How does the blushing bride become a depressed, isolated woman who feels invisible and disenfranchised? Where does that smiling groom disappear to, replaced by a sullen, insensitive grouch?
As a counsellor, I have not yet met a couple who entered matrimony with the intention of alienating or hurting each other. Yet I frequently work with husbands and wives who can trace a clear history of hurt and progressive detachment.
Underlying the marital strife are issues of control, flawed assumptions and unrelenting stress that erode the couple’s love. To understand these better, a couple must take a brave look beyond their accusations and denials to the real problems lurking underneath.
A prominent factor in this kind of marital dysfunction is the hot button of control. For some, being controlled by a spouse seems dangerous or humiliating. There is an inner voice warning, Are you going to let him (or her) tell you what to do? You’ll be giving up yourself, and you’ll regret it!
The opposite scenario—having too much control and responsibility—may seem equally scary to some. My mate expects me to make all the decisions, and I don’t want to be responsible for everything. I’ll get blamed if anything goes wrong.
You can defuse this volatile issue in two ways. The first is by identifying how the pattern developed. Couples are often attracted to each other because of their need to be dominant or to be dependent on someone else’s strength. That is a powerful dynamic that is usually subconscious but initially comfortable. Over time, however, their interaction grows uncomfortable for both. The dominant spouse gets tired of the dependency, while the other spouse begins to rebel against the control.
Those feelings are in fact an indication of maturity and a signal to re-evaluate the relationship. That is the second step toward a safer, more stable marriage. Talk about how you’d like decisions and responsibilities to be shared.
Another potential minefield can be swept away as you correct flawed assumptions about marriage. Most couples enter marriage with vague ideas about how to make it work. The patterns usually reflect family backgrounds. Are you ever tempted to tell your mate, “You’re just like your mother (or father)”? Turn that old blame game into a more productive enterprise: Compare the description of your families, not to prove who is right, but to better understand how your ineffective patterns developed.
You may find that you and your spouse hold contrary expectations in many areas: finances, roles, communication styles, conflict resolution, sexual desires. Take time to investigate new ways of handling these aspects of life together.
You may need help for this project: Read a book together about marriage, attend a marriage enrichment conference, talk to friends whose marriage you admire or seek out a counsellor to facilitate the process.
One discovery you’ll make is that old, familiar patterns are hard to change. Learning new ways seems risky and uncomfortable, but enjoying the more effective outcome can reinforce the positive changes.
Finally, prevent a blowup by taking a long look at your life demands and priorities. At times, the most compelling force behind marital disharmony is stress. It’s hard to be a kind, generous and helpful spouse when you’re overloaded.
As I counsel couples and listen to their schedules, I often become worn out just hearing their lists. Frequently, I also hear resentment creeping into the relationship. The overworked wife may grumble about her husband’s time spent watching sports on TV, and the financially stressed husband may think his mate spends her time eagerly sliding the charge cards through those little slots. Reviewing and rearranging priorities can restore energy and intimacy.
Marriage can provide the cozy environment that nourishes the heart and soul. Take the time to correct the attitudes and actions that stand in the way.
Louis McBurney is a psychiatrist. He and his wife, Melissa, live in Colorado.