Step-families are much tougher than I expected. Divorce rates are reported to be about double, and both parents and kids are affected in ways that I have never realized. One way to understand the challenge is to identify the perspective of two groups, and each family member can be part of either group at different times. The two groups referred to are Insiders and Outsiders. Both insiders and outsiders are marked by loss, fueled by jealousy and can potentially isolate step-family members. It affects both the marriage and parenting, and both parenting with our spouse and parenting with our ex.
Insiders are connected with biological bonds that are automatic in both defending the bond and desire to connect. They are based on a lifetime of shared experiences and values. You know the feeling of falling in love? That really never goes away with your children. It is big enough to endure in sickness and in health and for better or for worse till death do you part. If you criticize the child you criticize the parent and vice versa.
Outsiders often feel like Intruders. They have to earn their way to build a bond. It takes years and sometimes does not happen. They can feel alone, invisible and inadequate. There are so many ways they give as a parent would but may not be recognized as a parent would.
Loss is an undercurrent behind typical blended family issues. The loss of a marriage, and time between parents and kids will appear behind the scenes in a blended family. It’s like a two-sided coin where enjoyment with one side of the family is accompanied by sadness. Kids and parents often don’t have the language to express this well because it is going on behind the scenes.
I know that my stepdaughter felt this way when we were having fun she missed her dad. It happens for parents too. For example a couple of weeks ago I came home one night really looking forward to spending some time with my son because I hadn’t seen him. When I got home he was not there and I was disappointed and when my wife was having fun with her kids I felt sad and jealous. My wife said she was in kitchen with her daughter and they were laughing and I walked in and she threw a carrot at me. I turned around and walked away. She used to get annoyed with me because it seemed I went into hiding. She is thankful though when I shared what I was feeling with no blame. She was “on the top of mountain” with her kids but also feeling low in a valley because her high equaled my loss. She used to think she wasn’t allowed to show that I was having a nice time with her kids. Usually when care is shown, feeling can dissipate and bonding can occur.
Other losses include loss of attention and space in the home. Sharing a home with another parent and other kids can be tough. It is often too much change too fast.
Insiders have a dream that their new spouse will be a better parent then their ex. The reality is that kids are not looking for that. They may live under the same roof but still have to be reminded to say hello, while it is natural for a biological parent. Patricia Papernow, a stepfamily expert, said, “Even the best artificial limb can’t replace the real one.” Loss is helped by striking a balance between insider and outsider time for both parents and children.
Parenting involves a balance between attempts to connect and attempt to correct. With biological and insider bonds there are millions of connections that have already been made that can withstand a large number of corrections. For stepparents without the complex network of connections, corrections will be far less effective. Even if a stepparent can get the child to comply with rules, the chance of a close relationship is reduced.
Sadly, step parents can feel more comfortable with correction and parents feel more comfortable with connection. Actually, the reverse usually works better. In many mature thriving stepfamilies, step parents do not ever step into a disciplinary role.
One night my wife and stepson had an argument and she had asked him for his phone and he refused and was disrespectful. She got scared and called me for back-up. She was wishing for me to ask her son to hand his phone over. I came in at a different angle and suggested we calm down first and then sit down and talk. She did not feel supported and got angry at me. Now we were all angry. We needed to calm before we could work it out.
Unlike becoming a parent, becoming a stepparent is a choice that can be undone. The challenge is overwhelming at times. I had to give myself room to accept this, and find support.
Ex-spouses are also insiders and outsiders and impact stepfamilies. Understanding the three levels of co-parenting relationships with an ex helped me set boundaries. The ideal levels for the benefit of the kids is to be cooperative. The second best would be to maintain a parallel parenting relationship. The worst on kids is a high conflict co-parenting relationship. I would say from the beginning years up until high school I had a cooperative relationship with my ex. In high school our value differences became wider. There were times I got blamed by both my ex-wife and my current wife for problems. Those were certainly my lowest points.
Communication involves both sides talking about both sides. It is not the point and counterpoint of an argument. Accountability involves asking another person for something without trying to convince them. If the other person refuses then you make another offer or set a boundary. A boundary is the line between what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do.
Understanding how insiders and outsiders impact parents, kids, and ex-spouses can alleviate a lot of pain and resentment. The losses are real, but may be covered by anger. Without the language describing the emotions and fears underneath the pain, battle lines can be drawn and years can be in turmoil.
Creating fun in your marriage is so important because boredom in a relationship often does not end in divorce but is a highly-cited reason for affairs. Life is short, but better to love the one you are with and invest in your present relationship than find a new one with new problems down the road. Maybe watering your own grass is better than staring at your neighbor’s lawn! Hopefully you both can meet in the middle and find something to do better that not only is fun but gives you energy or even makes a contribution to society. Perhaps you can work on a project together, or even work out together.
This interview clip comes from the radio show Let’s Stay Together Talk! hosted by a wonderful couple Rev. Rick & Brenda McCain. Their motto is “To Know God’s Glory, We Must Share Our Backstory!” Each week they provide relationship encouragement, guidance, and knowledge to their listeners. Their approach has left a lasting imprint on their first guest Tracy Howard, she is now part of “The McCain Train” weekly show as co-host. We are proud to contribute to their mission. Their show can be found at http://www.soarradio.com.
Interview on Blending Families.
Interview on Affairs.
By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist
The challenges of remarriage and blending families after the wounds of divorce or the death of a spouse is likely to be more stressful than the loss of the first marriage. Many hungering for a second chance are yearning for intact family stability, but there are differences between original families and blended families. Loving your biological family is automatic and natural; learning to love a new family takes an extra “step,” a choice to treat non-biological kids as you would your own. Another difference between the original biological family and the blended family can also occur. With biological families, the best thing you can do for the kids is love the other parent, and that does not change even when divorced or after death. With blended families, showing affection to the new spouse may be difficult for the kids, and may cause a sense of loss and possibly resentment. Protecting time between the biological relationships can provide relief to counter natural feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Finally, another difference between the two kinds of families are indicated by the stressors. For the original parents, security is threatened most by financial or intimate issues. For blended families, parenting issues are the top problem reported. Being aware of the issues unique to blended families can save years of struggle due to unrealistic expectations.
Blended families are complex, and complexity is stressful. Stress can strengthen biological bonds and weaken other bonds. Over time as blended families forge a new identity they remain vulnerable but are strengthened by overcoming opposition together. This takes flexibility, adaptability, and a sense of humor when needed. The key to building new bonds is low pressure, giving kids all the time in the world to connect, and finding middle ground when there is a culture clash. Bonds are built best when there is no demand for it. In addition, Susan Papernow, a renown researcher on stepfamilies, uses the terms “insider” and “outsider” to reflect biological bonds, and step-bonds. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-acceptance, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience and grace to one’s own kids, and that an extra step may be needed to provide that in step-relationships. In step-relationships, three weeds can prevail: jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. These natural feelings in normal people are fed by a sense of loss. These feelings of loss, including loss of time with biological parents and kids, appear throughout life especially at major life events. When there is uncertainty, fear or resistance in stepchildren, kids are often feeling the loss. It must be acknowledged and expressed. Stepparents have to learn to not take it personally. The other biological parent may have to give some kind of permission to develop a step-relationship. These efforts on the parent’s part may take a lot of pressure off the kids and reduce their anxiety about step-relationships. Though step-bonds are different than biological bonds, both kinds can grow strong, and are often the strongest after the kids are grown.
Since a healthy marriage is crucial for a healthy family, the best thing you can do for your kids is invest in your marriage. The top-down trickle effect impacts kids. Kids will benefit from a secure marriage. That means the marriage comes first, but biological bonds are not neglected, and step-relationships benefit from these prerequisites. Kids don’t want to be in the middle of a contest for a biological parent’s attention.
When it comes to parenting, biological parents are the most effective, but declaring your loyalty to your spouse can enable the stepparent to back you up. The biological parent has relational authority and the stepparent has positional authority, but is ineffective without the biological parent taking the lead in family routines and discipline. Since there probably is some sort of family culture clash, meeting in the middle when it comes to parenting decisions is probably the best. The toughest time reported by Deal to start a step-family is between the ages of 10 and 15. Error on the side of protecting your marriage to limit the struggle.
The challenge to build new relationships with a new spouse and new kids and parent together in a blended family is hard enough but some feel out of place or even ostracized by their religion when faced with divorce and remarriage. Also, stepparents can feel like second class citizens in religious communities. Churches have forbid leaders who have been divorced. The Bible, though, is marked by dysfunctional people and families even in the “faith hall of fame” (Hebrews 11). God divorced Israel at one point and Christians refer to His remarriage to the Church. Even Jesus had a stepdad.
On a personal note, when feeling trapped, choose trust. God may not always be seen, but we know from the Bible that he does not forget. Throughout Scripture we see the gradual unfolding of God’s plan, even though like any good movie there are times where hope is lost. Hanging on to your faith is sometimes all you got. God is in the business of redeeming all our pain and using it to change lives.
By Dan Blair Marriage Counselor and Family Therapist
Why do people divorce and can you stop divorce?
Aside from abuse, affairs, or addictions, the disintegration of relationships can often be understood in terms of attachment research, which studies both insecure and secure attachment patterns. Insecure attachment patterns develop when painful relational experiences cause both withdrawing and pursuing patterns to avoid the pain of abandonment or rejection in the present.
A withdrawing relationship pattern can be marked by a partner feeling uncomfortable or inadequate when talking about emotion or conflict in the relationship. Withdrawers also may feel criticized. Their initial reaction beyond defensiveness may be irritation or anger. Expressing emotion also may make them feel not good enough, or vulnerable. They view significant other’s needs as overwhelming and have been taught to solve problems on their own, and would rather just be appreciated for what they are doing. Withdrawers may feel that they cannot make the other person happy. They would not necessarily look forward to marriage counseling for these reasons. Since relationships do not regularly bring them comfort or relief, they usually do not even think of asking for help. Spouses of withdrawers may feel ignored.
Pursuers run on anxiety or anger as fuel. Parents may have been described as overprotective, or critical. In both cases, a primary focus on the other develops often to the exclusion of one’s own needs. The pursuer is dismayed when a significant other withdraws. The pursuer may continue the pursuit, but in critical ways. The withdrawer may become hurt, and tired of the pattern, even when the pleaser is trying to connect.
A third pattern combines both pursuit and withdrawal. Seeking connection and excitement in the relationship a pursuer may be disappointed or even hurt time and time again. The pursuer may then feel empty and lonely. A withdrawing pattern may begin, and if a negative view of their partner is practiced, then ideas about being more appreciated by someone else may enter the picture. This pattern may be repeated with others. When pursuing, the partner is valued; when the pursuing is disappointing or hurtful, the partner is to blame.
To stop the wish for divorce, an interest in another person has to have not taken root, and a willingness to change these patterns has to be present. Understanding the emotions and needs driving these patterns is important. Otherwise these patterns tend to be repeated.
Many that divorce are happier, but not that much happier. Over half regret it. Is it worth the long-lasting turmoil for you and the kids? For some, yes.
Good books can be found on rebuilding marriages and changing attachment patterns by Susan Johnson and Milan and Kay Yerkovich.
By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
As much as one can wish, starting over in a blended marriages has expectations are not the same, and many times the opposite of what one can expect in the biological family. The difference is attributed to “insiders” and “outsiders” in the step-family. This normal and natural dynamic creates unexpected feeling of loss, which appears as jealousy, inadequacy and resentment. Competition develops between insiders and outsiders. Biological parents want more understanding for their kids, and stepparents want more structure and discipline. Add to this underlying pressure is inevitable culture clashes between the “old ways” and the “new and improved ways.”
Susan Papernow in her classic book Becoming a Stepfamily differentiates between “outsider” (step) and “insider” (biological) relationships. Parents are stuck insiders. Stepparents are stuck outsiders. Outsiders can feel invisible, alone and feel guilty about their bond with the stepchildren. Biological parents and their kids may not realize the small and subtle ways a stepparent can feel left out. Stepparents do not realize that it is normal to feel a persistent sense of jealousy, inadequacy, and resentment. One parent, and not the other, gets to live with and have her kids usually under the same roof at night. The outsider position can be exhausting even for the most devoted step-parent. The biological bond is impossible to replicate, but it helps if the blended family starts before the kids are 4. Both stepparent and biological parent usually consider a shift into a relationship just like a biological one to be easier than it is. Step-bonds are often the strongest after the kids are grown.
Outsiders may appear as uninterested. Arguments in the family that may appear to be about trivial issues are really about adjusting to serious loss and change. Usually the Insiders control the territory. Ex-spouses are also considered Insiders. The Insiders too are facing loss of a dream of a happy intact family and can feel unsupported. Biological parents can feel frustrated, heart-broken, lonely, and frightened about loosening a close relationship with a child, and feel guilty about their children’s losses. Biological parents must let go of a strong wish for an easy transition between their new spouse and children.
Just as the custodial parent feels torn between her kids and her new spouse, the non-custodial parent, often the father, also feels torn between his own children, the new spouse, and the stepchildren. Fathers must divide time, money and affection. Some are not able to sustain their commitments. Now they feel like an outsider in their first and second family which is a source of shame. It may appear that they are unwilling to be there for their own children, spouse and stepchildren. Feelings of jealousy and guilt reappear over and over with life’s milestones. Fathers whose children begin visiting less are at risk for depression. Their spouses may wonder if his grieving will ever end. Step-children reminds biological parent of his children and how much he misses them. Fathers need a place to share the guilt of being asked the parents to children when they can’t parent their own kids.
Children struggle with loss and loyalty binds. Parents renew their dream of family life, which is often not shared by the children. The step-relationship is competitive with the biological relationship. A positive step-relationship may create simultaneous sadness. Usually the stronger the marriage the happier the children. Research shows that stepfamilies are different, because a good step-parent means that loss is felt because as one step-daughter put it, “I’m afraid to like my step-dad more than my own Dad.” These losses are especially felt by older step-daughters. Step-parents can’t expect to have the same kind of bond as with their biological children. Patricia Papernow, a step-family expert, reminds us that “Even the best artificial limb cannot replace the real one.”
Parents usually want more love for their kids, and step-parents want more discipline. Parents may feel guilty that their kids had to suffer through a divorce, and may undermine their second marriage to cater to the kids. Ron Deal, in his book “The Smart Stepfamily,” refers biological bonds as having auto-responses, like auto-grace, auto-access (my space is your space), and auto-patience to one’s own kids. The biological parent, who often has a source of nourishment and support in his or her children, may interpret the stepparent’s difficulty to bond as a lack of commitment or effort. Blood-bonds are better than step-bonds in discipline.
Imagine learning the customs and expectations of a distant country. This culture clash affects parents and children. Insiders are torn between establishing new rules and a new culture for the family, maintaining the traditions and expectations of the biological family, and saving time and energy to save a precarious intimacy with their new spouse. Children struggle with too much change. There are key differences in the family they were in to the family they are now in. Showing affection is comforting for biological kids with biological parents, but for stepchildren seeing affectionate stepparents can be disturbing. Unlike intact families, a good marriage can make for more poorer stepchild adjustment. In addition, what if these two countries got to war and the conflict continues with one’s “ex.” Every transition from home to home would be a move into enemy territory.
Nobody likes to feel this way. Adjustment to stepfamily is more stressful than adjustment to divorce. The feelings of parents, children, stepparents and stepchildren are confusing and can be a source of shame and resentment if not detected and expected. Outsiders cannot reach the status of a biological parent. When these intense feelings are combined with lack of information about the normal experience stepparents and biological parents are at risk for feeling crazy, ashamed and inadequate. Dispelling blending family myths is crucial. The benefits of a step-relationship may not appear until much later in both stepparent and stepchildren’s lives. If these emotions and processes are accepted as expected, less criticism and judgment helps a spouse relax considerably. Step-relationships take extra energy. Stepfamilies work better when parents and children are not trying to force a relationship. Like intact families, each relationship between each parent and child will remain unique. The honeymoon may not be realized after the kids are grown. For more on redeeming the past, see Redemption Story: Blending Families.
By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
This classic song from the Clash resonates with everyone at some point in their lives. It is especially poignant and painful after infidelity. Many who have experienced the dark world of cheating may initially say goodbye, but actually most change their mind and decide to make it work. This is a tough decision to make.
Affairs start in the mind and do not necessarily end in bed. They do often break hearts. There are subtle signs that lead to both an affair and recovery. Signs of cheating should be all taken into account before making an accusation. Unless you have proof in hand, it is better to address the already evident: less investment in the relationship and a much greater investment in other activities, personal changes to increase one’s own attractiveness, and evasiveness about spending time or money.
Cheating is sensational. It is guaranteed to sell the news. It is something that everyone can identify with but is easily judged as betrayal. What is not so easily judged is the small ways that we betray our partners. John Gottman says in his book “What Makes Love Last?” that “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship.” Not being there, not following through, putting the kids or career ahead of the marriage are examples.
John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, describes the deterioration of the marriage leading to an absorbing state of negativity called negative sentiment override. This is the stage in a relationship where one partner cannot do enough to make things right. Even positive attempts fall short or are interpreted negatively. He compares it to a roach motel, where once you check in, it is hard to check out.
Add this to another critical element in the demise of a marriage: comparing your spouse unfavorably to others, even comparing to imaginary spouses that are better than your spouse. These are like nails in a coffin. These are usually kept to oneself, along with crossing boundaries. First comes secret-keeping, then comes cheating.
Deciding whether to stay or go depends on the ability to rebuild trust with someone who becomes trustworthy. Signs of someone who is changing a character trait is complete honesty (minus the brutal details which cause obsessions) with nothing to hide. Next, recovery depends on an ability to step outside the self and one’s own pain, and enter into your partner’s pain (without beating yourself up). It is the ability to feel what your partner is feeling, and on that basis fully regret your actions and betrayal. It involves making personal and relational changes that benefit both partners that stand the test of time. These changes are determined by essential relational skills: empathy instead of defensiveness, asking for what is needed instead of criticizing, and setting personal boundaries on what you are not willing to do, and at the same time what you are willing to do for your partner. Deciding whether or not your partner is being honest depends on these criteria, along with your own instinct about what your partner is like when he or she if faithful, and what he or she is like when she is not. Although this may be a confusing process, it can be used to decide if he or she is an acceptable risk. Verification of honesty may be required. Finally, there may be need for a clear consequence to future betrayals.
Is this painful process worth it? Are you able to overcome negative sentiment override? One idea involves writing down as many positive traits of your partner. Can you still have fun? Look back over your story. Is there regularity to the energy put into making the other feel loved? Are there examples of admiration for each other? Is it marked by “we” decisions or “me” decisions? Is that enough to overcome the pain of recovery? Most people also consider the pain and effect of divorce, and realize that there is no guarantee that the next relationship will end up in a better place, and decide that because of shared history and children that it is better to stay together. Some researchers find that over time when all things are considered, the next relationship is not a huge jump in happiness. If trust is unable to be rebuilt though, there is little to sustain a relationship.
By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
As a marriage and family therapist I have learned techniques to help marriages and family relationships work. The one that works best by far is the use of unconditional love. How that works out in the marriage is my next question.
One thing I’ve noticed is that when I would have an argument with my wife, we would have spirited discussions about the same old topics. Often for us, it was about the use of time. We have lots of kids and a lot of work falls on her. We also have lots of bills and that weight falls on me. For you, you might argue about something that happened that you are having a hard time forgiving.
Unconditional love is impossible without humility. My relationship with my wife started by being selfish, thinking about how the qualities of my wife would benefit me. Then I gained my wife’s love by impressing her. However, this is not unconditional love. I cannot depend on a love that depends on my ability to impress. Certainly, it is not the kind of love that can last.
Turning toward our own ability to love someone, have you felt, as I have, that there are moments where you just do not feel like you have love to give? Often when I feel this way I criticize my wife and defend myself, or I act like a victim and run away. Then I dwell on what is right and wrong in order to think of a way to get my needs met. Then I present my argument to my wife, but it seems to have the same impact as if I am saying to her, “I don’t love you.” I am not saying that, but I wonder how if this is what she feels when I argue with her.
I remember the time my wife was telling me about the frustrations of her day and I was tired but attempting to be empathetic. I recall an instant turn in my emotions when she unexpectedly added, “And if you were around, this would not have happened.” It ignited anger in me, so I retorted, “Do you really want this to blow up?” Luckily I came to my senses enough to walk away. “Empty” is the word that came to mind as I retreated. “I’ve got nothing more to give.”
Greg Baer in his book Real Love compares arguments to feeling attacked while drowning. When someone is drowning they lash out. In fear, someone drowning may hit you or grab onto you and pull you under, resulting in two victims. When we are arguing, we are drowning and lashing out. Research shows that similar events are occurring in our brain when we argue as when we are drowning.
When I realize that I feel like I am drowning when I do not feel loved, and I am feeling empty and alone, how can I respond with unconditional love?
First, I remember that my wife may also be drowning, feeling empty and alone. If I view my wife who at times lashes out at me as drowning, my anger at her is reduced. I feel less interested in criticizing her and defending myself, but I still feel like a victim and want to run away. I am drowning and need to get back on solid ground myself.
My wife nor I may be able to unconditionally love at any moment. If someone was overwhelmed and upset, or stressed, or maybe has had a lifetime of not feeling loved, there will be times that person will not be able to love. Unconditional love means I am accepted with my faults, struggles, and weaknesses. So it falls on me to search myself and speak the truth about myself to someone, (not the opposite sex of course) that will accept me for who I am. Then I may have the energy to improve myself.
So I reflected on my own emptiness and thought about ways I can restore my energy for unconditional love. This may involve self-care, for which we are responsible, and seeking care from others. I thought of this acronym, “ACES” to remind me of ways to restore energy for unconditional love.
“A” stands for a sense of accomplishment.
“C” stands for the connection I have to God, family, and friends, that I need to seek out to feel loved enough to love my spouse.
“E” stands for enjoyment, the “small” parts of life, often overlooked, that I need to remember in gratitude.
“S” stands for self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and other needs for which I am responsible to meet.
Most importantly, I needed to confess to someone my struggle and feel their acceptance. If I am loved for what I do for others, what is that? That is a performance-based love. That is how we got married in the first place. But I need the kind of love where someone who sees me for who I am and then accepts me. I need this kind of love in order to love others.
I may have seek this out on a regular basis. It takes courage. Who wants to talk about their struggles and faults? I would rather talk to someone and they tell me I am in the right. But that is back to performance-based love. So I turned to my “ACES,” and turned to a friend to whom I can admit my faults. He still liked me, and accepted me as I am. With time I was ready to understand and give to my wife.
What are some ways I can unconditionally love my spouse? Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.
Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends. Perhaps consider “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.
In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, how their relationship died. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and… you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.”
A common need for a man is to feel their spouses’ respect. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.
Let me conclude by asking if love is the goal in marriage, and unconditional love is what makes marriage work, then what does unconditional love look like for you? Everybody may have a different definition. For some, unconditional love may mean that they set boundaries so that harm does not occur in a relationship. For others, love is characterized as giving without getting. Immediately, when I hear this definition, I think, “But what about me? What about my needs?” I guess the better question is, what is the best way to meet my needs? If I am angry or disappointed in my partner, I am thinking of myself and my needs. I may be feeling empty, overwhelmed or drowning. Here’s a lifeline: confession. It is speaking truth to someone who accepts and loves us as we are, faults and all. I think that is better than finding someone who agrees with you that you are in the right. I do not know about you, but being right has not inspired me to be more loving. Feeling loved has inspired me to be more loving.
By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
At times people think about how problems would be solved if they were married to someone else. Some problems may be solved this way, but it also is true that we carry our response to problems from relationship to relationship. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, gives this example:
Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wanted sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice only wants when she already feels close.
Even rock-solid marriages have sensitivities like the ones described above. This is where it can hurt. It is common to think of marriage as something that is difficult, discouraging, and even hurtful. Many think of personal failure. It is difficult to respond well in an intimate relationship when we are not treated well. We all can think of examples where we are not treated well. Maybe you can think of a time you were betrayed by a childhood friend. Or, you ask your teenage daughter how her evening went, and she nearly bites off your head. Possibly you are caring for aging parents and in spite of all your efforts, they are still unhappy. Or, you are unhappily married but stay together for a number of reasons. Others do not. Every 45 seconds a marriage ends in divorce (Dr. Greg Smalley).
An incredible statistic is the one that predicts divorce. Marriage is one of the most researched topics over the last 40 years and this prediction is well-documented. John Gottman and other researchers underscore that your response, when you are treated poorly in your marriage, is predictive of eventual divorce with 91 percent accuracy.
It is not exactly what is said, or what is done, that is so predictive. It is the feeling that one spouse is above or below the other. It results in defensiveness. It can come from dwelling on the injustices in your relationship, or from ruminating on the weaknesses of the other. It leaks out in one’s tone, facial expressions, and non-verbal body language. It is contempt. We often do not mean to be contemptuous. Maybe you just want to bring up an issue, or just talk about it, and your spouse interprets it as criticism and wants to defend, attack back, and finally withdraw. Dan Allender, in his book with Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies says that “many couples live with an underlying contempt for each other.” Later they write, “Spouses degrade each other when they show a contemptuous, shaming, judgmental spirit.”
We are all treated poorly at times. We all have different desires and these can turn into expectations. When these expectations are not met, we get angry, or at least disappointed. We can feel that the other is not living up to their end of the bargain. The contract is not being fulfilled. If you a sign a contract, there are certainly expectations to be met. If you use that mentality in marriage, you are set up for more disappointment and hurt. Tension develops between the idea of marriage being a contract, and marriage being a covenant.
So what do spouses do, who generally get treated well, in their marriage, act at those moments when they are not treated well?
If there is any recourse from a hardened heart to one that is open, safety is key. It is hard to open up and admit feelings and failures, if you are afraid of your partner’s response. If one feels safe, you can be honest about feelings and failures. It creates a joint struggle to expose the beautiful, and the broken. It allows for true love, the grace that provides the elements needed to grow, and it feeds passion.
Contempt, on the other hand, is beyond the inevitable frustration with your spouse. It does not just say that I am angry, afraid or sad; it puts the emphasis on that the other is wrong or bad. We are all wrong or bad at times. We all struggle. But people that get treated well do not put down the other resulting in defensiveness. This approach seeks to make sense of your partner, and understand what he or she is feeling, and to make his or her feelings as important as your own. Marital researchers underscore that this non-judgmental approach happens in the context of equal regard, creating a sense of safety. It acknowledges underlying needs on both sides of the equation.
Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.
Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need an infusion of energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends.
In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, about what happened between them. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” Elizabeth felt if she asked him to come after her, she would never know if he would on his own.
Men need to be proud of. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.
What if I am not open to this kind of covenantal approach? Impulsivity, stress, lack of time and energy, built-up anger, hurt and resentment are all facts of life but get in the way. A formidable obstacle is the belief that one’s partner is more to blame for the relationship problems. An urgent need is for personal support to make personal changes from reading, friends, and support groups.
What if my partner isn’t open to this kind of covenantal approach? This kind of approach is for the sake of the giver as much as the receiver. It allows the giver to feel settled and in control about their part, even if your partner does not respond well. Researchers underscore that when one partner is not treated well, this is precisely the time that this approach is needed. When it gets tough, take a break and come back allowing both sides time to process to a better conclusion. Or break the discussion and ask your partner for proposals, or make proposals. Living in a fallen world and being self-responsible means that we have to set personal boundaries. The challenge, according to marital researchers, is to not look down on your partner in the meantime, because looking down on your partner itself puts your relationship at risk.
By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
Statistics show that more and more Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s are divorcing. Why?
The Baby Boomer generation is among the first to see divorce as a more acceptable option, and more enter this age group already divorced. Other common reasons for divorce among people over age 50 include anger issues, abuse, infidelity, and addiction. Many are already divorced, or have waited for their kids to be on their own before making changes.
While the number of failed marriages is often thought of as around 50 percent, the general divorce rate is lower, with recent reports ranging from twenty to forty percent. In 2001, the rate was reported to be 41 percent. “This highest rate of divorce in the 2001 survey [of the Fertility and Family Branch of the Census Bureau] was 41 percent for men who were then between the ages of 50 and 59, and 39 percent for women in the same age group,” says Scott M. Stanley of the University of Denver.1
Battered by the economy and subject to longer life spans, people are left with little financial cushion. Divorce divides what people have left and taps into insurance and medical expenses, property division (including house, cars, etc.), assets and liabilities, retirement plans, and business valuations. These have to be split in an equitable way. Divorce also creates a need for additional financial spousal support.
Could you be headed for divorce? Here are ten of the top signs your marriage may headed for trouble.
- A wall of resentment, built brick by brick. Depending on how you or your mate handles anger and resentment, that wall is not coming down, so intimate feelings and thoughts will not survive.
- A pattern of negative thinking about your spouse. If the relationship is entrenched, positive feelings are no longer available.
- Loneliness in the relationship or an inability to have fun with each other. A good adventure can be more bonding than sex.
- Continuous criticism that turns into contempt.
- You or your spouse make demands on the other.
- You or your spouse is continuously on the defense.
- Nearly all of your energy, or that of your mate, is poured into other endeavors besides the relationship.
- Someone special is waiting in the wings, or there’s the thought that I can do better.
- No trust = no relationship.
- There’s no external source of hope and commitment, such as God.
If your marriage is experiencing any of these challenges, it’s time to overcome these entrenched negative patterns. Resentment usually causes one spouse to become disinterested in the relationship and unable to believe his/her partner will ever change. Unfortunately, if you or your spouse has lost interest in your marriage and is spending time fantasizing about the possibility of someone else (or is actually spending time with someone else), your marriage has a lower chance of recovery. However, there are some things you can do.
* Discover what makes you and your partner feel loved. Focus on what you appreciate about your spouse, and respond to bids for reconnection. The age of the forties, fifties, and sixties is a time to redefine oneself after raising kids, settling in a career, or to confront dissatisfactions in life. One’s marriage is often re-evaluated during this time. The marriage sinks or swims. Treat your spouse like a best friend, overlook irritations, create excitement in your life and share it with your partner. Create rituals and traditions and support each other’s dreams.
* Learn proper conflict resolution skills. This is the most crucial aspect to rebuilding your relationship. What seems insignificant, if not addressed, can germinate into a tangled mess in which the special feelings you had for each other are lost. Nothing happens unless people feel understood, so avoid criticism, which leads to the attack and defense mode. Look for alternative solutions to what each side is proposing. Then, make agreements – and secondary agreements that apply if the primary agreement is not kept – to build trust.
* Give your disinterested partner some emotional space, rather than put pressure or guilt on him/her. Instead, make personal changes more in line with the kind of spouse you would like to be. Develop your own identity and self-confidence, because those changes give you the best chance at being an attractive partner and will help if divorce is unavoidable.
The lowest rate of divorce can be found among those couples that prioritize regular spiritual activities together. One study led to the National Association of Marriage Enhancement, in Phoenix, Arizona (www.nameonline.net) to report that when couples prayed together on a daily basis, less than 1% of those couples would end up getting a divorce. The numbers were 1 out of 1156.