I asked her quietly, “Why do you think you shouldn’t be married?” “Because,” said Jen, “if we should be married, we would not be having problems. We wouldn’t always be struggling.” I sat quietly, not quite sure how to respond.
What an assumption! Any marriage that has struggles and challenges, so Jen believed, was not right.
Something had to be fundamentally wrong if there was a struggle. That conversation happened years back. I am no longer shocked to hear it. In fact, I have come to see this as a major myth of marriage: Struggle is a sign that something is wrong with a marriage, and may be a sign you should have never married in the first place.
So, let me clearly and directly dispel that myth: 100% of marriages have difficulties, challenges, issues, or whatever else you want to call it. Every single relationship will face tough times.
Having tough times, struggles, and issues is not an indicator that you shouldn’t be married. It is not an indication that your marriage is doomed. It is not an indication that there is a psychological issue with you or your spouse. It is simply the fact that you are entirely and completely normal.
“Why Can’t We Just Get Along?”
There is no more close relationship than a marriage. The two of you have tied your lives together. Therefore, actions taken by one are not dispassionately noticed by the other.
Spouses respond to situations differently than they might if a friend did or proclaimed the same thing. If my good friend with limited funds buys an expensive sports car, I may have concerns, but I can look at my friend and say “Good for you! Hope you enjoy it!”
But if my spouse did that, I would recognize the economic impact it could have upon me. My response is likely to be far less dispassionate and much more one of concern. My response will be partially based in self-preservation.
To say this a bit differently, because a marriage is two different people, with two different perspectives, trying to get through life together, there is going to be friction and conflict. It is not only inevitable, it is necessary. If a couple wants to get to a strong relationship, they must go through that friction. When couples spend all their energy “getting along,” lots of hurts and misunderstandings get brushed under the carpet. They don’t get cleaned up, so they are just waiting there. The pile grows bigger and bigger until the couple can’t truly see each other for the pile of garbage under the rug.
“But The Smith’s Don’t Seem To Struggle!”
Here is where this little myth really gets out of control. We look at the image others portray and compare that with our own reality. Reality is much more dented and knocked around than the image we show the world. And that includes the image you show the world.
We just don’t like letting people in on our struggles. While it is too bad we don’t find support with others, that is what happens. Don’t waste your energy comparing yourself to some other seemingly perfect couple. They have their own struggles.
Too many “perfect couples” end up divorced. They have either hidden their conflicts from others or from themselves. Either way, the struggle is still there.
“It All Seems So Hopeless!”
If you want to have a perfect, conflict-free relationship, that is hopeless.
But perhaps we need to stop seeing conflict as the problem. Not solving a conflict is a problem. Personalizing conflict is a problem. Fighting to win is a problem. Conflict is just a part of living in close proximity. Conflict can either be a scary event that leads to disconnection or it can be a way of creating deeper intimacy and understanding. If conflict has always been seen as destructive, you will avoid it.
As I continued my dialogue with Jen, I discovered that her parents did their conflict in very destructive ways. They threw things, cussed at each other, and never even solved the issue. After years of threats, they finally divorced. Jen learned that conflict is destructive and should be avoided at all costs. What she did not learn, but should have, is that her parents simply did not know how to manage their conflict. From then on, her young child’s mind understood that conflict was destructive and dangerous. Her adult mind has never been able to get beyond that.
But let me ask you a question: does any development happen without a struggle? A child learns to walk by falling over and over again. A muscle gains strength by struggling against something heavier than usual. An adult learns new skills at work by taking on something not known and mastering it. This is true with a couple.
Sure, we can grow closer through good experiences. And those great moments of romance and connection are great! But it is the struggles and conflicts that truly mesh us together as a team. Whether the struggle is external to the couple or between the couple, the struggle is what truly leads to growth and development. How can you be hopeful? Give up on the false hope of a conflict-less relationship. Accept that conflict is a normal part of the process.
And learn how to make it productive.
“So That’s It? Live With Conflict?”
You have to live with the fact that conflict is inevitable. But that does not mean that everyone is good at conflict. In fact, most of us find this to be a “work in progress.” I am sure there are those who have mastered the art of healthy conflict. But they are rare. The rest of us have to learn skills and work to make conflict a method of growth, not of destruction. There are some traps that make that more difficult.
“What Are The Traps About Issues?”
Trap #1: Fight or Flight Mode. We humans are unique among the living and breathing creatures. We think in words. We not only have visual memories, but we can reflect on them with language. Which can keep us stuck in different modes. In the animal world, there are plenty of Fight/Flight/Freeze responses of animals.
Some animals are only prey, and so they have Flight/Freeze in their repertoire. Every now and then, such a creature strikes back defensively, but is not really fighting as much as struggling to flee. Then there are predators that will Fight/Flight, based on whether it senses it will win or lose. But for both animal predator and animal prey, once the event is over, the animal returns to normal behavior.
Humans, however, have the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. But in human interactions, we are not very good at sizing up the opposition. And on top of that, we can think about this conflict, think about past conflicts, and ponder what might happen after the conflict.
In essence, this can keep us stuck in an emotional state of fight/flight/freeze. The adrenaline keeps on flowing, long after the conflict, as we continue to think about it. More than that, once we step into a fight/flight mode, it becomes about getting away or taking the other person down. No longer is the subject of conflict the focus. The focus turns to taking out the other person, at least metaphorically.
Think, for just a moment, of the many times you found yourself in the midst of an argument, and no longer are you even discussing what led to the argument! Suddenly, past events, character issues, and anything else that comes to mind, becomes fuel for the fire. The beginning point of the conflict is lost. The task has turned to defeating the opponent (or getting far, far away from the opponent). Your mind has been hijacked by the fight/flight/freeze mode.
At that point, the conflict will NOT be a tool of growth, but one of destruction and attack.
Trap #2: Perceptions of Each Other. People are wonderful storytellers. We all write scripts in our minds. Some of them are fairly true, some are very false. None are absolutely true. In the stories I tell myself, I am the protagonist, the hero. That is probably true for you. When something happens, we all tend to see ourselves as a) innocent, and b) “been done wrong.”
When I was a child, my older brother and I would sometimes get into tiffs. I lost. My brother would, in my mind, pick on me and hurt me. For years, I believed myself to be the innocent target of his temper. I believed I had done nothing wrong. One day, I began to see how I would bait him. I was not as innocent as I would have liked to believe. We all have perceptions of other people. Sometimes, they are somewhat accurate. But many times, we ascribe attributes, short-fallings, faults, and character flaws to the other person. This tends to taint our interactions. And it certainly taints our conflicts and issues.
Remember the Attribution Error from social psychology? The Attribution Error is simply this: When I do something wrong, I see it as a mistake. But when you do something wrong, I see it as a character flaw.
This colors our perceptions: the other has issues, but we simply make mistakes.
Thanks to psychology, there are plenty of attributes you can put on someone: they are anxious, depressed, anti-social, borderline, obsessive-compulsive, passive-aggressive, dependent, self-destructive, angry, etc., etc., etc. Might some of that be true? Absolutely. But it gives us a very simple label that belies the complexities of everyone, including ourselves. We quickly “diagnose” the other person, and then view them through that single lens.
Trap #3: Blame/Un-responsibility. I know, un-responsibility is not a word. Yet I am not describing irresponsibility, as much as the unwillingness of someone to take responsibility. Responsibility is about the ability to respond. This is something we always have.
Yet many times, we seek to find blame. It may be blaming a spouse or significant other. It may be blaming how we were raised or how that spouse/S.O. was raised. It may be about some other factor.
In the end, we all have control over two things:1. Our attitude,
2. Our actions.
We all get to choose our internal attitude. Will I choose to give up or will I choose to press on? Will I be constantly angry or will I be positive and accepting? Will I be constantly oppositional or will I note when I am really in opposition (One is a state of disagreeing, simply to disagree. The other is disagreeing because you truly disagree.)? Will I be loving or will I be judgmental/angry/rejecting/distant?
You may notice that attitude leads to actions. But they are different. Attitude is internal. Action is external. Actions often demonstrate our internal attitude. Yet attitude and actions may be disconnected. Our task is to work on choosing attitude and making sure that action is consistent with attitude.
Before you tell me this is impossible, that I am suggesting you always be upbeat and happy, I am not. I am suggesting that in any event, we have a choice of our attitude. We can choose to be responsible, to decide how we will respond, regardless of the external situation.
Trap #4: Belief That Marriage Should Make You Happy. This is another huge one. It is well-propagated by films, television, and fiction. In those romantic movies/shows/novels, the marriage is the means of discovering true happiness and fulfillment.
In reality, each of us is responsible for our own happiness and life satisfaction (listen to an interview about this here). This doesn’t mean a marriage should make you miserable, then you fight for happiness elsewhere. It simply means that if you believe that a marriage is your path to happiness, you will be constantly disappointed and frustrated.
Marriage only works when two people are working to find satisfaction for themselves, and bring their best self into the relationship. Contrary to Jerry Maguire’s statement in the movie, someone else does not complete you. Waiting for that will keep any marriage stuck.
This myth gets a couple stuck for one important reason: if you expect marriage to make you happy, to complete you, to provide you with a constant companion, then when it doesn’t happen, you get lost. You assume that something is wrong with the relationship.
In reality, the problem is in the expectation.
Before I am misunderstood, let me clearly state: my goal and my hope for everyone is to have a happy marriage. My point here is the danger in the assumption that a marriage will make someone happy, not that a marriage can’t be happy. A marriage can certainly be happy and fulfilling. But when the expectation that a marriage will make some happy is present, the relationship is weighted down by an unfair expectation.
I love this quote from Richard Bach: “If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, I guess you do have a problem.”
Trap #5: Everything Is An “Issue” These Days. We live in a heavily psychologized culture. Theory upon theory is proposed to explain human behavior. Sometimes, I think we have made it much, much too complicated.
I have advanced degrees (Ph.D., in fact) in clinical skills and knowledge. I have spent over 25 years learning, researching, and practicing how to best help people to change. Yet when I read some of the books, I am confused. The back-flips and side-steps proposed in “why” we do what we do is just so confusing.
In this day, everything is diagnosed, psychologized, theorized, and wrapped up in a nice little package. A single word describes situations. At the same time that theories are more and more confusing, people are reduced to a simple diagnosis. Neither are true. Human nature is not nearly as confusing as some theories would have you believe, and people’s actions are much more complex than a single diagnosis would lead you to believe.
This is true with marriage. We have created some very complex theories to understand the “mysteries of marriage.” I think the complexity has only led to confusion. (My response to simplifying how to work on a marriage is right here: 3 simple steps.)
When I was much younger, I was a magician (I still pull a few coins from the ears of children, but that is about it these days). I learned so much about psychology through doing magic. One central reason why magic tricks work is because people make things complicated. I remember one trick that required one small sleight-of-hand, one very simple move. Yet people constantly tried to use very complex explanations to tell me how the trick worked. No engineer could create what these people explained! All that was necessary to explain it was a simple sleight-of-hand.
The same is true with our theories. We spend so much time trying to figure out the minutiae of human behavior and interaction that we make it a complexity that only a Ph.D. could understand. Yet for millennia, humans have formed close relationships and sustained them for a lifetime — all without complex explanations.
More than that, as we turn everything into “issues” with connections to the past, we stop working on where to go from here. We spend inordinate amounts of energy proposing theories of “why it happened,” but don’t often move to the real question “what to do from here.”
Don’t get trapped in incessantly looking for what happened in your marriage. Don’t spend all of your effort trying to understand the dynamics of your “issues.” Don’t make the process too complex.
“Issues” are really points of potential growth. They can always point the way to the next place of development in your relationship.
And since every marriage has issues, the real question is, how will you build the marriage you want to have? How will you work through the weaknesses and shortcomings to find a better approach? How will you build the connection between you and your spouse (even though you and every other human both wants and struggles with that deep attachment)?
I truly believe there are two approaches to change. One is to go on an archeology dig, going back through history and digging up all the skeletons. This can be entertained and can give a false sense of superiority by looking at the other person’s shortfallings.
Or, one can work on building. Build a relationship, build a connection, build your self, and work on where you want to go. Sometimes, we have to look at the past in order to decide the future. But it is easy to get lured into a fixation on the past. That only keeps you stuck to the same old stories that have kept you stuck before.
“So What IS Your Point?”
Point 1: There is no deeper connection in adult life than marriage. It drags all of our insecurities, hopes, expectations (fair and unfair), and our potential for growth, into one relationship.
Point 2: Every marriage has issues. The issues are not the problem. Believing that the issues either mean you can’t stay together or that things are helpless and can’t be fixed, that is the problem. Issues are just part of an intimate connection. They are really opportunities to grow, as long as we don’t fear them or flee them.
Will you learn to face your relationship issues and grow beyond them?
If you are ready to move forward, please grab my Save The Marriage System right HERE.