Photo by Steve Greiner
To the neighbors, 1518 Austin Street looks like the place to be. It's a beautiful old home with a stunning addition taking shape in the back. Contractors go in and out daily. The owners, Rob and Jane Benson, are a bright, attractive couple in their late thirties. They both work full time and are hands-on parents as well. They sponsor youth group at their church. Rob coaches their eight-year-old's soccer team, Jane co-leads their ten-year-old's Girl Scout troop, and they always have at least one parent at their fifteen-year-old's gymnastic meets. The two older children also take music lessons and play with their school bands. And that's just the regular stuff—it doesn't include the social invitations that come to all of them. The Bensons' kitchen calendar sags with inked-in notations of things to do and places to be.
But that's not all that's sagging. Rob and Jane are having a lot of trouble holding up their marriage these days. It's nothing they can put their finger on; they're just not enjoying each other much anymore. In fact, they're really not even talking much anymore, except to try to juggle schedules and responsibilities or to make decisions about their construction project, both of which, more often that not, end up in tension and frustration. Satisfying sex has become a hazy memory. The couple at 1518 Austin Street is beginning to wonder if their marriage will last long enough to finish raising the kids.
What's the Matter Here?
Rob and Jane are like many couples who are having increasing difficulty with their marriages but can't quite figure out why. No one is having an affair; no catastrophe has struck. Life actually seems to be going pretty well. So they begin to think that perhaps they just weren't meant for each other after all.
The good news for Rob and Jane is that they're actually very good for each other. The bad news is an environmental hazard threatens their marriage.
No marriage exists in a vacuum. We are all affected by our culture and the circumstances of our lives. But while some things—the national economy, chronic illness, a death in the family—are beyond our control, we do have a say about many of the factors that affect our lives. Many couples wondering about the viability of their marriages might be pleasantly surprised to rediscover how much they like each other once they make significant changes in the parts of their lives that lie outside their home.
The Bensons' marriage is bombarded by toxic busyness, a common hazard in a culture that wears busyness as a badge of honor. Some other environmental hazards that impact marriages are stressful job situations and relationships with friends and family members that compete with the marriage relationship. These hazards create weak spots in your relationship and can do great damage. But, just like the following couples, you can take action to protect your marriage.
Busy in Suburbia
It's important to notice that everything that Rob and Jane Benson are involved in is good, even praiseworthy. But they have lost their focus on each other. Though they know they're busy and fatigued, they're more inclined to blame each other for their marital unhappiness than the outside elements that are leaching energy and affection from their relationship.
There is hope for Rob and Jane, if they can stop long enough to remember how important they are to each other and can give their marriage the priority it needs. The house, jobs, kids, friends—all of these are important parts of life, but they can all damage their relationship if Rob and Jane can't find a way to give their marriage the best of their time and energy.
They have a lot of options. Perhaps they can curtail or postpone some of the work on their house. Maybe Rob and his son could switch to a less time-consuming soccer team, or Rob could play a less intensive role. Likewise Jane might consider heading up the cookie sale or helping out on camping trips rather than being a troop leader. Certainly both can set limits on how many social engagements they accept and collaborate with other parents on carpooling for their kids' social events.
None of these are necessarily easy decisions—but it's a matter of letting go of some good things for the sake of what's best for the marriage.
While the Bensons needed to deal with the stress of social pressure, sometimes the outside stressor directly affects only one partner in the marriage. That person then needs to make the primary decisions and changes.
That was Sam's situation. Nine months into a new job he had been honored to accept, he was coming home almost every evening silent and peevish. After a dinner filled with conversational dead-ends, he would watch TV for the rest of the evening, sometimes even falling asleep there.
Laurie, his wife, was hurt and bewildered. Sam's withdrawal made her wonder if he had stopped loving her.
The truth was, Sam was struggling with his new position. It required skills that didn't come naturally to him, while offering few opportunities to use the skills he was proud of. But instead of determining that his new job was just not a good fit, he had become consumed with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. He didn't talk to Laurie about his struggles because he feared that she also would see him as inadequate.
Sam was forgetting that Laurie had fallen in love with him long before this job had appeared. He was allowing his outside stressors to damage his normally good communication with his wife. Yet closing himself off from her only exacerbated his feelings of alienation and self-contempt by shunning her delight in him.
The dam finally broke when Sam was assigned to head up a project that he knew he would hate. He let forth a torrent of frustration about his job. Relieved to discover that he wasn't angry with her, Laurie listened easily. Far from despising him as Sam had imagined, she was tremendously sad about his long, lonely struggle.
As he described his situation, she could see that the job didn't fit his strengths, and she was surprised that he expected himself to excel at things that, in her view, weren't him. As they talked, Sam became more clear about what he was missing and began to envision the kind of job he did want. Together they agreed that he would stick out this job for a while longer but begin immediately to search for a new one he could really enjoy and grow in.
By making his "external stressor" a challenge for the two of them to tackle, Sam rediscovered Laurie's confidence in him and revised the way he was seeing himself. And his renewed self-respect allowed him to experience again how much he loved Laurie. For the first time in months, they went to bed at the same time.
In the same way a job can stress-out your marriage, so can other people's influence in your marriage. Take the case of Pam. A stay-at-home mom by choice, she nevertheless often felt isolated and frustrated by the demands of caring for two preschoolers. Her growing friendship with her neighbor Susan became more and more of a lifeline for her. Collaborating on projects and childcare, they were soon spending most days together. Although some of Susan's values were different from Pam's, Pam found herself turning more and more to Susan for comfort and advice when she was frustrated or unsure of herself. It seemed that Susan really understood her in a way that Pam's husband, Ken, never had.
Susan was unhappy with her husband and had no qualms about cutting down both husbands—and men in general. As Pam's dependence on Susan grew, so did her dissatisfaction with Ken, and she let him know it.
It wasn't until Susan began thinking out loud about having an affair that Pam began to feel uneasy. She had always believed she would be faithful to her marriage, and she was shocked by how easily she, too, could imagine having an affair. But looking at her kids, she knew she did not want to put her home life at such risk.
It took courage, but (without going into details about her fantasies) she told Ken she was worried about their relationship and wanted them to go for marital counseling. Normally not into counseling, Ken was relieved that she even cared enough about the relationship and he readily agreed.
In their counseling sessions, it became apparent how important Susan had become to Pam and how much that friendship had driven a wedge in Ken and Pam's marriage.
Learning this, Ken at first was hurt and offended but over time was able to acknowledge his own part in the process. He had to admit he had been relieved when Pam had found such a close friend: it freed him from emotional demands he wasn't sure he could meet. So even though he had begun to be uncomfortable with how often he heard, "Susan says … ," he had been content to let things slide.
The counselor helped Pam and Ken work on their communication skills and, more importantly, their willingness to be open with each other about what they needed. So instead of criticizing, Pam began to take the risk of asking for more time and attention. Ken worked on listening more patiently and offering his wife comfort and affirmation before advice.
Pam also realized that if she were going to develop more intimacy with Ken, she would need to let go of her dependence on Susan, which was hard. But as her marriage became more satisfying, she was able to limit her time with Susan and begin developing other friendships.
Pam gradually regained not only her marriage but her own sense of self. Once a sacrifice, her distance from Susan now seemed a tremendous opportunity to be who she really was and to enjoy her genuine affection for Ken.
Joe and Marcy had an equally troubling relationship with someone who grated on their marriage. Five years into their marriage, Marcy was ready to quit. She had thought that moving 300 miles from her mother-in-law would lessen Mom's hold on Joe. And it did, except during their weekly phone calls or when there were decisions to be made or when they got some vacation time or especially when Mom came to visit. Then Mom's way of doing things seemed to prevail, and Marcy felt like an outsider in her own home.
Although Joe loved Marcy very much, he had not yet transferred his primary loyalty to her. It was easier to look to Mom for support than to start forging that kind of trust with Marcy.
But one day he caught the hurt in Marcy's eyes when his mom discounted Marcy's pride in her job and said she ought to be giving that kind of attention to her housekeeping. Joe himself was proud of Marcy's professional accomplishments and was taken aback to hear them dismissed so lightly. For the first time, he considered that his mom, and not Marcy, didn't get it. And for the first time, he spoke up on Marcy's behalf.
In that small incident, something shifted in their marriage. More and more Joe was able to see and appreciate who Marcy was—even in the ways she was different from his family. The more he championed Marcy, the more he eroded the dangerous hazard that once threatened their marriage.
You may find that an otherwise promising relationship is being contaminated from the outside. Identifying and addressing the problem together not only frees you from its impact but also will strengthen your sense that you are truly a couple, able to take on the challenges of life together.
Of course, it's not always easy to identify the environmental hazards threatening a marriage. But if a relationship is weakening, it's a good idea to hold off blaming each other and do an environmental check by asking some key questions: If you and your spouse are distant from each other, where are your time and emotional energy being invested? If you are not turning to your mate with your concerns, frustrations, or even joys, what keeps you from doing so? If the two of you are struggling with communication, what dominates your conversations with each other? If you are dissatisfied with your spouse, where are you turning for satisfaction? If you and your spouse are not developing a strong sense of partnership, where do your loyalties lie?
Answering any of these questions may point you to a relationship or situation that contaminates the process of bonding in your marriage. As you deal with the environmental contaminant, you will likely also uncover the difficulty in your marriage that it distract you from. Many people would like to avoid dealing with such difficulties, but if you are willing to—seeking help, if necessary—you will rediscover not only what first drew you to each other but also a deepening sense of union with each other.
Beverly Burch, M.A., LCPC, is a psychotherapist and Marriage Partnership advisory board member. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two daughters.
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