The Middle Ground

The creative way to enriching your relationship.

In the Shadow of Our Collective Sadness

From the war to the home front (Part Two of Two)

In Part One of this article I wrote about the rash of military suicides. Being able to ask for help can be a life saver. Not being able to ask for help when feeling desperation and despair often proves fatal.

stress table
stress makes hard harder
Do you find the following metaphor too extreme? Many partners who contemplate divorce feel as if they are conducting their relationship inside a war zone. They battle to keep their sense of self from going under. If and when they feel depleted, their tendency is to lash out. Rather than repair the weakened foundations of love and  trust, they further trash them, reducing possibilities of hope to rubble. Why do some couples separate without ever seeking help? And why do others procrastinate great lengths of time before they seek it?

One of the most shocking statistics associated with couples therapy is the following: couples with significant relationship difficulties wait an average of six years before they seek couples therapy. In cases where couples therapy proves ineffective, research indicates that one of the two prime reasons it fails is because partners wait too long before going for help. Gross denial seems to cloud their judgment. Partners make statements like, “There’s nothing to be done but let the problems run their course." Or,  It’ll work out somehow.” A kind of passivity prevails. Angry outbursts that bring no relief frequently develop, only to strain relations further. Conflicts tend to be re-enacted so often they form a predictable pattern, like an eddy in a stagnant stream. The realization that help is needed may flash within the couples' awareness but does not get converted into a plan of action, until, as mentioned above, it often becomes too late. 

When partners cannot come to a peaceful agreement about the terms of communication, when neither can feel emotionally safe in the other’s presence, and when both long for relief that doesn’t come; those are the terms of war. Under these conditions partners feel overwhelmed by shame, guilt, rage, fear: the same constellation that the soldier on the field faces. The impulse to find an outsider, someone outside the relationship—like a counselor or therapist—to help them gain a non-combatant perspective, gets thwarted. Partners may feel they will take their chances with the situation they know, rather than brave a new challenge. This stance deepens destructive patterns. This is analogous to what happens when the soldier who hides his or her  pain and does nothing until the unbearable becomes the unthinkable.

Partners too often resort to their own form of suicide, relationship suicide. Instead of a focus on rebuilding communication through improving listening skills, they tend to blame the other for problems that have developed. Framing the problems in communication as one-sided obscures the  key to a healing perspective:  solutions to couples' problems need to be two-sided. Thinking positively about what can be done to head off disaster then takes a back seat to aggressively defending a self-justifying position. So the black cloud of divorce gains density; the specter of pessimism billows.

Please do not assume that if you have waited a long time to go for help with your own relationship that it is too late. Every situation is different. Where there is hope, the embers of possibility can often be stirred and brought to life

If you are soldiering on with your partner, take a moment to reflect upon your sense of possibilities for change. If you feel your situation is too bleak to get better, remember that this perspective has germinated from a very low point in the relationship, and may reflect its origin and not its future. 

At the core of this article is a concern for communication. Communication goes on within—we need to be in touch with and in coordination with ourselves—and it goes on between ourselves and others. My new book, The Power of Three-Dimensional Communication: A Couples Guide to Creating Emotional Safety is almost ready for publication. I will take you further in the healing direction there.

Even if I do not respond directly, though I often do, I love  reading your comments, questions or other reactions to these posts.

And Happy New Year to you and yours!



Marty Babits is Co-Director of Family and Couples Treatment Service, a division of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.


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