At some point in your relationship as a couple, you will often find yourself struggling with anger and shock, despair and sadness. In my experience as a therapist, some are newlyweds, and can’t understand how they have plummeted from the heights of love and glory into a swamp of hopelessness and conflict. Others have been married for many years, and though they have been slogging along – in calm or storm – their days of wine and roses are a dim memory. Even if life at home is relatively peaceful, couples lament that they have “nothing in common anymore.” And so they lead a disappointed or angry co-existence, each with their own friends and interests, in a marriage of convenience, or an arrangement they endure “for the sake of the children.” Shattered dreams, whatever form they take, are painful. But there is hope. In fact, the pain and conflict of committed relationships arise not out of lack of love for our partners, but from a misunderstanding of what love relationships are about. Your conflict can be the very fuel for the fulfillment you seek.
Most people come to couples counselling saying they’re here to work on their relationship. The irony is that the couples who make progress are the ones who stop focusing on the marriage itself and start directing their attention towards their own behaviours. This is the paradox of growth within a marriage: that a responsible focus on yourself, and not the relationship, can bring the utmost degree of mutual satisfaction. If you want a better marriage, ‘you will need to give up making a project out of changing the relationship or your partner and instead make a project out of expressing your own maturity within it.’ “Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it.” T Keller p 64 The most useful question I know for pulling myself up in this backwards cycle is: “What is my spouse up against having to relate to me at the moment?” The good news is that when the focus is taken away from the other and the relationship and placed on being a responsible, distinctive self, the greater the options for deep togetherness. Building maturity in marriage (in any relationship) can’t be dependent on creating calm contexts where tension is low…that’s just not reality! A maturity workout requires regular practice at managing myself in the face of tensions and not needing a positive relationship experience to set me straight. It requires me to move towards and not away from stressful situations and to deliberately choose to work on flexing my maturity muscles.
Here are some examples of a good maturity work out: When I’m stressed, I can practice staying in touch with myself and not finding fault with the other. When my spouse is tense I can practice not personalising it or being derailed from my self management. I can try using my principles for being in contact as a spouse, even when my husband appears to be in a negative space. And I mustn’t forget the maturity work out I get when I’m in contact with members of my family of origin – This is where I can best practice containing old reactions and sensitivities. ‘A person’s level of differentiation [maturity] can best be observed in an anxious family setting.’ These efforts to practice tolerating stress in relationships without losing our clarity about how we want to express our selves is something that grows gradually. Dr Murray Bowen describes so eloquently what goes into one person bringing the best to relationships: having “the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do.” P 305—M Bowen This involves a good dose of courage, energy investment, self regulation and self responsibility. Sometimes this can all sound a bit too hard and we can be forgiven for searching around for a quicker less personally taxing formula for improving relationships. Yet I do think there is something deeply compelling in asking ourselves: “Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?
Here’s cheers to the long haul of Happy Marriages if you are in One!