What do unhappy couples have in common?
After many years of working with couples, I am struck by the ways that some couples achieve wonderful and lasting relationships, while others stay stuck in counterproductive cycles and remain unhappy. I have wondered why some couples do well, while others do not. We hear the statistic that fifty percent of first marriages fail, but that doesn’t mean that the other fifty percent are happy. Many intact marriages are filled with conflict and discord. What blocks couples from finding happiness in their relationships?
Here some of my observations:
- Unhappy marriages usually involve individuals who lack self-focus. These individuals have difficulty examining their role in and contributions to marital conflict. They think they know exactly what the problem is: it’s their partner. Healthy individuals, on the other hand, ask the question, “What might I have done to contribute to this problem?” and then try to change the way they interact. People in unhappy marriages have difficulty asking this question, and as a result, continue to focus on what their partner is doing that bothers them. Unfortunately, they believe the other person’s personality is the source of their problems.
- In a similar way, individuals in unhappy marriages continue to focus on their partner’s flaws and make it their life’s work to try to change their partner. This, of course, is an exercise in futility! It only makes things worse! The more you focus on your partner’s flaws, the more negative your picture of them becomes, and the more unhappy you become (not to mention how miserable you are making your partner). Individuals in healthy marriages remember the traits that attracted them to their partner, and build on strengths, while becoming accepting of imperfections. They realize everyone, themselves included, have strengths and weakness, and choose to build on those strengths.
- Couples who are unhappy repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Remember the old definition of mental illness: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome! Unhappy couples forget this. The wife who constantly pursues and nags for more time together only gets pushed further away, not realizing that she is creating the very distance she is trying to avoid. The husband who constantly criticises his wife for not being sexual enough is actually decreasing her desire, making her feel self-conscious and overwhelmed, but continues anyway. Unconsciously, we often create in our partners the very things we dislike. Doing more of the same never works!
- Couples who find lasting love and companionship are very aware that what most people crave more than anything is acceptance and empathic understanding. Life is difficult and unfortunately empathy is in short supply. Couples who are happy have the luxury of coming home after a difficult day, to a loving and accepting partner, with whom they feel accepted. Rather than feeling criticized or misunderstood, they feel accepted in the midst of their strengths and weaknesses. In return, they are able to offer the same thing to their partner. Rather than seeking only to be loved, they recognize that their role is to offer love and support. Healthy couples work on more deeply understanding their partner, instead of only focusing on what they themselves need. This is truly the best kept secret of a happy relationship.
- All couples must negotiate how to balance the closeness/distance continuum. Intimate marriage is a combination of both closeness and distance; separateness and togetherness. This, of course, more complicated than it seems. Those that need more closeness frantically pursue, while those needing more distance tend to shut down and withdraw. Unfortunately, couples who are unhappy never find a way to balance closeness and distance. The more anxious they become, the more polarized they get. Couples that find happiness learn to negotiate this. “Pursuers” learn to take care of themselves, find outside activities and give space. “Distancers” learn to reach out and connect. Habitual styles can be changed, but only in an atmosphere of self-awareness and mindful reducing of anxiety.
- Finally, couples who are healthy “think about their feelings” before they express them. While that might sound overly cognitive, in reality it saves a great deal of pain! People who are reactive and blurt out every feeling create great damage. They use harsh language and show contempt. They often do not know why they are feeling something, what they are feeling, often jump to conclusions, and then blurt out powerful and hurtful things. Once expressed, these words are difficult to take back and to repair. Before blurting out what you feel, think about where the feeling is coming from, and what sort of damage it will cause if you blurt without a filter. There may be a softer way of expressing feelings.
Intimate marriage is a long journey, but well worth the steps. Avoid these six mistakes, and the journey will at least be a little easier. Watch for further articles and Youtube videos on how to improve your relationship.