Avoiding The Marital Cliff

How to save your marriage before it's too late

Vicious Cycle or Vicious Spouse?

Which am I stuck with and how do I know the difference?

Most therapists who treat married couples focus their attention on how to help spouses unwind their recurrent negative interactions. We are adept at changing hostile, frustrating communication patterns, breaking vicious cycles. We rarely want to acknowledge that some marital conflicts are not the result of “communication problems.” Some bad marriages are the consequences of really bad behavior from a vicious spouse. I’m not talking about physical or sexual abuse. I’m talking about nasty, uncaring, uncontrolled behavior. How can you tell the difference between being stuck in a vicious cycle and being married to a vicious spouse?

 My training as a family therapist has taught me to have great respect for the power of the vicious emotional cycle that couples generate as they try to deal with their differences and frustrations. All couples, after the intoxication of falling in love wears off, discover that their mate is not the person they see in the mirror. No matter how compatible your lover is, inevitably, you will discover that there are some significant differences in the way the two of you think, feel, and behave. Though many of these differences are negligible, some become important over time and create tension in relationships. If they cannot be resolved, we usually begin a process of trying to change our partner, often by being dismissive or critical. Feelings get hurt and a reaction takes place, either counter-criticism or withdrawal. What starts as a small disagreement, can become a vicious cycle of attack, hurt, alienation and/or counter-criticisms. Left unchecked, partners begin to perceive their mates not as their friend and lover, but as an enemy toward whom they feel no romantic attachment.  “I may love him/her, but I don’t like him/her any more.” The body once craved, now disgusts.

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 Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between persons behaving badly because they are trapped in their vicious cycle or because they are simply vicious people. For example, how do you assess a husband who calls his wife a bit*h or describes her using the “C” word? What am I to make of a wife who tells her husband that he is “psychotic,” “a momma’s boy” or “useless” because he does not make as much money as he did before the recession? I know that for some readers it is hard to believe that people talk to each other this way, but in my office, attacks like this happen all the time. And, I suspect they happen frequently in many households.

 The solution is a simple one, but very difficult to accomplish. Each spouse has to try to stop the vicious cycle. Rather than reacting reflexively to being hurt or taking disappointments personally, each spouse has to pause and figure out what is needed at the moment to de-escalate the situation. The problem is that for many, acting this way in the midst of an unceasing struggle feels like giving in. Worse, it can feel like you have allowed yourself to be victimized. If we don’t respond in kind or pull away, we worry we are losing, showing weakness. The truth is that by de-escalating we are really trying to save our marriage, making an informed decision about ending the vicious cycle.

 On some level, we know that de-escalating is a huge emotional risk though. What if for ninety days, (which is about how long it takes to find out if your change will have a positive effect on your spouse) you do nothing hurtful or mean and behave like a loving caring spouse and your mate continues to devalue or ignore you? What if he or she continues the same vicious behavior? What happens if they can no longer say to you that they are behaving badly because of your poor behavior? Now there is really no excuse. Either your spouse changes too, or you may have to accept that you do not have a loving relationship. If you have stepped out of the vicious cycle and your partner’s behavior remains vicious toward you, it may mean that you have truly married the wrong person. Or worse, whatever you have done to each other is now no longer correctible.  Perhaps it’s time to reassess the viability of our marriage.

 It is my conviction that marital struggles, which regularly begin as a reflexive emotional reactions to hurt or frustration, often serve the hidden purpose of temporarily keeping a couple together. It’s like the old cigarette ads used to say, “I’d rather fight than switch.” If we fight, we are still bound together. However, in today’s world, the fighting or distancing eventually rips us apart anyway.  It is just a slower, more painful form of relationship death.

 When we stop fighting over our differences, we find we have three choices. (1) Find a compromise or quid pro quo we can live with, (2) accept and live with the differences as they are, or (3) decide you cannot live with them and split up. Maintaining the vicious cycle helps us avoid this crucial decision. The most painful choice is to realize that you maybe in a relationship with a person you cannot live with, either because you are too different or because he or she is a genuinely unpleasant person.

Can you step away from your vicious cycle by stopping your reactive behaviors long enough to see who your spouse really is--vicious spouse or just someone with different ways of doing things than you? Are you brave enough to find out?

John W. Jacobs, M.D. is a psychiatrist and the author of All You Need Is Love And Other Lies About Marriage. He teaches couples and family therapy at the NYU Child Study Center.

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