The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Looking at Marriage: Seeing One’s Own Part

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

The husband had a way of erupting emotionally that led his wife to call him “the volcano.”  He pursued; she distanced; he pursued more rigorously.  Her way of retreating, seemingly impervious to his needs, led him to call her “the sphinx.”  At times of high stress, this pattern left this truly devoted couple in considerable distress, he feeling shut out, she feeling pressured. They found their own language—volcano, sphinx—as a step to observing their reciprocal functioning and eventually to seeing the absurdity and humor in it.

Dr. Bowen observed husbands and wives reacting to one another with an intensity he came to call “emotional fusion.”  Each had a profound influence on the functioning of the other.  It would not take much to set off conflict.  He also saw “striking emotional distance” in some marriages which he called the “emotional divorce.”  Some couples worked out the marital challenges with a pattern of “overadequate-inadequate reciprocity.”  Finding it difficult to make joint decisions, one partner would take charge and make a decision for both while the other became compliant or helpless.  These are three relationship patterns that operate with varying levels of rigidity or flexibility relative to the level of maturity of the partners.  A fourth pattern is the triangle in which a third party, or many third parties, become involved in ways that can relieve or sometimes exacerbate the tension in the marriage.  Bowen called the four patterns “anxiety-binding mechanisms.”  They can reduce tension in the short run, but they do not address the real issues that generate tension in the first place.  The automatic reactivity gets in the way of effective communication, joint decision-making and problem-solving.

Caught in these patterns, not knowing what else to do, couples tend to keep repeating them with the same frustrating results.  For those wishing to change or improve their marriage, knowledge of these patterns can be a key to “knowing what to do.”  With observation of family interaction, one becomes familiar with the version of emotional process that prevails in one’s own marriage.  It then becomes interesting to think about one’s own part.

One wife took on the project of focusing on her own side, and came up with a list:

  • Failing to identify my own agendas; assuming my husband will agree without discussion;
  • Making unilateral decisions without seeing how they will impact him;
  • Reading his responses and guessing what they mean rather than talking;
  • Borrowing his thinking on issues rather than thinking for myself;
  • Accepting trade-offs in the marriage without identifying or evaluating them;
  • Assuming responsibility for jobs he preferred not to do;
  • Thereby trying to avoid conflict, but creating a buildup of resentment;
  • Anxiously trying to calm him down;
  • Communicating for him to the children…and many others;
  • And more.

An exercise like this calls for good observation and personal reflection.  It yields many ideas for what one might want to change.  Change, that is, by and for self.  It frees one from the focus on the other and the ongoing futile struggle of getting him to change.

It seems to be in the nature of marriage, and probably all close relationships, that we know quite well from our own experience the challenges of living with that other person.  How to become equally clear about what it is like for that person to live with us is the important question.  To reach that level of awareness could, I believe, be considered a milestone of progress for any marriage.

Stephanie Ferrera

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