Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Cleaning up emotional pollution

Marriage Problems: How Can I Be Me When You're Being You?

How you would like to be vs who you are.

Most people get married because they like the way they are with their partners—loving, compassionate, engaging, supportive, sexy, and flexible. They get divorced because they don't like the way they are with their partners—resentful, turned off, frustrated, rigid, or bored, all of which they blame on their relationship.

In the course of this death march, many go into marriage therapy to find better ways to manipulate their partners into, at best, doing what they want or, at worst, becoming who they want. The self-defeating flaw in this strategy, apart from the fact that it hardly ever works, is cognitive dissonance—the discomfort generated by holding contradictory cognitions.

In marriage, cognitive dissonance is the difference between how you would like to be and how you are. For instance, "I am loving, compassionate, supportive, sexy, etc., yet I am not these things with you."

This aspect of cognitive dissonance isn't bad; it can act as a motivation to be true to your deepest values, by making you behave in more loving and compassionate ways. Unfortunately, most people who divorce or go to marriage therapy choose to resolve their cognitive dissonance with something like this:

"Since I am unable to be my loving and compassionate self with you, you must be too selfish, insensitive, withholding, demanding, emotional, rigid, sick, or defective in some way."

This ill-fated resolution of cognitive dissonance only makes you both feel like victims and sends you searching online or in self-help aisles for a checklist that validates your suffering and a diagnosis that nails your partner.

Cognitive dissonance can undermine marriage (and marriage therapy) in sneaky ways, even when you are successful at getting what you want, namely, change in the other person. If you do get what you want by changing your partner, your self-concept is reduced to:

"I am loving, compassionate, supportive, etc., as long as you do what I want."

Do you really want this on your tombstone:

"As long as I got what I wanted, I was great to the people I love," ?????

The irony is that the last thing you need is an externally regulated self concept, i.e., one determined not by your own behavior but by what your partner does for you. Externally regulated, your sense of self becomes totally dependent on your partner, not just for consistently doing what you want but for doing it with love and joy in his/her heart, since resentful submission is far from satisfying. Externally regulated, self-concept needs more and more validation, if not submission, from the partner to stay afloat. This sends satisfaction on a downward spiral as it necessarily destabilizes both the sense of self and the relationship.

Successful marriage is not about getting your partner to do what you want; it's about being who you are, i.e., behaving according to your deepest values. For most people, this means being loving and compassionate to the people they love.

Happily, you have the best chance of getting your partner to do what you want by being who you are.

Consider the effects of positive reciprocity and negative reactivity. Which of the following is more likely to inspire cooperation?

1. Approaching your spouse as your authentic, loving and compassionate self
2. Approaching your spouse with entitlement and demands (even if couched in the rehearsed language of "behavior requests")?

Marriage (and marriage therapy) run into a brick wall of cognitive dissonance when they focus on "getting your needs met," or "getting the love you want." They are more likely to have lasting success with focus on each of you being the partner you most want to be.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. Recent books: How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It, and Love Without Hurt.

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