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Avoiding Marriage Meltdown

Time and financial stresses, a radically shifting social culture, and changing expectations are only some of the pressures focused on marriage. To hold your marriage together takes more than mere romance—it takes knowledge, commitment and hard work.

The loss of intimacy

The reality is quite unlike the Hollywood fairytales. Happy, stable marital relationships are not built on just romantic love but on intimacy and understanding. That’s why they don’t usually last, except on celluloid.

For a marriage to survive, a couple need to become involved in a dynamic, interactional process, one that draws them together into a relationship in which they both take responsibility for meeting the other’s needs and resolving the problems that emerge. Through this process, they achieve a sense of mutual love, acceptance and intimacy that will last.

Many couples, however, find themselves totally unprepared to deal with the conflicts and problems that gradually begin to accumulate in their marriage. Without knowing exactly what the problem is, they become aware of a growing sense of frustration and hurt and a deepening sense of unrest over their loss of intimacy and understanding. As their relationship becomes overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment, the couple begins to think their marriage is a mistake. The feelings of trust, the sense of well being, the illusion of oneness, are shattered, and they lose their intimate connection.

Research reveals that a major prerequisite for achieving marital intimacy is a healthy, functioning relationship in which couples exercise two sets of abilities.

First, there is the ability to love and be intimate—which is demonstrated by (a) the degree to which they are emotionally close and available to each other—especially when things get tough—and, (b) the amount of importance attributed by both partners to each other and to their relationship.

Second is the ability to negotiate—which covers the way they control their emotionality, resolve their differences and problems, and make decisions.

Couples need to know that intimacy in marriage isn’t an instantaneous process. While some couples can connect with each other immediately most usually take years to develop a sense of closeness and understanding.

First signs of trouble

The level of marital satisfaction declines steadily across the early years of a couple’s relationship, finding its lowest level during the adolescent years of the family lifecycle. The key to improving marital satisfaction and preventing marital breakdown and burnout is for couples to regulate their negative emotions and find ways to eliminate dysfunctional and destructive interactional patterns. Frequently, they just drift into nagging, griping, and fighting with each other without realising how their negativity is eroding the positive factors that feed the health of their relationship.

Many marriages break down and end in divorce because people do not recognise the early warning signs that the marriage is in trouble. There are nine common warning signs that emotional distance is developing in a marriage as out lined the box below.

And there’s more!

When a marriage is in trouble there may be deeper issues that create barriers to intimacy. These include:

A fear of closeness, in which an individual finds it hard to share openly their thoughts and feelings, they find it hard to get emotionally close, for fear of being hurt. So they play it safe and keep their distance.

Unresolved anger, hurt, grief or personal issues will eventually erode intimacy. The mismanagement of anger is probably the greatest single barrier to intimacy in any relationship.

The need for power and control is another. Partners who are rigid, inflexible and controlling often manipulate things to stop them from getting out of control, or making them feel threatened, uncomfortable or vulnerable.

Low self-esteem may also play a part. A partner who feels inferior or worthless does not contribute much positive energy to the relationship. This often causes them to be tentative, uncertain or negative, making it harder for them to take the initiative. This can seriously affect the relationship. Most marriages find it hard to carry an emotionally hurting or wounded person for very long. Frequently this burden creates feelings of resentment in the other partner.

Jealousy, mistrust and doubting a partner or questioning their love and acceptance seriously undermines trust and confidence in the relationship. Sexual jealouy—which arises from the fear of loss and exclusion and involves feelings of anger, anxiety, and resentment—is particularly distressing, because it threatens the security of the marriage and blocks intimacy.

Finally, couples lacking a sense of realism about the relationship hang on to romantic notions of love and frequently expect unattainable standards. They demand levels of intimacy and togetherness that stifle the relationship and create feelings of frustration and alienation.

Warning signs of marriage meltdown

According to research by Relationships Australia there are nine common warning signs that emotional distance is developing in a marriage.

1. Complaints of loss of feeling. It’s quite common for one or both partners to complain that they no longer are in love with the other partner. Frequently, this loss of feeling is related to the fact that their anxiety and fears have been “bottled up” and not expressed—or feelings of resentment, bitterness, and hatred have been harboured by one against the other.
2. Recurring arguments that are not resolved. Research by Gottman, Markman and others underscores the damaging effects that negativity and recurring patterns of conflict have on a marital relationship.
3. Loss of interest in sex. Sex provides a useful barometer for the relative health of—and/or dysfunction in—a marriage. Couples typically will show a lack of interest in or attraction to each other, when they don’t feel emotionally close to one another.
4. Signs of depression or withdrawal by one of the partners. Feelings of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and helplessness, or a fear of losing the relationship, may cause one of the partners to withdraw and become depressed. A lack of sympathetic attention may account for a loss of enthusiasm and optimism more than stress or work.
5. The abandonment of joint activities. Where partners begin to live parallel lives, there is little opportunity for them to spend time together or share in pleasurable activities that increase feelings of attachment and bonding.
6. An affair. Becoming emotionally and sexually involved with someone outside the marriage can be a “cry for help” and a plea for both partners to acknowledge that the relationship is floundering and in trouble.
7. Preoccupation with interests and activities outside the marriage. The investment of time and energy by one partner in career, work, church, or other interests and activities may leave the other partner feeling neglected and betrayed.
8. Arguments over child rearing. Another significant warning sign is when fights erupt that divide the couple over their methods and commitment to rearing children. These disruptions can sometimes lead individual parents to form an alliance with one or a number of the children against the other partner.
9. Increased fatigue and the reduced ability to meet responsibilities at work. This may signal that a lot of emotional energy is being expended on negative relational issues.

Breakdown, burnout, breakup

Romantic notions of love fostered by our culture set the stage for the eventual burnout of a marriage. Burnout is the psychological price many are paying for having expected too much from their marriage relationship—an affliction that results when people expect that romantic love will give meaning to their lives and provide the answer to the problems of their human existence. Burnout occurs when an individual is emotionally exhausted and gives up investing in the relationship. They finally realise that despite all their efforts, their relationship doesn’t and will not meet all their needs, or that of their partner’s love will not bring them complete fulfilment.

Burnout, however, isn’t inevitable. Many marriages may end up being uncomfortable, devitalised and unsatisfying without being burned out. In most cases, couples will find a way to live with their differences and realistically accept that marriage is only one of a number of significant factors that contribute to their happiness and fulfilment.

The causes

Recent studies by Relationships Australia have shown that five years after the break up of their marriage, 40 per cent of individuals said they wished their divorce had never happened. They believed it could have been avoided had they only recognised the warning signs.

When couples see the signs that indicate that their relationship is struggling or “stuck” and are informed about the causes of their marital breakdown, they are better equipped to avoid their dysfunctional attitudes and behaviours, and thus prevent marriage meltdown. So what are the signs of an imminent meltdown?

1. Low commitment to the marriage. When couples get married, they make a commitment to three things—their partner, the relationship and a belief in the permanence of marriage. If they aren’t totally committed in all three, the relationship will suffer. When individuals over commit themselves to work, or go after other things, like sports or friends, and aren’t totally invested in the marriage, emotional distance, mistrust, and feelings of betrayal begin to emerge.

The conditions under which the marriage was established may also undermine commitment. If couples are immature and marry young, if they carry a lot of unresolved issues from their family or origin, or if they get married for wrong reasons (for example, to escape, to avoid loneliness, social pressures or pregnancy), that affects the level of bonding.

2. Unrealistic expectations. When couples collude to avoid facing their differences, they maintain a myth of oneness that negates a balance between connectedness and separateness.

3. Boredom. A great tendency exists for couples to take their partner for granted and become complacent. Complacency is one of the deadliest enemies of love. So too, self-absorption, neglect and condescension. When one person drifts along and refuses to confront these attitudes, their partner frequently ends up bored and losing interest.

4. Interpersonal incompetence. A happy marriage depends on two people having the skills to communicate and negotiate their way. Partners with low self-esteem or little or no ability to be assertive cannot contribute strongly and positively to the relationship and often fail to get what they need from marriage. The lack of ability to deal with jealousy, in-laws, finances and sexuality often debilitate a relationship and rob it of its energy and its health. Some partners who feel inadequate or cannot face the responsibility of sustaining the relationship resort to abusive and/or addictive behaviours.

5. An affair. Up to 25 per cent of marriages end because of an affair. Many factors push or pull individuals toward infidelity, including novelty, excitement, risk, curiosity, enhancing self-esteem, a desire to escape, boredom, feelings of neglect, a desire to prove one’s worth or attractiveness, a desire for attention, or a desire to punish. Research also shows that working couples are at greater risk of encountering an affair than any other group.

6. A developmental or situational crisis. Many marriages do not survive the emotional onslaught that occurs when crisis situations devastate a couple’s relationship. Situational crises, such as illness, death or serious accident, depression, unemployment or bankruptcy, can be difficult events to survive. Dealing with the “normal” crises of the family cycle (for example, having children, parenting teenagers, dealing with mid-life) can also destabilise a marriage and cause it to flounder.

7. An imbalance in the relationship. As a marriage relationship grows and changes, the balance of power shifts, causing couples to realign their roles and responsibilities. Marriages can see-saw out of control when issues arise such as educational inequality, personal dominance and control, differences in earning capacity, a wife returning to the workforce and becoming more economically dependent, or an imbalance in the power and decision-making process within the couple’s relationship.

8. Poor communication. Many marriages break down because of poor communication, verbal and nonverbal. Couples who use vague and unclear communication as a way of avoiding closeness and conflict set the stage to misunderstanding, frustration and hurt. A survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1993 found that 70 per cent of people surveyed whose marriages had fallen apart nominated lack of communication and the resultant lack of companionship, love and affection as the major cause of their relationship failure.

So, in summary, then, how do keep your marriage intact and healthy?

For a marriage to survive couples need to be able to establish strong emotional connection with each other and listen to each other’s heart. But they need to know how to resolve or accept their personal differences. They must be willing to adapt to the demands and challenges that impact their relationship. Being aware of all and dealing with all of the issues above will help a couple prevent burnout and eventual meltdown.

Adapted, with permission, from Searching for Intimacy in Marriage, by Bryan Craig.

Finding help:

When problems arise it is often good to get professional advice. Here are a few websites offering help for struggling marriages:

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