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Making a High-Conflict Marriage Work
Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony
By Joshua Coleman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Joshua Coleman
All rights reserved.
Marriage Under Pressure
Isn't my marriage supposed to make me happy?
"My husband and I barely see each other. By the time the kids are in bed we both collapse in a heap and go to sleep. When we do see each other we usually get into an argument about money, or housework, or the kids. I just don't know what I'm getting out of all of this."
— Adrienne, age thirty
Maryann Was A Tall, attractive woman who worked as an office manager for a San Francisco accounting firm. On the phone, she said she wanted to get into therapy to get control of her anxiety. In our first session, Maryann observed that most of her anxiety appeared to be centered around her marriage. She jokingly observed that the only time she didn't seem to be depressed or anxious was when her husband was out of town. "You'd love him if you met him," she said about her husband, Jeff, a local university professor. "He's the most charming, funny person you'd ever want to meet. He knows everything about everything." Her tone revealed a hint of irritation.
"As in know-it-all everything?" I asked, following the irritation.
She laughed. "Definitely as in know-it-all. But also, he really does know a lot. The other night we were out to dinner with friends and somehow we ended up talking about gravity, of all things, and he starts telling the formula for how fast things fall to earth. And that's not even what he teaches."
"Sounds pretty smart," I said. "What's he like when he's home and not out with friends?" I asked.
"A tyrant!" she said forcefully, as if relieved to finally say it out loud. "That's what's so confusing. Everybody thinks he's Mr. Wonderful because in public he's so charming, but at home, he's impossible. I can't stand him." She quickly looked up as if this would offend me. I nodded as if to say that this was not something I was unaccustomed to hearing, since it's not something I'm unaccustomed to hearing.
Her eyes became teary. "The other night, I cut my hand making him dinner and I cried out, it hurt so badly. I'm standing there bleeding with my hand in the sink and he starts telling me to be quiet because I'm distracting him while he's writing out some acceptance speech. I said, 'Jeff, I just cut my hand and I'm bleeding in the sink.' He said, 'So just run some water over it and stop bitching about it. You're not a three-year-old, figure it out.' It's like, if it doesn't have to do with him or his career, he's not interested." She went on to describe him as equally uninvolved with the children.
I asked if they had considered couple's therapy and she said that he refused because he didn't think there was anything wrong with him. "He just says that he knows more than any therapist so why should I waste his money? And of course, it's always his money even though I work full-time and have full-time responsibility for the house and kids."
Whether or not marriage is the central complaint, I strive to have a good understanding of what my individual clients' marriages are like, who their spouses are, and why they are married to them. I wondered about Jeff as Maryann spoke. On the face of her description, he sounded pretty self-centered and difficult; I could see why she was having problems with him. On the other hand, I wondered if Maryann contributed to his attitude with her own communication or behavior. In that scenario, Jeff's self-centeredness could be an angry expression of feeling neglected and devalued by her, or it could be some other indirect complaint. A destructive style of communication often develops in marriages where couples haven't found a productive way to manage their hurts and differences; because they're not direct with their complaints, a slow and steady pattern of stonewalling and sniping evolves. Before long, both are living behind an electrified fence of resentment and contempt.
Over the next few sessions, I asked Maryann about Jeff's childhood so that I could better help her understand his psychology, and to refine my assessment of their marriage. I learned that he had grown up in a home where he was constantly coddled. He was the only child of parents who had struggled for years with infertility. When they finally had Jeff, they were so happy to have a child that they gave him whatever he demanded. His father, also a professor, idealized him but treated his mother with derision. Jeff's childhood left him feeling entitled to be given to in relationships without making an effort at reciprocating.
Jeff was fifty and Maryann was forty. Their marriage had in many ways been less troubled when their children were small, as Maryann had been a stay-at-home mom and the division of labor and responsibilities had seemed clearer to both of them. In addition, this arrangement had closely mirrored what they both had seen growing up, so neither thought to question it. Problems often surface, however, when there is a change in one of the partners and a change in roles. When the kids entered junior high, Maryann decided to go back to work and felt an increase in independence and self-esteem from doing so. However, she continued to do the same amount of housework and child care without Jeff's involvement. Their marriage began to experience conflict as Maryann sought more help and participation from Jeff.
I saw in Jeff a phenomenon that I often see in my practice: men raised in traditional families have a harder time making the transition to a more egalitarian household when their wives go back to work, or when their wives insist on more equality in the marriage. Because these husbands grew up with a Father Knows Best sensibility, they have little personal experience of sharing power and decision making in a family. They are often bewildered by their wife's desire for increased intimacy and power sharing, and often respond with withdrawal, contempt, or hostility.
In addition, men's socialization to be more remote with their emotions makes many of them unable or unwilling to do the kind of self-reflection and disclosure that would make their wives feel cherished and understood (see Real 2002). While I strongly believe that men are as capable of intimacy as women, many need help in learning how to be decent husbands and, sometimes, fathers. Jeff is a more extreme example of this phenomenon, but he's not a rarity. Men like Jeff are not unusual, because our society prizes entitlement and self-involvement in its men. Men who don't "perform" are more likely to find themselves off the fast track of promotions, career advancement, and desirable romantic partners.
This isn't to say that the marital stresses and trade-offs for the genders are equal. Marriage in America is harder for most women with children than it is for men. As author Ann Crittenden writes in The Price of Motherhood, men still control the purse strings in the majority of households, and wives typically have much more to lose financially from a divorce than the average husband. This means that women who are in difficult marriages and want to demand more from their husbands often have less with which to negotiate. In addition, women still do the vast majority of child care and housework, even when they work outside the home (Hochschild 1997) and even when their husbands identify their marriages as egalitarian (Gottman 1994).
Women are more likely to be affected by stresses in the family and to respond to those stresses with depression or physical illnesses (Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton 2001). One researcher found that among men and women employed outside the home, contributing more than 46 percent of the total domestic labor in the household greatly increased the symptoms of depression. Thus, one of the reasons that women have twice the incidence of depression as men may be that wives contribute up to 53 percent or more to the domestic chores, whereas husbands' contributions fall well below that (Bird 1999).
Time-use surveys show that as women enter the workplace they take on the equivalent of two full-time jobs. This estimated eighty hour workweek typically forces them to cut back on everything in their lives except paid work and caring for their children (Crittenden 2001). In The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, sociologist Arlie Hochschild observes that half of all mothers are now working full-time and 55 percent earn half or more of the family income. Women are now as likely as men to be part of the 8 percent of workers who hold down two jobs.
It's hard, however, for anyone to stay married these days. Couples are constantly being pumped up with billboard-sized expectations of what marriage should be like, while social and economic changes make them less likely than ever to fulfill those expectations. Most of the individuals and couples I see in my practice these days are exhausted. Americans are putting in longer work hours than workers of any other industrialized nation (Hochschild 1997). Between 1960 and 1986 the amount of time that parents had available for their children fell ten hours per week in white households and twelve hours per week in black households, and it continues falling (Fuchs 1988, in Hochschild 1997).
While there has been a shrinking of time, there has been an increased awareness of what constitutes good parenting. Thus, many conscientious parents are devoting much more quality time, if not quantity time, to their children than prior generations (Crittenden 2001). However, this is often at the expense of their own care (Ehrensaft 1997) and the care of their marriages. While the culture appears to have shifted from a parent-centered house to a child-centered house, one of the costs may be a decrease in prioritizing the needs of the couple.
Despite Americans' working harder than ever, fewer and fewer feel economically secure. We have fewer vacation days than in 1970 and increasingly fewer health benefits (Coontz 1997). The stock market is the lowest it has been in three decades, and many large corporations are going belly-up or are under criminal investigation. These economic anxieties directly translate into the marital realm. In this new world, parents have less time to relax with their children, and couples have less time to focus on their marriages. This tremendous pressure compromises our capacity to be intimate or sensitive to each other's needs. It leaves individuals feeling needy and unfulfilled and vulnerable to fantasies of a more perfect partner who would be sensitive to how much we're doing and how little we're getting back. It makes the challenge of being married, in some ways, more challenging than at any other period of history.
Marriages are also being affected by the outdated memories of our parents' examples as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. These stressors directly contributed to the problems in Maryann and Jeff's marriage. Despite working a full-time job, Jeff did little to help her organize the household, get the kids fed, help them with their homework, or get them to bed. As she once said to me, "By the end of the weekend, my attitude is Thank God it's Monday."
Many of the husbands I work with have to be taught to become more empathetic toward and involved in the lives of their wives. I certainly did. When my twins were born, my wife and I agreed that I would increase my practice and take on more of the financial responsibilities so that she could be home with the children more. While having twins and a daughter was enough of a stress, we also struggled with the division of labor when both of us were home. Ellie wanted me to pitch in equally with parenting and housework, and my tender attitude was, "Hey, I put in a hard day at the office, you don't have to work full-time, why should I have to go to work and then work as hard when I get home?" I had the memory of my father with his feet propped up and a newspaper on his lap asking my mother when dinner was going to be ready.
Neither my wife nor I knew what was fair to ask or refuse in a situation where she worked part-time and had primary responsibility for the house and children. Despite the fact that she was also a psychologist, she felt uncomfortable insisting on more help from me, having been raised in a home where her mother ran the house and took care of her and her two siblings. Even though our marriage wasn't traditional before our twins, in the sense that we both worked and made decisions equally, having children turned all of that on its head. In other words, we fell into the trap that I see so many couples falling into, where I was acting out of the same sense of entitlement as my male forebears, and she with the lack of entitlement of her female role models.
As a columnist for TWINS magazine and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, I get frantic letters every week from mothers wanting to know how to get their partners to be more involved as husbands and fathers, I occasionally get letters from fathers wanting to know how to get their wives less focused on the kids and more focused on the marriage again. Both genders want to know if they should leave their marriages, accept this newer and less satisfying arrangement, or force their spouses into therapy.
My Credo As a psychologist is that no one is hopeless. However, from your perspective as a spouse, your partner might be. Some personality types, like Jeff's, let in a lot less light than do others. Sometimes the difference between a satisfying marriage and a marriage for the sake of the children hinges on whether the individuals involved are willing to work on themselves.
Husbands like Jeff are more difficult because they often refuse individual or couple treatment. Or they finally agree to therapy as their wives are serving them with divorce papers, since three out of four times it's the wife who initiates a divorce (Ahrons 1994; Hetherington 2002; Amato and Booth 1997). Or even if they stay, so much foul water may have passed under the bridge that their wives have long ago written them off as a lost cause. If Maryann could get Jeff into couple treatment, I'd work to help him understand the impact of his behavior on his marriage. I'd want him to see that he was unconsciously identified with a narcissistic father. I'd help him understand that his parents were unable to model how much reciprocity the average modern marriage requires. I'd show him how to empathize with Maryann and discover that there are rewards to an intimate level of connection and an equal sharing of child care and housework that are well worth the increase in vulnerability and the decrease in power, as he knew it. If I could get him into therapy and if he wouldn't quit.
If I worked with them in couple's therapy, I'd help Maryann to see how she colludes in their dynamic by overfunctioning in their home life by taking care of everyone in the family and not insisting on more help and respect from her husband or children. I'd help her to feel less afraid to tell Jeff directly what she wants or doesn't want. I would encourage her to begin refusing to do more for him than is fair for her to do. I would help her to appreciate what is valuable in Jeff and his contributions to the family. I would want both members of the couple to see how they keep the negative fires burning through the use of shame, withdrawal, and resentment.
Unfortunately, Jeff refused to get into individual or marital therapy, and this left Maryann with fewer choices (I'll discuss when and how to use ultimatums later). For the most part, he remained self-centered in his stance with her over the course of the two years that I worked with her. However, Maryann became increasingly successful at maintaining her mood, self-esteem, and sense of control over her life and her parenting. While her marriage remained far from ideal, she found a way to maintain happiness and raise her kids in an intact family by using the following strategies. She:
1. Accepted that Jeff probably would not change. This means she had to learn to empathize with who he is, grieve for what she wouldn't have in her marriage with him, and eliminate behaviors designed to make him change such as pleading, placating, being overly responsible for his care, and communicating in a passive-aggressive fashion.
2. Learned to reinterpret his bullying as fragility and self- centeredness rather than as a reasonable way for him to behave with her. This step was very confusing to Maryann because Jeff's behavior so closely mirrored her father's treatment of her and her mother.
3. Developed her own authority in the household so that she wasn't constantly deferring to his demands and entitlement. This involved becoming more assertive and becoming more conscious of her belief system, which served to shame and scare her out of appropriately self-interested behavior.
4. Learned to intervene more when Jeff was being critical or hurtful to the children. This required talking more with Jeff before and after incidents with the children and interrupting him if he was being overly critical.
Excerpted from Making a High-Conflict Marriage Work by Joshua Coleman. Copyright © 2003 Joshua Coleman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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