As Avery and Jack entered the office, the tension in the air was evident. They politely found their respective chairs and sat for a moment frozen in awkward silence.
In asking what brought them into therapy, Jack quickly spoke up and began to share his story. Mostly it was about Avery. He loved Avery, wanted to build a life with her, but he had the strong belief that she needed help. All she did was complain. He couldn’t do anything right. There were times when she was crazy and he just couldn’t handle it anymore. He had tried to be patient. Tried to be supportive. Tried to be a good husband.
Then I heard Avery. Her story didn’t sound anything like Jack’s description of events. She was exhausted from his working late, his lies, his lack of involvement with the children. He was selfish, perhaps a narcissist, she pondered. He never cared for her, considered her. He was always angry and his only concern was for himself. She too, had tried to be loving and supportive, tried to be a good Christian wife. Still, she could not take it any longer.
So who was right, you may ask? In reality, they were most likely both right and both wrong. They both probably had some legitimate grievances, resentments and wounds. Yet they will remain stuck, they will continue to drift further apart, their hurts will fester unless they can change how they interact with each other and learn how to resolve their differences effectively so they can build the strong, loving bond they both desire.
There are four things that couples do that keep them stuck.
1. They blame – There is nothing more isolating than blame. No one wants to own responsibility, no one wants to be at fault. Blame allows individuals to focus their dissatisfaction on someone else so they never have to look at themselves. Blame always makes one partner the victim and the other the perpetrator. Blame backs couples into corners from which there is no escape.
The truth is that there are few situations where one person is entirely to blame. In any relationship, both partners contribute to what’s going right as well as to what going wrong. As long as you continue to point the finger at the other person instead of looking in the mirror, you will remain stuck. There is little room for options.
Though you can never change your partner, you can change yourself. Tyler Ward, in a recent Huffington post article offered, “the goal of marriage is not happiness (contrary to popular understanding). The goal of marriage is personal reformation.” Your partner is not responsible for your happiness, nor are they responsible for your unhappiness. It is not their job to fix you, fill you or make you happy. That is your job, with God. You will find peace as you learn to use your marriage as the God-given environment to heal you, teach you and grow you.
2. They criticize – Criticism is not a complaint. Healthy couples can complain about many things – the dirty dishes, the overdue bills, the missed parent-teacher meeting, but when the complaint morphs into an indictment about the other person, it becomes a criticism. The focus is on their character, not their behavior. “Always” and “never” become familiar interjections into any conversation. Sarcastic comments become the norm.
Criticism will never heal or grow a relationship. Criticism will never yield safety, intimacy or trust in a relationship.
Marriages thrive when there is open, honest, calm and respectful communication. All marriages will have disagreements, but it is how couples disagree that will either make them view each other as an adversary, or will allow them to work together on the same team to overcome, to collaborate together, to effectively resolve whatever differences they may have.
3. They don’t listen – Whether it is in the therapist’s office or at home, it seems individuals have lost the art of listening. Oh, they think they are a great listener. They lean in. They absorb every word. Yet as soon as their partner is finished sharing (or sometimes even when their partner is not finished sharing), they are ready to pounce, to defend, to defeat, to win. Sound familiar?
We’ve all experienced this type of exchange in a relationship. Many individuals inherently do not like conflict and tend to approach a disagreement as they would a boxing match. The object then becomes to keep pounding until the opponent is knocked out and the official lifts the other’s arm high into the air to declare him/her the winner. This may work well in a boxing ring, but it will never bring the healing and satisfaction that working together on the same team can bring to overcome the obstacles of life together. Nothing can compare to having two winners.
Becoming a good listener is one of the best things you can do to keep your marriage from becoming stuck. Listen, not to rebut or defend, listen to understand. Resist the urge to interrupt. Validate your partner. Find something you can affirm in what they said. Your marriage will become a refuge for both of you to share your hearts and find creative solutions to the issues in your lives.
4. They shut down – One of the most destructive behaviors to relationships is shutting down. Many individuals believe that they are more healthy, more sophisticated because they refuse to engage in conflict. They feel they are “reflecting” when they give the silent treatment. They feel that the best solution to a disagreement is not to have a disagreement. So they shut it down at all cost. They refuse to argue. They avoid conflict. After a few hours or days pass and the coast appears clear, then they pretend everything is great and move on.
Shutting down will never resolve a conflict. It is passive-aggressive. It says to your partner that you will not be disagreed with, questioned about, or held accountable for anything. Shutting down sends the message that you are not only shutting down a potential disagreement or conflict, but you are shutting out your partner. There is no way to build safety, openness and intimacy in a relationship where there is fear of being shut out.
Stay present. Remain connected. Resist the temptation to walk away, even when you feel uncomfortable. If you feel yourself flooding, take a short time-out so that you can calm yourself, but immediately come back to the discussion. See the discussion through to the end, whether it brings resolution or not. You can agree to disagree. You can create a safe place to work through your most difficult and sensitive issues.
Do you feel stuck in your relationship today? In what ways have blame, criticism, not listening, and/or shutting down prevented you and your spouse from working together through issues? Which ones are your “go-to” defenses that you use to deal with conflict in your relationships?
Take a moment to reflect. Pull out your journal. Ask God to reveal the ways in which you’ve acted to keep your marriage stuck. Take an honest assessment.
How does God want to use your present situation to heal you or grow you?
No matter what anyone else chooses, do your part to keep your relationship from getting stuck. One person can have a great impact on creating an environment for a relationship to heal, to grow, to thrive!
Tags: relationships, stuck, blame, criticism, shutting down, not listening, healing, peace, collaboration
 Tyler Ward, “Three Reasons To Stay Married,” Huffington Post, June 30, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tyler-ward/3-reasons-to-stay-married_b_5539959.html.