I don't think anybody wakes up in the morning and thinks, "I'm going to have a crappy day with my spouse. I'll be snappy, take things personally, be passive-aggressive, harbor resentment, and use communication in ways I know aren't beneficial for our relationship. We'll play ENEMY...won't that be fun?" But most of us have days like this. It’s normal.
Although the reports on divorce statistics vary, it is estimated that the divorce rate in the U.S. is near 50% for first marriages (this number raises with each subsequent marriage). While these facts are
staggering, consider the number of couples above and beyond this number who are not legally divorced, yet live in a disconnected and/or unsatisfying partnership. I call these couples "emotionally divorced". It's estimated that 25% of marriages which do not end in legal divorce co-exist in an emotionally divorced state. That's a 25% chance of having a happy, healthy, connected, and satisfying partnership??!
As a Professional Counselor with a passion for working with couples none of these statistics are surprising.In my practice couples most frequently make an appointment at a time of crisis. Usually someone has had an affair, is thinking about having an affair, or the ultimatum was given between the divorce lawyer and the therapist. Most describe hauntingly similar circumstances, "We slowly grew apart, and I wanted to get back on track but didn't know how." [...]
The couples I speak of are mostly well-educated, intelligent, kind, and otherwise successful people. Without the right tools and skills these “off” days can turn into weeks and months and years. Your relationship can slide down the slippery slope and you feel as though you've lost your friend, who you married, and you're not entirely sure how that happened. An early sign of this can be seen when you make jokes with your partner and instead of laughing he or she is easily offended. You're perceived as the enemy. The games have begun. And it can happen to ANYONE. Communication with yourself and others is an art and a skill that most of us (I estimate over 95%) aren't great at. And this isn't because we're socially dumb or lack the ability. It's because we have few examples of the actual behavior and emotional insightfulness clear communication requires, and it's not something we’re taught.
If you really think about it, marriage and partnership has undergone drastic changes in the last century. Many women are in the work-force, men are taking on less-traditional and valuable roles at home, and families lack models of how to balance this well. Thus, many feel the burdens of role overload. Stress affects our ability to communicate effectively (and sex drive…am I right ladies? This is a whole other post. Stay tuned.) with the people we’re close to. If I was stressed to the max and an attractive stranger asked, what I perceived to be, an irrelevant question, I would most likely muster up the energy to answer him politely. Substitute my attractive husband (his nickname is Hottie) for the attractive stranger and all my good communication skills go out the window. POOF!
I’ll try not to bore you to tears with all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, but recent advances in affective (emotional) neuroscience (study of the nervous system…the brain in this case) suggest that when the emotional centers of our brain are triggered (you’re stressed to the max, people close to you push your buttons, you have small children, you’ve dropped something heavy on your toe, etc.) they literally hijack the parts of our brain responsible for thought and behavior and we can’t access our learned communication skills.
We tend to give strangers a courtesy by hitting our own pause button before reacting with habitual responses. It's easier to pause with strangers because they don't have our "buttons" because we don't care about them as much. When we pause and allow ourselves to be more aware we suddenly have access to new skills. We pause for strangers because if we let out our aggressiveness on a stranger they'd probably find a way to disconnect. Family members are connected by blood, time, history, location, residence, marriage licenses, etc, and disconnection is harder which, unfortunately makes acting out on them easier. They'll tolerate it. Now, this explains why in the previous scenario my husband nearly lost a limb and the stranger, unscathed, lived to see another day….and how close relationships can get off-track so easily. Dr. Rocco Cottone, a past professor of mine, used to say, "Treat your spouse like an attractive stranger." Sometimes my husband reminds me of this as he yells, "ATTRACTIVE STRANGER!!" as I hauck a loogie. TMI?? Sorry 'bout that.
My husband had so much resistance going into our first pre-marital counseling session. I was in my master’s program and believed in the process of counseling and valued our relationship enough to schedule our monthly appointments. He said, “But we don’t have ANY PROBLEMS!” I said, “But we will, all marriages do.” He walked out of her office and said, "I LOVE going to counseling!" Hard to believe, I know. But he reported feeling "so close" to me after our sessions. We both felt lighter. Counseling, after all, is meant to be intimate. He has referred many friends and family with a variety of issues to counseling since.
In those 9 months before our wedding we did encounter some very tough times. We were able to talk about deep family issues and patterns in a safe and open environment with an objective, compassionate, and non-judgmental observer. Our marriage has an ally. And now, even when we just feel a little "off" as a couple and are unable to put words around our situation, we make an appointment...before this small pebble in our "marital shoe" is joined by another, and another, and another. You may not notice a single pebble in your shoe, but many pebbles in your shoe can make it very difficult to walk.
As my friend Nikol says, “Successfully navigating obstacles is an ongoing process.” For instance, if a tumor (a physical obstacle) was detected in a routine exam and I needed to have it removed I would connect myself with a trained professional ASAP, probably someone who had attended medical school and specialized in surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it. If caught in the early stages, I would have it removed and I would likely survive. Most of us without the skills to handle such an obstacle wouldn’t say, “Well, I think I’m gonna navigate this situation with a little common sense and love and hope it goes away.” I wonder if people in our society and our insurance providers valued relational and mental health like they do physical health, would the state of affairs regarding our marital crisis be different? What if before walking down the aisle, or at least before crisis, couples created a working relationship with a counselor they both enjoyed (YES, it can be enjoyable). Optimally they would feel comfortable with and confidant in their therapist and they could treat themselves to a relational "check-up" whether they were consciously aware of problems or not. We do as much for our teeth.
--Mika Ross, M.Ed., LPC
“In the world to come, couples will use psychotherapy more and more frequently, not as crisis counseling, but as maintenance procedure. There was a time when most people saw therapy as something you did only if you were “crazy.” Now we see it as a valuable tool for staying sane.”
--In Marianne Williamson's book A Return to Love