"I Hate Him." How to Make Marriage Work

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

“We used to be so happy.”

“He’s not the same person I married.”

“I just don’t…know anymore.”

You’ve been together a little while, huh? At first it was perhaps just a physical issue, a lack of attraction, of sexual desire, especially after the kids. But now it’s more than that. You see that the things you once found endearing are super annoying. 

“OH DEAR GOD WHY DOES HE CHEW LIKE THAT?!” 

“Did I just step on a fucking toenail clipping?”

But it’s more than passing annoyance. You think that perhaps you have outgrown your partner, that maybe he stayed the same while you gleaned what you needed and matured. Why are you still there with all this stress? You don’t want to stay only for the kids, do you? And yet, you must have been into him at some point. Maybe you could be again. But do you even want to?

It’s a question most people ask themselves, even if they aren’t one of those who end up in a lawyer’s office. The odds of a first marriage ending in divorce over a 40 year period is 67%, and around 50% will occur in the first seven years1. Some of this might be attributed to the “seven year itch” or the evolutionary drive to swap mates. Some might be lifestyles that didn’t support active engagement of couples. Some end up in strained relationships for various other reasons, though it is usually a great big combination.The path from endearing to obnoxious is littered with the remnants of personal growth within relationships, with animosity, with distrust and arguments about the trash, his mother and the children. Days can be filled with panic at the thought of starting over, coupled with sweet fantasies of freedom, and the guilt of both of those thoughts since he doesn’t even seem to understand how bad things are for you. 

And talking JUST ISN’T WORKING, you say. You can’t see eye to eye on…well anything anymore. And isn’t communication the hallmark of a good relationship? If it is, you’re obviously failing, aren’t you? 

The good news is that personalities are pretty fixed entities and from childhood most of us have traits that don’t tend to alter in a meaningful way. And according to Dr. Peter Kramer in Should You Leave? if you are currently together, at some point in your past you were surely “made for one another” each having what the other needed for each to grow as individuals6. Michael Bader, author of Arousal, agrees, noting that each person’s “type” is fantasy personified, and those we are attracted to speaks to what we need to heal from our pasts and move forward5. For it get to where you are, your partner did something for you.

The bad news is that your current path may have taken you so far from love and calm that standard discussion is essentially impossible. Luckily, talking it out might not be the thing that will save you anyway. 

The Fallacy of Verbal Communication as a Fix

For those who decide to stick it out, marriage counseling complete with active listening exercises has become routine. Active listening has a lot of hearing what someone is saying, then reframing it into a statement such as “I hear you saying that…” and checking to make sure you have it right. 

Because communication matters. Doesn’t it?

Now don’t misunderstand me here; communication can help resolve surface issues, and can play a role in improving understanding over time. And, in less disturbed relationships, improving communication can play a great role in resolving issues because it reduces stress as opposed to triggering it. 

However, in couples who are already struggling hardcore, talking might not do it initially. Healing might have more to do with addressing emotional responsiveness since most marital arguments cannot be resolved at all, according to Dr. John Gottman, prominent relationship researcher and author of The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work1.

Wait….our problems can’t be resolved? WTF are you talking about? 

Gottman notes that most marital arguments are rooted in deeper issues that will never be fully changed in the other person because they are based on personality factors, lifestyle differences or different values. 

You thought he was one day going to agree that leaving the seat up is gross? He might, but it kinda depends on why he’s leaving it up to begin with. If he’s forgetful, you have a chance. You might be screwed If he thinks it’s unfair for him to move it and that you should leave it up for him instead based on some deeply held notion of male and female equality that does not extend to toilet lid adjustments. 

Okay, okay, so obviously there are going to be some things you can talk about. So why not the BIG things?

In Should You Leave? Kramer is also leery of the benefit of communication as it is commonly encouraged because it focuses primarily on the notion that everyone communicates in precisely the same way while ignoring other critical types of communication, such as non-verbal gestures. 

Some people really want you to show appreciation by cleaning up the house or bringing them dinner. Others want the verbal recognition. Some want a hug. There is no right, only the right way for them

But, as a general rule, communication advice tends to focus on that which flows towards implicit discussion, which many women (but more often men)  are uncomfortable with6. And they may be particularly uncomfortable if they find this intimate conversation intrusive, have underlying fears regarding closeness, have a history of attachment issues, or are already flooded.

Um…flooded? 

When flooded, people shut down emotionally or withdraw to avoid going into fight/flight mode. Constant flooding from conflict tends to lead to divorce because partners associate one another with the physical effects of anxiety (high heart rate, etc) and because of this, they lose the ability to have productive conversations1. When flooding starts to happen, things become about self protection. We are evolutionarily wired for connection, to see disconnection as dangerous for our long term survival. Emotional slights can be just as threatening as physical ones, for we may have lost the one who would have our back, assist us if a saber toothed tiger tried to steal our child. Your brain doesn’t want your parter to be the enemy. Your brain wants to be with someone who can support you and help you beat the fuck out of renegade tigers.  

We want someone who can calm us down with their presence, not rev us up by reminding us that we might be in trouble later because in our disconnection they might make a break for it. That whole fight/flight thing is called FIGHT or flight for a reason. Nothing releases cortisol like punching shit or running, neither of which help relationships much. And if they can’t calm you down, even, “I’m sorry,” will cease to mean much. “I don’t care if you’re sorry if you might leave me alone to fight this tiger, mother fucker!”

But their disconnection might not be just about abandonment. Males may shut down emotionally more than females because their cardiovascular system is more reactive and slower to recover from stress1. And female blood pressure rises when forced to retaliate1, an argument against backing us into a corner or trying to make us lash out. Our history as cooperative breeders may be partially to blame for these differences. The female “Tend and Befriend” response to stress triggers oxytocin release in times of high anxiety, a chemical related to attachment and bonding. This may explain our drive to seek reconciliation. This is probably also the reason that the majority of conversations (man translation: arguments) are “started by” women: we have a need to discuss the very things they are avoiding, and it just makes us more upset when they get flooded (because of their revved up cardio systems) and stop talking altogether. 

Him: “We’ll talk about it in the morning. Goodnight.”

Her: “Why does he have to go to bed? I need to talk this out so I can sleep!”

Over time consistent flooding makes us less attuned with one another. Because though Kramer notes that we evolved to decode cues from others, those who flood might not be able to decode those messages. And research indicates that men who flood tend to be selectively impervious to messages from their wives3

Wait…..selective hearing is a real thing??

Hell yeah it is. 

Researchers told partners to deliver ambiguous messages in a way that had some specific underlying meaning. For example, partners were asked to say, “It’s really cold in here,” in a way that conveyed, “Turn up the heat,” as opposed to, “Let’s snuggle.”

Women did fine in both happy and unhappy marriages. But unhappy men did far worse than their happy counterparts when decoding the message. 

Well, that’s not a big deal! What are they fucking mind readers? 

On contraire. The men did fine when it was someone else’s wife. Their issues with decoding only occurred when they were with  their parter, someone they were generally flooded around, as evidenced by physical readouts of cardiovascular and hormonal responses. They were unable to understand what was being communicated because they engaged in a type of physical shut down response to protect themselves from physical issues like high blood pressure. And this communication shut down happened automatically, even in the absence of fighting when the relationship was already troubled. 

Other research takes on active listening directly, and shows that couples maintain high levels of stress, including high cortisol, during and following these exercises2. And when stress levels are too high, people do not absorb information well anyway, regardless of how hard they try to actively engage1. This is especially true in relationships where the person trying to “actively listen” is the one being attacked. If you say, “I’m just not satisfied sexually,” men have a hard time keeping their shit together to repeat, “I hear you saying I’m bad in bed.” His arousal and anger will be peaked regardless of how hard he tries to maintain neutrality. An extreme example to be sure, and again, I am not saying active listening is never useful. But emotional input and physiological arousal must be taken into account before attempting such things to affect real change in damaged relationships. 

Step #1 For Relationship Building: Decrease the Potential for Flooding

Gottman notes that being able to talk it out are minor players in overall relationship happiness and that even successful couples don’t do anything remotely like active listening when they’re upset. What they are able to do is respond to “repair attempts”, or anything that diffuses the situation enough for each to reduce their anxiety.  Maybe that’s a smile or a joke (My personal favorite in some contexts). Maybe it’s a change of subject or a reminder of common ground. Maybe it’s a, “We need to take a walk together right now to get rid of some stress hormones because our shrink said it was a good idea!” (Guilty) Maybe it’s one partner giving in, if only for a moment. But whatever it is, repair attempts keep cortisol and other stress hormones down and allow couples to be together in a better state whether they talk or not. That matters.

Things that increase those cortisol levels immediately and in the long term are the ones most likely to lead to divorce1. Gottman sites six ways that he can tell whether a couple will succeed or fail in the long term based on witnessing an argument in his Seattle-based Love Lab. 

Love Labs. Like Red Rooms, only more research-y.

What to avoid to decrease stress, or FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, DON’T DO THESE THINGS! 

  • Harsh Setup to a conversation, or statements that are negative, accusatory, sarcastic or contemptuous. “What are you a freakin’ idiot? How did you forget to put the toilet seat down?”
  • What Gottman refers to as “The Four Horsemen”
  1. Criticism “You’re the one who left it up! It’s your fault that I fell in!” 
  2. Contempt, Sarcasm or Cynicism “Right, as if you even know what a toilet seat means.”
  3. Defensiveness: “Who gives a fuck if the seat is down! It’s not my job! I’m going out with the guys.”
  4. Stonewalling: (stops speaking or leaves house to play video games with the neighbors.)  
  • Flooding or the elements of psychological shut down after stress levels get too high (discussed above)
  • Body Language including physiological symptoms of nervous system arousal, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension or other anxious symptoms, or the nervousness before flooding kicks in. 
  • Failed Repair Attempts or failed attempts at diffusing the situation by either partner (keep in mind that when a pattern of high arousal exists, even the best repair attempts are often ineffective)
  • Bad Memories, which indicate a pattern of negativity. Couples who have a hard time remembering the good are more likely to fail, not because they don’t have good memories, but because how you feel now tends to color how you see the past. If you see everything negatively, it’s more likely that your current feelings are reflected there, says Gottman.

In the short term, you may be able to make arguments less anxiety producing—and thus more effective—by avoiding the above, namely making sure that your set up is soft, not harsh, learning to use repair attempts, practicing soothing one another and monitoring your own arousal to avoid fight/flight and prevent negative cycles from starting.  One of the bigger issues here is the ability for partners to actually be calm around the other and not just pretending to be calm while gritting their teeth and saying, “Yes, dear,” or, “Fine, whatever.” (You know who you are).

Sometimes, you have an easy, solvable issue. And for those, you can avoid blaming by stating how you feel and describing what’s happening in a clear, polite and appreciative way (Communication 101):

“I noticed that the toilet seat was left up again, and it makes me feel scared that I might get hurt by falling into it in the middle of the night.” = Cool 

“You’re a dick for leaving the seat up.” = Less Cool 

Trust me on this one. The former also works better than duct taping the seat to the bowl. Just in case you wondered. 

But, as Gottman and Kramer note, this arguing is only part of the problem. And both Kramer and Gottman have a number of suggestions for improving trouble in paradise which I outlined for you below. However, Kramer notes you will have to attempt twice what you think is necessary in order to accomplish half of your goal. And I have found this to be the case in treating couples, mostly because people expect changing their minds and their behaviors to be simpler than it actually is. Practiced emotional responses take time to change especially since we err on the side of self protection.

So, there’s that. Fucking awesome. 

Working on Better Relationships: Quick and Dirty Guidelines

  • Fix your shit first: Okay, so Kramer didn’t put it quite that way. But he did say that changing yourself as opposed to thinking that the goal is to change the other is more likely to lead to positive results6, especially since those with trouble handling their own emotions tend to have behaviors that can lead to relationship distress4. Kramer also notes that we need to be at least a little self centered so that we may understand our roles and find ways to adjust accordingly. There is a reason we have many young relationships and fewer marriages. We needed to learn how to do it, how to work through our own issues. In order to learn how it might mean a little deeper exploration before cutting ties while resisting the urge to fall back into old patterns. As Kramer says, “The solution is not to leave the other nor to strive to change the other. The solution is to grow.”(Should You Leave? pp99) 
  • Expect some discomfort: Change is uncomfortable. He might be suspicious or even resistant. You might be resistant. But a promising relationship is one where some reciprocation starts to happen. Don’t expect perfection. Just persistence and consistency.  
  • Increase your trust bank. We all have an internal tally of gains and losses related to reciprocal altruism. Residual trust is the balance of trust left from patterns of good behavior. It’s one reason some may choose to overlook adultery, while for others this is a breaking point. Don’t overdraw the trust account like an asshat. 
  • Love maps, AKA, Get to know your partner…again:  In both genders, the quality of the couples’ friendship is a determining factor in relationship satisfaction, says Gottman. And that means finding common goals, creating some shared meaning in life and being deeply knowledgeable about the life and emotional state of the other. 

Do you know your partners’ friends at work? Their dreams? Their current favorite food? Who is irritating them lately? What’s stressing them out? If you don’t know, ask. Because there is always something you don’t know, just as there is something he doesn’t know about you. 

  • Nurture fondness and admiration. Gottman encourages examining what things you actually like your partner and why. If you find this difficult because he just won’t stop farting, try to think about what you liked before the room smelled like rotting peaches and dead opossum. When you met him, you told your friends something good, right? Plug your nose, and find that thing. Respect and adoration are antidotes for contempt and bitch slapping each other with frying pans. Once you identify those positive characteristics, tell your partner. Everyone wants to feel appreciated. 
  • Turning towards each other. Kramer notes that while autonomy is pushed as the end all be all of human potential, social creatures usually need more than solitary living. We need support,  and in times of struggle, we need an automatic platform of support built over time. So start with little things by doing what Gottman calls “turning towards” each other. This might mean spending a few minutes every day talking about “outside the relationship” stuff like politics or the lawn. It might mean identifying things you want to do together and making an effort to do them.  

And sometimes this means engaging in stupid shit that you normally wouldn’t. If he tells you about soccer and you nod nonchalantly and zone out, you’re turning away. If you take five seconds, crack a joke about soccer being like, “running track but with balls,” and make him smile, you’re engaging in his world. That’s turning towards. Gottman suggests keeping a ledger of times you turn towards one another or were mindful of the other’s feelings, and subtracting times you turned away by forgetting something the other person asked you to do or times you ignored an attempt to engage. However, if you are a competitive couple, please don’t do this unless you can laugh off who did more for whom.  

Right way = “I feel like we did better today than yesterday, and being conscious of how often I am working on us has helped me to see areas we can both improve.”

Wrong way = “I did way more than you and you even forgot to take out the trash like I asked you. I am the relationship champion! BOOM, mother fucker, you suck donkey balls!”

  • Allow yourselves to be influenced. Kramer calls it influence, Gottman calls it compromise, but whatever you call it, men and women alike are less likely to divorce if they feel like they have some influence over the other person, says Gottman. We want to feel that we are being listened to, that we actually have some power over the direction of a conversation and our lives in general. If you change something to accommodate someone else, make sure they are aware.  
  • Don’t be Jerkface Cockrocket. Make sure that if you’re asking someone to change, you do it with understanding and kindness or it won't work. Acknowledging emotions matters. Screaming at someone to take out the trash is less effective than asking nicely (at least in terms of repairing a relationship). 
  • Stop thinking of Yourselves as “Soul Mates”: Researchers have found that those primed to focus on the idea that they were “meant for each other” tend to view their relationships more negatively than those who were primed to think about things like winding roads or craggy paths7. Relationships are fucking hard. They suck ass sometimes. Understanding that going in is important. Seeing relationships realistically as things that will piss you off but will likely lead to ultimate individual betterment through those struggles, might help to erase the fallacy of happily ever after and make you more accepting of the struggles as they arise.   

The takeaway? Most everyone wants to leave sometimes, even if only for a moment, and deeper underlying attachment issues or abuse histories are beyond the scope of this post. But if you decide to give this whole reconciliation thing a go, there are ways to be kinder within your relationships and avoid extra stress while you start the process of rebuilding, and hopefully fostering a deeper connection past lustful honeymoons. 

But, barring extreme examples, it is rarely the fault of one or the other person.  It tends to be a pattern of relationship behavior that ends in high stress which in turn thwarts the ability to work through issues because one of you wants to run away. 

So start small. Find a way, any way, to spend time together in a calm, relaxed state and learn to soothe one another. Before you go to bed, tell him you like his eyes, that you appreciate the way he makes coffee in the morning. Maybe tomorrow you’ll like something else. And maybe you won’t. But either way, you might learn some valuable skills to avoid repeating mistakes later in this relationship or the next one. And there is always room for personal growth, both within relationships and outside of them. 

Relationships are always work, for everyone. Happily ever after is bullshit. But things can generally be repaired if partners are motivated to turn towards one another instead of away. 

Related Posts:

Citations
  1. http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Principles-Making-Marriage-Work/dp/0609805797
  2. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1988-33481-001
  3. Gottman, J. M., & Porterfield, A. L. (1981). Communicative competence in the nonverbal behavior of married couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 43(4), 817-824.
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3228633/
  5. http://www.amazon.com/Arousal-Secret-Logic-Sexual-Fantasies/dp/0312302428
  6. http://www.amazon.com/Should-You-Leave-Psychiatrist-Autonomy/dp/0140272798
  7. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103114000493



Topic-Relevant Resources

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the nature of relationships and the journey towards self discovery

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert
Practical information to solve common relationship issues and get back to "us".

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.



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