During a marriage crisis, life gets turned upside down and pulled apart, often in frightening and distressing ways. Like a volcanic eruption, tensions and pressures have accumulated that can no longer be contained by feelings of love or the motivation to “stick it out.” The crisis often peaks when one spouse/partner decides the emotional pain is too great and seriously questions whether or not to stay in the marriage.
Unfortunately, many couples seek marriage/couples counseling only after their relationship is in a full-blown crisis—sadly, some of these marriages won’t survive. It’s important to remember that a marriage crisis doesn’t typically arise out of thin air. Couples who end up in crisis too often ignore or minimize the warning signs that a marriage crisis was in the making.
Understanding the warning signs can help you derail a potential marriage crisis.
Preventing a Marriage Crisis
There are two basic ways a marital crisis emerges:
1. The distressed or dissatisfied spouse remains silent (for whatever reason) about his/her concerns and ends up acting out his/her dissatisfaction in subtle ways (for example, throwing him/herself into projects to keep busy) or dramatic ways (having an affair; deciding to end the relationship).
2. The unhappy spouse does communicate his/her dissatisfaction, but this information is ignored or minimized by the other person. In my marriage/couples counseling practice, I see this dynamic play out as follows:
A wife has been telling her husband that she feels ignored and lonely, and the husband initially addresses his wife’s concerns in a focused way. After some time passes, however, the husband starts to act as if everything is fine (even though his wife is not behaving that way), and he puts little effort into addressing the issue—in this scenario the husband remains oblivious (or unmoved) by his wife’s continued communications and cues of dissatisfaction. It is only after he receives the message that the marriage is in serious jeopardy (crisis) that he finally understands how real the problem is and then tries to mobilize himself to meet his wife’s needs.
So what steers a once healthy marriage into the abyss of a crisis?
Prior to the marriage crisis, the status quo of the relationship stops working for one or maybe even both parties—in other words, someone’s needs are no longer being met in the relationship. When a marriage stops meeting your needs, it’s essential that these issues do not go underground.
Relationship truism: Marriage problems that are not openly addressed germinate and breed in the unspoken-soil of a relationship. The ignorance-is-bliss approach to fixing a marriage is like ignoring the steam billowing from the hood of an overheating car—pretending it doesn’t exist may give you temporary comfort, but this approach will only make things worse in the long-run.
A message to the spouse who is unhappy with the status quo of the marriage:
Prior to the full-blown crisis, you may feel that some kind of change is needed, while your spouse might feel content to leave life exactly as it is. When this is the case, it is up to you (the distressed/unhappy spouse) to communicate your dissatisfaction directly, respectfully and clearly (please do not assume your spouse will grasp the gravity of your concerns because you give off subtle cues or quiet rumblings that something isn’t working for you).
The responsibility for communicating what you need lies on your shoulders—even if this may be upsetting to your spouse.
A message to the spouse who is happy with the status quo of the marriage:
I’ve seen this very preventable pattern too many times: The spouse who feels everything is fine minimizes or ignores messages of discontent from his/her spouse. As one wife shared, “I told him over and over again that I’m lonely and want to spend more intimate time together. He never tried, and we just grew apart. And now that I’m ready to end the marriage, he’s acting like this is the first time he’s hearing me say I’m unhappy…”
How did her husband respond to this information? “Hey, she stopped complaining, so I figured we were good…”
The responsibility for really listening to and hearing why your spouse is unhappy in the marriage lies on your shoulders. It’s dangerous (and selfish) to assume your spouse is “crying wolf” and will be fine without your help.
The apparent calm after the crisis
There are two reasons an unhappy spouse stops talking (or complaining) about her/his unhappiness: a) It feels like his/her complaints are being taken seriously and addressed (the issues are being resolved); or, b) It feels like his/her complaints are being ignored and a sense of hopelessness is setting in (the spouse is giving up all hope that positive change is possible).
If a marital crisis goes unresolved, the chances of someone giving up on the marriage increases dramatically. Quietness (or apparent calm) in this case isn’t a good sign. The quiet and apparent calm after a period of unresolved turbulence may be an indication that your spouse has disengaged from the relationship—a disengaged spouse may see no good options except to leave the marriage.
Remember that it is much better to prevent a crisis than try to wrestle with a crisis that has already insinuated itself into your relationship. By being clear with your partner about your own needs, and by remaining open, attentive, non-judgmental, and actively invested in your partner’s needs, you’ll be setting your marriage on a preventative, healthy track where minor problems can be addressed before they morph into unmanageable crises.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro