasonable expectations of the opposite sex, dependent ties with families of origin, "unfinished business" from family or previous relationships, women involved with children, men obsessed with work, few examples of intimate parents, etc. Several of these barriers are declining and, as that happens, the emphasis on obtaining true intimacy in marriage is increasing (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993; Young-Eisendrath, 1993; Barbach & Geisinger, 1992; Campbell, 1980, 1984; Emmons & Alberti, 1991).
Young-Eisendrath (1993) sees old gender stereotypes as engendering false expectations of the opposite sex. She feels a spouse can find out what the other is really like by talking. Research by Bradbury and Fincham (1990) supports this notion, except they say that it is the way we have learned to explain our spouse's behavior that must be changed first. As discussed above, unhappy spouses see their spouse as having bad intentions, selfishness, and permanent negative traits that cause problems. With this attitude, it is hard to give any praise or to be nice. In fact, faking it by "talking" and feigning being "understanding" or pretending to make efforts to reconciliate usually make things worse, until in your own mind your views of the spouse's motivations become more positive. This cognitive aspect--viewing the partner positively--is part of all these efforts to increase intimacy. Barbach and Geisinger (1992) concentrate on understanding how our previous relationships, such as an absent father or a critical former wife, influence our current love. They emphasize friendship, respect, trust, and sexual satisfaction.
Firestone and Catlett (1999) operate on a very different theory, namely, that the fear of intimacy stems from early childhood when we develop a primative "fantasy bond" with Mom as a defense against separation anxiety. The parent's negative qualities or anything seen as rejection are responded to with anger, fear, and maybe guilt. Later on, with the idea of death, the child strengthens the fantasy bond (for safety), the idealization of one or both parents, the withdrawal of feelings from the world, and the depreciation of his/her own self. In the ongoing attempt to defend ourselves from hurts, we develop an internal "voice" that talks to us mostly about grave dangers and painful feelings. It is our earliest self-concept; it tells us what we should do and controls us with criticism, commands, and warnings. The result is a lot of fear and guilt. Later in life, after we fall in love, the voice is still very alive--telling us we are unloveable, inadequate, stupid, etc. and often trying to get our partner to treat us like our parent(s) did. To further defend ourselves we become insensitive, numbed and withdrawn. Firestone's "Voice Therapy" helps you become aware of the cruel, nasty, intense things the voice says about you, your partner, and others. Awareness of the voice sometimes brings back memories of childhood that explain our current feelings. The task then is to plan ways to change one's harmful behavior, expectations, fears, and prejudices, so the relationship can grow positively. It is not an easy therapy and may require a therapist but the book is easily read and understood.
Lori Gordon (Gordon & Frandsen, 1993) has developed a 120-hour class for teaching intimacy skills to people who haven't gotten what they wanted from marriage and, subsequently, stopped confiding, walled themselves off, found other ways to spend their time, etc. The course has been shown to reduce anxiety and anger, increase marital satisfaction, and improve self-esteem. Her approach is to encourage confiding to each other, and from this comes self-understanding, insight into the history of the expectancies or emotional baggage we bring into a marriage, mellowing of one's negative feelings towards the partner, feelings of security, and intimacy. The course teaches the skills of open, honest communication, listening, empathy, and forgiveness (see chapters 7 and 13). Much of the confiding is about their personality and emotional development in the context of their family's emotional history, i.e. what were we taught about ourselves, love, sex, morals, unspoken family rules, confiding, trust, intimacy, etc. Eventually, we find that the source of our marital misunderstandings and negative expectations is our history, not our spouse. Here are some exercises Gordon recommends:
- Daily Temperature Reading --at the same time every day, hold hands and (a) express appreciation for something your spouse has done, (b) share some information about your mood or activities, (c) ask about something you don't understand ("Wonder why I got so upset about the phone bill?" or "Why were you quiet last night?"), (d) request some change without blaming the spouse ("Please call if you won't be home by 5" or "Please don't wear the pants with the rip in the crotch any more"), and (e) express some hope ("I hope we can go hiking this weekend").
- Bonding exercise --when you are upset with your spouse, ask for some bonding. (a) Lie down and hold each other. (b) Describe what is bothering you (your partner just listens), be specific. (c) Share your memories of the past that seem connected with your emotional reaction to the spouse ("Your having lunch with ____. made me think of my first wife's/husband's affair..."). (d) Tell your spouse what you needed to have happen in your history that would have reduced your being upset now. (Maybe your spouse can say or do, at this time, what you needed long ago.) (e) Discuss how the past--the inner child, old hurts, Papa's rules, unfinished business, etc.--has a powerful effect on you today. (f) Plan ways both of you can help avoid the unwanted emotional reaction in the future.
- Play dead --Arrange for an hour in a private place. One person lies on the floor and pretends to be dead. The other person imagines his/her spouse is dead. The purpose is not to emotionally grieve so much but rather to talk about things you appreciated about the partner, what you will miss about the partner, and what you wish you had done while he/she was alive. The "dead" person can't talk, just listen. When finished, then the other person plays dead. This can be a powerful experience. Use what you learn to improve the relationship in the future.
Gottman (1994) reminds us that for a good relationship our negative emotions (criticism, contempt, emotional withdrawal, boredom, loneliness) must be out numbered by positive emotions (interesting activities, conversation, affection, appreciation, concern, fun, sex) by 5 to 1. We all need love and respect. It is important that spouses don't dismiss their partners' complaints nor let their complaints become personally insulting or expressions of contempt. Make your requested changes very behaviorally specific. It is crucial to keep love relationships positive. How? Call "time out" in any fight as soon as it starts to get out of control. Do this by taking a break for 15-20 minutes and calming down; you can't be irate and rational at the same time. Be sure to replace your hate-generating thoughts with more positive or tolerant thoughts about your spouse. Express your unhappiness, gently, but curb the vitriolic attacks on his/her character. Belligerent or domineering talk has no place in a marriage. In fact, attempt to frequently communicate some praise and admiration to your spouse (even during a confrontation). Remember the good times. Be optimistic. Be an empathic listener, don't shut out your partner. Let them know you understand their feelings and desires. All this self-control when being criticized is not easy, it takes skill (chapter 13) and lots of practice.
Next, we will review more ways of coping with marital problems, including professional help.