COUPLES!--By Dr. Carlfred Broderick
The most popular--& the roughest--contact sport in the US is not football, it is marriage. Consider the statistics: Over 90% of Americans try their hands at it, either ignoring the dangers or hoping for the best. A third of these, however, sustain so many injuries that they are willing to sustain the pain of divorce to get off the field. Yet the attractiveness of marriage is so great that 80% of those divorced put themselves back into marriage--most of them within 3 years. Clearly, the problem is not how to make matrimony more popular; it's how to make it less hazardous. We hope the following counsel does just that.
Sometimes it seems that the harder you try, the worse things get. After weeks, or even months or years, of frustration, the conclusion most people come to is that the problem lies in the character deficiencies of their spouses. If only their partners weren't so lazy or selfish or uncaring or stupid or immature or oversexed or frigid or under the evil influence of their mothers... then maybe there might be hope. Others come to the less popular but still common conclusion that the deficiencies lie in themselves--that they are the ones who are unforgivably crazy, unattractive or dumb.
The trouble with both these assessments is that there are no known cures for any of the conditions listed. It follows that nothing but further discouragement & resentment can arise from such thinking. What is needed is a new diagnosis--one that fits the case, but suggests a cure as well. It has been my experience that the key to resolving a problem is learning to look at it in a new way. Find the right perspective & the solution fairly leaps out at you.
SPACE ENOUGH FOR LOVE!
Case 1: A crisis has developed. Your spouse is under enormous pressure from every quarter. Deadlines are creeping up inexorably, expected help has failed to materialise, there is just not enough time or energy to go around. As a result he or she is short-tempered, critical, unaffectionate & downright impossible to live with. Most of us, under these circumstances, get to feeling annoyed & resentful ourselves & are likely to let it be known, which increases the pressures even more. Possible alternatives:
a) Pitch in & help where possible
b) Mobilise others to help (children, friends, relatives) if this can be done without offending your spouse.
c) Maybe you can let some things pass for the duration of the emergency. Let the lawn grow, the dust collect, the personal service or attention you hope for be temporarily forgone.
d) Help him or her make a complete list of the pressures which are so hard to handle. Give special attention to those which might be renegotiated or postponed or even dropped altogether.
e) If you are well organised yourself, your spouse may appreciate specific help in organising the things that must be done to reduce the chaos to a manageable size.
f) Help your husband or wife to take a breather from the situation. Go to a movie, take a walk, do something relaxing & unrelated to the problem.
g) Sometimes just listening attentively while your spouse "talks it out" helps achieve a breakthrough.
Case 2: Your spouse constantly complains that he or she just doesn't understand you, has almost given up trying to figure out how to please you, & accuses you of being unappreciative & impossible to satisfy.
In this case the only solution is to be very specific in demonstrating what you want. It is often helpful simply to ask yourself: What would I accept as evidence that my spouse was doing a good job of meeting my standards? Then it is a good idea to think of something that you could do to demonstrate your own affection & concern.
Case 3: Your spouse feels down, The complaint is that nothing ever goes right: "There's no use trying; the harder I try the worse things get."
Show affectionate concern. Don't try to talk your spouse out of the feeling. Above all, never label the behaviour as foolish or unwarranted. In these circumstances, nothing works better than good listening & physical consolation.
Case 4: What if you're single or there's no one around to help you?--Take time out to meet your own needs, or at least to see them in perspective. Some people go out on a buying spree, others go golfing or horseback riding or to a movie. Some meditate, others pray. When Theodore Roosevelt felt overwhelmed by the pressures of office, he used to go out under the stars & contemplate the vast distances of the universe. He said when he returned to his desk, his problems had been placed in perspective & assumed manageable proportions.
By all means try to resist self-pity. It has a cloying, perversely addictive quality that makes it hard to fight. Take responsibility for the solution of your own problems. Give up the luxury of blaming things on "them" (spouse, employees, parents, friends, even God). Acknowledge that while what happens to you may not be your responsibility, the way you respond to it is.
We need clarity in our communications with others, but clarity isn't everything. We also need better habits of listening & talking, so that even when something is badly said it still gets a good hearing, & even when something is misheard, there's at least a chance to hear it again without "static" building up.
Creative listening. People everywhere have a longing to be listened to, but good listeners remain a rare & valued commodity. Realizing this, a widow I know decided to enliven her loneliness by placing the following public-service ad in the local papers:
Willing to listen. Will not give advice or interrupt. Call __________.
After one day she had her phone disconnected. The flood of pent-up talk seeking an ear to pour itself into simply overwhelmed her.
Of course, there is more to listening than just holding your tongue, but that's a big part of it. Between husbands & wives, it may well be the hardest part. It's one thing to keep your peace while listening to a stranger on a topic of no personal relevance; it's quite another to hear out your spouse on the subject of your own flawed character. Yet the discipline of doing so is fundamental, & until it is mastered, one can hardly be considered ready to relate to others on a personal level. No other technique can make up for a failure to just plain listen.
The attitude of listening itself shows love, concern & respect. Any act that triggers a positive attitude is likely to trigger a series of positive responses back & forth between husband & wife.
By the same token, try to avoid interrupting & criticising the other. By simply listening, you discover how things actually look from your spouse's point of view. There's a risk, because what you hear may be surprising & even unsettling. But it's nearly always worth it.
Effective sending. Probably the three most common barriers to communications on the sender's part are: 1) Refusing to communicate, 2) Communicating in such an aggressive way that the listener is driven to a defensive position, & 3) Masking feelings & failing to be straight-forward about what is actually felt & thought.
The Non-sender. It is well to recognise at the beginning that there are people in our culture who grew up in non-expressive families & who have little skill in communicating their feelings.
The Angry sender. In contrast to the spouse who refuses to communicate is the spouse who is quite willing to communicate feelings--but only angry ones, & only in the form of personal attacks. These come in various forms, but they all have in common an attempt to "get" the other person, to stigmatise the partner as lazy, mean, sick, bad, selfish or inadequate. While one person's anger may be fully justified, an attack on the other is not going to move the relationship in any good direction. It may make you feel better for a short time (although often it does not even do that), but after it's all over, the same task remains before you, plus the new hurt & resentment your partner feels because of the attack.
Two rules for talking over an issue over which resentment has accumulated: First, stick to expressing your own feelings & avoid evaluating or attacking your partner. Second, avoid telling the other person how he or she feels. An example of how to set up an instant Black Sunday: "I know that you have never liked my mother & that you think it was stupid of me to invite her over for the weekend but..." To assume you know what your partner feels not only robs him of his right to state his own case, it also makes you likely to be wrong.
THE WAY YOU SAY IT IS IMPORTANT
A 35-year-old divorcee & a 40-year-old bachelor met &, after a courtship, decided to get married. As it turned out, he didn't own a suit to wear to the wedding. While this did not overly concern him, it did her, & she persuaded him to go with her (in her car) to a men's shop to remedy the situation. When they entered the store, he proceeded to walk clear to the back toward a rack of suits with bright checks & stripes, & struck up a conversation with the salesman standing next to them. She stopped just inside the door at a rack of dark, conservative numbers. Finding one she liked, she looked up to get his attention & was horrified to see him apparently discussing brightly patterned suits with the salesman.
Unable to get his eye, she called to him in a voice he later described as "shrill, like a fishwife's" but which she said was "discreet": "Henry, not one of those; the ones you want to look at are over here." He ignored her, & in her annoyance she called again: "Henry, what can you be thinking? You can't get married in one of those. Now come over here & look at something sensible." Once more, he ignored her. "Henry, will you listen to me? I refuse to marry anyone dressed up like a vaudeville comedian." At this, he stalked out of the store & drove off in her car, leaving her stranded. It was not clear who had actually cancelled the wedding, but it was obvious to both of them that it was off.
The style of a message is as crucial as its content. Messages expressed in a challenging, assertive mode are very different in their effects from messages given in a supportive, non-critical manner. Indeed, style alone can convey a message.
Let's examine the conversation in the men's shop for a moment & pick out some of the misconceptions:
Man's message #1: He walks to the back of the store to talk to a salesman near the loud suits. Motivation: It's been years since I bought a suit. I want to find out from the salesman if they can fit me & what suits cost these days before looking at any particular suits. Motivation perceived by woman: I don't care about your opinion, Beverly. The salesman & I will decide on a suit for our wedding; maybe one of these nice colorful ones here.
Woman's message #1: "Henry, not one of those. The ones you want to look at are over here." Motivation: I want to be part of this decision. These are the appropriate suits for a wedding, not those garish ones you & the salesman are looking at. Motivation perceived by man: Henry, you are an inexperienced clod & know nothing compared to me. Come here immediately & I will show you what you must do.
Man's message #2: He ignores her. Motivation: I am a grown man who does not need to be talked to like a 4-year-old. I refuse to respond to such a public put-down. Motivation perceived by woman: I don't care about your feelings, Beverly, or about you. I will get one of these suits if I want to, whether you like it or not.
Woman's message #2: "Henry, what can you be thinking? You can't get married in one of those. Now come over here & look at something sensible." Motivation: I can't believe that you would ignore me & listen to that salesman. It's me you're marrying. Show me that you do love me & have a little good sense by coming here to look at something decent. Motivation perceived by man: You are stupid, Henry, stupid. If you don't hurry right over here & do as I say, I won't marry you.
Man's message #3: He ignores her again. Motivation: I will attempt to preserve my dignity even in the midst of this incredible humiliation. Motivation perceived by woman: I will buy this suit, Beverly, & nothing you say will stop me. You & your feelings mean nothing to me.
Woman's message #3: "Henry, will you listen to me? I refuse to marry anyone dressed up like a vaudeville comedian." Motivation: I am so hurt & angry. I can't see how I could marry someone who cares so little about me. Motivation perceived by man: You have absolutely no sense at all. I am warning you, Henry, I will not marry anyone who does not do exactly as I say--instantly.
Man's message #4: He walks out & drives off in her car, leaving her stranded. Motivation: I will not put up with this public humiliation any longer--& I will not marry you if that is how you feel. Motivation perceived by woman: Beverly, I despise you. I am deserting you. I want to publicly humiliate you.
This couple talked things over & later got the victory, but the whole conflict might have been avoided if they had simply taken the time to discuss what they really felt without labelling the actions of the other as put downs. This is of course a very common problem in many marriages.
Messages in a supportive way: Creative listening sends messages in as supportive a way as possible. But there are other ways as well. The simple touch, for example, is hard to beat. Admittedly, there are ways of touching that convey other meanings: The sexually demanding touch, the nudge, the restraining touch, the condescending pat etc. But a straightforward, affectionate touch can send a powerful positive message.
NEGOTIATING A JOINT SCRIPT
When two actors go on stage, we take it for granted that they are both going to be working from the same script. Unfortunately, when two people marry, they often go at it from different scripts, & the resulting scenes aren't always the happiest ones.
Differing expectations. I knew a young man who came from a family with 5 members & 2 bathrooms. In his house, there were strict rules on the subject of going to the bathroom. When the door was shut, no decent person would even think of knocking--let alone entering--since it was everyone's unshakable assumption that it was shut for a good reason. He confessed, in fact, that when he was a boy & it was his turn to do the dishes, he would sometimes take a book into the bathroom & read for half an hour or so. Meanwhile, his mother, who couldn't stand to see dirty dishes unattended, would do them. When he reappeared he would say, "Gee, Mom, you should have left them; I was going to do them," & she would say, "Oh, it's all right. You can do them next time." What she didn't even think of doing was inquire what kept him so long in the bathroom.
By chance he married a girl who came from a similar educational, religious & racial background but who lived in a house with 5 people & 1 bathroom. It was the custom in her house to walk in & out of the bathroom at will, & it wasn't uncommon for 2 or 3 people to be using the various facilities at the same time.
The couple married, confident that their marital script had been truly discussed & agreed upon. But the first time she walked in on him in the bathroom, he was so taken aback that he would have disappeared into the plumbing if it had been possible. He felt embarrassed, yet he couldn't discuss the matter. She could tell that something was wrong, but was confused as to what it might be. It took them months of tongue-tied trial & error before they finally worked out a joint script.
One analyst has coined the term "core symbol" to refer to those issues which are so central to a person's script for marriage that the marital commitment itself is challenged if the symbol is violated. What constitutes a core symbol for one may mean almost nothing to another. It isn't at all uncommon for one partner to do something which according to his own script is only a minor offense, & then be absolutely astounded at his partner's "overreaction".
Negotiating improved marital scripts. The beginning of any work toward resolving differences in scripts is to make absolutely certain that each partner understands what the other really wants. Nothing is so frustrating as to try hard to please only to have your efforts go unappreciated because they miss the mark.
Few of us can really evaluate our behaviour except within the framework of our own marital script. Probably most of us are only dimly aware that there is any other way to view it. We know what it means to us & we assume it means the same (or ought to) to others. In that frame of mind, we can continue for years doing things (or failing to do things) without realising that they are hurtful to our partner. Often, though, small changes in our behaviour--changes that actually cost us very little--can mean a great deal to our partner.
The first step in this exercise is for each partner to make a "wish list"--a list of wished-for changes in his spouse's actions that would make the most difference to him. The second step is to negotiate changes from the two lists. For example, I agree to spend at least half an hour a day with the children (high on your list) if you agree to be more firm in enforcing the phone rules we have both agreed on (high on my list).
Some couples may be offended at the idea of bargaining in a marriage. They may feel that the mere listing of these wishes should be enough, since each partner is supposed to care about the other. If it works that way, fine. Experience has taught me, though, that changes are more likely to be made if couples go on to the negotiating stage, which can even be made into a fun, enjoyable game.
BREAKING OUT OF VICIOUS CYCLES!
I've previously made reference to vicious cycles. They constitute an especially big problem in most marriages. The classic vicious cycle has 3 identifying features: 1) The harder each partner tries, the worse it gets, 2) Each partner focuses on his own intentions rather than on the actual consequences of his behaviour, 3) Each partner has a dark fantasy of what would happen if he changed his behaviour & broke out of the cycle.
For example, a wife may want her husband to spend more time at home, & nag him to spend more time with the kids, at the house etc. But the more she nags, the less time he ends up spending in the house. Once you can get both parties to agree that this is a vicious cycle, that's a major part of the problem! In the case of this husband & wife, the wife agreed to stop nagging, although she was certain the husband would really fail the kids if left to his own devices. But the husband, after a short period, actually began to spend more & more time with the kids, taking them on outings & becoming a devoted father. Freed from his wife's nagging, he was happy to do it of his own volition, especially once he'd tried it & found that he enjoyed spending time with his children.
DEALING WITH RESENTMENT
Perhaps no human trait is more destructive than the hoarding of resentments. There are several different personal styles of storing up resentment, & I'd like to describe some of the most common ones I've encountered. There is of course a risk in presenting such personality types. People invariably identify their spouses quicker than they do themselves. So let the "who" be "you" if the description applies.
The Hedgehog. This form of resentment-hoarder is found frequently among wives who show up for marriage counselling. There are male hedgehogs too, but the female variety is definitely the more common. This small, spiny cousin of the porcupine is said to huddle with its fellows for warmth in the winter like other animals, only to find that the huddling is painful because of the quills. So it moves away until it gets cold & then snuggles back until it feels pain again--& so on, back & forth through the long winter. In the same way, the human hedgehog has not only a prickly habit of treasuring resentments, but also a deep need for closeness & support.
The hedgehog seeks closeness, yet out of her past experiences she is constantly on the alert for fresh signs of hurtful moves by her partner. At the same time, her accumulation of earlier pains & disappointments has made it difficult for her to give freely & fully to him.
The Fox. Like other resentment-hoarders, he is likely to come from a family that he felt gave him little or no emotional support. He found himself unable to meet the expectations of his parents, but he became very good at doing what he wanted to do while keeping up at least an appearance of conformity to their wishes.
From his own perspective, most of the upsetting things the Fox does are done without malice: He simply deals with immediate situations. Indeed, he may take considerable satisfaction in his ability to think fast & talk his way out of a tight spot.
For his wife, however, the charm eventually wears off under the rub of repeated violations of trust. She gets tired of being soft-soaped, tired of being disappointed, tired of his lying, drinking, gambling or womanising. But when she confronts him with these things, he is invariably ready with a response. But if his spouse can learn to be open & forthright, she may be able to avoid simply responding to his behaviour as a nag or a wishy-washy martyr. I have seen many a Fox & wife work through to a rewarding relationship.
The Magpie. My visual image of a Magpie is a person chattering & pecking at a resistant spouse trying to get him (or her) to do something. Her resentment is rooted in a long list of grievances which are well documented & often reviewed. There is a sense of moral rightness about the Magpie which makes her (or sometimes him) slow to see the need to change. From her own point of view she has gone far, far beyond the call of duty in trying to make things work out. She is frustrated & disgusted at the continuing lack of real cooperation from her spouse--& she lets him know it.
You could say that Magpies are common nags, but they are often unhappy women (or men) who have been taught by experience that if anything good is ever going to happen, they themselves are going to have to bring it off. Some among them feel they have been forced into a hateful role by irresponsible or passive spouses. Others feel comfortable being in charge & are upset only by the incompetence of their subordinates. In either case, their behaviour is governed by a well-developed scenario of what everyone must do--supported, of course, by dark fantasies of what would happen if they themselves ever stopped cawing complaints.
Although Magpies are usually married to Moles, who are, at best, hard to motivate, I have seen dramatic changes in the lives of the Magpie's spouse & children in response to a changed approach on her part.
The Mole. The natural companion of the Magpie is the Mole, the stubborn, resistant spouse who reacts to his mate's criticisms by digging deeper into his burrow of passivity. In the extreme case, his withdrawal is so complete that he virtually disappears from the marriage, leaving the role of spouse behind him like an empty tunnel. To a counselor or friend, he may confess a list of grievances as long as his wife's, but he rarely expresses his feelings to her except by not responding. Moles are skilled at surviving in a hostile environment with the least possible expenditure of energy. Long ago they learned that it doesn't pay to fight City Hall. When the heat is on, their first choice is to remain silent & do nothing. If that isn't enough, they agree to anything. But whatever they do, they don't let you really get to them.
Some individuals are moles in every sector of their lives, while others are respectable achievers in many situations, becoming Moles only in interaction with their wives. Their pattern is extremely difficult to change from the outside. No one is more stubborn or more impervious to threats, bribes, sermons or attacks.
What is necessary in dealing with the Mole, therefore, is to help him voice his own complaints & define his own goals. Sometimes, when he & his wife learn to identify his silence as actually a hostile move, he finds other ways of expressing his feelings.
The Bear. In the personality of the Bear, a horde of resentments is accompanied by a powerful, confronting, domineering style which tyrannizes & alienates his family. Generally, his own father was a Bear & he knows no other way of dealing with people. Because of his lack of social graces, he is likely to be surrounded by those who fear or dislike him. It is hard for them to realise that he may feel unappreciated & lonely. Frequently he sees himself doomed to deal with ungrateful or irresponsible people who may depend on him, but who begrudge what he feels he has a right to demand of them.
Helping a bear can be a difficult & challenging task. His wife can be of tremendous help by being supportive. In fact, flooding him with love & consideration & positive statements would be the single approach most likely to succeed for her.
The Hound Dog. The Hound Dog's sad eyes & droopy ears project a negative image which misrepresents his potential. The male is slightly more common than the female, & although a true resentment-hoarder, he is most noted for his self-defeating, negative attitudes. His assessment of his personal worth is extremely low. He may be unusually gifted & promising, but at the last possible moment he slinks away from every real opportunity to succeed. His response to these situations reveals both aspects of his character: His resentment toward the powers that be, & his distrust of his own value.
I remember one young man who was a talented advertising copywriter in a small town. At the urging of his wife & friends, he sent off a portfolio & resume' to one of the big Madison Avenue agencies in New York. The agency was sufficiently impressed to send him an invitation to visit & bring more samples of his work. It even sent the plane ticket. But at the last minute he decided his work wasn't really that good & he didn't go.
When asked why she stays with this frustrating & disappointing male, the spouse of a Hound Dog will likely answer, "Because he's got such potential. If he could just get it all together, he could be a fantastic person."
The combination of resentment & a negative self-image make it hard for anyone to convince a Hound Dog that it is possible to change. Nevertheless, it is possible, with lots of love & friendly persuasion!
Possible solutions: To present some alternatives to situations which might otherwise be a total loss & breed resentment, we wanted to list some possible solutions. Consider a situation where the wife can't get her husband to pay the bills in his business without constantly nagging him about them. Dark fantasy: If she quits, he won't pay any bills; their business will fail.
1. Resign the crown. Swallow your pride & cut your losses by delegating to the other person full control & responsibility for his own life in this area. Let him reap his own harvest, whatever it is. In many cases he will rise to the occasion.
In the above example, the woman could try turning all the bills over to her husband, explaining that it's his business & she's tired of worrying about it. Then she will forget the whole thing & let the bill collectors remind him if necessary.
2. Do it yourself. There is an old saying that, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Accordingly, if you want something done & the person you feel should do it doesn't want to, it makes sense to do it yourself the way you'd like to have it done.
In the above example, the wife could simply do the bills herself. It takes less energy than getting him to do them. The trick, of course, is to avoid saying to herself, "Why should I have to do my work & his too, just because he's too lazy to do it?" The right attitude is, "Boy, am I glad to be getting these done on time!"
3. Make an offer he can't refuse. Too many people interpret this, at first, as including threats of what will happen if the partner doesn't shape up. The real point, though, if you select this approach, is to find out from your partner yourself what he would really like & then offer him that to sweeten him to do what you want him to do. After all, it's your want, not your spouse's, that is involved. Why shouldn't you take the responsibility for making it worth his while?
Someone always complains at this point that this is just bribery. Quite so. I could point out that bribes wouldn't be used so often in business & politics if they didn't work well. The next option is a better example of this.
4. Join with joy. Often the most-resisted task can become pleasant if one's partner shares in it, especially if an atmosphere of play or warmth can be established. This calls for imagination & good will, but it can be effective in putting an end to power struggles. This can be the most satisfying alternative of all.
Changing your own behavior. If you change your own behavior, it helps to avoid aggressive moves which only elicit fighting or running responses from your partner.
Carefully review your marital relationship. Try to identify two kinds of situations: Those in which you clearly demand what you want, & at the other extreme, those in which you simply fail to make your real wants known at all. Plan during the coming week to let your spouse know how you feel & what you want in two or three different areas. The requests must be simply stated, with no implied threats about what will happen if they are not complied with. The most successful approach is to assume good will on the part of your spouse; that is, to assume for the purpose of this exercise that he or she is not lazy, stupid, mean, resentful or indifferent--that there will be a favorable response to your request. If at first the response is not what you hoped for, stick it out for a week. By the end of seven days, you will likely be getting positive results.
COPING WITH DEPRESSION!
Deep depression is one of the most painful experiences anyone can have. Sleep is elusive, yet enthusiasm for getting up & facing the day is even harder to find. Nothing matters; work & recreation are equally unattractive. It is easy to hate oneself, to withdraw from others, to think things will never get better. But if depression is terrible for the person experiencing it, it is no picnic for the people around him either.
Often depression is related to physical exhaustion & can be overcome by a good rest.
DEALING WITH CRISES!
Whether a couple grow together or apart over the years may well be determined by how they handle the unforeseen crises that inevitably arise. Some seem to weather these things better than others. So far as I can tell, those who succeed do so largely because of two factors: The emotional resources they can marshal, & their own preparedness for problems.
Sometimes life itself prepares a couple for disaster. They have been through illness before, so they know what to do when it occurs again. In other cases, the pair can actually anticipate the problem & solve some aspects of it in advance.
Some families have fire drills. Depending on their part of the country, others have earthquake drills, tornado drills & hurricane drills. Fewer families practice what they would do if Daddy died or Mommy went to the hospital for an extended length of time. Yet these are at least as likely to occur as any of the so-called natural disasters.
Without being morbid about it, I have talked to my family about what it would be like if I died. We considered what each one would have to do to help the others & to keep things going. So far, I am pleased to say that I am in good health & intend to raise my family without taking advantage of our advance planning. But if I should die, I am persuaded that my family is well prepared to meet the future.
One of the most cheering facts about modern marriage is that despite the rising divorce rate, people don't seem to have lost faith in marriage itself. About 80% of those who divorce remarry within a few years. No matter what the reasons for ending first marriages, second marriages have an almost equal chance of success. This suggests that perhaps as many people learn from their experiences as repeat them.