If you put 100 marriage therapists in one room, and ask them to define what gets marriages stuck, you would likely get at least 15-20 various theories and philosophies. Here we want to cut right to the heart of what nearly all experts would agree with by offering you a basic understanding of how marriages “work” and how they “break.”
Marriage basically boils down to 3 patterns.
These patterns can get exaggerated and lead to stuckness or even marital breakdown. Knowing your patterns is the key first step to getting untangled and out of dysfunction.
Keep in mind that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the patterns—unless they get exaggerated and bite you. You may see gender differences in these patterns, but they are equal opportunity styles.
Leader-Follower (who takes more responsibility, and who goes along or sometimes opposes)—which can turn dysfunctional into Burdened-Under-Responsible
Conflict Initiator and Conflict Avoider (who regularly brings up what’s bugging them in the relationship and who hardly ever does)—which can turn into Flaring Up-Shutting Down
Pursuer-Distancer (who wants more closeness and who wants more personal time and space)—which can turn into Demand-Withdraw
If you’re in the leader part of the pattern, you’ll likely see yourself in the following emotions and actions:
- You give directions, convinced that otherwise nothing gets done.
- You hold the decision making “final vote” or orchestrate conversations that lead to decisions.
- It’s safe to say you feel that you care more about certain important things than your spouse does, as evidenced by their inaction or lack of initiative without you being there to remind/ask.
- The idea of taking a break is laughable or causes anxiety, feeling sure that little would happen if you dared to do so.
- You sometimes feel you have another child instead of a spouse/partner.
- You may be exhausted from feeling responsible for so much.
- You may resent your spouse, or you may blame yourself for “caring more than I should” about some things and putting a burden on yourself. In other words, you resent your spouse or yourself—or both!
At its most dysfunctional, a leader allows their own anxieties and need for control to leak over to their spouse, essentially making that person, and maybe the kids, responsible for “fixing” their anxiety or managing the controlling demands. This can result in a leader experiencing less support and respect from those around them, which of course can feed the anxiety and need for more control! Dive deeper about your leader role here.
If you’re the follower, you’ll likely recognize some of the following:
- You feel pretty good about what you are contributing, based on your expectations of how things should go, and can be mystified about why your partner doesn’t feel you’re “doing enough.”
- You are surprised that your spouse expresses exhaustion or burden because it seemed like he/she is doing what they voluntarily choose to do.
- There are “traffic lanes” in your marriage. You know which you can’t enter without getting in trouble (say, putting things on the calendar without a discussion first, or trying to do errands without checking in first on what exactly is needed.)
- It’s not uncommon for you to feel like your spouse makes life way harder than it should be, with over-the-top expectations of themselves or others.
- Fairly often you feel scolded for doing something wrong, or not doing something you weren’t aware you were responsible for.
- You feel there is no room to explain why something you agreed to do didn’t get done, resulting in you feeling like a little kid in trouble.
- When your spouse is in a good mood, you may convince yourself that there is an agreeable balance of responsibility between the two of you.
- You get more “instructions” than you like, but have learned to accept them and just say “okay.” You feel your input is not wanted.
At the more dysfunctional end, sometimes you just do things your way anyway by passively resisting, “forgetting,” or flat out refusing to engage in what may be otherwise reasonable requests from your spouse. You are sick of being treated like an irresponsible kid. Go in more depth here to get out of this dysfunction.
You are more likely a conflict initiator if you’re one or more of the following (keeping in mind you may only be an initiator around some topics and an avoider on other topics):
- Your spouse sometimes questions why you seem to always want to pick a fight, even though you don’t feel like you create “fights.”
- When something is bothering you, you often choose to bring it up soon and keep talking until there is a resolution.
- You are not afraid of tough conversations and think your spouse is.
- When treated wrongly by your spouse, or an in-law, you don’t simmer and keep quiet for long. You address the injustice head on and as soon as possible.
- You sometimes let your irritation and temper get the better of you, but you’re willing to apologize afterward.
- You wish your spouse were more like you in this area: get it out even if you’re angry and not completely polite, then work it out and move on.
When this conflict initiator role veers into dysfunction, or “flaring up,” frustration turns into being extra nit-picky, eagle-eye watching the spouse, making everything into a huge deal of things you let go of before. Part of you recognizes your edginess and quickness to battle, but another part feel it’s justified because your spouse/partner is stonewalling and avoiding the issue. Go in more depth here.
You are a conflict avoider if any of the following resonate:
- You generally prefer to let time take care of aggravations and hurt feelings, rather than risk a fight that can make things worse.
- You have to be really, really frustrated before you decide to confront your spouse directly about something.
- You may feel your spouse is a debater, not a listener, and you leave discussions more exhausted and unheard than before you started. You try to not have these conversations.
- When you do bring up something that’s bugging you, your spouse usually responds exactly how you thought they would—giving you more reason to believe it not worth trying to get through to them.
- You sometimes find your spouse exhaustingly demanding every time they’re upset about something, so you try to get out of the conversation as soon as possible.
- If you’re upset, you feel it’s your job to handle your emotions yourself instead of telling your spouse how you are feeling.
When you have a choice to argue or withdraw, you usually withdraw.
At its most dysfunctional, avoiders really do avoid almost all conflict. You may literally not be home as much, not respond to your spouse’s emails, calls or texts, or flat out refuse to discuss topics the other sees as important. You may have years of built up anger and resentment, and at worst, you’ve created a version of your spouse in their head, and never “fact check” what is really going on with them. Go more in depth here.
The final style is the pursuer-distancer. Again this is common and often normal, but can turn dysfunctional.
You may be a pursuer if you recognize yourself in the following:
- You resent that relationship issues (how you’re doing as a couple) never get discussed unless you bring them up.
- You see your spouse holding back from you—their time, their emotions, their energy, or their affection. You feel shut out.
- Talking and confiding in others are very important to you, and you wish your spouse took more interest in what you have to say.
- You wish your spouse was more open with you, and you try to pull things out of them—with limited success.
- You’re more likely to be the one thinking about the relationship day by day, coordinating date nights, and feeling the “heartbeat” of the marriage overall.
- You often think about ways you can get your spouse to relate to you more closely in emotional or physical intimacy, and you try direct or indirect ways to help that happen—again, with limited success.
At its most dysfunctional, the pursuer puts all sorts of negative emotions and thoughts into their spouses head (such as: he/she doesn’t care), and responds accordingly. When your spouse responds to criticism about not being close enough, he/she may have no idea what you pursuer really want, which comes across to you as obtuse and purposefully ignorant. This elicits more negativity and more distance from your spouse, which triggers your anxiety and makes you want to pursue more!
The other side of this style is the “distancer.” You may recognize yourself in the following:
- You see marriage ideally as a “low maintenance” relationship. If you love each other and treat each other well, things should work themselves out without a lot of “overthinking” and need to make continual adjustments.
- Not everything that goes wrong needs to be overly analyzed.
- You see your spouse as too needy, and then dramatic about not getting those needs met.
- “We need to talk” puts a pit in your stomach because you never seem to say the right things or have the “right thoughts” your spouse wants you to have in various moments or around different marital topics.
- You hear from your spouse that you put more energy into other areas of your life than into the marriage and family.
- You don’t see a good reason to talk much about what happened during your day. You’d rather just enjoy the moment and let troubles go away on their own.
- You usually feel drained after long marital talks.
- You figure that if something does need to come up about your marriage, your spouse will bring it up.
At its most dysfunctional, the distancer avoids emotional or physical contact, puts down the spouse as too needy, or claims to be too busy or stressed to deal with anything at home or in the marriage. Your spouse feels desperately alone, uncared for, and criticized for being too demanding. As the distancer, you create a self-fulfilling dread about never being able to satisfy your spouse, and put energy into maintaining a safe distance.
We all gravitate towards one part of each of the marital patterns, based on our personality, gender, culture, or life situation.
What’s important is to see your part of a marital “dance.” Appreciate, for your spouse’s sake, the downsides of each of your patterns, especially if they have become unhealthy and dysfunctional.
One of the greatest benefits to seeing an experienced marriage therapist is that you have an outside person see your personal and couple patterns for what they are, without judgement. You both are encouraged to become your best selves for each other. This doesn’t mean a personality overhaul but it does mean accessing the strengths of your individual styles and offsetting the downsides. This work also means questioning a lot of false assumptions you’ve made about your spouse, perhaps subconsciously.
Witnessing two people truly see each other, perhaps for the first time with true clarity, is one of the biggest reasons we marriage therapists venture into the heat, the battles, and the intensity of this work.
Your marriage is worth the work of understanding each other more deeply, without judgement, and then growing from there.