A good marriage is a stress-free, safe haven for both spouses. In its fold, both partners come to feel emotionally secure and emotionally stable. They become physically, emotionally and cognitively connected to each other. There is no challenge or difficulty that cannot be confronted and successfully managed together, as a couple.
In the safe haven of marriage, each spouse feels freer to be truly herself or himself. Both partners learn to make adjustments to better fit their personality to the other, and over time these changes become almost effortless, are positively motivated, and are long-lasting. Neither feels compelled to be significantly different from his or her true self.
When a marriage is emotionally secure for both partners, discrepancies in points of view do not cease to exist. A safe marriage is not a marriage without disagreement. It is a marriage where disagreement, when it occurs, is handled with fairness, mutual respect, and with an eye toward a mutually beneficial resolution.
Spouses that are in the habit of providing an emotionally safe environment for each other know how to externalize their problems in a way that does not make either spouse to be the problem. They know that the problem is the problem, not each other.
Both partners learn to work on their significant issues together. There is no problem of one spouse that does not automatically involve the other. The partners come to embrace each other’s challenges as their own and are empowered to confront them together. They know that two working together are stronger, safer and more effective than either working alone.
Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble. And on a cold night, two under the same blanket can gain warmth from each other. But how can one be warm alone? –Ecclesiastes 4:9-11.
For a variety of reasons, marriages can start out to be or become emotionally unsafe. An unsafe marriage is one where both spouses co-create an emotional barrier that keeps them from being close to each other. This barrier can be made of negative experiences, negative expectations, or negative assumptions about each other and about the relationship.
A spouse may come to feel emotionally unsafe to the other because of his or her words or behaviors over time and in various situations. The words and behaviors of one spouse may have echoes of the relationship that was modeled by that spouse’s own parents, or due to present circumstances.
The other spouse’s reaction may be triggered by memories and traumas experienced in childhood or adolescence in his or her own family of origin. Often, reactions and counter-reactions to each other are automatic, instantaneous, and somewhat uncontrollable. Left unchecked, reactions and counter-reactions can escalate into conflict.
Reactions to challenges and to each other may take different forms, depending on the individual. One spouse may be more expressive and have highly visible emotional and behavioral reactions, while the other may be more introverted and give little or no behavioral indication of the emotions that may boil underneath.
In these circumstances, emotional safety is lost. Neither spouse may feel comfortable in approaching controversial topics. One or both may seek to avoid circumstances that may provoke a reaction and lead to conflict. Neither spouse expects disagreements to be handled well or to be resolved. The expectation of unsolvable conflict leads to avoidance of the subject, and ultimately may result in the avoidance of each other.
Over time, one or both spouses may progress from annoyance to overt anger and contempt. Sometimes anger is kept under wraps and creates resentment that just simmers. Continuous resentment over unresolved issues can become contempt, whereby one or both spouses decide that there is really no point in talking to the other, because he or she “simply wouldn’t get it.”
Many couples live parallel lives in a pretend marriage. They are legally bound to each other, live in the same house, parent the same children and may appear to most outsiders as a real couple. In reality, they no longer share their thoughts and emotions with each other, may feel little or no love, attraction or desire for each other. They live as roommates, sometimes with some friendship but often as barely able to tolerate each other.
Each unresolved issue between them is like a chip tossed on a pile. The pile grows larger and creates an ever higher barrier between the spouses. Attempts to address issues always seem to fail. Attempts at repairing hurts and disappointments with each other also appear ineffective. When all expectation of resolving any significant issue successfully together is lost, the hopelessness of the pretend marriage sets in.
A cycle of emotional destruction characterizes the unsafe marriage. In the cycle, one spouse becomes the most frequent pursuer of attempts to connect. When the pursuit is fruitless, the pursuer may turn into an attacker and resort to using verbal, emotional and sometimes behavioral weapons against the other.
The other spouse, typically, takes on the role of the withdrawer. This is often because the withdrawing spouse has little to no capacity to contain and respond appropriately to the highly emotional, verbally abusive or physically threatening approach used by the pursuing spouse.
In some cases, both spouses alternate playing the role of pursuer and withdrawer. In other cases, both withdraw at the same time and may stay withdrawn for quite some time, until one spouse decides to become the pursuer again, and the cycle repeats.
When couples become locked in this cycle of destruction, which may continue for months and years without any hope of resolution, the cycle itself becomes the couple’s common enemy. The problem is no longer this issue or that issue, which simply provide the trigger or the “content” of fruitless arguments and discussions. The real problem is the cycle itself, or the “process,” whereby both spouses get caught up in the endless loop of pursuit and withdrawal.
Parenting style differences, disagreements over finances or lifestyle, and differences of opinion continue to be real and pressing and provide plenty of opportunities for the couple to want and need to talk about them. However, no matter how important or trivial the issues are, they can never be resolved by using this ineffective process of communication.
In the unsafe marriage, the cycle of destruction becomes the only means of engaging with each other. The couple has lost the freedom to talk about issues openly and safely with each other. They are no longer capable of making joint decisions about significant or even insignificant issues. They have become locked into the cycle, the real enemy of the relationship.
To be continued…