As young adults, we try our best to break free of our parents’ identity. We venture out into the big, bold world carving out our own paths. Many of us pursue things that will distinguish us from our families of origin. A few of us have even been overheard saying, “I’ll never be like my mother,” or “I’ll be a better father than mine was.” But as time slips by and we mature, marry and raise families of our own, we often become the very people we tried so hard not to be. Even more surprisingly, some of us discover that we married people just like our parents.
This isn’t always a bad scenario. Relationships that have weathered the storms of time can be great teachers. They can provide insight into how to navigate through rough patches and can even be models for overcoming life’s larger challenges. Each of us grew up with our own compass. Some were strong and firm, guiding us wisely and getting us to our destinations on time and in pretty good shape. Others, however, were a little faulty. These are the types of relationships that we rebel against and swear we will never have. And yet, these are the ones that we often find ourselves in.
The good news is that even if history has repeated itself, we can break the cycle of dysfunction in our own marriages. Below are some common relationship patterns. In each section, we’ve dug behind the behaviors and focused on the fears and concerns that usually cause them. Once we realize why we do something, we can address the catalyst for that behavior and change our reaction. We can explore our emotional triggers as a couple and begin to understand why our parents did the things they did, why we do the things we do, and what we can do differently.
Passive – Aggressive Relationship
If the silent treatment was a common form of communication in our household, we probably witnessed passive-aggressive behavior. People often use this as a coping mechanism when they are fearful of confrontation. Rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable, they withdraw and bottle their feelings up. The result is short, terse and often critical communication or none at all.
Understanding what lies behind passive aggressive tendencies helps us get to the core of our fears. Instead of falling into that pattern of behavior, we can pause and focus on what we frightens us. Are we afraid of being vulnerable with our spouse? Are we worried they will belittle our true feelings? Or are we scared of a negative reaction from them?
Rather than withdrawing inside ourselves, we have the opportunity to reach out to our mates. We can look at the model we saw in our own parents and go toward our partners instead of away from them. When we give our spouse a glimpse inside our hearts, we give them the chance to heal with us. Start by pausing instead of reacting. Take a breath and think the passive-aggressive behavior all the way through. Then, shift the focus off of how we have been hurt or damaged and think of words we can say that will truly express our feelings in a loving way.
Infidelity can be one of the hardest things to overcome in a marriage. The pain is severe and feelings of betrayal and distrust can be overwhelming. Affairs, whether physical or emotional, can rock the foundation of the most solid relationships. If we lived in a home with infidelity, we probably experienced the myriad of consequences that ensued. The betrayed often denies and ignores the affairs, stuffing their true emotions. The betrayer is seen as disrespectful, controlling, manipulative and dishonest. Feelings of abandonment may have been planted in us at a young age and as adults, we may become highly codependent or choose to live in complete denial.
If we find ourselves living with an unfaithful spouse, we have every reason to feel angry and hurt. But we also have the choice to address the infidelity. Specifically, address the root cause of the infidelity. Is our spouse feeling neglected? Do they have sexual integrity or sex addiction issues? These are not easy topics to explore. However, examining them closely will allow us to identify the behaviors and circumstances that could contribute to infidelity.
Most people assume that once infidelity is forgiven, the relationship can get back on track. But even if the betrayed spouse can forgive, the unfaithful spouse may still struggle with guilt and self-forgiveness. Moving forward, each spouse must work on forgiving themselves and the other for any wrongdoing. Discuss each other’s needs and how to best fill them. Set healthy boundaries for communication and sexual interaction. All of these steps take time, but will help heal both hearts so both spouses can get past the infidelity.
Anger Based Communication
Anger is the poorest form of communication in any relationship. If we witnessed our parents wield anger as a weapon, we may think that is the only way to interact with our spouse. Usually, one spouse uses anger and the other retreats. When this happens, nothing gets resolved. The angry spouse reacts without really expressing their true emotions and the recipient of the anger shuts down and stuffs their feelings. When anger is used to resolve a disagreement, it sets the stage for even more anger from both spouses.
The cycle of anger can be broken. Whether we are the one delivering or receiving the anger, we have a choice to change. Instead of flying off the handle and yelling, throwing or threatening our spouse, we can develop tools to manage our anger. Breathing techniques, meditation and slow counting may sound trite, but they work. If we are unable to address a situation calmly, we can walk away and gather ourselves until we are ready to communicate better. Sometimes a discussion will have to be shelved for an entire day so that we can bring productive words and ideas to the table. Anger is always fear based. Giving ourselves time to reflect before we react allows us to look at why we’re angry and what we are truly afraid of.
If we live with an angry spouse, we may have stopped using our own voice a long time ago. Unless we are in danger of being physically hurt, we have to find the courage to speak up for ourselves. This is difficult for those of us who have stuffed and been walked over our whole lives. But it is possible. The best time to express our feelings is when our partner is calm. We can approach our spouse lovingly outside of a conflict situation and let them know exactly what we are feeling and why. We can set clear expectations for what we will and will not accept from them. Remember, we are responsible for the way we speak to our spouse but are not responsible for their reaction. If they behave unacceptably, we can remove ourselves from the situation until they are ready to communicate in a respectful and loving way.
Addiction and alcoholism are family diseases. If we grew up in this type of dysfunction, we surely brought some of the disease into our marriages. Even if we don’t actively abuse substances, we may enable an addict or alcoholic without even knowing it. Or we may try to control their every move. Many children of addicts were overachievers at a young age, trying anything to win the affection of their parents. Other’s tried to fix everyone around them. These are behaviors that we carry with us into adult relationships.
When we try to control an alcoholic or addict, we can be left feeling depleted and frustrated. Sick people will only get help when they are ready and willing. We can lead them to meetings, therapy and recovery, but they often rebel. This can lead to a vicious cycle of defeat and resentment. In these situations, we have to learn how to take care of ourselves. It is not up to us to fix our spouse. But it is our responsibility to express what we will and won’t put up with. We can also benefit greatly from support groups designed for family members of alcoholics and addicts.
Others of us may do everything we can to keep our spouse with us, even if it means allowing unacceptable behavior. We may buy their alcohol and allow drug use in our homes. Even if we know it is the wrong thing, the fear of losing our partner may be stronger than our desire to demonstrate tough love. Support groups and therapy can help us learn how to develop tools that allow us to navigate this type of relationship without compromising our own mental and physical health.
Verbally or Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Those of us who grew up with emotionally, verbally or physically abusive parents swore we would never wind up in that type of situation. Fast forward a decade or two and we may find ourselves abusing our spouse or being abused. All forms of abuse are detrimental to a healthy marriage even if there are no physical scars. When we become adults, the coping mechanisms we learned in childhood are our strongest weapons of defense, but usually unhealthy ones.
If our spouse is abusive, our first priority should be to ensure we are safe. Sometimes this requires that we remove ourselves or our spouse from the home until the abusive behavior stops. As abuse victims, we often feel like we did something to cause the abuse. We may have guilt and shame and be fearful of sharing our situation with others. But we must. Getting help from professionals or support organizations teaches us how to look at the abuse objectively. We can identify what, if anything, we have done anything to contribute to or exacerbate the abuse. But most often, we will discover ways to put the blame where it belongs, on our spouse. This act alone frees us from our self-imposed prisons and gives us the power to make changes to our situation.
If we are the abuser, we must first recognize that our behavior is not acceptable. If we were abused as children, we may know no other way of functioning. We may abuse out of fear, out of a need for control or out of anger. Regardless, the behavior must be stopped. Taking responsibility for our actions is the first step. When we can see that our behavior is unhealthy, we can start to look for new ways to cope. We can also begin to address the emotions that underlie our behavior. And we must be patient with ourselves. We did not learn these behaviors overnight, and we can’t unlearn them quickly. But with professional help and support, we can begin to become the spouse we truly want to be.
Choosing to Change
None of the relationship categories above are cut and dry. They all have their own unique set of criteria that defines them. What they all do have in common is that they can be used as a model for our marriage or they can be used as an opportunity for change. The choice is up to us. We can either look back to our pasts with blinders. Or, even if it is painful, we can find clues in our pasts that will lead us to a vibrant and healthy relationship full of marital treasures just waiting to be discovered.