A marriage is a living family system. LIke all living things, a marriage can get infected with toxic agents that result in its death. Immunities provide a means to combat potential infectious agents. This article is about building your immunity to the three most common causes of marrage failure. I call these potentially fatal--to-your-marriage phenomena the 3 A's: addictions, affairs, and anger.
Beware. The 3-A's can be toxic not only to marriage but also to parent-child relationships, friendships, work relationships and all couple partnerships. So while I focus in this article on marriage, the same need for immunity from these toxins applies to all your relationships.
Almost all folks from time to time get impulses to do things that their head would say are out of bounds. Drinking a bit too much, getting a bit too friendly with someone of the other sex when your love has already been committed elsewhere, and speaking harshly when a cooperative voice would have been preferable are mistakes. Mistakes are for learning.
Mistakes like these create feelings of guilt and regret Those are the signs that it's time for figuring out what went wrong, a totally genuine apology, and learning. The learning is the basis for building an immunity. A small does of a toxic phenomenon can strengthen your immune system's ability to resist the sexual-drinking-anger impulses that might otherwise grow increasingly toxic until they get you in trouble.
A full apology like I describe in my PT post on effective apologies concludes with what you have learned that will enable you to prevent a repeat incident. Learning from mistakes in this way enables your painful mistake to serve as a vaccination against future similar mishaps.
A vaccinated relationship is likely to grow ever stronger and more loving over time. By contrast, repeatedly making the same mistakes instead of using small incidents as a vaccination against larger problems can lead to one of the3 A's.
Fortunately, you can get this vaccination without even making the mistakes. Simply being aware ahead of time of the dangers and necessary prevention measures can vaccinate without your having to suffer first from these toxic marital mistakes.
Costs of the three main marriage deal-breakers: Alcoholism, Affairs and Anger.
The 3 A mistakes can get you fired from the job of spouse. Alcoholism, affairs and anger, in addition to wrecking your marriage, can have profoundly negative impacts on your children. Modeling addictions, affairs and anger teaches your kids that this is what adults do. At the same time, addictive, sexually unfaithful and excessively angry behaviors teach your kids that attachments are unreliable and unsafe, making your kids less able to establish secure positive relationships as they reach adulthood.
Potential remedies that can strengthen your resistance, keeping your relationships healthy.
1. Addictions. If your usage of a substance like alcohol or drugs, or habit like excessive shopping or sports-watching, ever prompted someone you love to say to you, "Too much," listen up. The biggest mistake people make with addictions, alcohol and otherwise, is that they deny that they are over-doing it. They get defensive. They insist "I"m only drinking so much because ..." They claim, "You do it too.." or "Everyone drinks like that.." They minimize, "I just drink...."
Denial is tempting, and extremely self-defeating. Resist this temptation, and you have a chance at averting the potentially marriage-threatening consequences of an addiction that you persist in sustaining.
The remedy: Take your loved one's concern seriously. Seriously reassess your habit.
Ask yourself, "If I look at my drinking in the best possible light, what is it meant to accomplish?"
If the answer is that drinking enables you to escape from stresses in your life, it's time to face those stresses head on. Addictions usually are an alternative to addressing and resolving problems, marital and otherwise. Replace running away with talking about your problems with someone you trust.
If the stresses are from marriage problems, learn the skills for talking problems through constructively, without arguing and with positive outcomes. As I write in another of my blogposts about how seemingly effortlessly skillful couples talk over tough issues, smooth communication flow takes high level skills. You can learn these on your own with books or an online course or by finding good couples counseling. My PsychologyToday.com article on couples counseling explains what couple therapists do.
Continuing to do activities that are clearly self-injurious may indicate also that your psychological system is locked in what therapists called "psychological reversal." Treatment of reversal is a new frontier in the therapy world.
2. Affairs. To resist the temptations of a sexual involvement with someone other than your beloved, beware of letting yourself enjoy the early titillation phase of getting to know someone new.
A minor sexual flirtation outside of your marriage or other monogamous relationship can feel good. The problem is that sexuality is a slippery slope phenomenon. Initially the activity seems neither too slippery nor sloped....until one more step, and the swoosh...you're hooked.
The remedy. Plan ahead with your spouse your will-do's and won't do's by agreeing on prevention policies. Take early exits from potentially sexual situations. See my posting on the importance of recognizing and planning for the potency of new sexual connections.
Sexual arousal is addictive. Extrication from temptation becomes increasingly difficulty the longer you stay in a sexually energized interaction. Plan ahead how you will keep your distance from situations in which the magnetism could prove to be stronger even than your potent desire to protect your marriage. That plan, plus an agreement that you and your loved ones will talk openly about any temptations that do arise so you can confront them as a unified team, is your vaccination.
In addition, see my posting on how to keep your marriage strong and loving so you stay totally clear that the temptation of a sexually exciting situation is not worth the risk of what you could lose.
3. Anger, from quiet sarcasm to verbal or physical abuse.
Everyone feels angry in provocative situations. The question is how then to prevent angry feelings from erupting in counter-productive snide comments or hurtful actions. The temptation to speak out in anger can lead to an ever-worsening situation. Even low-level angry tone of voice, words and actions are bound to create trouble.
Sarcasm, for instance, is the best predictor of a spouse who will end up divorced. (Credits for this research go to psychologist John Gottman). Subtle sarcasm can sabotage a marriage quietly. High intensity anger with verbal or physical abuse more dramatically brings to an end either the marriage or the happiness of your spouse. Being married to a tyrant who tries to control you with anger is no fun.
Which brings up another aspect of excessive anger which is especially important to note. Beware of anger when the goal is to force someone to do what you want. That's anger in the service of controlling others. Others are for understanding, appreciating and respecting, not for controlling.
The remedy. Learn about anger, and how to corral its arousal into constructive outlets. Take an anger management course. Find a therapist who can do Bradley Nelson's emotion code techniques to decrease your tendency to anger arousal. (cont. on next page)
In my PowerOfTwo program we teach that Anger is a stop sign. At a stop sign, you pause to look about, define the problem, and figure out a safe way to proceed. You wouldn't pick up the stop sign and batter people with it. So instead of battering people when you're mad, calm down, figure out what you want, and find a more effective, less-damaging, non-angry way to get it.
The madder you let yourself get before you stop interacting, the more your anger is likely to surge making the drive to anger orgasm increasingly difficult to resist. Early exits from potentially upsetting situations therefore are essential. Leave the room. Don't stay and explode.
The good news: All three of the big A's are problems that can be prevented beforehand. Just be sure that you pay attention to your little voices when they whisper to you, "Danger. Wrong way. Turn back!"
Harvard graduate, marriage counselor and clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is author of The Power of Two, The Power of Two Workbook and the interactive website PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, which teach the skills for couple success.
In Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, addictions is one of the "more" topics. See the free website with handouts and videos on anger, addictions and more at prescriptionswithoutpills.com.