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Why Couples Fight

Why good marriages swing between distance and blame.

Here's what inspired me to write Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and The Coupled Up.

I was reading Michael Pollan’s slender volume about healthful eating called Food Rules, an eater’s guide meant to bring much needed simplicity to our daily decisions about food. “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk,” Pollan advises, and “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” His rules are all one needs to know to eat wisely and well. Eating, Pollan demonstrates, doesn’t have to be so complicated.

Neither does marriage, I thought to myself while thumbing though his book. Why not a book about marriage (defined loosely as couples in a long-term commitment)) for those who just want the rules, without the theory behind them?

Admittedly, coupling up is more complicated than eating, but I decided it wouldn’t be all that difficult to lay out 100 concise rules that make a relationship work, or at least give it the best chance of succeeding.

On the one hand, it shouldn’t be that complicated. People spend their hard earned money seeking the advice of relationship experts when they already know what they need to do to have a good marriage-- or at least a better one. By the time we’re old enough to choose a life partner, we’ve observed a number of marriages and have a pretty good idea about what makes things better and worse.

We know it’s usually a good idea to treat the other person as we’d like to be treated. We know that no one values criticism (even constructive criticism) if there's not a surrounding climate of love and respect--or at least respect.

OK, It’s not that simple. The divorce rate tells us that people don’t follow their best thinking , just like people don’t eat healthfully even when they know what’s good for them. Paradoxically, it’s in our most enduring and important relationships that we’re least likely to be our most mature and thoughtful selves.

Real life is messy and complicated. When we share a living space with another person, tie our finances together, negotiate sexuality and the countless decisions that daily life demands—well, of course things can go badly. Then there’s the baggage we bring from our first family, and all the unresolved issues of the past, to say nothing of all the stresses that pile up as we move along the life cycle. If we make or adopt a baby (never mind adding stepchildren to the picture) it’s more difficult still because nothing is harder on a marriage than the addition or subtraction of a family member.

In fact, it amazes me that all marriages don’t fly apart by the baby’s first birthday.

The older I get, the more humble I am about marriage. When anxiety spirals high enough, and lasts long enough, even the most mature relationship may begin to look like a dysfunctional one. To paraphrase the novelist Mary Karr, a dysfunctional marriage is any marriage that has more than one person in it.

I always remind my readers that even the best marriages get stuck in too much distance, too much intensity, and too much pain. Our automatic tendency toward fight or flight is hardwired, and marriage is a lightning rod that absorbs anxiety and intensity from every source. In case you haven’t noticed, stress will always be with us.

Life is one thing after another, so it’s normal for married folks to yo-yo back and forth between conflict (fight response) and distance (flight response). And just because the universe hands you one gigantic stress, it doesn’t mean that it won’t hit you with others while you’re down.

So your mother’s health is deteriorating, your dog dies, your son drops out of drug treatment, and your husband is laid off--all in the same year. Unless you are a saint or a highly-evolved Zen Buddhist, intimacy with your partner may be the first thing to go.

The rules in Marriage Rules may look simple but it’s difficult to make a change and especially challenging to maintain it over time. With marriage, as with learning a language or establishing an exercise routine, nothing is more important than motivation, good will, a genuine wish for a better relationship, and a willingness to practice, practice, practice.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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