Gavin and Isabelle had been married for 15 years when they walked into my office for the first time. For the last seven, they’d been stuck in an unhealthy, ongoing, painful relational cycle. Their relational cycle was one I often see: Isabelle would criticize Gavin over something. It didn’t matter if it was a big issue or just him needing to pick up after himself. But when he faced criticism, Gavin would react with further problematic behavior. Or he would distance himself for a day or two, either physically, emotionally, or both. Then he’d show back up and pretend as if nothing had happened.
And Isabelle would criticize him again, and Gavin would react again, and the vicious cycle would see no end.
The Problem Behind the Problems
More often than not, the problems that my clients first present are not the foundational issues they need to deal with. Sure, Gavin likely needed to work on picking up after himself. Isabelle needed to work on being critical of Gavin. But both of those issues were secondary to the main problem that was ensuring the cycle’s longevity in their marriage: They didn’t know how to work together as a couple to find a solution to their other issues.
In other words, instead of pointing fingers at themselves, they pointed fingers at each other. Though they may never have said it aloud, their every word and action revealed the deep belief that the other person was the problem in the relationship:
If he would just talk to me when we have a problem.
If she wouldn’t be so nit-picky about everything I do.
If he wouldn’t leave at the slightest hint of trouble.
If she wouldn’t yell at me so often.
The blame game is never healthy—especially when you play it with your partner.
Giving Up on Marriage
When marriages become stuck in such a cycle, a sense of hopelessness can set in. When one spouse can’t get the other to bend to his or her will, that spouse will feel helpless about ever seeing the relationship change for the better. When both spouses feel that way, the relationship becomes a great burden. But this is often the case when those who can’t control themselves seek to control others.
When a person refuses to take responsibility for his or her own actions, they tend to work overtime trying to get others to bend to their own needs. That’s why Isabelle criticized Gavin, and that’s why Gavin would escape from Isabelle. They were both trying to change the other person without considering how they had to change themselves first. Why? Because it’s easier to manipulate others or react emotionally than to take a step back from the problem and face your own issues as a mature adult.
Hopelessness ends when both spouses realize that change can occur, so long as that change is directed at the self and not at the spouse.
How to Work Together as a Couple
The answer can be simple, but the work required to truly enact that answer can be challenging. To break such an unhealthy cycle of blaming each other in the hopes of changing each other, spouses must learn to see themselves as on the same team. Whatever problems each individual spouse brings to the marriage is now the responsibility of the marriage.
Instead of working against each other by separately identifying his problems or her problems, both parties need to work together against every problem the relationship encounters. In other words, they never point fingers at one person or the other; they always point them away from each person and toward the problem that faces the marriage.
Practically speaking, this means that both spouses ought to learn how to phrase their questions differently. With a better appreciation of working on their problems together, Isabelle may now say to Gavin:
“As we discussed with the therapist, we get caught in that painful cycle that leaves us both feeling helpless. I would love to find a way to work together to break that cycle. One thing that may help is for me to work on how I approach you. I need to learn to approach you with kindness and respect, rather than come at you with anger and resentment.”
Gavin may say things like:
“When I feel criticized, I have a tendency to react back or distance myself and not deal with our problem. I need to work on turning back to you and the relationship, even when I don’t feel respected or valued in your eyes. I, too, would like to get to a place where we could work together against the problem, rather than pointing fingers at each other.”
Notice that they aren't sweeping their problems under the rug; they’re naming and identifying them. But instead of placing the blame and the solution on the other person’s shoulders, Gavin and Isabelle are open to seeking the solution together. They could see light at the end of the long tunnel they’d been stuck in for far too long.
Now, they still get stuck in this cycle from time to time, but at least they know how to break it by choosing to see the problem outside of each other. So long as both parties are willing to work on themselves and choose to work together against their issues, a hopeless marriage doesn’t have to end in divorce. In fact, such simple yet transformational thinking may result in a better relationship than either spouse had ever hoped for.