Why Every Marriage Gets Stuck
If we all naturally knew how to love, this book would be unnecessary, and Milan and I would each be out of a job as counselors. All of us who have been married more than a few years will admit it is a bit more challenging than we anticipated on our wedding day. Every marriage has nagging problems calling for our attention. Many people end up thinking their relationship is difficult because they married the wrong person. But the fact that many people are on to their second and third marriages proves that no marriage is tension free. Sometimes our marriages seem to run fairly smoothly—until we hit a crisis or face difficult circumstances. Stress always makes underlying problems more apparent.
Over the years many couples have come to us for help with their problems. We routinely ask several questions no matter what situation they describe. Recently, for instance, Hannah and Robert came in for their initial session. I asked them what Milan and I ask all the couples we see in our offices: “Tell me about the chronic irritations in your relationship. Perhaps it’s the same old fight that never gets resolved. Maybe it’s a pattern of relating that occurs again and again. Where do you get stuck?”
Hannah looked at Robert, and they laughed. “That’s easy,” she smiled. “It happened in the car on the drive to your office. I’m always the one bringing up the problems, so Robert is always telling me I am controlling. I was mad at him because he didn’t know what he wanted to talk about in our counseling session. He’s too passive. I want him to initiate more and try harder.” Robert chimed in, “I do try. It’s just never enough for you, Hannah.” Hannah looked at me. “See? Now he will pout and withdraw, and nothing
will get resolved.” I summarized, “So no matter what problem you want to discuss, this is your same old dance, the pattern that happens over and over. Is that correct?”
Robert and Hannah both nodded. They had pinpointed their core pattern. Some couples who are just dating can already describe their core pattern. A core pattern is the predicable way you and your spouse react to each other that leaves each of you frustrated and dissatisfied. Some are married a few years before it is apparent but sooner or later couples can readily identify the same old place when they get stuck. Maybe it’s the same complaints that come up again and again without every getting resolved or a familiar pattern of fighting, no matter what the topic. Milan and I are no different. We were married in 1972, and by 1976 we had discovered the classic scene that would play itself out over and over for ten more years of our marriage.
We had just put the kids to bed and collapsed on the couch. I picked up a magazine and began to thumb through it, and Milan sat quietly watching me. This was a familiar feeling; I knew he was taking my emotional temperature. I was hoping he would pick up the remote and turn on the television.
“How are you doing? Did you have a good day?” he asked.
I could feel myself getting annoyed. “Why do you keep asking me that? You already asked me that question two times since you came home from work. It’s the same answer: I’m fine.”
We were starting the wearisome dance that would send us both to bed angry and frustrated. I tried to derail the invitation. “I think there is a game on TV tonight.”
Milan was undeterred. “If you’re fine, then why did it bother you when I hugged and kissed you when I came home from work? I’m happy to see you, and you act like it’s a chore to give me a little affection. You have been distant all evening. What’s going on?”
I sighed. I wish you would go away and let me read my magazine, I thought. For some reason, I began to explain, knowing it wouldn’t help. “I’ve had kids hanging on me all day. When you got home, I was in the middle of cooking dinner and supervising homework, and you want me to drop everything. Why do you always have to make such a big deal?” The next steps of the dance were predictable.
Milan would give me examples of my lack of affection and attentiveness, and I would tell him he was too needy and made me feel smothered. If you have been married for a few years, you can probably describe your own recurring fight, the discussion you’ve had over and over that never gets resolved. You can probably also describe the ways you avoid dealing with problems, and they may be some of the same lines we hear in our offices every day.
• “I try hard to make you happy, but you are never satisfied.”
• “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells with you.”
• “I’ve told you over and over what I need, and you just won’t do it.”
• “Why can’t you be more spontaneous and passionate?”
• “If you would listen and do what I ask, I wouldn’t be angry.”
• “I’m happy with the way things are. You’re the one who is always bringing up problems.”
• “You say you’re sorry, but nothing changes.”
Are any of these steps in your same old dance? Maybe, like us, you find yourself locked in the same tiring dance over and over. Maybe you’ve tried to change your marriage and have been disappointed with the results. Much marriage advice focuses on treating symptoms and surface issues. You think, If it were possible to simply stop certain behaviors and do something different, it would be that easy. But trying to change the things on the surface misses the underlying issues. Occasionally, the adjustment brings good results, and the annoying problem dies down. But it always comes back because there are source patterns guiding those bumbling steps, and until you address them, the dance won’t get any
Marriage is the most challenging relationship you will ever have, and to think otherwise is to live in denial. When you are with someone day in and day out, you can’t hide. Your weaknesses become quite visible, and old feelings from the distant past are stirred. The close proximity of our mates triggers old feelings as we look to them to meet many of the needs our parents were originally supposed to meet. Milan and I spent the first fourteen years of our marriage trying to change our destructive pattern, but we were only addressing the obvious issues that constantly surfaced. We listed the problems and searched for solutions. After fourteen years, though, a huge change took place when we discovered the unseen forces that determined how we loved. We realized our lessons in love didn’t start in marriage. They started in infancy and lasted for all the years we lived with our parents. Our experiences growing up, good and bad, left a lasting imprint in our souls that determined our beliefs and expectations about how to give love and receive love. Milan and I had different lessons about love, which resulted in different imprints, and without realizing it, we were dancing to different tunes. No wonder we were stepping on each other’s toes. Lasting change became possible when we made that revolutionary discovery.
THE REVOLUTIONARY TRUTH
What are these imprints—these earlier dance lessons that healthy or not form our beliefs and expectations about love? All of us have an imprint of intimacy, the sum of our learning about how to love.1 Our imprint determines our love style—how we interact with others when it comes to love. For a few of us, our early love lessons were ideal, and our love style is healthy and positive. Most of us had some hurtful experiences resulting in a harmful imprint and impaired love style. Have you every considered the unseen forces governing how you love? Like Milan and me, you will most likely identify with one of five, common, ineffective love styles resulting from less than ideal imprints. I first learned how definable these love styles were when I was in graduate school. I had a wonderful supervisor and mentor named Dae Leckie. She taught me the importance of our first lessons about love and introduced me to attachment theory.2 I was amazed to easily identify my own love style as well as Milan’s.
For the first time I could see how our different styles collided and were at the root of the destructive core pattern that had frustrated us for fourteen years. This new knowledge provided the most profound revelations about how we loved—and why it wasn’t working.
Milan: Being cautious about some aspects of psychology, I found it interesting to see that in the New Testament the Greek word for “soul” is psuche, which means “inner person” in its broadest sense.3 The word psychology uses the same Greek root and literally means “the study of the soul,” giving rise to our concept of the spiritual that resides within. Attachment theory, simply put, is based on a child’s bond with his or her primary caregiver. God designed us to need connection, and our relationships with our parents is the first place this happens—or doesn’t happen. Attachment theory outlines specifically what can go wrong and looks at how our ability to love is shaped by our first experiences with our parents and caregivers during our early years. These early experiences leave a lasting imprint on our souls that is still observable in our adult relationships.4 Kay: Of course, none of us are shaped perfectly during our formative years. Our world is less than ideal, and our ability to love is marred as a result. Attachment theory helps us recognize this by simply describing observable behavioral patterns, some that are helpful and some that are harmful when it comes to forming healthy, loving relationships. Milan and I had no idea what was driving us to respond to each other in the damaging ways we were. All we could see were the frustrating symptoms we had tried for years to resolve. Locked in this repetitive dance, we stepped on each other’s toes, threw each other off balance, and moved to different tunes in our heads, neither of us understanding where we learned the songs we danced to. It was definitely a destructive duet! As we came to understand the harmful aspects of our imprints and the resulting love styles, Milan and I were finally able to understand that the frustrating core pattern that had plagued our marriage for years was a result of our individual imprints colliding. No wonder it felt like we were dancing with four left feet! Attachment theory explained the root of Milan’s pursuing and my distancing, the sparks behind countless arguments in our marriage. Attachment theory revealed why his “niceness” was annoying and why connection was so difficult for me. And it explained the root of both Milan’s anxiety and my depression. We also learned where our original melodies came from and what each of us was contributing to our destructive duet. For example, we’ve heard so many couples say, “I never felt this frustrated by anybody before. Only my spouse makes me feel this way, so it must be his/her fault.” Actually, the opposite is true. Primary relationships cause our own injurious imprints and resulting love styles to come fully into the light. In fact, our marriage relationships will shine the spotlight on our old attachment injuries. The good news is, marriage offers an opportunity for you and your mate to be each other’s healer as you face these wounds together. When you discover the roots of your relational struggles, you can change how you love each other.
Milan: Attachment theory is valuable, life-changing information, and it is not difficult to understand. Simply put, what bothers you most about your spouse is undoubtedly related to painful experiences from his or her childhood and a lack of training in addressing the true challenges of marriage. Your marriage problems did not begin in your marriage! You and your spouse are doing the dance steps you learned in childhood. For each of you, a pattern of relating was set in motion long before you met, causing you to relate to each other in certain ways. Unaware of the powerful influence of our early years in predetermining our dance, we aren’t able to understand our reactions or make changes.
The fact is, we can never truly know our mates until we understand their childhood experiences. As I began to share detailed memories of my past, Kay began to understand me in a deeper way. I’d been raised in a Christian home that had many positive qualities, but love meant being overly protected in some ways and under protected in other ways. I didn’t understand some of my parents’ emotions and relational stresses. So I developed separation anxiety at an early age. When Kay learned the origin of my fear, she began to understand why her tendency to distance was so agitating to me. Kay was able to be more patient and loving when my anxiety was triggered, and I understood myself better.
Then, as I listened to Kay’s memories, I began to understand why she seemed so detached and distant at times. I felt less rejected and anxious when this happened once I understood this was a response she had learned as a child. Much of the irritation we had toward each other began to be replaced with a new compassion.
THE SAME OLD DANCE
Kay and I grew up in the fifties (What’s a “shoo bop bop”?) and were teenagers in the sixties, and our lives and music are virtually inseparable. For our second date I asked Kay to a concert, and over the years we have enjoyed many styles of music. While many songs are about the blissful beginnings or the sorrowful endings of relationships, not many songs are written about the hard work of change or the rewards of persevering through relational challenges. In my office I have a painting of a couple dancing titled “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Jack Vettriano. In it, a beautifully poised couple stands at the edge of a dance floor prepared for a ballroom dance competition. (My wife thinks they are dancing on the beach, but being a man, I see a competitive scene.) Consider this scene metaphorically. With other couples softly faded beyond them, these two individuals are ready to take their turn upon the dance floor of life. How will they fare? What challenges lie ahead? Will the whimsical currents and turns of fate sweep them along uncontrollably, finally ripping them apart, or will they navigate the passages of life and emerge on the other side more deeply in love and still dancing? Their success will be determined by their willingness to persevere when the dance becomes awkward and they start stepping on each other’s toes. Sooner or later, every couple will struggle. They will have to acknowledge that they are out of step and be ready to grow as individuals in order to find a new rhythm and a new dance that brings them close again. But some people choose to say good-bye when the dance gets difficult. Many other couples want to improve their relationship, but they do not know where to begin.
In my work as a pastoral counselor doing marriage therapy and in Kay’s work as a licensed marriage and family therapist, we have talked with hundreds of couples. Often, these hurting people want a quick fix. But what if they make a real effort and it still doesn’t work out? There is no guarantee. Life and relationships are uncertain, and Garth Brooks sings about the latter in his signature song, “The
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance.
He’s right. Love is like a dance. Yet many of the couples we see in our offices would disagree with Garth. Sitting in the pain of divorce and looking back at the marriage, they would rather have skipped the dance altogether than to find themselves wounded and exhausted at the end of a dusty, bumpy road that has led them to this relational dead end.
Kay: The truth is, every marriage has areas of pain and distress, but we think the pain can be constructive. It’s like a red light on the dashboard of a car signaling us the engine needs attention. It is uncomfortable to be stuck, and it is uncomfortable to change. We might as well choose the discomfort that is productive—and change! Is the red light in your marriage flashing? We hope to help you see the cause of the discord and give you tools to do whatever needs to be done, from adjusting the timing to overhauling the engine.
YOU CAN LEARN A NEW DANCE!
Learning about loves styles (attachment theory) has helped us immensely, and we believe that it can help you too. Stop for a minute and ask yourself a few questions. Are family relationships more difficult than you thought they would be? Would you like less conflict and more intimacy in your marriage? Have you been married long enough to observe that the same fights occur again and again? Is unresolved conflict eroding intimacy in your marriage? Have you lost some of the affection you used to enjoy? Are you and your spouse on opposite poles when it comes to sexual desire? Do you have trouble providing each other comfort and nurture? Do you feel like you are simply roommates, busily pursuing life and tending to family needs and occasionally stopping in the hall to exchange pleasantries, sometimes with undertones of resentment? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this book could be an insightful catalyst for change in your relationship.
Couples and families entering our offices for help come with myriad issues. No matter what the surface problems, though, Kay and I have discovered that when we focus on deepening a couple’s bond and connection by addressing each person’s love style, the initial symptoms often resolve themselves. We rarely see anything new. Instead we see familiar and predictable patterns created by five common imprints, and that is good news. Why is that good news? you might be thinking. Well, what would you rather hear from a doctor—“I’ve seen thirty of these cases this week” or “This is so rare, I need to look it up in a medical journal”?
When there is ready recognition of a problem more common than we realized, we usually feel optimistic that our condition is treatable. We breathe a sigh of relief and listen attentively as the doctor explains the prognosis and recommends a course of treatment. Even though something is wrong with us, when the physician reassures us that it is not rare and is quite treatable, we feel optimistic the problem will eventually be rectified.
Kay: The same is true with harmful imprints. Each imprint is recognizable, and when different imprints collide, the resulting patterns are predictable. We hope and pray that once you understand your individual part of the marriage dance, you will begin to experience a mental shift and feel inspired to learn a new rhythm so you are no longer stepping on your spouse’s toes. This book can change how you love by giving you a clear diagnosis of and remedy for your marital problem. (We should also mention that our companion workbook offers more practical ways to facilitate change.) But, most of all, we want to share with you our passion about the revolutionary principles we’ll share, because our marriage and hundreds of others have been literally transformed by the power and application of this information. We invite you to discover the source of your relational difficulties once and for all as we unveil the following:
• how your formative years created your relational love style
• what your problematic imprint can do inside a marriage
• why your imprint creates a core pattern with your spouse’s
• where to find the skills that will have you doing a whole new dance in your marriage
It has been nineteen short years since God brought us the people who helped us uncover the roots of our marital struggles. We believe these people were an answer to our prayer, the one that has been spoken in our house more often than any other. It consists of four simple words: “Lord, give us wisdom.” It’s a handy little prayer that fits into every day because we need wisdom for big and small things alike. One of our favorite bits of wisdom is found in Philippians 1:9, which asks for a specific kind of wisdom:
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary…bountiful in fruits from the soul. (MSG)
The apostle Paul wasn’t talking here about trying harder to love. His was an implied request for a greater capacity to give and receive love based on deeper insight into real love. Since making this our prayer, God has shown Milan and me more ways to better love each other than we ever expected. And we pray He does the same for you. We pray this book will help you examine the conflicting steps that have been tripping you up, and we pray it will introduce you to a new dance, to a deeper, richer marital relationship.