White Robed Monks of St. Benedict
Part III. The Marriage Relationship: (Only But One On-going Process)
A. TEN PREDICTABLE CRISES OF MARRIAGEIn the maturing of a marriage, says Dr. Frank Pittman, author of Private Lies, there are inevitable developmental stages at which the couple must adapt and grow if the marriage is to endure. A couple may handle nine of these smoothly, says Pittman, but the likelihood of getting through all 10 without a hitch is low.
(Side panel, American Health, December, 1990, p.43.)
- Falling in Love. Two people meet—they're ready for the fantasy of falling in love. The first crisis occurs if the other person—often it's the man—panics and retreats.
- Prenuptial Panic. Before they get engaged or sometimes right before the wedding, the man pulls back—he's afraid he'll lose himself. For the woman, preparing for the wedding is a high point of her life; in his, it's often a lesser event.
- The End of the Romance. After six months to a year, love is no longer blind. The spell is broken, and the partners must learn to deal with each other's shortcomings and irritating quirks. Women tend to be more "in love with love."
- Enter The Family. Men and women have similar, often rude, awakenings when they begin to deal with each other's families. Gender clashes—and rivalries—can develop if she's "too close" to her father, he to his mother. Increasingly, ex-spouses and children of earlier marriages complicate the picture.
- The First Baby. Becoming a parent requires husbands and wives to see each other as parents, as well as spouses. It's a clear call to grow up.
- Changes in Sexual Behavior. Sex inevitably begins to drop with a family partner. Typically, the man experiences sexual decline, and she thinks it's her fault.
- Reaching The Summit. One person's career zooms ahead; the other person lags or perhaps has no career—and the gap between them widens. This is the time men often have affairs, or, if a man has moved up the corporate ladder, he might trade in the old wife for a new model.
- The Facts of Life. You're both getting older, fatter, balder. Of course, that's easier to see in the other person. Accepting who you are can be terrifying for many people. Also, this period is usually hardest on women, because so many these days are summoned to care for an elderly parent—his or hers.
- Empty Nest. Children provide a couple with distractions that help them not look at their relationship, which, in turn, retards the process of maturing. Husband and wife now deal with each other. If the wife's identity has been invested in being a mother, she may now turn to her husband for emotional fulfillment. Or she may start a career, which can plunge him into a funk.
- Facing Old Age. This stage can be especially traumatic when two people age at different rates or the wife dies first. Let's hope we'll all find ourselves On Golden Pond and in relationships like the one portrayed by Hepburn and Fonda.
B. TIPS FOR BETTER HEALTHIf you're frustrated by conflicts with your spouse or significant other—as most people are at some point—you might try implementing practices based on PREP* ground rules. Obviously, in the absence of a mediator, you and your spouse might have to work a little harder at being reasonable, rather than let the discussion boil over in an unmanageable conflict. (Side panel, American Health, December, 1990, page 45.) Here are the rules:
Don't be surprised if you and your partner could do some fine-tuning. Many men and women need an education when it comes to marriage. Studies show that a good relationship translates into a healthy family as well. In becoming a better partner, you also become a better parent.
- Either of you can bring up any issue at any time, but the listener can say, "This is not a good time," as long as he e sets up another opportunity to talk in the near future.
- In the middle of a discussion that gets too heated, call a time-out.
- Separate discussing the problem—putting the issue on the table & just listening—from solving the problem. For that first phase—when couples normally get caught in miscommunication and negative escalation—try active listening: One person speaks & the other paraphrases or summarizes what has been said.
- Remember to give the speaker non-verbal cues—nod your head and touch your partner's arm or make body contact that shows you're receptive and empathetic.
- Strive to understand—not change—your partner's position. Don't mind-read or anticipate what your partner will say,
- Edit your comments to be sensitive to a situation or to your partner's mood on a given day, but don't squelch the feeling. They will only blow up later on.
- Avoid "kitchen-sinking," griping about everything that's bothered you for the past month, instead of sticking to one issue at a time.
- Examine your expectations of marriage and what you think your partner expects. Talk about your own feelings, rather than how you think the other person feels. Also, remember you have control only over your own behavior.
- Move into the future; avoid rehashing the past.
- Schedule weekly couple meetings and special pleasuring sessions to talk about good stuff that's happened and to dream about a beautiful future together. Also set aside time for various types of sensual and sexual activities.
- Share your perceptions of what closeness and intimacy mean. Women generally want face-to-face contact, whereas men prefer being someone's company while engaging in an activity. It might be a good idea to combine the two: Talk while driving or taking a Sunday morning walk.
Readers can write to the Center for Marital and Family Studies/PREP Inc., P.O. Box 4793, Greenwood Village CO 80155-4793 USA (or 303-759-9931 or 800-366-0166) for information on PREP programs in their area and counselor referrals in some areas. A Couple's Guide to Communication (Research Press, 1977, $21.00) is available through bookstores.
C. CAN WE TALK?by Melinda Blau in American Health, December, 1990, 37-45.
If women and men talked through interpreters, couples might have a better chance of growing old together. Consider this typical scene: David Brown, an attorney, flips on the TV, relishing the idea of a quiet evening with his wife. Marsha, a social worker, has just finished telling their three-year old a bedtime story. She enters the room and plops down on the couch beside him.
"Sshhh. Lower that!" she admonishes, a cautionary finger poised at her lips. I was looking forward to out finally being alone, and now I have to compete with that thing. She sighs. You're so unresponsive—just like my father. "I finally got her to sleep. David, do we have to watch TV?" I need reassuring and connection. Why can't you be romantic like you used to be—hold my hand, anything?
"C'mon Marsh," David implores. "I've had a hard day." This is how I unwind. I feel close to you when we watch TV together. "What kind of day do you think I've had?" Marsha retorts angrily. You don't appreciate me. "You probably expect me to applaud because you threw some chops into the broiler and did the dishes the one night you're home." Equal partners? —but it's not even close.
She's on channel 2; he's on channel 4. He thinks she wants him to help her solve problems; she wants him to listen while she airs her feelings. He seems cold and unemotional to her; she seemed unreasonable and unrelenting to him.
To Marsha, talking is closeness. To David, it's a threat: It inevitably leads to conflict, he's not good at it, and there's no point in discussing things they can't solve. Besides, such conversations get to him—they cause him physical distress. Even as they talk, his heart races and the veins in his neck throb.
Gender battles such as this are propelling many couples into therapy, and, some believe, causing breakups and divorce—even among those who see themselves through egalitarian glasses. After almost two decades of trying to transcend traditional roles and guarantee women equal rights and privileges, we're still debating: Are men and women really different? If so, is it biology, psychology, social and cultural mores, politics or all of the above? And can the differences be overcome?
These questions, which seem to have taken on a new urgency as we enter the '90's, have even invaded our popular culture. A new film, He Said, She Said, shows a relationship from contrasting points of view of a man and woman—in one segment from a male director, & in the other from a female director—just to show how strangely different their perspectives are. And a book, You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, has told tens of thousands of men and women why talking to the opposite sex can be so difficult. Tannen has been interviewed by Phil Donahue and USA Today, and reported on in Newsweek. Meanwhile, the book has been sitting comfortably at the top of The New York Times best seller list for months.
It's taken us this long to acknowledge the differences in how men and women think and behave because those distinctions raise a controversial question: WHY? Some researchers point to social influences—for instance, the fact that men are still trained to be hard-working providers, but not to develop their relationship skills—while others wonder if biological factors are causing the behavioral gender gap. Feminists warn, however, that any explanation could be misused to justify the current inequities between men and women—both in their workplace and at home—and preserve the status quo.
Tannen, though, points out that finding the cause of these differences is less important than recognizing and learning to deal with them. "I don't think it matters why," she says. "Whatever these differences come from, they're there and they're stubborn."
Researchers and clinicians are now working hard to find clues that might help couples resolve their differences—and help mend marriages and relationships that have been torn. Although their findings may apply to long-term relationships in general, researchers have focused their studies on married couples, particularly those under siege, and they often examine these unions during the most stressful time: in the middle of a fight.
TAKING THE PULSE OF A MARRIAGE
More than any other factor, the way a couple handles conflict may determine whether the relationship survives. A series of physiological studies has shown that when it comes to interpersonal conflict, men may be the weaker sex. Over the last 11 years, Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology and a leading figure in observational research at the University of Washington in Seattle, has done a series of studies on how the body reacts to stress in marriage. Couples who had been apart were brought together, hooked up to biofeedback machines and asked to talk about their day—particularly areas of major discord in their marriage.
While observing and videotaping these interactions, the researchers also measured several indicators of activity in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body's involuntary reactions to external stress, such as the perception of danger. These measurements include pulse, heart rate and sweating, as well as "gross motor movement"—for instance, did the person squirm or shift in the chair?
In the first studies, done in the early '80's, Gottman found to his surprise that the degree of physiological arousal—particularly the husband's—could be used to predict with 90% accuracy the deterioration of the marriage three years later. In other words, couples whose heart beat faster, whose blood flowed faster, and who sweated and moved more during these confrontations had deteriorating marriages; physiologically calmer marriages tended to improve over time. In the case of the husband's heart rate, the correlation was so strong (92%) that the researchers concluded that the higher heart rate the greater the likelihood of the marriage would unravel.
The husband's reactions are more telling because men have greater physical reaction to conflict than women do. Far from being cold fish, men experience conflict on a gut level more than women: They feel more distressed and take longer to cool down. Dr. Clifford Notarius, a professor of psychology at Catholic University in Washington, DC, who did studies similar to Gottman's, also reports that he found men more physiologically aroused than women during arguments. Even when the husbands seemed cool and collected, and it didn't look as if they were reacting to their wives, the biofeedback machines told another story: Their hearts beat faster, the contractions were sharper and they breathed faster. It was a typical "fight or flight" reaction.
Several researchers suspect that men's stronger physiological response to conflict may be related to a particularly destructive male emotional reaction identified by Gottman as "stone-walling." Typically, when a man thinks his wife is going to broach a difficult issue, he feels threatened and withdraws. He barely moves his face, avoids eye contact, holds his neck rigid, and fails to nod his head or vocalize a simple statement like, "Yes, I see," or even a brief "uh-huh," cues that would tell his wife he's listening.
Right or not, it's often up to the wife to determine what happens next. In happy marriages, Gottman and others have found, the wife breaks the cycle of an argument. Instead of responding to a negative comment she ignores it or says something positive, whereas in distressed marriages, both spouses keep the conflict going. Often perceiving her husband's withdrawal as a lack of caring, she may become even more vocal, thereby escalating the conflict.
It's not clear from the various studies—and perhaps it never will be—how much of a man's reaction to conflict is innate and how much is learned. For example, "When they're first dating, men are able to attend to every word. It's when they become husbands that they go deaf and mute," quips Thelma Jean Goodrich, senior author of Feminist Family Therapy. A man's main role is to be the breadwinner; pillow talk is reserved for courting—or for conquering.
Undoubtedly, the various findings reflect both physiology and socialization. In the future, Gottman and other researchers will continue to put marriage under the microscope. In the meantime, these studies might help women like Marsha appreciate why their husbands tend to avoid conflict and help them find better ways to break through.
For one thing, the results suggest that men "hear" better when they don't feel they're being attacked. As Gottman puts it, "In a sea of conflict, men sink while women can swim." Whatever the underlying reasons, study after study has proved that as the level of conflict in a marriage escalates, so does the man's reaction to stress. "Men are less able to cope with negative expression s of emotion. As a result, they withdraw further and feed the vicious cycle," observes Dr. Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
But does all this mean men by nature are ill-equipped to deal with feelings? "I think there's enough evidence to satisfy me that there are biological patterns across gender," says Gottman, who's careful to stress that his findings don't in any way suggest men are incapable of intimacy. They're just less proficient soldiers on the marital battleground. "We're not saying women enjoy conflict, only that they can manage it better," Markman adds. To find more peaceable ways of resolving their problems, both men and women need to rethink the traditional roles they're settled into. Dr. Donald Baucom, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explored this phenomenon by asking couples to rate themselves on "sex roles"—how typically female and male they act. Being assertive, ambitious and self-confident are high on the masculinity scale; being emotionally attuned, interested in interpersonal relationships and sensitive to other people's rights and needs are high on the femininity scale. Observing the couples in a lab setting as well, Baucom and his colleagues found that higher femininity among women correlated with negative communication in marriage. "Such a woman wants to make sure relationship issues are not overlooked," Baucom speculates. "She's concerned. She wants to pursue the problem, but if the couple doesn't have the communication skills the husband is likely to withdraw."
At the same time, machismo threatens both a man's health and the health of his marriage. A number of researchers have documented that the need to "stay on top," to "be in control" and other mandates of masculinity render men susceptible to a smorgasbord of stress-related disorders such as ulcers, heart attacks, workaholism and substance abuse. "The stonewaller pays a high price," Gottman says.
One of Gottman's studies suggests that having a less rigid role on the home front might help enhance a man's relationship skills and ameliorate those well-documented health hazards. Men who did housework were less overwhelmed by their wives' emotions, had less of a tendency to avoid conflict, and had lower heart rates during marital conflict than men who never lifted a broom. Why is still a mystery. Perhaps the housekeeping husbands were less defensive and therefore less stressed than men who consistently clashed with their wives about chores.
Baucom's studies of sex roles also indicate that couples who were "androgynous" (they each scored high on both masculine and feminine scales) have better marriages. He suspects that's because they have more personal resources, and they're more flexible than couples who are locked into traditional roles. "Stereotypic roles work as long as people can maintain the status quo," he says. "But if a wife goes out to work and the husband can't adapt, or if a husband gets sick and the wife suddenly needs to be in charge, it puts undue strain on the marriage."
TWO DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
If linguist Deborah Tannen is right, it's no wonder men and women so often come into conflict. Women talk to others for comfort, she says, whereas men use conversation as an arena for competition. For that reason, a man whose wife asks him to talk about their relationship may feel challenged in a way she can't understand.
Tannen maintains that men and women use language differently and so move in separate worlds. "For women, the key is intimacy and connection. For men, it's about preserving independence and negotiating status." As other researchers have also found, women generally want to talk about what's happening in (or to) the relationship while men prefer to just "be" in the relationship. To men, spending time together—watching TV, going for a drive, dining together—is being intimate, while conversation isn't.
"To a woman, talking means relaxing. That's what she does with her friends," Tannen explains. "A man sees talking as a kind of display—it involves competition, getting the edge, showing what you know." Example: The man says, "I didn't sleep well." In response, say says, "I didn't either. I never do." Because conversation is a matter of one-upmanship to men, he thinks she's trying to belittle him. In her mind, she's identifying, trying to make him feel better, creating a connection. In the same way, when a woman asks a man, "What are we going to do tonight?" Tannen says, "She's enlisting a free-flow give-and-take, but the man thinks she wants him to decide."
Tannen points out that "home" has a different meaning to men and women, because the two sexes are met with opposite reactions in the outside world. A man who talks is valued; a woman who talks in pushy. She, says Tannen, "To her, home is a place where you're free to talk. To him, it's a place where you're free not to talk."
Most psychotherapists who see troubled marriages would probably agree with Tannen that men and women didn't hear each other in the same way. In her book The Reproduction of Mothering, Dr. Nancy Chodorow, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, explains this in terms of childhood emotional separation from the caretaking parent—traditionally, the mother. Boys break away and learn to be autonomous; girls identify and learn to connect. Therefore, men go through life preserving their independence (running from mom), while women seek intimacy.
In that theory—only one of many—is correct, it's fairly safe to generalize that women are more oriented toward relationships, while men are geared to activity. "Men's emotions have atrophied from lack of use," maintains psychologist Robert Pasick, co-author of Men in Therapy. "They're trained to provide, debate, be pragmatic, sharpen their competitive edge." It's no wonder a husband often has no idea what his wife is talking about when she says, "Tell me what you feel."
Obstacles to male-female communication—what might be called "gender shock"—cut across every stage of marriage. From the moment their eyes meet, a man's and a woman's experiences are played out on separate stages. "She's measuring and fitting him for a life-long partner, but he's sizing her up for the night," says Dr. Frank Pittman, author of Private Lies. He cites 10 critical transitions when marital relationships are prone to stress. At each point, traditional male and female viewpoints may clash. (Cf. Ten Predictable Crises of Marriage.)
Pittman acknowledges that the tenor of the times has altered men's and women's responses to these critical transitions. Many women now get skittish about marriage; they, too, have affairs; they might also experience identity crises when their careers aren't on track.
But for the most part, Pittman says, gender reactions across the marriage cycle haven't changed much. Many American couples today are confused and caught in a strange paradox. Even though they think they're not trapped in stereotyped roles, they've been raised by parents who were, and they still live in a society that for the most part continues to affirm the old order.
Of Pittman's 10 transition points, by far the greatest potential for a gender crisis comes with the birth of the child. "It's the toughest time. Each sees the other as a parent; unknowingly, each one identifies with the child," Pittman says. So if the husband acts cold and withdrawn around their baby, the wife may suddenly see him as her own rejecting, controlling father. As for the husband, Pittman says, "He's suddenly married to someone else's mother." He may regard his wife's closeness to his child as a kind of infidelity and feel left out—as if "suddenly he's no longer her baby. This is often when a man starts screwing around."
"Babies don't do much to bring troubled couples together," according to clinical psychologist Phillip and Carolyn Cowan, who conduct the Becoming a Family Project at UC-Berkeley. Launched in 1979, the study has tracked couples and their babies from birth until the child reaches 5.5. The birth of the first baby presents one of the biggest gender shocks in the life span of the marriage, the Cowans conclude. If both parents work, the strain is even worse. And no matter how balanced they thought their marriage was at first, once the baby is born, the Cowans say, "She's doing more than she thought she would and he's doing less than he said he would."
The parents in the Cowans' therapy groups bring their children with them to these sessions. Some interactions are particularly telling: When his newborn baby started whimpering, one young father said, "Here, let's give you back to the expert," and handed the crying infant to his wife.
Add to this complex emotional scene the fact that there's so much more to do when a baby enters the picture, and it's not hard to see how the scale of marital bliss can be tipped. Nor is it surprising that many therapists say becoming parents often precipitates the major marital crisis that brings couples into their offices.
FIGHTING A GOOD FIGHT
Influenced by feminist scholars whose writings have trickled down to the local bookstore, women today are more likely to confront their mates on the inequities of marriage and parenthood. Jo Ann Allen, a therapist at the Ann Arbor (MI) Center for the Family, notes increasingly, wives are demanding that their mates renegotiate household duties. But they're also tackling more profound frustrations, such as why their husband's can't, or won't communicate on deeper emotional levels. "Women now want more in a relationship," she says.
As Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift, points out, it's often not what men and women do, but what they say and how they say it. There's an "economy of gratitude" in marriage, she says. "When couples struggle, it's seldom over who does what. Far more often it's over the giving and receiving of gratitude."
The Cowans found this true in their studies, too. "Even if she does the lion's share at home and takes care of the baby most of the time, "says Phil Cowan, "if both spouses at least agree that it's not the way they had wanted to do it, but this is how they have to do it, they're better off." They also find that the couples who fare best are those who avoid blaming each other or trying to prove that other way is right or better.
Markman agrees. For the last decade, he's been studying that makes a good marriage tick. He and other researchers have found that some of the elements once thought to be important to success in marriage—love, similar backgrounds, coming from well-adjusted families—are secondary to how a couple communicates and even fights.
It's not that couples in a good marriage don't argue—disagreement is normal—it's HOW they argue. In one study of 135 engaged couples whose interactions were observed at yearly intervals, the couples who had been best able to communicate at the onset of the study—before marriage—were more likely to be happily married seven years later.
Markman believes couples can learn to communicate better with each other, and he's even been teaching them how. He and his colleagues have developed the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)—a kind of marital basic-training course that's based on the findings of many observational researchers. The program, says Markman, can help couples overcome the hindrances of traditional gender roles. Videotaped studies of couples in PREP show that husbands do listen and talk, as long as it's in the safety of a refereed situation. "In a structured setting with ground rules," says Markman," gender differences can be ameliorated"
One thing is certain: It's not enough to try to talk about your relationship, especially if men and women don't speak the same language in the first place. With only 50-50 odds of a marriage lasting, it's clear that the road to divorce has been paved with good intentions. Still, marriage enhancement programs such as PREP, now in its eighth year, are beginning to spring up here and there. The best news is that couples who've gone through PREP divorce half as often as those who haven't.
Our definition of marriage changes with the times, but it was never intended to be a merger of two individuals. Today especially, a relationship calls for creative intermingling of two people's special qualities. As men and women become more aware of how their differences can inadvertently derail the most promising relationship, perhaps they will learn to support, respect, appreciate—and even learn from—each other's strengths. Out of this richness, one would hope, will come a union that is even more than the sum of its parts.
D. HOW TO WRITE A LOVE LETTEROften, just writing a letter to yourself or your beloved can resolve much conflict. You become very clear about what your issue is. Often it's just our "stuff" (the suitcase or its contents, often both) that is getting in the way of our communication. Just write a Love Letter. The more of them you write, the easier it will be for you to appreciate what really is taking place on an ongoing basis. Begin by expressing your anger, resentment and blame and allow yourself to move through the other levels until you get down to the love. (By the way, these are for you, for your growth and development. They are not for your partner to read.) Each Love Letter has five parts—and the following lead-in phrases may help you if you get stuck in one level and need to move into the next.
- Anger and Blame
- I don't like it when ....
- I resent ....
- I hate it when ....
- I'm fed up with ....
- I'm tired of ....
- I want ....
- Hurt and Sadness
- I feel sad when ....
- I feel hurt because ....
- I feel awful because ....
- I feel disappointed because ....
- I want ....
- Fear and Insecurity
- I feel afraid ....
- I'm afraid that ....
- I feel scared because ....
- I don't understand ....
- I want ....
- Guilt and Responsibility
- I'm sorry that ....
- I'm sorry for ....
- Please forgive me for ....
- I didn't mean to ....
- I want ....
- Love, Forgiveness, Understanding and Desire
- I love you because ....
- I love when ....
- Thank you for ....
- I understand that ....
- I forgive you for ....
- I want ....
- I am willing to ...
Remember, if you want to feel better, write a love letter! Peace. NOTE: When we fight, we create a situation or context to fight if we are NOT getting the:
we THINK we want, need, or desire.
The above 4 thought-feeling constructs have nothing to do with "husband-wife" issues
and everything to do with "parent-child" issues
... how often does the adolescent cry out:
You're not paying attention to me! You do not understand me!, etc.?
Just write a Love Letter (to yourself!) to clear your perceptual field
to experience more clearly your beloved
as he/she is
rather than as you would like him/her to be.
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