May 22

A Marital Issue

Posted by William Berry | Filed under Articles | 1 Comment

According to statistics for first marriages listed as “very happy,” there has been a decrease from over half in 1976 to a little more than a third in 1996. I recently attended a conference where the presenter stated “half of marriages end in divorce, while another third of the remaining are held together by a band-aid.” It seems fair to declare that most marriages are not happy. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the underlying reasons this is so.

There are many explanations for why some people experience difficulty in marriage. Some are easy to identify. Infidelity, substance abuse, arguments, financial trouble, problems raising children (in fact a recent study indicated marriages are more likely to be happy when there are no children) are all common reasons marriages become difficult or dissolve. But what are the causes of some of these difficulties, or the inability to appropriately rectify the situation?

In my experience, both personally and professionally, much of the inability to resolve problems that arise comes from the view taken of the problem. As problems mount, even problems seemingly unrelated to the couple’s behavior, resentment develops. Partners may begin to view one another as sources of burden or responsibility, rather than as sources of comfort.

Much of this can occur as a result of the male’s self image and the role he is to take. Men often view their role in the marriage as that of problem solver. When a problem arises in the home, and the wife brings it to the husband’s attention, the husband determines it is his duty, or obligation, to fix it. Where this line of thinking originates is for another article, but I believe most men will agree this is their thinking or feeling. It is nearly imperative to the husband’s self-image that he solves the problem, or at least does his best to try to do so.

If he is able to solve the problem, it helps his self-image and fosters his role as provider and protector. This explains why the behavior is repeated. But is there a downside to solving the problem? Men often feel overloaded with work and other obligations (lawn and yard, house care, car care, children’s sporting events, etc.). Another problem to be solved adds to this load. He may begin, after some time, to feel resentful toward the partner who is simply bringing the problem to awareness. And with her feeling overwhelmed with her responsibilities as well, this can lead to further alienation.

And there is a downside on the wife’s perspective as well. A female colleague of mine recently said to me “I’m thirsty.” I asked if she wanted me to go to the vending machine and get her a drink. She replied, “No, I want you to empathize.” Although this is a funny example, it is often not far from the truth. A wife may simply want to vent a problem, or to get some support. Instead, her husband may feel this would never be enough, and feels the need to solve the problem. And this is not to mention problems that the husband cannot solve.

For example, if his wife is having trouble with a coworker, she may simply want to discuss it. The husband may view the problem as something that needs to be solved, and suggest she quit. Or, if quitting isn’t an option, and even if he just listens, he may begin to feel inadequate at not being able to do something to solve the problem, with his wife in obvious distress. This exchange, as simple as it may seem, can lead to a decrease in intimacy. The husband, feeling inadequate at times as a result of not being able to solve some of the marital problems, projects the blame toward the wife, who he views, likely unconsciously, as the source of his discontent. Replay this scenario over the course of even a few years, and resentment, and possibly even contempt, can reign.

Another way that this role of being the problem solver can affect a marriage is in the difficulty some have with sharing their weakness and vulnerability to their partners. Often when a person takes on the role of the “strong” one, or the problem solver, they have difficulty relinquishing the role, even temporarily. They fear if their partner were to see them as less than the strong one, this would negatively impact the way in which they are perceived. They often believe it would negatively impact the more dependent partner as well, possibly causing greater anxiety in them, as their faith in their “hero” is shaken.

The solution is simple, but difficult to enact. The difficulty lies in our established patterns of engaging, discussing, and communicating. What is required is a change in communication, an awareness of the old patterns and how they creep into thought, and a commitment to just communicating more openly, discussing thoughts in a caring way about whatever is being discussed. It would be helpful for the husband (or male partner) to challenge his thoughts and feelings regarding the need to solve the problem, and sit with the uncomfortable feeling associated with not taking action, and yet not feel inadequate. He could also ask what his wife’s desire is in this instance, is she looking for a solution, or simply for him to listen and empathize.

It would be helpful for the wife to state her actual intentions or desires in the situation. It would also be helpful if she were able to ask her husband how he feels or what he is thinking about the problem presented. Reinforcement of his listening, empathizing, and being supportive will enhance the response in the future. All of this may sound quite simple, but humans are often reluctant when it comes to giving up their patterns. After all, there is always a reward for our behavior. In the above example, the husband’s self image is enhanced.

In discussing this, I have obviously provided only one possible problem in a marital partnership. There are often many other circumstances that contribute to one being unhappy in marriage. But the discussion above illuminates a problem many couples face. The roles may even be reversed, but regardless of the gender specifics, the problem is a common one that contributes to partners feeling isolated, rather than supported.

Share this Post:
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn
  • email
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 22nd, 2008 at 4:26 PM and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “A Marital Issue”

  1. Love and Relationships Presentation - Blog - William Berry, MS, CAP on February 17th, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    [...] Berry, W.; A Marital Issue; [...]

Leave a Reply