The endless bickering and inability to come to a respectful fiscal compromise in Washington reminds me that the same stubborn refusal to cooperate for the common good is often responsible for the demise of many marriages I see in my psychiatric practice. 

As we move into the New Year, my telephone inevitably starts ringing. Couples, who have put off announcing their intention to separate until after the holidays, call to ask if there is anything that can be done to help them stay together. They are desperate as they head "over the cliff," a term I use in, All You Need Is Love And Other Lies About Marriageto describe spouses who say they want help, but have irrevocably decided to get a divorce. They have little genuine interest in preserving their marriage, as their emotional relationship has, in fact, ended years ago. Tragically, by the time they have come to seek couples therapy, they are in their final act. There is no turning back, no turning things around. For the over the cliff spouse, there already is no possibility of moving forward together.  

How does this happen?

When we marry we want to believe that we have found our soul mate, someone who is very much like us. In love, we dimly perceive our differences and, if we do notice them, we tend to minimize or ignore them. As time marches on, the inevitable cracks begin to show and become sources of tension, disagreements and too often, strife. Added stresses like illness, financial problems and children can increase the strain these differences have already created. 

In the beginning, the intensity of our attachment helps us believe that we will solve our problems and stay together no matter what. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, most of us simply want this to be true. However, just as with our elected representatives, spouses can become so polarized with the other’s positions, that compromise for the greater good becomes impossible. In marriage, even when it seems like there is a resolution, the end result often leaves one spouse dissatisfied. And, once the problem is resolved, spouses (unlike most Republicans and Democrats) not only have to coexist, but must also find a way to live with each other, function as partners and remain lovers. This turns out to be a tall order for most men and women in our culture.

While the tendency to solve problems at the cliff's edge may work for the US Government, it will not for most marriages. In marriage, waiting to the last minute often turns out to be years too late. Because we believe the marital bond will hold together “till death due us part,” when tensions enter the marital dyad, we continue to assume that everything will work out. Though this is occasionally true, making this assumption is a terrible mistake.

Complacency is the enemy that tells us to ignore the corrosive aspects of unresolved conflicts that build up between us. While we are being complacent, we may be slowly giving up on our marriage. We fall out of love and soon find that we have dropped over the marital cliff. Frequently, while this is happening to one spouse, the other does not realize it. 

Resentment is the fuel that drives couples over the cliff. It also makes us more stubborn, getting in the way of our ability to solve our differences. Initially, anger often serves the purpose of trying to get a spouse to change behavior. But, when it doesn’t work (very often it is actually counterproductive), we increase the volume, hoping that will get us heard. Eventually, when anger fails to produce the desired results, frustration builds and resentment takes over.  Without change, we begin to give up and ultimately, we become apathetic. There is very little time between the onset of apathy and the drop over the cliff. There is a lot more time between the beginning of angry confrontations or dissatisfactions and the build up of intense resentment, withdrawal and apathy.

The time to overcome complacency and get help is as early in this process as possible. While you are annoyed, getting angry or dissatisfied, there is still hope. Marital therapists have many techniques to help you resolve your differences in respectful, loving ways. Once you stop caring though, it is usually too late. If you or your spouse is feeling resentful, think of it as a marital crisis and get help. Left unchecked, it will inexorably push you over the cliff. 

Our government may at times be dysfunctional, but even if it has gone over the fiscal cliff it will endure.  However, once over the emotional cliff, your marriage has ended. Even if you manage to stay together for life, you are accepting living in a dead relationship, wishing every day you could leave or have something better. Do not wait for the last minute to avoid the cliff. By then it will be to late.

Are you approaching the marital cliff? Share your story with us.

John W. Jacobs, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. Author of All You Need Is Love And Other Lies About Marriage (Harper Collins, 2004), he teaches couples and family therapy at the NYU Child Study Center. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.

About the Author

John W. Jacobs M.D.

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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