Marriage in Trouble

A teen girl confronting her boyfriend on the shore of a lake

A good marriage is the best system Western society has found for ensuring the emotional well-being of the partners and the children. People who are not married don’t live as long as those who are. I think the reason why they don’t is that a good marriage helps us absorb and respond to the stresses of everyday life in a much healthier way than isolated individuals can.

But not all marriages are good marriages. Couples can be miserable together for a lifetime, and these marriages can be remarkably resistant to change. Each partner gets a lot out of maintaining the status quo, though each alone will complain endlessly about the other. Some of these scenarios are so familiar that family therapists have developed typologies of stable but destructive marriages. I am going to describe four types of marriages that may make the partners regret their statistically longer life expectancy.

Over Adequate/Under Adequate Marriage:

The first is the over adequate-under adequate marriage, where one partner looks disturbed or sick while the other one takes care of them. This may be an emotional problem, an addiction, or a psychophysiological condition. Sometimes a physical illness or disability is so stressful for the couple that the relationship develops in this destructive way. In any case one partner is identified as having a problem that dominates the life of the couple The other partner is a caretaker who builds his or her life around the first spouse’s problem. The caretaker, the over adequate one, gets exasperated with the spouse’s disturbance but is not willing to do anything to remedy the situation.

Codependency is a subtype of this type of relationship. What you see frequently is that when the “sick” one gets better, it’s very upsetting to the whole relationship. Many alcoholics attain sobriety only to have their spouses leave them; the hypothesis being that the spouse was getting something out of taking care of an alcoholic. But many phobic or sexually dysfunctional couples have the same dynamics. If you talk to a couple who have a sexual problem, you usually find that they’ve defined it in a way that blames one or the other — she’s frigid, he’s impotent. But if you explore in sufficient depth you may find that maybe she’s not really frigid, maybe he just doesn’t know how to arouse her. She is either afraid to explain or so self-blaming that she just accepts that it’s her fault. Or maybe he’s not really impotent, he’s just impotent with her, and that’s got something to do with how angry she is, or how remote or unattractive she makes herself; but in this case, he’s willing to be the fall guy, to take the blame and say it’s his problem. They get a stable relationship in which neither has to function on an intimate or sexual level. Perhaps they are willing to settle for this because they’re both really scared, it’s just that one gets to take the blame.

Conflictual Marriage:

In the conflictual marriage the partners take turns trying to make the spouse take the under adequate role, to blame the other for the self’s unhappiness. The same projection processes are going on but the spouse refuses to accept the projection. They spend most of their time blaming each other for their own misery. This can be quite a stable system because the payoff for each is that they don’t have to take responsibility for themselves.

I had one couple like this once where I ended up with a severe headache after every session. I couldn’t imagine saying the kinds of things they said to each other. I had to get up and leave the room or blow my traffic whistle to get them to pay attention to me. Their agenda in marital treatment is to get the therapist to agree with them that it’s all the other guy’s fault, that it’s the other guy who has to change; and of course we won’t do this. You have to separate them, get them each working on themselves in individual treatment, in order for anything to happen. But often nothing will, because they are really more comfortable with things just as they are than with the dangers of change. Similarly, though they will often threaten divorce, this threat is used as a club to punish their partner, rather than a serious intention. The idea of being separate and alone is too unstabilizing.

Every marriage faces a series of crises of disappointment, when one or both partners realize that the spouse is not able to help solve one’s own neurotic problems. These crises reoccur throughout the life cycle of the family, as people deal with different developmental issues. The scenarios above are possible responses to these crises. But there is an alternative.

If we have good communication, real affection, and are willing to own our own problems, we can talk about our mutual disappointment, acknowledge that there is a common problem, acknowledge that some of our disappointment in the other is based on unfair expectations, and form a stronger alliance and a mutual support system out of it. This takes a degree of trust and emotional health that is missing from most troubled marriages, but most marriages are going to get in trouble at some point. Being responsible for oneself and avoiding the impulse to fix the blame are the first steps toward getting out of trouble.

So, we have pointed out that just because a marriage lasts doesn’t mean it’s good. Indeed, family therapists recognize that there are some destructive, painful, joyless relationships that are remarkably stable and impervious to change — as in the over adequate-under adequate marriage and the conflictual marriage discussed above. Now for two more types, and we will also consider what people get out of staying in unhappy relationships.

Distant Relationship:

In the distant relationship, sometimes called emotional divorce, the spouses have withdrawn from real interaction with each other. They are miserable, but it’s not obvious. They refuse to accept either the other’s blame or their own responsibility for the relationship. They may medicate or sedate themselves somehow, they may watch a lot of TV, they may even get along well enough superficially that everyone thinks everything is OK.

In the film Ordinary People, if readers remember that, it takes the death of the older son and the breakdown of the younger for the family to realize that the mother has been cold, withdrawn and angry for years. The father doesn’t understand this; he thinks things are normal until he realizes his wife hates their son and doesn’t really care that much for him [her husband]. When people are in a stable relationship like this, they don’t deal with the reality of each other, they just go on forever silently blaming the other for their own unhappiness.

FOUR: A fourth scenario is the united front family, where the spouses have stopped blaming each other for their own unhappiness and focused their energies on someone outside the marital system, frequently a child. A common script is that both parents are conflicted about sexuality. They have a distant, unsatisfactory sexual relationship but neither will discuss it with the other because each is afraid. As the female child in the family approaches adolescence mother begins to worry too much about how her daughter is going to express herself sexually. Daughter picks up that something anxiety provoking but really fascinating is going on here. She may not understand a lot but she does get the idea that boys are forbidden fruit. What may begin as normal adolescent sexuality gets escalated because mother, and father too, get invested in trying to control the girl. They ground her, they listen to her phone calls, they read her diary, they try to limit who she can associate with. The family soon spends all its time worrying about the daughter’s sexuality and the parents never have to worry about their own.

This pattern is what Eric Berne, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, called the game of “uproar.” In uproar, 14-year-old Susie announces that she’s going to run off with 23-year-old Johnny, who rides a big Harley and has served time in prison. It’s called a game because the purpose of Susie’s announcement is to get a response from her parents; otherwise she’d just do it. You can take the same scenario we’ve been talking about with girls, moms, and sex, and apply it to boys, dads, and aggression. Everyone worries about the boy’s “antisocial tendencies,” which turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The harder the family tries to control the kid, the more his antisocial behavior escalates.

Marriage starts in a projection. We endow the person we love with the magical ability to make us happy. The more emotionally mature we are, the quicker we realize that no one else really has that power. Then we have to deal with the effect of that disappointment on the relationship. Every marriage faces a series of such disappointments, as new developmental tasks make us wish again for some magical solution. These destructive marriages are patterns of responses to disappointment. Why do people stay in such painful, poisonous relationships?

There is no simple answer, and there are probably a lot more reasons than I will ever know about. But I do know that it’s nice to have someone else to blame. We can always feel self-righteous if we have a good grievance. These destructive relationships give us the ability to rationalize to ourselves, to say “It’s not my fault, it’s his/her fault, that I’m unhappy, unsuccessful, an alcoholic, an abuser, scared, bored, lonely…” The list goes on and on. It’s harder to give up blaming and take responsibility for oneself.

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