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The Wrong Reason for Staying Married

The institution of marriage should be intended to enrich our lives. Certainly we might agree that the purpose of marriage ought to be to enhance our life and further our sense of meaning, purpose and gratification. Yet this expectation meets with an incredible rate of disappointment, if not outright failure. Ironically, marriage often becomes the justification for people’s unhappiness.

The fact that more than fifty percent of marriages end in divorce is actually the lesser of the problem. The greater difficulty lies in the fact that the majority of intact marriages are far from joyful. And many people regrettably live out their lives that way.

Remaining in the discontent and lethargy of an unhappy marriage, dulled by the absence of a more hopeful vision, can be downright depressing. And yet, so many people resign themselves to such lives.

Many individuals in such relationships merely give up and don’t work on improving their relations. They stay stuck in their unhappiness due to their fears. Divorce, although tumultuous and potentially scarring, at least provides the possibility of better days. I’m not glibly promoting divorce but suggesting that we do every thing in our power to awaken our relationships and live more meaningfully. Let’s take a deeper look at this dilemma.

The Fear Factor

Fear is the greatest impediment to growth in our lives. Very often, people are literally afraid of sharing their true feelings with their partners. They go silent and angry rather than expose their more vulnerable feelings. The fear may run the gamut: the fear of divorce and its incumbent anxieties or simply the avoidance of coming to terms with a relationship that may be lacking in intimacy, passion or respect. Another poignant fear may simply be the anxiety of being alone and starting life over again..

When you stay married out of fear, the emotional paralysis that pervades further poisons the relationship. Staying together out of resignation – due to fear – results in an enigmatic dilemma. Such people won’t consider divorce, and yet they are convinced that their marriage won’t improve, so they don’t work on the relationship. This is the worst of all possible scenarios.

If you find yourself in this place, it’s essential that you address your fears. The fear of divorce paradoxically eliminates any chance of improvement in the relationship. It produces a state of inertia, and the ensuing stagnation and frustration make mediocre marriages even worse. They become imprisoning.

If we can work through the fears around separation, then we are electing to stay in the marriage not from fear but from choice. This movement begins to unburden the chronic state of unhappiness, and genuine marital therapy may begin. In other words, processing the fear of divorce is not necessarily for the purpose of divorcing; it is for the purpose of clarity. Am I staying married for the wrong reasons?

Fear filters our perceptions and participates in constructing our reality. The ways in which you see your partner are very much informed by your emotions, particularly anger. This anger may have arisen in part because you’re feeling mired in a hopeless relationship.

Getting unstuck permits you to either create a healthier relationship or to move forward. Either choice may be preferable to remaining unhappy without a glimmer of hope. Fear should not be a factor in your choice. Ultimately, the question is how much happiness you feel you deserve. It is not selfish to deserve happiness. In fact, to forgo your own contentment becomes a model of unhealthy self-sacrifice for your children – who will likely suffer in their own self-esteem by having parents who betrayed their own fulfillment.

For the Sake of the Children

One prevailing theme related to fear of divorce is that the act of divorce, in and of itself, will damage the children. People research multiple studies to substantiate this concern. By all means such an upheaval in our children’s lives should not be taken lightly. Divorce needs to be well considered, and navigating the children through this process should be undertaken with insight, reflection and empathy.

Yet, very few people consider the consequences of children growing up in unhappy yet intact homes, as they witness conflicted, unloving and uncooperative parental relations. Children tend to model what they see in their parents’ relations. Certainly, as parents we want better for our kids. Yet, the likelihood is that such children will incline toward similar marriages. Worse still, many parents claim their kids really don’t know anything is wrong with the marriage. The irony is that they will therefore normalize what may be a mediocre, disappointing or conflicted marriage. At least the kids ought to know that the marriage is indeed falling short of the mark. In that way, they can note the failure and aim higher for themselves when they come of age.

The legacy of unhappiness

Is this the legacy we want for our children? To be the best we can be as parents we need to model a level of authenticity in our lives. One in which we face our challenges and struggles and don’t succumb to fear. Isn’t that what we’d want for them? If you choose to stay married, commit to the process and model that commitment for your children. If your marriage precludes the opportunity for happiness, have the courage to face your fears. Let’s not claim that we’re protecting our children by exposing them to unhealthy relations. We need to face our fears, embrace them and choose to stay married from a healthy place of growth and hopefulness, not succumb to the deprivation of a joyless life.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

should-i-stay-or-should-i-goCountless people struggle with the answer to this most daunting question. As our relationship hangs on the precipice of making this decision, how we go about making the “right” choice is critical. Committed relationships are typically fraught with challenges and much emotional and psychological upheaval. Yet, these challenges are rife with opportunity at the same time. The opportunity is for our individual growth, and possibly, the growth of the partnership. Let’s look at what’s necessary for making an enlightened decision about the future of our relationship.
Anger
We should never make any life-altering decision from anger. Our wrath may feel justifiable and we need to appropriately express our feelings, but beneath the anger lays deeper and more authentic emotions, such as fear, sadness or pain. Try getting in touch with your more vulnerable feelings and take the risk of expressing them to your partner. Articulating what feels vulnerable is not weak; it’s just the opposite. It’s authentic. Love can flourish with vulnerable communication. Defending against our hurt feelings erects a barrier to true emotional intimacy.
When two individuals communicate their vulnerable side to each other, so much becomes revealed. It’s where our genuine self resides and it needs to be heard. If your partner is the “right” partner they’ll be listening and caring when you reveal your softer side. If they turn a deaf ear, you may have your answer.
Fear
Critical choices are often made or avoided from our fear of the consequences. I’ve seen numerous marriages remain intact due to a multitude of fears: being alone, concern for the children or financial consequences. Staying in a relationship because of fear is often ruinous for it imprisons the future vitality of the relationship. Resentment and anger are the byproducts of staying in a relationship due to fear, as both people stop hoping for a better tomorrow. And they therefore stop trying.
We often worry about the consequences of our actions. We should also contemplate the consequences of our inactions. Work through your limiting fears and you’ll be in a clearer place to come to your decision.
Am I part of the problem?
Can I say I’ve looked at my part in the relationship struggle and tried to see myself as my partner sees me? Have I moved past the right vs. wrong debate and tried to empathize with how they feel? Have I engaged in couple’s therapy and/or individual therapy? Have I tried to be the change that I’m seeking in them? If your answer is yes, then you may be ready to make your choice.
Ultimately a primary purpose of a relationship should be to enhance your life. Hopefully your union began that way. Over time the challenges that relationships stir up may cause us to feel diminished. This in turn fuels frustration and resentment and the energy of your relationship spirals downward.
To turn the tide of negativity in your relationship try to shift the energy that you’re both experiencing. In the downward spiral of negativity, our reactions and criticism of each other quicken.  When a client shares with me in therapy a positive feeling they had about their partner and I inquire if they shared that with the other person, the answer is typically no.  Criticizing and blaming each other become familiar, but ironically if we have a warm or positive feeling about the other, we resort to silence. Come out of the rut you’re stuck in and present your best self. If you partner is “right” for you, they’ll do the same.
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The 5% Rule — Breaking Through the Argument

 

failed communicationargumentEarly in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated in my ability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument and it was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being knocked back and forth, only no points were being won or lost. This kind of flailing about represents the low point in so many of our relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other – to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.

It came in the form of my asking the husband, John, (I’ve changes their names of course to protect their confidentiality) “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”

I was asking John to go against the grain and act counter-intuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering, the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.

I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting to her that she reflect for a moment about how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly she offered, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5% Rule.”

Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize if not ignore this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Out thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the insane goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” How do you think that works out in relationships?

Once your partner feels heard and moreover affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.

Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative or a business relationship.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important! But you need to set the stage so to speak so they can take it in. From there a healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect we are just as the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions –by definition — are not well considered or purposeful.

The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allow our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.

 

Learn about Mel’s live, interactive online workshop — Mastering your Communication Skills: Breaking Through to the Other Side.

 

mel photo 3Mel Schwartz, LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, couples counselor, and author practicing in Westport, CT, Manhattan and globally by Skype. He earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. Mel’s approaches assist people in working through limitations, activating defining moments, and embracing life’s uncertainties. His methods strengthen communication, create resilient relationships, build authentic self-esteem, and enable us to overcome anxiety and depression. Mel has written The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and the forthcoming The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love(Sounds True, Fall 2017). He’s authored 100+ articles – read by over 1 million readers – for Psychology Today and his blog, Illuminating the Possibilities. Mel works with clients globally via skype. He can be reached at Mel@melschwartz.com 
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For the Sake of the Children

divorceI’ve often heard people in conflicted and unhappy marriages claim that they are staying together for the sake of the children. Their implied message is that their children will be better off being raised in an intact family, spared from the negative effect of divorce. This position really requires deeper consideration.

As with many commonly held beliefs we owe it to ourselves to really examine them to determine if they’re valid. Often, they don’t really hold up under scrutiny. This may well be the case here. Several questions come to mind: Are we really staying together for the sake of the children, or are we fearful of coming to terms with our own lives (and in that case using the children as a scapegoat)? Second, is divorce necessarily harmful to children? Last, what are the effects of remaining in an intact family in which the parents are either conflicted or simply loveless? Let’s take a look at these questions. Read more

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Would You Like to Be the Partner I Want You to Be?

In my role as a relationship therapist, I’ve begun prompting couples to ask their partners, “Would you like to be the person that I’m asking you to change into? Would you like to be the partner that I want you to be?”

This type of inquiry quiets the tired back and forth, right and wrong ping ponging that gets us nowhere. It’s not uncommon to ask your partner to make changes in their beliefs, attitudes, or behavior to accommodate your wishes. Very often, though, this is met by an entrenched resistance from the person being asked to change. You should ask yourself if you’re resisting simply for the sake of resisting, or would the requested change be consistent with your own growth and personal evolution?

If what is being requested seems authentic and resonant with your growth, and you are nevertheless resisting, then you might want to pay attention to why you’re digging your heels in. If you’re caught up in the power struggle and keeping a scorecard of offenses, the path to amicability remains obstructed; the larger picture is surely being missed.

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I’ll Be Happy When…

What is the source of happiness? We tend to assume that happiness will come from a future event. It typically depends upon something else happening. The script often reads like this:

I’ll be happy when… I fall in love.

I’ll be happy when… I get married.

I’ll be happy when… we can buy our dream house.

I’ll be happy when… we can furnish the house.

Still, the anticipated happiness is elusive so we tie it to more future events.

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Creating Resilient Relationships

The wonder of first meeting and falling in love is in part due to the curiosity and passion of learning about each other. Regrettably, over time most relationships tend to wear down as predictability, distraction, communication issues and/or boredom set in. What can we do to ensure that our relations are resilient, that they have elasticity and bounce back from the stresses of life? We must learn how to keep our relations energized.

Relationships, and particularly marriages, are not closed systems that operate in a vacuum, but are open and natural systems that are part of much larger systems that greatly impact the health of the marriage. When we speak of a marriage, we are talking about so much more than the simple relationship of two people. The relationship of the couple is enormously impacted by infinite factors that would appear to be somewhat outside of the domain of the marriage, but they nevertheless greatly impact the relationship.

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Marriage: Work or Play?

Most marriages and primary relationships these days tend to focus more on expediency and structure than on substance and content. In a culture that promotes getting the job done, efficiency regrettably takes precedence over fun. Many couples have become most proficient at getting the job done well. They manage the home, the children and work, but they seem to have lost the capacity to have fun together. They may work well together, but they don’t often love well together.

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Commitment

Why Do We Mean by Commitment?

What does the word commitment suggest? It usually evokes a strong sense of intention and focus. It typically is accompanied by a statement of purpose or a plan of action. Very often, we utilize this word in regard to proclamations we may make about the seriousness of our relationships. For example, “I’m in a committed relationship,” or “ I’m completely committed to this relationship.” In such circumstances, what exactly are we saying? We take it for granted that the word or the expression means the same thing to all of us. I can assure you that it doesn’t.

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If marriage were a corporation, it would be bankrupt

 

The fact that more than half of marriages end in divorce is actually the lesser problem. The more telling consideration is that the majority of intact marriages are far from joyful. From my professional and personal experience, I’d venture that only a small percentage of marriages actually thrive. That’s a staggering rate of failure! Why would we permit these results? We’d never tolerate this rate of failure in our businesses or investments. In fact, if marriage were a corporation it would be bankrupt.

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