Relationship Issues

David Olson of the University of Minnesota, who has studied over 15,000 married couples, recently said that 50% of married people will never be happy, unless they get unusually good therapy. Other researchers agree (Strean, 1985); about 30% of marriages are “empty shells”–little love, little talk, little joy. Only about 25% of couples have “really good marriages.” The remaining 25% could achieve a good marriage if they got therapy and/or really worked on obtaining the necessary skills via training or marriage enrichment (or, you can add, self-help). Olson believes the needed skills and characteristics are: communication skills, conflict resolution skills, compatible personality, agreement on values and religion, and good sex.

1-couple-relationship-issues-lgnWomen have more complaints about their spouses and marriages, compared to men (Brehm, 1985). Is this because women are more critical and want more or because men give less? I’d guess both. Women initiate the break up of dating and marriages more often than men. Although the underlying “causes” are unknown, these are the commonly stated marital problems (Weiten, 1986):

Having unrealistically blissful expectations of marriage guarantee our disappointment. Living together may help us “get real” about what to expect from a relationship. In any case, it helps to be totally honest and discuss your feelings, your expectations, and your weaknesses, long before marriage. Survivors find these things difficult to do because they find it difficult to trust. Not only do they find it hard to trust others but they are also in turmoil about their own feelings and therefore find it difficult to trust themselves.

Partners may have very different role expectations, i.e. who does the cooking, deciding, working outside the home, etc. Make these decisions jointly, honestly, and openly, don’t just hope that the husband will do half the cooking and that the wife will stay home with the kids. Research indicates, contrary to popular belief, that the wife’s working outside the home does not increase marital problems or harm the children’s development. Growing up in a dysfunctional family may cause the inheritance of some negative ideas about family life. These ideas and preconceived ways will require adjustment. For example, Robert who grew up being beaten by his Father, was amazed to discover that men actually did household chores. He was so used to his Father sitting in front of the television all night he genuinely thought this was the norm.

All marriages have money problems. If not “there isn’t enough money,” then the conflict is likely to be “I want to spend our money on something else.” Work out these problems ahead of time in terms of basic priorities as much as possible.

Poor “communication ” is the most common complaint (68%) among couples seeking counseling. The average couple talk only 4 minutes per day! This can be corrected; it is discussed below and there are exercises to try in another section. Survivors of abuse are normally surrounded by a veil of secrecy, often forced onto them by their abuser, but sometimes caused by the need for privacy. Either way, this natural defence mechanism works against individuals who find communication difficult. Some partners still don’t know about the abuse their partner suffered.
Problems with relatives are common, especially when one spouse remains dependent on his/her parents for money or emotional support. If the abuser is still alive family life can be very difficult and often impossible. These problems can be increased if the partner is unaware that the abuse took place. This is why communication and honesty are the best principles for relationships.

Sexual problems occur in about 45% of the couples seeking marriage counselling. But sex may not be the basic problem; you don’t want to make love if you are uptight, sad, or mad. Sex can still carry memories of sexual abuse, it may represent intimacy problems all of which are covered later on in another section.

Although your Mum and Dad may not have told you, marital satisfaction goes down for most couples after children are born. The work load becomes much greater. Parents frequently disagree about how to raise and discipline children. There are jealousies and criticisms: “You do too much for them” or “You don’t do enough!” Of course, children are wonderful blessings (usually) but they aren’t necessarily “good for the marriage.” Parenting isn’t a natural response to giving birth, most parentage is learnt as a child experiences how he/she was brought up. This can have obvious implications for abused children who will have a distorted image of parenting. Of course, in some cases these experiences work for the good of the individual. As they can strive not to recreate the childhood they had and try and make it much better, more loving and a more fulfilling childhood for their siblings.

Sometimes couples drift apart. They seek different friends, develop new interests, grow in different directions. When there are few common interests, it is a problem.

There are other common problems–jealousy, being taken for granted, unfaithfulness, criticism and nagging, bossiness, clinging dependency, domination, abuse, loss of love, self-centeredness, etc., etc. Don’t expect it to be easy; there are many challenging barriers to having a good relationship.

A list of warning signs: less respect and more disappointment in the other, more anger-arguments, more negative criticism, more blaming, doing less together, feeling lonely or neglected, less sex, less trust, less joint decision-making, less sharing of thoughts and feelings, less helping, less touching. Pay attention to these problems as soon as they occur and get to the root of the problem. Another study (Kurdek, 1993) provided these danger signals (early in the marriage): knew each other a short time, low income (h=husband), low education and income (w), previously married (h or w), harmful beliefs about marriage (h or w), highly neurotic (h or w), a stepfather (h), keep separate accounts, large differences in need to be autonomous, and different external reasons for marrying. During the marriage, these were danger signals: marked decline (h and w) in satisfaction, faith in marriage, degree of attachment, and pleasure or pay offs from the marriage.

Destructive communication in marriage

Communication is, of course, important in marriage or long term relationship. But, communication includes every message–every feeling, every desire, every thought that is conveyed to the other person. Some communication is helpful, some is destructive. The most useful knowledge is knowing how to avoid the unhappy, harmful interactions. Seeing how happy and unhappy couples communicate differently might help. Several researchers have studied this and summarized the results (Brehm, 1985; Derlega, 1984; Gottman, 1979, 1994).

Gottman says our stereotype of a happy marriage is a couple who like each other, understand each other well, and settle disputes easily. Yet, some stable marriages do not fit our stereotype: some are volatile (fighting openly but making up passionately) and others carefully avoid conflicts, i.e. they don’t “work things out” but agree to disagree (Gottman, 1994). Apparently happy couples have developed various ways of handling the inevitable conflicts, unhappy couples haven’t. Unhappy couples first criticize the partner’s behaviour but that gradually evolves into attacking his/her personality which eventually degenerates into expressing abusive contempt. Naturally the attacked partner becomes defensive, perhaps by saying “it’s not my fault,” by feeling indignant and counter-attacking, or by completely withdrawing emotionally (stonewalling). Both the attacks, usually by women, and the defensive refusal to deal with the issues, usually by men, are big parts of the problem. Men, in unhappy marriages especially, do not listen to the verbal messages nor pick up on their wives’ non-verbal messages. Unhappy couples frequently just exchange hostile accusations (“You don’t care about me–only about yourself”) whereas happy couples may argue, even yell, but would then explore the topic more (“Are you really as unconcerned with this problem as you look?”), ending up resolving the difficulty. This is a summary:

Poor communicators Good communicators
A steady flow of criticism & putdowns or blaming Accentuate the positive and the hopes for the future
Neither partner feels cared for and listened to; too busy defending self Both partners try to stay calm, see the other’s point, and show respect, look for a compromise
Get off the topic, find no solutions (throwing all kinds of complaints & insults at the partner) Stay on topic, be specific about the problem rather than expressing contempt, find a solution both can accept
“Mind read”  and “psychoanalyze” the partner; name-call, show contempt by mocking, rolling eyes, insulting them, Yes-but  and counter-attack; do a lot of interrupting Listen carefully, give empathy and positive responses, assume responsibility for your own feelings (“I” statements), overlook the insults and focus on the complaint. State tentative opinions, not absolute certainties
Show a determination not to “give in,” anger, and, eventually, deadly silence Understand and forgive each other, both give in about 75% of the time
Respond to criticism with defensiveness, such as denying everything, making excuses, charging he/she is emotional Respond to criticism as useful information (not an insult), a little empathy will work miracles.
Just not responding–tuning them out–when you are fed up with the attacks: stonewalling Realize that stonewalling is an insult; it says you are contemptible and not worth listening to. You must listen for the pain (and hear the unspoken plea to improve the relationship)

Gottman found that in most marriages the wife is the one who tries to maintain the relationship. So, when she is unhappy, she complains and gets emotional. Men don’t like negative emotions, so they try to downplay the emotions and rationally solve the problem… or men withdraw. His withdrawal makes the wife even madder. Sometimes she will suggest a truce or some solution, but often in the heat of battle both go on “emotional overload,” feeling contempt for each other. The couple gradually comes to think of and remember their marriage negatively. The failing relationship typically dies a slow death when the male shows little understanding, gets irate, and starts hard-core blaming (“You’re full of hate” or “You’re so stupid”), which makes it hard for the wife to give in or compromise. Finally, she grows bitter too and the marriage fails. Fortunately, if caught soon enough, the warring couple can learn to increase the positive feelings and actions and decrease the negative. Gottman says the main task is not to solve (or stop) every argument but to stop the escalating bitterness. So good communication skills are needed, especially “I” statements and empathy responses.

Once anger turns to bitterness and contempt, it is hard to change.
-Gottman (1979)
Stable marriages have a 5 (positive feelings or acts) to 1 (negative) ratio.
-Gottman (1994)

Coping with communication differences and hostile attributions (views of the partner)

In general, women are more socially sensitive than men. They are better listeners, more empathic in some ways, and give more comforting (warm, caring) responses. On the other hand, young boys and adolescent males are more likely than same-aged girls to act on their empathic feelings for others, i.e. to give concrete help (Brehm, Powell & Coke, 1984). Furthermore, some evidence indicates that married men, when interacting with their wives, do more “good communicating” than married women, including showing concern for the wife’s feelings, reassuring their wives, seeking forgiveness, suggesting compromises, and remaining calm and problem-oriented when arguing (Raush, Barry, Hertel, & Swain, 1974). Actually, both sexes need to be good at detecting nonverbal cues. Early in a romantic relationship, the ability of women to read a males nonverbal cues seems to be important in building intimacy. Later, during periods of conflict, the woman’s nonverbal skills and control of the male seem to be critical in avoiding destructive fights (Brehm, p. 209, 1985).

On the negative side, Tannen (1990) says women show more strong negative emotions during a conflict. They are more demanding, using threats, “guilt trips,” and personal attacks to persuade. They send more double messages: smile and say, “You’re terrible!” This research also suggests women more often reject their husbands’ attempts at reconciliation. In another study, White (1989) says that dissatisfied spouses in troubled marriages (both men and women) attack, threaten, and walk out during fights, but the difference is that women are more open to making up, accepting the husband’s plans, showing concern, and appealing to fairness. There seems to be a difference of opinion about which sex makes up first. I suspect “making up” is a function of how angry the person is, the seriousness of the issue, general satisfaction with the marriage, etc., more than a gender difference.

There is some general agreement among women about men, however. Their major complaint, bordering on calling males socially retarded, is that men are non-communicative and lack emotional responsiveness. Men avoid interactions when dissatisfaction is or may be expressed. Could it be males’ way of avoiding uncontrolled anger that would be regretted? Otherwise, how do we square this accusation of inaction with the evidence of intense action by males involving verbal and physical abuse? We probably need to make a distinction between what is called “marital conflicts” and the verbal or physical abuse situations. Perhaps quiet inaction and violent verbal or physical explosions are just two separate steps on the escalator from irritation to bitterness. Again abuse can be learnt from an early stage in life. If anger in your household was expressed with violence then the chances are that your first instinct in a stressful situation would be to lash out.

In a very general sense and in milder disagreements, the sexes seem to be at odds: women give more emotional responses and want an emotional response back. Men give more informational, unemotional responses and want practical, constructive, rational responses back. Neither response is bad, so if both sexes could learn to give both kinds of responses, we might be on the right track to improving understanding and relations between the sexes (see Tannen, 1990; Gray, 1993). Other skills would help too.

“Communication” is often given rather glibly as the solution to marital problems. It is no cure all; people who hate each other often communicate very well. One might ask, “Which comes first the poor communication or the resentment?” I’d say anger comes first most of the time. A husband once told me about coming home and commenting to his wife that a bill for $350 had come to his office, which was unusual because most bills came to their home. The next morning his wife, clearly miffed, said the bill didn’t have to be paid for 30 days, not immediately as he had nastily implied the night before. What the husband had considered a simple comment about getting a bill was seen by the wife as a critical attack. When he defensively tried to explain himself, she said, “You are unconscious of how hostile you are.” He walked away thinking, “she is just taking her guilt about over-spending out on me, what a bitch!” In this case, the wife’s anger resulted in her mind-reading, psychologizing, and angry communication. Without the underlying, stored up anger, the interaction wouldn’t have happened (we don’t know what or who originally caused the anger). This example shows how ‘old’ emotions reared their head as a result of a trigger action, in this case a bill. Other trigger actions may be related to past abuse or simply be a stressful situation that the brain thinks should warrant a preprogrammed response (one learnt from childhood whilst growing up in an abusive predicament). This may take the form of aggression or simply to retreat inside one’s self.

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In other instances, the communication may, in fact, be minimal, and that causes anger. Lillian Rubin (1976) described a typical working class family. The husband may think he shows his love–he married her, works hard, comes home right after work, is faithful, and wants sex 3 or 4 times a week. The wife doesn’t feel loved, however. She wants to talk more, to have more fun together, to be affectionate without sex. She doesn’t want to nag. She loses interest in sex. She feels mad. He feels rejected. Both say, “He/she just doesn’t understand me” which is true. Had they communicated, it could have been different.

There are many communication skills that can help a strained relationship. We can learn to listen better and be more assertive instead of hostile; we can improve our social skills by role playing and learning to use “I” statements and empathy responses; we can check out our hunches, fight fairly, and negotiate compromises; we can reduce our anger. Encounter groups and marriage enrichment groups emphasize communication. There are books specifically written for improving couples’ communication. Many other books document the value of good communication skills in marriage; they advocate these same methods.

Communication skills are very important. Try the communication exercises in this section and also read the Support a Survivor section which has more information on this subject.

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