Many couples suffer from ongoing low-level conflict that’s like a low-grade fever. They never feel well, and never get better. Learning to fight can help break the fever and return the couple to health.
Dave: Lately I’ve been reflecting on marriage, and the couples who come to me for therapy. I feel like I may be blowing in the wind. If I am I guess it isn’t too ridiculous. That’s where the answers are anyway. And if the answers are blowing in the wind, somebody must have put them there. Here’s what I’ve been thinking…
We live in patterns. How to have dinner, how to be sick, how to include humor, how to go about making love, how to celebrate holidays, how to have disagreements. Patterns for the most part make life work better, until they don’t. The patterns are created in relationships; what we create can come to dominate us. Patterns move from one generation to the next in a family. They are more or less unconscious.
When working with a couple, I have three patients, him, her and the ‘we’. The “we” of course is an invisible, but potent presence. The ‘we’ to a great extent is made up of patterns and a system of rules, created by the couple’s living. Even though they created the rule system they feel dominated by it. They think they are being dominated or disappointed by their partner, but it is the rule driven patterns that dominate and frustrate. Marriage therapy often begins with frustration with the partner. Both feel disappointed with the other. You would think one would get some benefit, feel in control, but that’s never the case, the frustration, the disappointment is equal in both partners.
Like most family therapists I encounter couples who are frustrated, angry, irritable and disappointed. They have disagreements and angry exchanges, but nothing gets settled or changed. That is to say they have conflict, but they are not good at fighting. They don’t have much idea of how to dispute anything. They become experts at neutralizing one another. One partner may specialize in withdrawing, or silence. The other specializes in criticism. Curiously, one of the commonest causes of chronic marital dissatisfaction, is the spouses tendency to be over-cautious with their partner. They have fights or disagreements, but don’t go far enough.
I am going to continue this discussion by using some gender stereotypes. So, if you don’t like stereotypes, plug your ears. For the most part women are better socialized than men. They are likely to grow up immersed in relationships. Women know a lot more about people. Men are more likely to be organized around things and time. They have learned how to hide from emotional women, and to keep their own emotions concealed. So if he is unhappy he stays away, goes to the garage, watches sports, works longer hours. It is up to her to speak up about what creates unhappiness. His best weapon is to withdraw, to drink, to ask, “Are you having your period?”, to brush her off, “Here we go again.”
For many years, I had a clinic where we worked with families with children and adolescents with ambiguous chronic illness. I worked with a great woman cotherapist. She would often say, commiserating with the over-burdened mother/wife in the family, “It sounds like you need a wife.” I would sit quietly, waiting to see where that went. Then one day, manly me decided to say, with tongue half in cheek, what I was thinking. “You make it sound easy. You underestimate how difficult it is to have a wife.” I happen to be a man who is blessed with a somewhat astounding person, muse, partner as spouse. But the experience of marriage, while an incredible blessing for the most part, can be hellish as well—at times. Life isn’t easy, and neither is marriage. The upset comes about out of the effort to change a pattern or to renegotiate part of the rule system.
But I am digressing. Back to “You make it sound easy. You underestimate how difficult it is to have a wife.” Much of the work inside the family falls to the “Wife”. Now there are some husbands who have been well prepared for marriage usually by their mothers, who are good at being a partner. They figure out how to change diapers, cook occasionally, take the kids to the doctor, talk to the teacher on the phone, plan vacations. But no matter, inevitable upsets occur. And most often it is the woman who brings up what is upsetting. She knows the most about interpersonal living, about relationships. She knows how to talk about relationships. He knows how to talk about sports, cars, poker. When she starts, he tightens up, “I am wrong again, I’m always wrong.” And, “You are never happy” are conventional responses, effective at neutralizing the intimate enemy.
Many, many years ago when I was still on my own, a friend who had been married three years said, “I’ll give you some advice, Dave. Never marry a woman!” Looking back, having married a woman, I have thought many times, one of the reasons I am glad I am a man is that I would hate to be married to one.
My grandiose self invites me to think about what I would do if I were elected God. What would I do to make the world better? An old friend, Carl Whitaker, a well-known psychiatrist family therapist, started me on this when he mentioned he heard God was thinking about retiring. Carl thought he would run for the job. He was always interested in finding ways for men to get pregnant and to breast feed in the hope it would make men, thus the world, more human. So one of the first things he would do when he took over would be to arrange it so that the gender changed after every pregnancy. She would have the first baby, then after 6-8 months she would grow a penis and become a man, and his penis would be resorbed, he would become a woman, and be prepared to have the next baby. After Carl died, I took over that idea and began to add to the platform because I am now old enough to run for the job.
I thought I would arrange it so that there would be no more PMS. No PMS, marriage would be easier; it would make life better for us men. But it occurred to me I had it wrong, getting rid of PMS was a bad idea. Marriage would get more distant. We need someone to be furious enough to say what was on their mind, to talk about what is hard to talk about, to go for it, to push the deadening status quo. PMS is needed to make the marital relationship more human, to increase intimacy and spontaneity.
So I teach people to fight for the fun of it. I ask the kids, who’s the most fun to fight with, mother or father? “Fun? Fighting isn’t fun.” Oh, well maybe you need some coaching. You know one way to get a masters degree in being married is by learning to fight for the fun of it. You find something to fight about that doesn’t mean anything, and give it your best. Like what flavor ice cream is best? Rocky Road or Mocha chocolate chip. If you can learn to fight for the fun of it, the “fighting” provides a way to change patterns that deaden the marriage, patterns that lead to dissatisfaction.
Remember, being married is one of the ways to get a PhD in being a person. And, of course, getting a PhD is never a walk in the park.