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A Marriage Is Worth Fighting For - 10/2/2009

Cindy and Mark were in the middle of a divorce.  The animosity between them was so great that it proved destructive to their own and their children’s emotional adjustment at home, work, school and inside themselves.  

At best, divorce hurts everyone.  Because of that, I usually try to help people avoid it.  But, sometimes, the destructive effects of living together in a dysfunctional relationship prove more injurious and harmful to the well being of  the individuals involved than the divorce, itself.  When that’s the case, people need to know that they can make the process of getting a divorce far less painful by choosing to take the high road.  The major contributing factor in determining which road they take is the degree to which they accurately perceive their own behavior.  Interestingly, the same behavior can also serve to help people avoid a divorce.

It constantly amazes to me how radically differently individuals can perceive the same situation.  In the case of Cindy and Mark, each saw themselves as a victim, the individual who gave in, capitulated and disregarded their own desires throughout their marriage.  Each professed the notion they had prostituted their own needs and feelings to please the other, to keep the waters calm and ensure that the relationship would be conflict-free.  Their well-intended behavior, however, contributed significantly to the demise of the relationship they wanted to save.  

That’s the lesson I’d have you learn from their experience.  When you sell yourself short, when you give up too much of yourself and cannot maintain a rational self interest in the course of living and interacting with another human being, you inevitably wind up resenting that person, getting even and destroying your relationship.  Getting even doesn’t necessarily occur overtly or directly.  It can manifest itself in an unconscious, passive-aggressive manner, that is frequently more destructive than any altercation might have been.  The rule is, “Avoiding problems never results in a solution, whereas an honest argument often can.”  Thus, it’s apparent that sometimes you have to “fight” to save a marriage.  Putting oil on troubled waters may calm the waves, but, long-term, it’s toxic to your relationship.    

In Cindy’s and Mark’s case, each came in saying, “He/she always does whatever he wants, without any regard for my thoughts and wishes. ”  You might initially wonder, how can two people each see themselves as the victim and their partner as the victimizer?  Let me try to show you.  One might appear to be the silent sufferer, the martyr who meekly complains, but acquiesces to their partner’s wishes, while the other plays the role of the controlling critic, who constantly judges and depreciates their partner.  Both harbor the same feelings, but the expression of their emotions differs 180º.   On the surface,  that doesn’t appear to be the case, but, in actuality, each of the individuals feels exactly the same and goes through the same process of dealing with conflict.

As I’ve said many times, you always get who you are. Therefore, it should be no surprise that victims always marry victims.  But, in almost every instance, one partner seems the apparent victim and the other the victimizer.  Although both are programmed exactly the same, it’s hidden to the eye.  Before either reacts or decides what to do, their inner censoring machine asks, “If I do this, how will my partner react?  If I say this, will my partner get mad?  If I announce my desires openly and freely, what will my partner’s reaction be?”  After carefully, but not always accurately, answering those questions, he/she then chooses the behavior that, in most instances, will please their partner.  The victim does it openly, but the seeming victimizer can’t allow their partner to see any feelings of weakness and inadequacy.  As a result, his/her censoring machine is invisible.  In some instances, that reluctance to be weak or to show any sign of not being in control, can result in that individual overreacting to the point of behaving in a negative, confrontational manner in order to ensure that their partner not perceive their inner feelings of weakness.  However, in all of these cases, even when the overt behavior is completely negative and appears egocentrically determined, the self image of the individuals involved and their relationships are  severely damaged.

I strongly believe that most dysfunctional marriages and many divorces are, in part, the product of this form of poor or erroneous communication.  To communicate more successfully requires that you 1) have the courage to recognize your own desires and 2) have the wherewithal to express them openly, without anger and in a manner that your partner can hear without feeling controlled, intimidated or manipulated.  Having said that, I’d have each of you look at yourself and recognize the way you behave and react.  I’d have you resolve to communicate your feelings and wishes to your partner, even if the issues you’re arguing about are weeks, months or years old.  Most of all, you need to accept that there really are no victims.  Only when you come to realize that you volunteer for what you get and expect from life will you ever be in a position to alter your behavior.  When you perceive yourself a victim, you’re bound to lose, because you can’t change what another person does to you.  When you realize that you make the world you live in, you’re also able to alter it.  

Unfortunately, most people don’t change their behavior overnight.   Instead, they allow their resentments to build up, increase geometrically and eventually be expressed in a very vociferous, angry manner.  In effect, they’re trying to stuff 100 pounds of resentment into a 50 pound sack.  The overflow results in a tidal wave of emotion.  To avoid the effects of this overflow, an eventual divorce or living in a poor relationship for the rest of your life,   you must learn to honestly face your problems and express your feelings, in order to mitigate the negativism that naturally occurs in any relationship between two individuals who live together on a daily basis.  How do you accomplish that?  By learning to love deeply, to fight fairly and to honestly express your feelings, rather than argue about facts.  

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