4 Ways Your Marriage Is Slipping Away

Why is it that people are so incapable of seeing the problems in their marriage coming?

by Lee Baucom, Ph.D.

Why aren’t they better prepared for the difficulties?

Simple. Life kept them distracted.

In the process of dealing with “out there,” couples forget to deal with “in here,” inside the relationship, inside the connection with each other.

One day, one or both wake up, look at the other, and are amazed at the disconnection and frustration.

How does that happen?

Is it some malevolent person trying to destroy the relationship?

In my experience, the people involved in a dissolving marriage are not mean, not vicious, not evil, and do not mean to cause pain.

Instead, they are people that did not notice the building problems. They didn’t know the storm was brewing, and didn’t know their actions (or inactions) were strengthening the storm.

I have noticed 4 very significant points where couples are destroying the foundation of their relationship, and are not aware of it.

These 4 points are all avoidable, if you know they are trouble spots.

But the time to take action is before the storm comes. After that, the recovery is much more difficult (not impossible — just more difficult).

Here are those four points:

Couples place their relationship “on hold.”

Kids, careers, friends. . . life. Families are often built in the early stages of a marriage, at the same time that careers are being established. Often, people are still very connected to their friends and hobbies.

I have heard it many times. People thought their marriage was “on hold,” “paused,” waiting for the stage of life to pass. One or both may somehow believe that when everything slowed down, they could return to the relationship and pick it up where it was.

Unfortunately, like many areas of life, there is no “pause” for relationships.

They are either growing or deteriorating.

“Pausing” begins the process of disconnecting.

Disconnection leads to hurt and frustration. More than that, since we all need connection, when the disconnection deepens, it leads to hurt and resentment.

The hurt and resentment continue to perpetuate further disconnection. They cycle deepens. And a marriage “on pause” simply becomes a disconnected relationship, fueled by hurt and resentment.

Individuals change and grow, but without communicating it.

Whether people marry younger or older, individuals grow and develop.

In fact, the age of the couple at the time of marriage has very little impact on the chances of the marriage surviving. I have had couples argue it both ways: “Since we are getting married so young, we will grow up together.” “Since we are getting married a little older, we have grown up, and know what we want in life.”

The fact is, getting married young or waiting to get married is less important than both people letting each other know about how each is evolving.

Unfortunately, how we are changing as individuals is often almost invisible to ourselves.

We don’t always even notice how we are changing, ourselves.

Which is why it is crucial for couples to continue having those conversations about what is important to each of them in life.

Let’s go back to how most people fall in love: we share our inner life, our hopes, our dreams. We talk about our experiences and how they have formed us as people. We discuss politics, beliefs, social issues.

We basically spend those early days of bonding by telling each other of h0w we have grown into the people we are.

And then, we stop.

Sometimes, it is gradual. For many couples, it is abrupt.

Somehow, there is an assumption that the other person knows you, so why continue to share?

Or life gets busy (see #1, above), and conversations become planning sessions or gripe sessions.

Couples end up talking about all the things that are on the schedule or all the things that are going poorly.

The mundane and frustrating take over the dreams and hopes.

Aspirations disappear from the conversation, covered over by the minutiae of existence.

Few people feel much connection in a discussion of the very busy schedule that is keeping them from connecting. Fewer people feel much connection in conversations that only cover the frustrations of the day.

We humans are aspirational, driven by dreams and hopes. We are pulled into conversations about those hopes, but tend to pull away from conversations about all that is going wrong.

Is there room for sharing those frustrations?

Absolutely! That is part of being in a supportive relationship. The problem is when the preponderance of the conversations are focused on the frustrations.

A focus on the frustrations keeps people locked into the feelings of frustration. And the more locked into those feelings a person is, the less capable that person is of seeing the other elements of life — the points of connection, of love, of respect, the view of the other person and of life in more complete ways.

When we become uni-dimensional, we skew our perceptions, reinforce those perceptions, and fail to notice the many challenges to those perceptions.

Conflicts are down-played and buried.

Sometimes, people come to believe that if there is conflict in a relationship, then there must be a problem. We have the mistaken nature that a conflict-free relationship is proof of a strong marriage.

In Scott Peck’s book, The Different Drum, Peck describes the path to true community. He describes the first stage as “pseud0-community.”

I have borrowed his idea and placed it in the context of connection between a couple — intimacy.

From that frame, I discuss “pseudo-intimacy,” a stage marked by pretending that “we are just alike.”

A couple marvels about being on the same wavelength, of sharing identical beliefs and values. As proof, they point to the lack of conflict.

In reality, this is a couple where one or both have refused to be honest and admit differences of opinion. For the sake of maintaining pseudo-intimacy, the disagreements are avoided or denied, leaving a growing chasm between them.

You see, the conflict and disagreement do not go away. It is just buried, slowly eroding away at the relationship.

Recently, in Australia, a coal mine caught fire. It is not the first coal mine to do so. A number of others around the world have caught fire. Sometimes, the fire erupts from the surface, as in Australia. But other times, such as in Centralia, Pennsylvania, which has been burning for 50 years, or in Jharia, India, which has been burning for nearly a century, the fire eats away at the underground, mostly invisible on the surface. But as has happened in India, the burning coal finally gives way and collapses the surface, swallowing buildings and homes.

The same thing happens with buried conflict and anger.

The hurt and pain eats away at the foundations of the relationship, often invisible to the people in the relationship and to those surrounding.

As the buried conflicts build, a low-grade level of resentment begins to build. Resentment is the left-over unprocessed anger from these conflicts. Sometimes, the conflicts have flair-ups that go unresolved. Other times, the conflict is just ignored or avoided.

But the hurt is there. The hurt turns to anger. The anger, unresolved, becomes resentment. And resentment becomes a systemic infection to the relationship, killing connection and numbing people to the relationship.

One day, someone realizes that he or she is numb to any connection with the spouse. The feelings of love have evaporated, the connection is gone, and they are too exhausted to care. At which point, the other may proclaim, “I never knew we had a problem. We never even had a fight or argument.”

The sad part of this process is that it was avoidable when there was a stronger connection. When there is connection, a true and honest resolution to the conflict allows the couple to move through the stages of intimacy, finally arriving at genuine and authentic intimacy.

Boundaries and expectations are never clarified.

When I visit with a couple before they get married, as they prepare to go into the new relationship, I ask this question: “How will you protect this relationship?”

I am usually met with a perplexed stare. Neither have thought about it, as neither can imagine either of them placing the relationship at risk.

Which is when the seeds of trouble are already sown.

A couple of years back, we had some bare spots in our back yard. I willingly admit, I am not big on lawn care. What I do, I do because I don’t want the neighbors to look down upon me. But left to my own choices, I would live in a very natural surrounding, with little grass to be cut.

However, in our land of suburbia, the neighborhood is much more about a well-manicured lawn, lush and green, regardless of the weather. So, I do my best to play the part of someone who cares.

Off I went to the lawn and garden section of the home improvement store (which shall remain nameless). Without any research or reading, I grabbed the cheapest bag of “grass seed” I could find. I place that in quotations, because in retrospect, I believe only a small percentage of the seeds were actually “grass.” The others were, well, weeds.

But off I went, throwing seeds all over the bare spots, and watered them. I did just what I thought was necessary to get that lawn into shape. But I hadn’t really thought through it, researched it, or considered it. I just thought, “throw some seeds, water, and enjoy the green.”

So in a few weeks, when I noticed how many weeds were growing, I began to work to control the weeds. Then, I looked into what I had done. The “contractor grade” seeds did produce a green lawn — just not with grass!

Once the weeds were in place, it was a much more difficult job trying to get the upper hand. They just seemed to multiply. And suddenly, a much more drastic intervention was required. I now get to pay a lawn service!

The same is true in a relationship. When we don’t think it through on the front side, we end up playing “catch-up,” often having to take extraordinary steps on the back-side. And that is especially true with boundaries of a relationship.

A “boundary” is simply what you will not let someone/something do to you or what you hold dear.

It marks the “boundary” of how you expect to be treated. For example, a boundary may be an unwillingness to tolerate someone yelling at you or calling you names. A boundary is step one; enforcing the boundary is step two.

Why are boundaries so important? Because the world is constantly encroaching on the relationship. Boundaries can include how you protect family or couple time, how you monitor threats to your relationship, and how you take care of your own health (mental and physical).

Often, couples quickly fail to protect the boundaries around couple time. They stop making efforts to be alone. They start allowing electronic distractions to overtake mealtime, leisure time, bedtime, and any other time that is left over. The distractions of life pull attention away from each other.

Other more significant boundaries include how you protect marriage vows. In fact, I am of the opinion that infidelity is a result of 1) lack of connection, and 2) lack of boundaries.

Any couple will go through times of more or less connection. The real danger point is when there is a lack of connection and a lack of boundaries. As I noted before, a lack of connection in one relationship leaves a vulnerability to seek connection from another relationship. Unless boundaries are in place that protect the commitment to the relationship, the low connection point becomes a high danger point for the relationship.

It is easiest for a couple to establish the necessary boundaries of their relationship when there is no need for the boundaries. When connection is high enough that neither want to be distracted by anything or anyone else, it is easiest to discuss the necessary boundaries.

But even when there is some level of disconnection, it is important to begin to build in boundaries to protect the relationship. Ironically, when the boundaries are secure, the connection becomes more secure. It feels safer to connect when the connection is well-protected and both are ready to protect the relationship.

What are YOUR weak points? What places do YOU need to shore up your relationship? Where do YOU need to resurface and settle issues, add protection, reconnect, and discuss what is important?

Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage.

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