Working on a Marriage, not an Event – REPOST

Towards the end of last year I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary and was able to mark it with a weekend getaway with my husband. It was a delightful, romantic respite from the end of year pressures. I was prompted to reflect on events that mark important relationship milestones or transitions. We can invest a lot in the experience of the event itself and loose the meaning of what the event is marking.

I recall a comment made about an upcoming wedding in my broader family – the soon to be groom wisely stated that for him this is all about a marriage and not all about a wedding. The wedding as an event and can be injected with disproportionate amounts of expectation for perfection that can leave a couple and family completely exhausted and somewhat flat afterwards- along with the depletion of their bank accounts (or parents bank accounts). In contrast to a focus on the event – a marriage is about a promise and a long haul commitment. It is not just about 2 individuals fuelling romantic expectations and creating a series of such experiences. It is about a transition of generational family relationships that restructures the broader family system. A marriage marks the beginning of another generational level.

For my anniversary break away I was certainly up for relishing the event. More than this however, my focus was on recognising the priority I place on my marriage and the mutual ongoing commitment that is involved through the many phases of life. The time away did boost emotions of joyful affection but more importantly it was an opportunity to reflect on the principles behind our original commitment and the lessons learned along the way.

There are many predictable deterrents to prioritising and working out a commitment promise. Marriage certainly exposes one’s selfishness. It also exposes ways of avoiding feelings of anxious emotions. Let me describe the typical ways avoidance of emotional discomfort plays out in marriages:

Rather than tolerate the discomfort of expressing differences of opinion in an open respectful way it is often just easier to avoid and distance into other activities; or ‘band aid’  anxiety through one way conflict. When emotions get stirred because of the inevitable absence of affirmation and attention from the other it is easy to impatiently pursue the other to steady ourselves rather than work on being less dependent on the other for self-esteem. If our spouse doesn’t respond as we’d like to our pursuits we easily become critical of them rather than clarifying what is going on for ourselves. Predictably this leads to complaining to third parties about our spouse being inattentive or unreasonable. Our anxieties lower as soon as we hear a third party support our point of view (Triangles).It is also common for one spouse to allow the other to solve their problems for them. Both the problem solving ‘expert’ and the one who gives way to the other’s ‘expertness’, have lowered tension through this adjustment.

And then come children!  It is predicable that a couple (to varying degrees) will substitute their effort to know each other with the detour of focussing on their children. Children need our attention but they can too easily provide a sneaky justification for neglecting the adult partnership. If there are not children, the detour of work, hobbies and pets can fill the breach.  Rather than work on being open about one’s challenges, hopes and dreams with the other it is just more comfortable to talk about the child’s latest milestone or perceived vulnerability. Commonly, a husband senses that his wife is less anxious for his attention when children come. As she is steadied and strengthened by caring for a dependent child she looks less to her husband when she’s unsettled. The husband is typically relieved that his wife is less critically attuned to whether he is measuring up and willingly participates in the distance that fosters more ‘mother to child’ focus. He may have opinions about child rearing or fostering their connection but avoid expressing them for fear of his wife’s critical response. The mother characteristically calls on her husband to help when parenting is overwhelming but as soon as he starts doing things differently with the child she is critical of him and is glad for him to resume his distance. The husband may just passively go along with his wife’s focus on the children to keep harmony or he may be passively critical and parent in a polarised manner. These anxious sensitivities and patterns to manage them in our marriages happen outside a couple’s awareness. (the opposite gender patterns may sometimes be present)

I think that every marriage partnership, and marriages with children, goes through varying degrees of at least a few of these patterns. It has certainly been the case in my own marriage and mostly I was oblivious to it. One such time was when my children left home in their 20s. It took me by surprise to watch how I became increasingly irritable with my husband. This revealed to me how much I had been stabilized by the presence of my children and their activities. It also challenged me to see where I had been neglecting to foster genuine connection with my husband. The past years have required renewed effort to know and be known to my husband in a deeper way. To address my part in immature management of discomfort.  My original promise over 30 years ago underscores this imperative.

I often hear, in my clinical practice, a spouse declare that they have no motivation left to prioritise their partner. The years have allowed for so much distance and detouring that they find it hard to feel affection and positive regard for the other. I endeavour to assist them to see how they have co-created this void and to envisage the possibility of playing a part in cultivating a fond acceptance of each other that enables them to grow old together. For myself, at the times I have struggled for motivation to be kind and in real contact with my husband, I recall the grace I have received in my life. Grace reminds me that love is a commitment. It is not based on another measuring up. This commitment was marked at a joyous event 35 years ago but it is not dependent on a series of happy events. It is sustained by an effort towards humility, confronting selfishness, immaturity and learning to stay truly connected in the face of tensions rather than take the easier detours that are on offer.

* The patterns described are observable in all long term committed relationship to varying degrees.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much do I look to my spouse/important others to bolster my happiness? Is the state of my relationship measured by good times or an inner commitment to the good of each other?
  • How do I mark an anniversary? Is my focus on creating an experience or on affirming the achievement of sticking at promises made?
  • Which patterns have I been part of that contribute to distance and detours in my marriage?

A focus on getting needs met through the other? Distancing (physically and/or emotionally) when feeling insecure? Snippy conflict, which is emotional venting rather than working through things? Detouring my discontents to third parties? Becoming the expert on how the other should manage life or allowing the other to do this for me? Subtly allowing children to be the main topic of conversations? Allowing the experience of parenting a dependent child to be a substitute for staying open with my spouse? Staying silent to avoid the discomfort of the other’s criticism?

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory

These quotes referring to patterns in marriage are from Dr M Kerr’s book: Family Evaluation 1988.

It is predicable that [anxious immaturity] will be bound in one or more of three patterns of emotional functioning: conflict between the mates, disproportionate adaptation by one mate to preserve harmony, or focus of parental anxiety on a child. P225

People are willing to be “individuals” only to the extent that the relationship system approves and permits it. Giving up some togetherness (fusion) does not mean giving up emotional closeness. It means that one’s functioning becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others. P 107

People select mates who are at the same level of differentiation of self. Each person has the same amount of need for emotional reinforcement from the relationship…..Both have the same amount of emotional separation (differentiation) from their respective families of origin, an amount that parallels the amount of emotional separation (differentiation) that exists in the marital relationship. P171

People are keenly responsive (not necessarily conscious) or sensitive to one another’s emotional states and make automatic adjustments in response to the information received….The emergence of a symptom in the other can, in turn, reduce the anxiety of the first person as he/she begins to minister to the now symptomatic one. This alleviation of anxiety in the first person can also have a calming effect on the symptomatic one; it is easier to be symptomatic [needy] than it is to tolerate one’s internal reactions to another’s distress. P 129

People do not have trouble getting on because of issues (such as children, money, sex)…These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. P 188

‘Working on a marriage not an event’ – Jenny Brown