Forget The Fiscal Cliff, Couples Must Learn to Avoid The Marital Cliff

How does this happen?

When we marry we want to believe that we have found our soul mate, someone who is very much like us. In love, we dimly perceive our differences and, if we do notice them, we tend to minimize or ignore them. As time marches on, the inevitable cracks begin to show and become sources of tension, disagreements and too often, strife. Added stresses such as illness, financial problems and children can increase the strain these differences have already created.

In the beginning, the intensity of our attachment helps us believe that we will solve our problems and stay together no matter what. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, most of us simply want this to be true. However, as just demonstrated by our elected representatives, spouses can become so polarized that compromise for the greater good becomes impossible. In marriage, even when it seems there is a resolution, the end result often leaves one spouse dissatisfied. And, after the problem is resolved, spouses (unlike most Republicans and Democrats) not only have to coexist, but must also find a way to live with each other, function as partners and remain lovers. This turns out to be a tall order for most men and women in our culture.

While the tendency to solve problems at the cliff’s edge may work for the U.S. government, it will not for most marriages. In marriage, waiting until the last minute often turns out to be years too late. Because we believe the marital bond will hold together “’till death do us part,” when tensions enter the dyad, we continue to assume that everything will work out. Though this is occasionally true, making this assumption is a terrible mistake.

Complacency is the enemy that tells us to ignore the corrosive aspects of unresolved conflicts that build up between us. While we are being complacent, we may be slowly giving up on our marriage. We fall out of love and soon find that we have dropped over the marital cliff. Frequently, while this is happening to one spouse, the other does not realize it.

Resentment is the fuel that drives couples over the cliff. It also makes us more stubborn, getting in the way of our ability to solve our differences. Initially, anger often serves the purpose of trying to get a spouse to change behavior. But, when it doesn’t work  — very often it is actually counterproductive — we increase the volume, hoping that will get us heard. Eventually, when anger fails to produce the desired results, frustration builds and resentment takes over. Without change, we begin to give up and ultimately, we become apathetic.

Read more: John W. Jacobs MD, Psychology Today


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