This past week has been more stressful than most. I’m working to get back into a demanding routine after a lovely break away and at the same time dealing with jetlag and the effects of a travel tummy bug. Having enjoyed a delightful time with my husband as a travelling companion I noticed that I was quite irritable with him as we were back into our ‘normal’ lives. Little things, such as his forgetting to put an event in his diary, were getting to me more than usual. I could see my pattern of negative affect escalation that tends to occur when I’m stressed. It doesn’t come out as full blown conflict but as a low grade bubbling brew of a critical spirit.
This kind of negative feeling process can really distort a picture of a relationship if we let it continue. Marriage researcher John Gottman notes that the wife’s low grade negative affect, that is not responded to by the husband (with either negative challenge or positive neutralising), or repaired by the wife, is one of the patterns that can predict divorce. I knew I needed to deal with my own tiredness and health and not allow it to be projected onto critical thinking about my intimate partner. This reminded me of a previous blog I wrote about marriage. I wonder if you can identify any familiar experiences in any of your important relationships?
Marriage and Committed Relationships: a maturity workout par excellence
“If you want a better marriage, you will need to give up making a project out of changing the relationship or your partner and instead make a project out of expressing your own maturity within it.” ( P 95 Growing Yourself Up).
I reflected on the context in my own marriage when it’s easy for me to me my shiny mature best. It’s when I’m well slept, on top of my tasks, having a few wins with my personal projects and getting plenty of positive validation from my spouse and others. Surprise, surprise – If these conditions are in place I find it easy to feel content, have few expectations of my mate, be attentive, open, generous, approving and undemanding. And isn’t it uncanny how these conditions seem to bring out the same kind of demeanour in my husband.
You can easily see the problem of course, that many of my days are tinged with tiredness, feeling swamped, facing some disappointing results and not getting much acknowledgment from others. This is when my lack of resilience in solid maturity shows through: I become increasingly agitated, more intolerant and increasingly critical. My expectations of everyone go up as does my sensitivity to disapproval. Before you know it I’ve stopped being responsible for myself and I’m reacting to my husband with either withdrawal or lecturing. Not a pretty picture! And that’s just my side of the circular dance in the marriage.
The alert sign that my maturity is slipping in any relationship is when I put more energy into thinking about how the other can shape up than into sorting myself out. “When we’re finding fault with others we stop working on ourselves. Our growing gets stuck in the blame rut.” J Brown GYU P49. Author Tim Keller speaks directly to my spiral down the maturity scale:
“Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it.” T Keller,(The meaning of Marriage p 64)
The most useful question I know for pulling myself up in this backwards cycle is: “What is my spouse up against having to relate to me at the moment?” The good news is that when the focus is taken away from the other and the relationship and placed on being a responsible, distinctive self, the greater the options for deep togetherness.
Building maturity in marriage (in any relationship) can’t be dependent on creating calm contexts where tensions is low…that’s just not reality! A maturity workout requires regular practice at managing myself in the face of tensions and not needing a positive relationship experience to set me straight. It requires me to move towards and not away from stressful situations and to deliberately choose to work on flexing my maturity muscles. Here are some examples of a good maturity work out:
- When I’m stressed, I can practice staying in touch with myself and not finding fault with the other.
- When my spouse is tense I can practice not personalising it or being derailed from my self- management.
- I can try using my principles for being in contact as a spouse, even when my husband appears to be in a negative space.
- And I mustn’t forget the maturity work out I get when I’m in contact with members of my family of origin – This is where I can best practice containing old reactions and sensitivities. Dan Papero has written: ‘A person’s level of differentiation [maturity] can best be observed in an anxious family setting.’
These efforts to practice tolerating stress in relationships without losing our clarity about how we want to express ourselves is something that grows gradually. Just as one trip to the gym won’t do much for muscle tone. I often think about these efforts to work on maturity while in the anxious atmosphere of important relationships as a kind of exposure therapy for our areas of immaturity. Just as people learn to overcome phobias through gradually increasing exposure to the feared object or situation so it is with learning not to run away from bringing more steadiness to our marriages and all our relationships.
Dr Murray Bowen describes so eloquently what goes into one person bringing the best to relationships: having “the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do.” P 305—M Bowen
This involves a good dose of courage, energy investment, self-regulation and self-responsibility. Sometimes this can all sound a bit too hard and we can be forgiven for searching around for a quicker less personally taxing formula for improving relationships. Yet I do think there is something deeply compelling in asking ourselves:
“Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’? This might all sound too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.”
J Brown GYU p8
Here’s cheers to the long haul of relational maturity workouts!
Questions for refection:
- What do I notice changes in my relationships when I’m stressed or tired?
- In what ways do negative emotions that are stirred up by stress distort the picture I have of my spouse or a significant other?
- What happens when I divert the focus of fault finding to managing my own stress levels?
Some Relevant Quotes:
The effort aims “To help one or more family members to become aware of the part self plays in the automatic emotional responsiveness, to control the part that self plays, and to avoid participation in the triangle moves.” (Bowen, 1978, p. 307)
“Undifferentiation manifests itself in numerous ways. An important manifestation surfaces in the web of expectations each has for the other to “be there” for oneself. It is as if the undifferentiated side of the person demands of the other “Be the way I want you to be, not the way your are, so that I can be stable, comfortable and happy.” Often these expectations lie dormant until somehow the other violates the expectation, leading to intense emotional reactivity expressed in conflict or distance or both.” Dan Papero, Understanding the Two Person System, 2014.
“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.” Michael Kerr, One Family’s Story. 2004
‘Stress Tiredness and Irritability in Marriage‘ – Jenny Brown