If you are in an unhappy marriage and find yourself caught in a cycle of conflict, feeling disillusioned, hurt and confused, you are certainly not alone.
Expectations and disillusionments are part of a relationship
During the romantic phase of a relationship, we often imagine that our future mate will know how to meet our needs and perhaps even meet those expectations perfectly all the time. Huge expectations to live up to!
Conflict and disillusionment can be a very normal and even predicted stage in a committed relationship.
Now of course in our culture, we are not given the message that conflict or disillusionment can be a likely stage in the development of our relationships. Common themes in romantic movies and popular songs are of couples finding the perfect love relationship and living happily ever after.
However, given the fact that we are two separate individuals with different backgrounds, personalities, thoughts, and ways of doing things, it is unrealistic to expect that we will not have conflict or tension in our relationships at times.
Most relationship experts and researchers agree that it is not whether or not you have conflict that predicts a successful and happy marriage, but, rather how you deal with that conflict and whether you are able to maintain a connection despite disagreeing.
So, what are you willing to do to save your marriage or transform the patterns of conflict into healthier ways of relating?
Marriage and Family Therapists know that behavior does not exist in a vacuum. We are constantly influencing and are influenced by our environment. So, that means our behavior will necessarily influence our mates’ and their behavior will in turn be influencing ours.
Relationships are circular in nature
One person’s behavior will influence the other person’s reaction, and their reaction will in turn influence their mate’s reaction. In addition to that, each individual’s behavior is also influenced by their individual environment.
Did they have a bad day at work? Are they feeling bad physically? Are they particularly stressed about something? You can see how all of these factors could lead to our confusion and feelings of helplessness about the patterns of conflict in our marriage.
We both have our part in the dance. The hopeful aspect of that reality is that if we both are contributing to the problem, we both could make changes that can change the pattern.
We are not helpless! It is important to take 100% responsibility for our part in the dance. We will not change the dance by blaming and attacking our partner. We know that our brains are hardwired to protect us from perceived threat. Therefore, we all have developed certain adaptive behaviors that help us feel safe when we feel threatened.
When we feel verbally attacked, we will respond with whatever adaptive behaviors have helped us feel safe in the past. For example, we may attack back, or withdraw and “shutdown”.
You can see how this is a non-efficient and non-productive means of addressing problems in your marriage.
If we really want to change the dance in our relationship and create a happier, healthier marriage, it is imperative that we stop criticizing, blaming and shaming our mate. Our marriage should provide a refuge from the outside world, a place where we can feel safe and nurtured.
We all long for connection, however elusive that goal may seem at times.
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
Encourage self-awareness and compassion
So, rather than repeating the same nonproductive pattern in your relationship, perhaps try being curious and look at what your behaviors are in the dance.
Are you the one criticizing, nagging or blaming? Or, do you go silent, withdraw and distance? It is most often not about the content or issue at hand, but about how our behaviors can, in turn, make our mate feel, for example, unimportant to us, invisible, unloved, or inadequate.
This is not to suggest we turn the blame on ourselves either, but to encourage more self-awareness and compassion.
If you have difficulty identifying or changing the pattern of conflict and feel stuck in the content, it may be wise to seek the help of a trained and licensed marriage therapist.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
I have been a Marriage and Family Therapist for 32 years and a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist for 14 years. I work both with couples experiencing conflict and disillusionment, as well as those couples who simply want to deepen their relationship and increase their connection. My goal is to help the couple transform their relationship from one of pain, hurt, or apathy, to one where each person can feel loved and validated while achieving personal growth and healing. I help couples learn new ways of expressing frustrations that do not trigger their partner's defensiveness. By helping couples see how their backgrounds contribute to their present conflicts, it can help them have a different perception of their partner's reactions, and thereby stop seeing them as an adversary. It has been my honor to work with many couples as they go through this process.
(Debbie Plonkey is also listed in Best Marriage Therapists in Greenville)