Don’s been frustrated and angry with his wife, Danielle, for many years. But Don’s done what lots of guys do when they’re not happy in their marriage – he’s disengaged.
For her part, Danielle says she also craves a better connection, but the reality is that she puts the majority of her time and energy into her children.
Neither Don nor Danielle are getting their needs met for attention, affection, or intimacy. As a result, they both harbor feelings of resentment that leave them irritable, uncooperative, and uncommunicative. Occasionally their frustration boils over into ugly arguments that last well into the night.
Don and Danielle both think that the problems in their marriage are primarily their partner’s fault. They both see themselves as being the long-suffering spouse who has done their part to make the marriage work, only to be met with criticism and contempt from their mate.
The story that they tell themselves centers on what the other person’s done wrong in the relationship. They ruminate on their foiled attempts to be a good husband or wife. In this sad story, they each place their partner in the role of being the villain and cast themselves in the role of being the victim.
The trouble with this tale is that there’s little awareness of their own contributions to any of the problems. As a victim who only sees their partner’s misdeeds, they’ve created a story in which they’re powerless to solve the problem. And by making their partner the villain, they ascribe to them all of attributes which befit the role of being the bad guy: heartless, selfish, uncaring, and cruel. So it’s easy for them to conclude that such a person is intentionally trying to hurt them.
Unfortunately we rarely bring our internal dialogue into the light where we can examine the logic of it. Instead, we dwell on our wounds in the dark recesses of our mind, where our primal fears and instinctual drive to defend ourselves dominate our mental processes.
Our victim/villain stories fuel our negative emotions, causing us to rivet our attention on our problems and protect ourselves against further hurt. With that mindset we lash out in anger, withdraw into sadness, seethe with resentment, feel flooded with anxiety, question our own lovability, and doubt our partner’s capacity for caring. We feel perfectly justified in expressing these negative emotions, and then proceed to wonder why the situation is getting worse instead of better.
To their credit, Don and Danielle decided to meet with a marriage counselor. When asked what they each hoped to get out of therapy, Don disclosed that he was there so his wife would finally learn what she was doing wrong. He was half right. Don quickly discovered that he was a much bigger part of the problem than he’d imagined. And he learned that he only has control over his side of the marriage. Meaning he’d have to focus his attention on what he could do differently to help repair the relationship.
“Hah,” Danielle said with an obvious attitude of victory, “I told you so.”
“Do you think you won that argument?” the psychologist asked.
Confused (and a little defensive), Danielle asked just what the counselor meant by his question. The counselor explained that when two people are engaged in a power struggle, they both end up losing. She could momentarily savor a small victory over the fact that the counselor had helped Don to see that he also contributes to their unhappiness.
However, by doing so she perpetuates the conflict since Don will surely be looking to even the score.“But here’s the good news. There are no mistakes in our sessions, only lessons.”
“What lesson did you learn about how you could respond in way that leads to the outcome you wish to see?” the counselor asked Danielle.
After thinking it over for a minute, Danielle replied that what she really wanted was for things to change. “Next time I’ll tell Don that we’ll both benefit from the lessons we learn from being in counseling.”
There’s abundant research regarding what’s required to create a satisfying relationship.
In addition to pointing out how Don and Danielle could reduce their dysfunctional interactions, the psychologist taught them about the importance of generating lots of positive exchanges. Don and Danielle learned a multitude of ways to make each other happy.
They made a real effort to get above a ratio of 3:1 positive to negative interactions, which resulted in a resurgence of loving feelings.