Early Marriage Slippage

Published Date: 2004

Sal and Gloria were married for twenty one years. They had two sons who were presently away at college. They were married quite young and when Gloria initiated counseling, they were both in their early forties. It was already too late. Their marriage was over.
Sal had informed Gloria the week before that he was leaving her and that he had been involved in a long term extramarital affair for the past six years. Gloria was shocked! She had absolutely no idea. When asked if there were any signs of his distancing in the marital relationship, she strongly replied that there were not. He never went out in the evening. He was very predictable. Their sex life was the same as it always had been. He was involved in family life and seemed to be concerned about her and the children.

This situation is a common one - - a marriage that seems stable; a relationship that appears committed; a spouse that tends to be predictably positively involved. Then, one day, seemingly out of the clear blue, one of them informs the other that the marriage is over and has been for a very long time. The other spouse is shocked - - had no idea that this was about to occur. When asked if there were signs, he or she invariably replies, "No."

Generally, when couples come for marriage counseling, they have already experienced a great deal of pain and their marriage is often at risk. Among some of the more typical presenting problems are alcohol or drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, spouse abuse (physical or emotional), continual conflict, and /or extramarital relationships.

These are not the kinds of situations we wish to address. Rather, the issues we wish to explore are more insidious and generally more common in marital relationships. We are more interested in the early pre-conditions of marital risk, those events which can act as danger signals to couples who are functioning quite well. We are interested in marital slippage- - the manifestations, the signals (both emotional and behavioral), and the curative strategies that couples can employ to reenergize their marriage and/or to reduce the chances of further slippage.

Manifestations of marital slippage generally fall into 10 broad
categories: spousal perceptual negation, sarcastic teasing, frequent disagreement over minor issues, sexual and/or marital apathy, need for validation by others, predictable cycles or lack of romance in the marriage, spousal irritations, communication problems, a "thing" coming between them, and jealousy.

1. Spousal perceptual negation ocurs when spouses view an event differently and one spouse cannot tolerate any viewpoint other than his/her own. For example, birthdays were always important to Mary M. When she was a child, her parents lavished her with presents and she always had a big birthday celebration. John M., on the other hand, came from a very large family who rarely celebrated holidays. Birthdays were considered "just another day." So when John did not send Mary a birthday card, she felt that he did not love her anymore. Her marital expectations were not met and she was disappointed. He thought she was making a fuss over nothing. Ultimately, this problem could have the potential of becoming a major source of difficulty in the marriage. Remaining unchecked, it could even possibly destroy the marriage because eventually the intolerance of differing viewpoints would increase. Generally, the need for a spouse to deny differing viewpoints occurs for one of three reasons: It represents: (1) a learned way of dealing with others which has been acquired through one's family of origin experiences, (2) a power or control issue, or (3) the reluctance to take responsibility for one's actions.

2. Sarcastic teasing is often a flirtation with disaster in disguise.
Harmless little love pats soon grow into little digs. The little digs, fueled by feelings of hurt and indignation, can lead to major battles. The first time Sally L. teased Walter L. about his cold-fish behavior in bed, he laughed it off as a minor annoyance. When she said it three months later in front of his friends from work, he was more than mildly annoyed. He soon started to become sensitized to any negative remarks that she made, interpreting them as criticism. Being in a supposedly loving and caring relationship for Walter soon became an experience based on his capacity to tolerate Sally's hostile and derogotory remarks.

3. All couples experience minor disagreements. In and of themselves, arguments generally are not problematic for relationships. They happen on a fairly regular basis, are resolved and forgotten. However, if they begin to increase in number and/or intensity, or if the same issues keep cropping up remaining unresolved, then they could signal a deterioration of the relationship. Frequent arguments could also signal what is called the pursuer-distancer theme. The couple is comfortable with a certain level of intimacy. Once their closeness increases, they both become uncomfortable. Arguing with each other creates distance, serving to bring them back to a more comfortable level of intimacy. The distancing effect of constant bickering produces a frustration and self-defeating cycle, such that, when one partner seeks greater distance from the other, then the other is stimulated to react by seeking greater closeness with the distancing partner, who now in turn must seek even ! greater distance. This cycle ends when the "cat and mouse" game exceeds the tolerance level of either partner and derails the relationship. Bruce M. constantly sexually pursued Susan M. She rejected him on a regular basis. During therapy, it was suggested that Bruce stop approaching Susan and that Susan would approach him sexually when she was interested. This resulted in a much greater response on Susan's part; however, it did not solve the problem because when Susan began approaching Bruce, he rejected her. The real issues were fears of intimacy, vulnerability, and engulfment.

4. Sexual apathy may reflect a spouse's fear of intimacy/rejection or may be a form of payback. In the first case, when a spouse fears intimacy/rejection, the lack of sexual interest may serve as a way of avoiding closeness or being rejected in order to avoid a less than desired performance. In the second case, rejection of the others' sexual needs, along with one's own, often is a spouse's attempt to
compensate for feeling or powerlessness/hurt in another area of the relationship. It is a way of paying the other one back or of gaining "bargaining chips" in an ongoing struggle to manipulate the other's behavior.

Couples often use the sexual arena to act out problems they are having in the non-sexual areas of their relationship.Dianne M. and Ron M. came for therapy because Dianne would not have sex with Ron. At first glance it appeared that she did not like sex, receiving no gratification or pleasure. Closer examination revealed that she felt powerless in the marriage, with Ron controlling all finances and making all major and minor decisions. As a result she felt unimportant and insignificant. Refusing to have sex with him was one area in their relationship that she could control. Thus, the marital conflict expanded to the bedroom.

5. Validation through the other in similar to problem number one in that it represents the flip side of the coin. Whereas number one involves the consistent negation of alternate values; validation through other involves an acceptance of all of a spouse's values. Here one partner continuously seeks the other's approval or help and in so doing is extremely sensitive to the other's disapproval or lack of enthusiasm. In this situation the individual's self worth is determined by the opinions and behavior of the other partner. Both problems involve identity issues in that one person's sense of identity is determined by either negating or accepting the other's frame of reference. Collen L. was raised in a strict Catholic home. Coming from a large family, her behavior was strictly kept under control by her parents and older siblings. When she married Jim, she devoted her entire life to being a good wife and mother. Her identity was determined by him in that all of her interests and time were scheduled around his needs. The slightest hint of criticism from him devasted her. He then had to spent enormous amounts of time consoling her, pledging his love to her before she feel

6. Predictable cycles in marriage refer to repetitive patterns that do not have positive outcomes. They are often played out by one partner's actions producing as strong a reaction in the other, which then touches off an even stronger reaction in the first partner. Each reaction is stronger than the previous one. The couple becomes stuck in this vicious cycle. The rule here is that each person must say something a little worse than what was just said (x+1). This creates a very predictable yet escalating cycle. The process usually does not end until they frighten each other, either by resorting to physical violence or devastating each other with words. When dating, Roger and Sally H. showered each other with compliments. Each would attempt to outdo the other with gifts, cards expressing their love, and compliments. Shortly after they were married, this pattern, each trying to outdo the other, took a negative shift and the discussions began to escalate in a destructive manner.

7. Little irritating things refer to the small annoyances of everyday living. If they become too much of a focus, they can become big bothersome things. Leaving the top off the toothpastes is the often used example. Representative of the little annoying things mentioned in therapy are: bad breath, body odor, too long toenails, leaving cabinet doors opened, leaving little hairs in the bathroom sink, etc. When a person consistenly finds his or her spouse's behavior irritating, it usually indicates that something else is upsetting him/her, either about him/her self, the other partner or their relationship. The troubled partner may not be aware of what is bothering him/her, but may focus on a symbolic minor feature of the partner's appearance or behavior. Unless action is taken by either partner to explore what is troubling him/her, it can mushroom into unintelligible and nonsensical blowups, leaving both partners devastated and not knowing what is happening or why.

8. Poor communications often arise because of one of three difficulties: (1) poor communication skills, (2) inability to express feelings, (3) avoidance of intimacy. A person with poor communication skills has chosen or been trained to be either highly verbal or non-verbal. Two people having different communication styles may be at cross purposes while talking to each other. When one spouse is highly verbal, the other may hesitate becoming involved in any discussion because of the apparent verbal superiority of the other. These problems may manifest by a reluctance to verbalize feelings or needs, leading to frustration and resentment. Lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation of differences in communication styles can contribute to increasing conflict and feelings of alienation. In other cases, individuals may have difficulty asserting/expressing themselves. This problem is often directly related to a problem of low self esteem. In other cases, fears of rejection/retaliation may underlie the communication problem. One partner may avoid confrontations or sensitive areas of interactions because s/he fears intimacy or feels reluctant to aggravate the other.

9. Sometimes, "things" come between a couple. These "things" can be represented by anything or anyone. Some examples are: a job, an interest/hobby, overfunctioning in a parent role and underfunctioning in the husband/wife role, etc. This could signal either that the marriage is not yet established in a committed way or that it is in the process of deterioration. If this process is allowed to go unattended and unchecked, then marital strife is sure to follow.

10. Jealousy can threaten a marriage. Jealousy is often a preexisting condition for one or both of the partners. It can either be accidentally or deliberately triggered. Jealousy often reflects a person's lack of self concept in one of two ways. In the first situation, the partner could be expressing the need to possess the other. This is manifestested by one trying to control the other's activities or by holding him/her accountable for his/her behavior. In the second situation, the one partner's self concept is in need of constant reassurances. The person needs to be constantly reminded through continued attention that s/he is loved and therefore okay. This condition often flares up quickly into an intolerable jailor-prisoner scenario. Before situations get too far out of hand, there are some very immediate and effective measures that individuals can take to address these signs of early marital slippage. Initially, individuals need to be sensitive to the appearance of these signs. Then, partners need to alert each other to the presence of such signals and request cooperation in the exploration of them. Both partners need to talk about the situation until concerned feelings and perceptions have a favorable resolution. If these initial suggestions are not helpful, then partners need to stop interactions when they begin to deteriorate. This may also facilitate the resolution of early warning signals by placing the marital partners in a better frame of mind from which to approach these issues. Below are some helpful guidelines which couples can emply to help their communications.

Don't collect trading stamps; deal with the isues immediately. When an individual walks away from an interaction without having communicated a need or a feeling. the situation is ripe for "collecting a
trading stamp." Years ago, people collected scores of trading stamps to cash them in later for some large prize. Some individuals save up petty annoyances, little angry feelings, insecurities, or anxieties to case them in later for some deeper feeling. The result is usually a major argument. If the small feeling or anxiety had been communicated when it occurred, the result could have led to a resolution with closure and elimination of the negative feeling. Make attempts to reinterpret negative perceptions into more positive ones.

What we define as real is based on our past history - - experiences, perceptions, etc. All kinds of possibilities exist in any given set of circumstances, but we can chose which ones to perceive and how to perceive them. This selection process is shaped, molded, and created by us because of our unique psychology and the society in which we live.

Sometimes, because of various socialization factors, one may consistently choose to view himself, herself negatively. Such an individual usually chooses negative statements such as, "She doesn't love me. Why should she? I'm not a worthwhile person." The associated emotional sstate is depression. Another statement based on negative perceptions of the world in general might be, "He won't like me sexually," The thought is, "Why should he? I'm sure I don't know how to do it right." The associated emotional feeling is anxiety.

We all make such statements at one point or another; at times, they may actually be realistic perceptions. This, however, is not what we are referring to. Our concern here is when the negative perceptions of persons and circumstances are recurring themes or typical patterns - - when the person generally choosess to see himself.herself negatively. One step to more positive communication is to restate negative perceptions to include more positive ones. For example, when you are feeling particularly negative about yourself, acknowledge that all possible perceptions exist. Talk to yourself; tell yourself that there are alternatives to the negative definition that you are dwelling on. This kind of healthy thinking involves seeing both negative and positive aspects of yourself. Moving toward positive perceptions, of course, tends to be associated with less guilt, anxieties, fears, and insecurities. Gradually, you can learn to view yourself in a more realitistic, comfort! able fashion. Avoid patterns of communication in which someone is a loser. Aim, instead, for two winners.

Some couples communicate in a way that results in a winner and a loser; someone gains at the expense of the other. This can be called "zero summing." The mindset is, "If one is right, then the other must be wrong," or "If she is right, he must be selfish and inconsiderate." In actuality, this kind of thinking only causes two losers. When this situation exists, the two individuals are off balance. It is always depressing to be the loser, but in zero-summing situations, the victory of the winner is often shallow and lonely because they've won only at the expense of their partner. To avoid playing the zero summing game, focus on being a team where each helps the other to win but not at the expense of the other. Free yourself from pre-programmed responses.

When new responses are made to us which we define as negative, we generally exhibit displeasure, almost automatically- - in a preprogrammed way. Concentrate on not responding automatically; encourage each other to bracket or suspend and examine initial reactions. Beware of transforming internal anxieties about self into critical attacks on others.

A common anticommunication technique is the "attack" statement such as, "You're a jerk" or "You're stupid." Often, the true source of frustration with a mate originates out of a sense of failure in oneself.

Let's assume the husband comes home from work and immediately begins yelling at his wife about the condition of the house. He may well be attacking his partner for reasons other than the messy house. He may have performance anxieties about himself in general, and particularly with sex. Perhaps he's concerned about impotence but is psychologically unable to acknowedge this negative fear. It's too threatening for him. With his complaint, he creates a safe situation for himself whereby his wife becomes angry with him and refuses him sex. Then, he doesn't have to worry about performance. His guilt and anxieties are alleviated for the moment, only to return at some later point - - probably with more intensity. Acknowledging and communicating negative feelings to the partner will rectify the situation. Avoid patterns of denial/discounting. Responsibility shared is more rewarding than responsibility denied.

Once a partner has been open enough to communicate an existing problem, it is crucial that the mate not interpret as a personal affront. For example, if the husband communicated his fear of impotence to his wife, she could respond in several ways. She may decide that what he's actually saying has nothing to do with impotence but rather with the fact that he no longer finds her attractive. This makes her a mind reader, and the honest message from her husband becomes totally discounted; she substitutes what she thinks is the real reason. Now, if she verbalizes this to him, he may attempt to reassure her otherwise. Even at that, the focus has now shifted away from his anxiety onto his wife. He must now verbalize his fears again (Probably a painful and unpleasant admission for him) if he's going to establish open coimmunication. A further complication might be that he now becomes hesitant to communicate for fear that the conversation may center on whether or not he thinks his wife is attractive. Listen and look. Tune in to your partner.

One of the most difficult things for couples to do is to really listen to each other. Oftentimes, we may be listening to someone reporting a situation, an incident, a problem, or a feeling, and we're thinking ahead for something we can say, a similar story we can share which aligns with what they're saying. We're listening, of course, but we're not really hearing what the person is saying. When we use this method of communicating, we lose much valuable information.

One reason why this occurs is that many of us cannot tolerate silence. We feel a constant need to keep the conversation going- - silence is something to avoid. What usually occurs is that we are constantly thinking ahead to new topics to bring up while the other is talking. When we exhaust all possible topics, the conversation lapses into what we probably would call boredom.

Enjoy the silence. Relax. Don't feel the need to control or run the conversation. Don't keep talking when there is really nothing left to say. Start Listening. You may even want to create specific periods of calm and reflection when the two of you simply spend time completely alone, undisturbed, yet not "discussing" anything. Examine and evaluate feelings of guilt and anxiety.

There are times when you feel guilty or anxious about certain interactions. Question yourself about where these feelings may be coming from. Have you provided yourself with information so that you can examine the intellectual basis of the negative emotion? Have you communicated the guilt or anxiety in the present so that your partner can respond and thereby help to create closure on the negative emotion? Have you communicated the feeling so that it doesn't intensify over time, so that you don't begin to collect trading stamps? Have you attempted to translate the negative feelings into more positive ones?

Don't be afraid to delve into yourself. Acknowledge the existence of negative perceptions within yourself so that you can take steps to transform them into positive ones.

Open communication provides the basis for married couples to trust. Once an individual begins to communicate openly, the groundwork is laid for the mate to receprocate. When this positive cycle is begun, the couple has the potential for higher levels of satisfaction leading to rewarding intimate awareness.

Author's Bio: 

Joan Atwood is a Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is also the President of Marriage and Family Therapists of NY http://www.NYMFT.Com . She ia an author and therapist and is in private practice in LI, NYC, and Hudson Valley, New York.