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.
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The Three Patterns are:
(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
(Who wants more closeness and who wants more personal time and space)—which can turn into Demand-Withdraw
With more detail now, we want to show you the negative side of each pattern and how it feels to be on both sides. In fact, it’s the lack of attending to the emotions inside the pattern that turns normal differences into dysfunctional relationships.
Pattern #1: Leader-Follower
If you’re in the leader part of the pattern, you’ll likely see yourself in the following emotions and actions:
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:
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.
Pattern #2: Conflict Initiator-Avoider
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):
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:
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.
Pattern #3: Pursuer-Distancer
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:
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:
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.
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What to do about Dysfunctional Patterns
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.