How I Quit Wasting Energy On My Husband (Without Checking Out of the Marriage)
Thoughts from an insider/outsider in the marriage counseling industry
My husband is 6’4,” lean, and lovely. He has mostly gray hair, with a lovely full beard that he keeps trimmed, yet soft. He has one of those perfectly shaped bald guy heads that I love to run my hands across and hug. And speaking of hands, his are gorgeous! They’re huge and strong and were definitely part of my initial attraction to him 20+ years ago. He has grown into one of those really good looking older guys, and despite all we’ve been through, my heart still surges just a little sometimes when I see him.
David is older than me. I’ll be turning 50 soon and he’ll be turning 60. Initially, his age was a real advantage to him and to me in our relationship. I was a mere babe at 26 when we met, and he was 37. He had so much more experience in life than me (or so I felt) — with family, with business, with being financially responsible, and with dating. I had just graduated with my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, had credit card and school loan debt, and had just divorced from my high school sweetheart. I was taken by David’s strength and knowledge and what was a new experience for me at the time in my life: respect.
He actually wanted to know what I thought about different things, and he listened to me. He liked (or at least welcomed) my views. It was weird. Refreshing on one hand, all consuming on another. On one hand I could finally be myself. On the other, I really had very little idea who that self was. It was both exhilarating and deeply disorienting.
Somehow, over the years, my identity got all wrapped up in his. Over the years, my energy — my life force — went into him, liking him, loving him, hating him, taking care of him, analyzing him, reacting to his stoicism and avoidance and extreme forgetfulness and, at times, his mind-fucking. I could go on. Between the marriage and adding kids to the mix, my world was closing in on me. Weird, autonomic symptoms I’d had since I was a teenager developed into a chronic illness that left me feeling significant fatigue. After almost 2 decades of marriage, a lot of work, and a lot of neurofeedback (who knew it could help save a marriage?!), I am finally investing that life force in me…and withdrawing what I used to invest in him — without checking out of the marriage. Things are better now. But I had to unlearn much of what I learned about marriage in graduate school and in current conventional training and trends, and become an outsider in my field to do it.
The 15 Year Erection
What I felt for David in the beginning was what I imagine one of those 8-hour erections would feel like that you hear about on Viagra commercials. Kind of good at first, then kind of angst-y, like this is still good…I think…but I’m not sure. It kind of hurts a little, but oh man look at it! Then, after a little more time, after it becomes more and more consuming, I imagine someone would try to take care of it more aggressively…maybe more than once? Do some problem solving. Come at it from different angles.Then after a little more time it’s like you’re in the ER wondering how to make it go away.
All of my training, plus conventional wisdom, say you have to work on your relationship. But it seemed the more I did, the worse it got. Our early attempts in marriage counseling encouraged more and more focus on the marriage and on the problems. The encouragement to get vulnerable, to spend time gazing into each other’s eyes, to use “I” statements, to have dates, to prioritize the marriage, to forgive, to have compassion, to map your partner’s mind and to allow yours to be mapped, to be more independent…on and on and on. Potentially some good advice in there, but it never quite got to the heart of the issue. And all of them encouraging a kind of fantasy about how amazing marriage could be. And all of them, inadvertently, encouraging a process that seemed to be hurting me.
The more I got focused on the marriage, the less David focused. The more I focused on the marriage, the more flaws I saw in him and in me…the more he checked out…the easier it became to blame him for everything. I was the one WORKING on things. HE was NOT. I was trying to develop myself by going to therapy, reading, studying, visiting my family more and developing those relationships, and every other form of self-improvement. HE was benefiting without lifting a finger. The more I worked, the less respect I had for him, the sicker I got. And then I started checking out.
While I was investing my life energy into me with all this personal and relationship improvement, I was also diluting it by OVER doing it in the relationship. I may have gotten the therapists’ approval, but my work was leading to resentment in the marriage, and then finally withdrawal. Checking out of the marriage in many subtle ways made me feel better but only at first. Substantive and longer lasting relief can only come with a more accurate understanding of the problem.
Somewhere around 15 years together, give or take, I started to try to step back and think about things differently. Here’s some of what I learned over the last 6 years.
It’s a See-Saw, Silly!
In all relationships there is a kind of invisible, automatic, see-saw process at work. A process that is bigger than any of us. It often looks like one person doing more and more work, while the other does less and less. It can look like a capable person, married to an incapable one. It can also look like the couple where the more he chases her, the more she runs away, and vice versa.
When I get new clients, and I have gotten a basic idea of how things are going and of all the things they’ve tried to change it (which is usually an extensive list), I will ask them, “Does it kind of feel like this thing has a life of its own? Like your marriage has you rather than you having it?” I have never gotten a ‘no.’ And that’s because this thing IS bigger than us. It’s a see-saw process that’s been around for as long as there have been humans, at once helpful to our survival and detrimental. Evolution’s unrelenting way of pushing us forward perhaps?
The see-saw was first observed (and noted) by Dr. Murray Bowen in the 1950’s in his work at the Menninger Clinic. He noticed that while families would blame one un-well member for their problems, they would have difficulty noticing that un-well member’s poor functioning as a reflection of their own poor functioning at any given moment. There would be a kind of back-and-forth, automatic reactivity that seemed to perpetuate the negative symptoms in one or the other. Some examples included relationships where:
§ One did everything right and could cope while the other did everything wrong and could not cope.
§ One made all the decisions while the other was paralyzed by decision making and could not.
§ One led and the other followed.
§ One was a fountain of feelings while the other was a stoic, internalizer of feelings.
The degree to which family members focused on these differences with an effort to “fix” them or close the gap, the greater the symptoms in the family. Can you start to see where conventional approaches fall apart? If the problem is a process, then to change, you’ve got to interrupt the process, not prescribe the very one that’s at play.
For example, if you are in a relationship where you are a fountain of feelings and your spouse is a stoic internalizer, and the therapist prescribes sharing in an open and vulnerable way, the fountain spouse will comply and get kudos from the therapist. The anxiety in the room will go down. Temporarily. It can be an extraordinary relief, but it just doesn’t last. The stoic will ultimately be at a loss and will “fail” at therapy. The more the feeler focuses on expressing his or her feelings, the more the expectation that the other should join in, the less likely they will be able to be successful. Not because there is something wrong with the couple or the stoic, but because it’s prescribing a process that is already an endless loop. A loop in which couples are caught in a reciprocal pattern where the more one does X, the less the other does X, and so on and so forth. It’s incredibly predictable and automatic. Yes, you may get the other to give in and comply for a short time, but it generally doesn’t come off very well, and it certainly doesn’t last.
Another example would be the decisive/indecisive pair. The therapist in conventional approaches is prone to prescribe more decision making for the indecisive partner to relieve some of the suffering of the over-burdened, decisive partner — the very same prescription given to the indecisive one, for years, by the decisive one. Can you see where this might fall apart? And can you see where it misses the very tight, reciprocal, and automatic process between the partners? The therapist can inadvertently join right in with the decisive spouse, and whala! You have two against one! It works this way even if the therapist is prescribing less decisiveness for the decisive one. The therapist is marching straight into gridlock, shooting at a target, with blinders on.
The way out of this mess is not to prescribe more focus on the problems, more emotional expression, more vulnerability or more or less decision making. These prescriptions will make you (and the marriage) either worse or stagnant in the long run, and that’s guaranteed. The way out of this mess is for whichever spouse is most motivated to:
§ Develop the ability to see the automatic and reciprocal processes at work
§ To see how you are inadvertently participating in them
§ To make efforts to resist your automatic, knee jerk participation in them
§ Then, eventually, to actively engage from a less wound up and wounded place.
A Closer Look at Conventional Marriage Counseling
The most recent and widely popular (at least among therapists) trend in marriage counseling is something called EFT — Emotion Focused Therapy — and the idea is to prescribe the very process that has couples stuck in the first place. The fundamental premise of EFT is that humans have attachment needs, and the secret to a happy marriage is for one spouse to ultimately be able to express those needs in a vulnerable fashion while the other spouse listens and acknowledges. Then they switch. The idea is that you can have the loving, secure, happy marriage that you want if you can express emotion in a vulnerable and authentic fashion, and then if you can meet your spouse’s needs (and if they can meet yours too). Susan Johnson, the developer of EFT, has declared joyfully that we should embrace this needs-based process in marriage, and she calls it love. Every other conventional approach out there is some version of this. They all stem from Attachment theory.
Attachment theory has merit in that it elucidates a reality for the human species: We are deeply and irrevocably attached to our parents who are attached to their parents, etc. and this attachment profoundly impacts our mates and offspring. We share this in common with 18 other species on the planet. These species are called “eusocial.” For no other species are these relationships more complex than for the human. But this is as far as the usefulness of attachment theory goes for marriage, in my opinion. It explains some emotional problems in some people, but not all. It does not have an explanation for how healthy people can come from unhealthy families. It inadvertently blames the mother, and, for a significant number of couples, like my husband and me (and like most of the couples in my practice), one spouse will follow the protocol, and one will not, leading to an increase in distance and resentment. If they are able to achieve compliance, couples often end up just that, compliant. And that leads to anything but a satisfying partnership in the long run.
The Systemic Nature of the Beast — A Paradigm Shift
Families are ecosystems. Ecosystems, by definition, are complex networks impacted by both internal and external forces, with repeating reciprocal feedback loops that are more determinative and predictive of human behavior than even our psychology. A Systems approach looks at families and couples like a scientist might look at an ecosystem. They are more concerned with and curious about what is happening between individuals than between the ears of individuals. In an ecosystem, there is a kind of balance or imbalance that is studied. There is an investigation as to how everything is working together, where the functioning of one area impacts the functioning of other areas and of the whole. In systems thinking we are looking at things more broadly. Human behavior isn’t pathologized; it is understood to be natural, instinctive, and part of a whole. Work on differentiating oneself as an individual in one’s own right, while still being connected to the whole is central.
Thankfully, there are some really dedicated, smart people who have invested decades of their lives into studying the systemic nature of the human family. I’m sure there are more out there, but the ones I know of are either faculty or practitioners of Bowen Family Systems Theory. There are 8 distinct principles that govern family behavior, and they have been written about here. It takes some dedication to learn them, but the new awareness could potentially save you a lot of years and a lot of unnecessary pain. Potentially. No matter what you do or what your approach, marriage and family life is challenging. At least let there be sound thinking based on some kind of objective science, some kind of comprehensive theory, to ground you on the most frustrating and painful days.
Moving away from doing. Moving toward thinking. For now.
When we are in pain, we want to know what to do! But the doing is almost always based in anxiety. And that will only lead to one place: more anxiety. We have to begin to move towards thinking. Ideas are only great so long as we resist the urge to codify them…to turn them into techniques. We have to wrestle with them and define for ourselves what they mean in our lives. Nobody likes to do this. We go to counseling to be told what to do by an expert. If that expert gives in to that anxiety, progress is slowed or halted. Eventually, we have to get to the doing, but it will go a bit further if there is new thinking behind it.
Perhaps the doing in the early stages of this has to do with learning. I can recommend Roberta Gilbert’s book, Extraordinary Relationships. I can also recommend neurofeedback. It can bring a sense of calm and clarity and can be incredibly supportive as you traverse these new territories.
“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”
So, I know this is a long article, and if you are still reading, thank you! I hope you are finding it helpful. I’ll get right to the final point. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson, readers are encouraged to only give a f*ck about what is important and to forget the rest. He defines life as one big problem to solve after another. Accepting this reality is freeing. But in marriage, most of the time, we are working on an inaccurate definition of the problem. Our problem in marriage is not a lack of connection. It’s an intense one…a repeating, reciprocal, automatic loop that you and your spouse are stuck in together — and one in which at least one of you is giving up self for the sake of the other. Thinking systems is a way to begin to get a more accurate definition — and a more workable and, therefore, hopeful one.
If you have been nurturing your partner’s (or your kids’) sensitivities or asking them to nurture yours, and if you’ve been working your butt off over it, perhaps it’s time to discover the subtle art of not giving a f*ck. But this doesn’t mean it’s time to check out of the marriage. I mean, you can, of course. That’s a whole different set of problems to solve, and that’s up to every individual. Others decide to have a fresh look at their marriage. It helps a ton if we aren’t spinning our wheels in the wrong direction…pounding away, so to speak, at that decades long, painful, annoying, frustrating erection!