Sometimes people get caught up in their desire to always be right. The person who has all the answers. While seemingly attractive, this can play against you when you are married. Yes, you want your partner to trust you and see you as intelligent and competent. It is also important that we communicate to our partner that we trust them. To communicate that we believe in our partner enough that we would take their point of view over our own says “I would rather have a relationship with you, than be right this time. I would rather have a relationship with you, and send the message that I respect you, than to prove that I am smarter than you.” These moments occur throughout the day. When we come to an intersection, do we turn right or left? Which is the quickest way home? Rather than send messages about whether they are trusted as competent and intelligent, what is more important? That we get home two minutes faster by taking a right turn (the way you think is shorter), or sending a message about how your partner might be right and how they have a good sense of direction?
Is this you? Does this describe some of your interactions? Sometimes when we come to that intersection, we should say, “Well, it might very well be that way. You are good with directions.” or “Well, let’s try it. You are more familiar with this area than I am.” What are a few minutes? As the commercial goes, Time it took to get home, a few minutes longer. Gas to go an extra few blocks, 21 cents. Sending a message that you trust your mate, PRICELESS.
Nobody likes a know-it-all, and we pay a high price for maintaining this dynamic. We pay a price because we either get into a competition with our mates over who is smarter, more competent, a better parent. We send a hurtful message about how we think it is more important to be right in a situation than to honor our relationship. In other words, it is more important to be right than to be happy.
When feelings get hurt, a resentment dynamic may be formed. A resentment dynamic is a series of events that are fueled by a couple’s response to a problem; usually a behavior by one or both of the individuals in the relationship. This behavior causes feelings to be hurt and people to be discouraged and frustrated. In a true dynamic there is a downward spiral in the couple’s level of satisfaction, happiness, and connectedness. This downward spiral is due to the behaviors that follow the initial trigger event.
In a typical resentment dynamic, these behaviors lead to feelings of resentment and small changes in the way that we feel about our mates. These in turn lead to changes in the way we think about them. This in turn leads to small changes in the way that we treat them around the house. We start to do things that are in our best interest, not our mate’s. This may be short-lived or more long lasting. If the changes are long lasting, they create a new way that we treat them. This may include treating them with contempt, disrespect, or being more distant.
When we change the way we treat our mates this usually leads to a change in the way that they feel about us. As would be expected, this in turn usually leads to a change in the way that they treat and respond to us in return. There is a sense that things are different. Sometimes there is an understanding about what is generating this change in relations, but men in particular are often unclear as to the source of the problem until it is almost too late. In a typical resentment dynamic, there is a downward spiral of behaviors and responses to these behaviors that causes a cascade of problems within the relationship. The reality is that there are things we will do for our mates when we are getting along with them that we won’t do for them when we are angry or feel emotionally disconnected.
It is not uncommon in the process of developing a resentment dynamic that one or both individuals in the relationship will start to put more energy into some other activity such as drinking or drug use, shopping or their career.
If there is an effort to identify the trouble early on in the cycle, there is a good chance that long lasting problems within the relationship can be avoided. However, if there is any tendency to ignore the problem (men tend to do this but by no means have a monopoly on the strategy), it may cause greater problems, and, eventually anger and alienation forms. Catching a resentment dynamic early is essential in minimizing the effects on a relationship. Resentment dynamics are a negative feedback loop. This means that they fuel themselves. Do you have a resentment dynamic or a “downward spiral” in your relationship? How do you get off the train and snip this dynamic?
One of the problems couple’s frequently complain about in my sessions, is their partner’s tendency to hyper focus on their children. This act, in and of itself, is not unhealthy. In fact, it is quite healthy and the mark of a well adjusted person. The problem is that any strength can be a weakness if it is over used. It was John F. Kennedy that said, “Show me a man that is a good golfer and I will show you a man that is neglecting something.” In order to be good at something, you have to spend a great deal of time and energy focused on that activity. This same thing can be said of being a good minister, employee, and yes, even a parent.
In today’s culture of keeping up with the Jones’ and trying to provide for our children, the way that our parents did (or even better), we often find ourselves working 50-60 hour weeks and then trying to fit other things into our schedules. This can mean dance and music lessons, softball and soccer practice, and then the inevitable all day Saturday games and recitals. By the time we feed our children, run them to their respective practices, and get home, we have precious little time left to work on our spousal relationships. But remember, (and this may be contrary to popular culture, but it is important), the life support system for a family is a couple. Trust me on this, it is not a great mother or father, not time with the family, or lots of money, the thing your child most wants is for their parents to love each other.
When we fly, the flight attendant says, “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, a mask will drop from the ceiling. Parents should make sure that their own mask is in place before placing the mask on their children”. There is a reason for this. You have to be healthy before you can take care of your children. The life support system for a family is a strong couple; a couple that is emotionally connected and in love, a couple that a difficult child or mother-in-law cannot drive a wedge between. A couple that is strong and supportive of each other is the “core team” of a family. When a couple is close they talk to each other allowing the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. When a couple is strongly connected they gain intimacy from their partner and not from their children. This allows adults to be parents and not to feel the need to be the kids’ best friends. It is through their intimate spousal relationship that a couple’s relationship is fed and nourished, and their batteries recharged. When a person gets their needs met by their partner, they don’t feel the need to hyper-focus on the children.
Couples that are closely connected clearly show their children that they are the leadership of the household. A strongly bonded couple can’t be broken apart with a divide and conquer manipulation strategy some children try to use. I frequently tell my clients that they are the pond from which their children drink. If they become a desert, emotionally, spiritually, physically, then they cannot provide their children with the emotional energy they need to survive.
Some couples I counsel express feeling guilty when having an exclusive dinner with their spouse on the weekend after spending much of the week at work. And worse, even thinking about going on a vacation without the children. As a therapist, I frequently have to give couples permission to take time away to work on their relationship, communication, sensuality, and maintaining appropriate attachment/bonding. Husbands and wives who are unhappy with their marital relationship, as they have spent little time alone, rarely have the emotional resources to nurture their children the way children need to be nurtured. Regardless of the amount of time at the office, a couple should not feel guility about carving out couple time” to strengthen the “core team” of the family. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fine line between being selfish and providing appropriate self-care. While this runs counter to some couples’ way of thinking, I believe that the life support system for a family is “the couple”. Trust me, the best gift you can give your children are two parents that love each other.
Why do I say this? Because individuals who are unhappy in their relationships may redirect their attention to their children, sometimes even hyper focusing, in an attempt to bring some satisfaction to their own lives. However, when someone has a happy, satisfying, monogamous spousal relationship it allows them to appropriately focus their energies on their children.
Don’t make the mistake of believing that if your relationship starts to deteriorate you should fill the void with more focus on the children. This feels natural but it doesn’t work. It is at these times that the couple needs to focus on their marriage. If you love your children, you will not focus on them during difficult times.
Two parents in a great relationship are the idealic healthy marriage role models for children. Let your children see two people who are the leaders of the home. Yes, their parents argue, but they are respectful and resolve their differences. This couple has carved time out for themselves, and is the very self-care that is important in maintaining the integrity of the family. Carving out time for the couple will pay dividends both when the children are in the home and when they have moved on. When a couple works on maintaining their connection, the rest will follow.
Remember, if you are successful in your quest to stay connected, you will stay married. Nothing is more important to the health of your children than staying married. When researchers ask young girls why they didn’t get pregnant or experiment with sex early in their teens, their response was consistent. When girls had a father at home that they had a good relationship with, this kept them from being needy for acceptance and affection elsewhere. They also said that they would not want to lose their father’s respect, so they made choices to maintain their father’s approval.
Carve out time for your marriage; it will pay dividends in the long run. Carve out a date night. Carve out time away from the children to walk or talk. Couples need to maintain communication so that their children know they truly love them.
When doing “Resentment Reduction Therapy” I routinely administer the Resentment Rating Scale. I like it because it gives the therapy process a tangible direction. This is something that men in particular seem to appreciate. Not only does the couple get to list the things they are frustrated about, but each member of the couple also gets to look at their partner’s list. This is powerful because each of the items is given a strength. Items occur along a continuum from something they are not at all resentful about (0) through something that they are extremely bitter about (5). One would think that after all the arguments that have been survived in the process of a ten year marriage, each member of the pair would have a good idea of which items would be endorsed and what their number would be. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Couples are routinely surprised by some of the things they think are deal breakers and are rated less powerfully than expected. They are also taken aback by some of the things that they did not think were significant issues that come up on the scale as generating a good deal of anger or frustration for the other partner.
The Dorman Resentment Rating Scale
5 = Extreme resentment, almost constant anger or frustration
4 = Resentful thoughts on almost a daily basis
3 = Moderate resentment
2 = Occasional frustration or resentment
1 = Minimal resentment
0 = No resentment
____ 1. Working too many hours, too much focus on work related issues even when home.
____ 2. Too much focus on friends.
____ 3. Not enough physical intimacy.
____ 4. Too much focus on sports or hobbies such as______________
____ 5. Too much focus on the children.
____ 6. Not enough attention.
____ 7. Treated in a disrespectful manner.
____ 8. Pressure to perform sexually.
____ 9. Always angry, anger management issues.
____10. Money management problems, spending money “we don’t have.”
____11. Parenting problems, disagreement over parenting styles.
____12. Lack of intimacy (i.e., no interest in talking, “I don’t feel emotionally connected to you.”)
____13. Addiction to gambling, pornography, eating, or ___________
____14. Lack of trust, i.e. lying.
____15. Infidelity or affair
____16. Making decisions unilaterally / Not making decisions as a couple.
____17. Inability to resolve differences, lack of conflict resolution skills.
____18. Unfair distribution of chores or work around the house.
____19. “I feel betrayed because when we got married I thought it was going to be different”
____20. Manipulative or controlling, (i.e. things have to be “their way.”)
____21. ‘Bitching’, nagging, restating things several times.
____22. Game playing
____23. Never says what they really want, (“I have to guess what you really want or what’s bugging you”)
____24. Too passive “I have to make all the decisions” or too assertive “they always have to wear the pants”.
I have a saying… reality isn’t reality, perception is reality. In long term relationships, we create our own reality based on how we think or feel we are being treated. Reality or what is actually happening in a relationship is not what matters. What matters is what you perceive to be going on. This can be, depending on how close we are to seeing reality or how sound our information is, either very accurate or incorrect. If you don’t see reality for what it truly is, we often make up information to fill in the gaps. This, as would be expected, can add a toxic or poisonous element to any relationship.
One of the things that counseling does is to help each of the partners see things clearer. It often helps to explain irregularities in behavior so that inaccurate conclusions are avoided. The point isn’t, “Is my wife having an affair?” the point is “Do I think my wife is having an affair?” If an individual finds his wife closing her phone or laptop as soon as he walks into the room, he can become suspicious. If she has been working late and not around much, he may believe “she is cheating on me.” (When in fact his wife is planning a surprise 40th birthday party). With these “perceptions” in his mind, he may start to back away emotionally to protect his feelings. In other words, he goes into self-preservation mode. The husband’s withdrawal may lead the wife to feel that she is not trusted.
Whenever we don’t have all the facts in a situation, we tend to fill the voids with our own version of the story. We have a need to organize our thoughts so we can make sense of them. If our partner is doing something that we are having a hard time understanding, we start to form our own version of what really happened. Sometimes a normal activity (golfing, as an example), does not raise suspicions, however if a friend plants seeds of suspicions, “is he really going up north to golf?”, you may begin to wonder.
To ground ourselves in reality, clear and frequent communication between spouses is essential. When you start to sense something about your spouse that doesn’t add up or you don’t understand,start a conversation… or get help. You don’t want to start down the slippery slope of interpersonal alienation based on something that a friend said or something your partner did that you misinterpreted. Once it has been revealed that you over reacted you may not be able to recover. “Oops, sorry, my mistake”, may not fix the hurt feelings. At the end of the day, your partner is going to ask, “Why did you make that assumption? Why didn’t you just ask me?” Making erroneous assumptions becomes easier when you’re not speaking to each other. When you’re not communicating you are vulnerable to these kinds of misunderstandings.