What causes couples to stop listening to each other?
At the beginning of your relationship (remember the courtship phase), there was nothing sweeter than the sound of your new sweetheart’s voice. It didn’t matter if you were both talking about work, or a movie, or what you were looking for in a long-term relationship. The sound of their voice and the way they looked at you was enough to send you to the moon, to make you believe, to give your heart the final push to let yourself fall in love.
Falling In Love is the Easy Part
And falling was easy, they said the right things, they wanted to be with you as much as they could, they reassured you of your attractiveness to them and their fidelity to your burgeoning relationship. All was bliss and planning and discovery.
How and why does your lover’s, partner’s, co-parents’ voice become less intriguing? And when did they stop listening to you altogether? Was there some event? Was it a gradual falling apart?
In my marriage, we listened and laughed our way through the courting and falling-in-love phases rather quickly. Right place, right time, I guess. And then somewhere along the way, our words no longer conveyed the caring and love it once did. Sure we had a lot of conversations about chores and bills and delegation of tasks and errands.
Along the way, I was still constantly reaching back towards the love expression we once shared. I was writing love poems and love songs. I was doing the best I could in the marriage, but I was still reaching to bridge the widening gap between us with words of love. Sure, doing the dishes or vacuuming was more concrete than a love poem, but it was the whole experience we were grooving on.
I have tried many times to unravel the past and see just where the inflection happened and we veered off into ignoring and isolating rather than enjoying and celebrating. There was a very specific moment and series of events that began the fracture that eventually became our divorce.
Looking for Answers in the Wreckage of a Failed Marriage
I had been working at a big corp job for two years and suddenly the 2009 economic reset downsized the entire company, taking most of the creative people and over half of my group out. It was a hard blow, but they also gave me six months’ pay with insurance to soften the landing.
When they told us about the offer in November I immediately began planning for my next career move. One of the things I started right then was a blog about the social media marketing that I’d been doing for this international tech company. I had always been a writer and the blog became my megaphone for my career ideas, my business marketing ideas, and my real-world experience lessons in trying to use social media to generate revenue.
The blog took off. I had a few early hit posts that began building a readership. And I worked Twitter like a fiend, imagining it as the next real force in marketing. But something happened at the same time to the communication and trust in my marriage. I remember the lunch we shared when our divergent perspectives and ambitions clashed in the bright clear February day.
“Well,” I said, “It seems like I have six months to figure out what’s next.”
“No,” she said, “It’s only about thirty thousand dollars and that really doesn’t get us very far.”
She Was Firm About Not Wanting to Go Back to Full-time Work
I was stunned. “Wait. What?” I was happy about the opportunity to retool and find a job with a bit more work/life balance. I was recovered from the job loss and on to my trademark optimism about the future. She was building her spreadsheets and being very pragmatic about the dollars and expenses and what she felt was a very risky period for us.
The reason I came to understand later was she really wanted me to just get another big corp job and be back on the path we had been on for two years. I was 20 pounds heavier and completely burned out and was looking forward to reframing our lives in a different way. I could not just go back to the corp job grindstone. I had to find a better job, a better way to earn a living. And we had to work together to make a sufficient income to live the life we had established.
Over the next few weeks, we worked on this disagreement in therapy. We built our own spreadsheets in excel and exchanged ideas about what we envisioned for our future. But we couldn’t quite reconcile the two opposite ideas: her: just get another great job, me: I want to find a more healthy way to earn a living.
She also started taking aim at my blog, saying I was being mean, or saying things that might come back to haunt me when I was looking for the next job. I didn’t agree at all. I was building a new potential for employment. I was blogging with the intention of selling my expertise as a consultant. I was also picking up momentum with the posts and began building an audience. I picked up a few consulting gigs at this time, even as I was looking for work in the traditional way. The next job eluded me. I had interviews. I was getting the response on my resume that I wanted, but something wasn’t putting me in the HIRED column.
Anger Began to Infect Every Interaction Between Me and My Wife
A few months after our initial meltdown it began to happen. She had always been good at expressing her anger and frustration, but she was really beginning to let me have it. Complaints were an acceptable form of behavior modification, but her complaints became rages. She occasionally blurted out, “F*** You” in a moment of frustration. And it was as if her anger was spilling over beyond her ability to contain it. Why she wasn’t getting at this with her individual therapist I don’t know, but she was certainly trying to work it out with me.
At one point she told me point-blank that she wasn’t in love with me anymore. She was giving me a warning, “You’d better listen to me. You’d better pay attention to what I’m saying. I am not happy.”
I tried to be zen about it and cooperate and respond while continuing to go about my merry way, in terms of job hunting, consulting, and blogging. But my positive attitude seemed to signal to her that I was not taking her threats and warnings seriously. I was, and I wasn’t. We were in couples therapy. We were in a committed marriage. And we were having some problems. No problem. We’d work it out.
Somewhere deep inside me, I was solid in my belief in the marriage. This was just a difficult period that we would get through, as we had done so many times before. I remember saying a couple of times, “I don’t really like you right now, and I know you don’t like me, but I love you and am committed to this marriage. We’ll get through this tough time.” That is what I believed. That is also what I based my confidence and positive attitude in the midst of all this obvious angst on her part. I KNEW my marriage was solid, the details would unfold and we could repair the relationship as we went along.
It was from this confidence in my relationship that I was still writing love songs and poems to my beautiful wife. Sure, my beautiful wife was frustrated with me 24/7 and wasn’t interested in sex at all, but we’d get through this. I was sure of it. And I was calm in the face of her escalations and demands. I think that might have made her even angrier.
I wasn’t all that calm inside. I was hurt by her words. I was sad that she was not responding or even smiling at my songs and poems. Sure, words are not enough, but I was doing everything I could around the house to be the best husband and father that I could be. I had been stepping up my partner-in-chores role for over a year. I also felt like I was putting in 110% percent to the marriage. And part of that contribution was not responding in kind to her outbursts. I was hurting and feeling abandoned and isolated, but the inner commitment to my marriage and parenting with her was unsullied.
Asking For What I Needed In My Marriage
It was from that confidence that I began to express my own dissatisfaction with the relationship. It had been several months since the money/severance conversation and I had landed a new big corp job. All the requests from her had finally been fulfilled. We had enough money, I had the big job with benefits and retirement contributions. I was still over-performing as a responsible parent and homeowner.
It wasn’t enough for her. Nothing shifted. Even when there was money in the bank, and money coming in, and a maid to help with laundry and general cleaning, she was still madder than hell at me. As I began to realize that all the things she used to be mad at me no longer applied, I was expecting some of *her* joy and intimacy to return. With all the conditions of satisfaction met she was still as frustrated as ever.
Guess what? It wasn’t me that was making her mad.
So I began to express my own frustration and disappointments. I wanted to revisit our sex life in therapy and understand where she had gone. I wanted her to get her own anger issues under control so we could rebuild our friendship and trust.
The Next Job Fails to Deliver Security or Love
It was under these stresses and disconnections that I lost the big corp job after 4 months. Sure it was a serious blow, and I had a case against them for discrimination, but I knew we would recover.
On top of everything she was going through personally and the festering anger at me, the job loss without reasonable explanation was too much for her. She snapped. All the threats and complaints she had been lofting at me suddenly made 100% sense to her. I was an unreliable breadwinner. I was killing my opportunities through my edgy blog. And I was not changing into the person she wanted me to be, so… She was done.
Within a few weeks, we were negotiating a divorce rather than strategizing a rebirth of our love. I was unprepared for the revelation that she had been to an attorney to consider her options for divorce. I was blindsided. Not because I was happy. No, I had been expressing my own dissatisfaction for the first time in our marriage. I was blindsided because I had no concept that our MARRIAGE was in trouble. I was still 100% committed to our marriage. And it was from that belief and joint agreement that I felt confident to stand up and state what I wanted in the relationship.
When the other partner decides, however, there is very little the committed partner can do. The fracture has happened. The other person has declared they are considering divorce. Then that option is forever on the table and could be used as leverage. I’m considering divorce if you don’t… If you won’t change, I’m going to divorce you.
I was not what was making her mad. I was also not capable of making her happy, nor making her want to stay in the marriage. Once the “talked a lawyer to consider my options” card had been laid on the table, all bets were off. I had no more confidence that the solidity of our relationship was capable of withstanding some readjustments.
It seems crass now to say it, but in the end, I believe she just wanted me to go back and get the corporate job. It allowed her to freelance and spend time at the kid’s school as a volunteer. And when I declared that in the long run that was not going to be my path, that I would get the job but I was planning a move to something else, she was faced with the reality that I wanted her to contribute fully to our financial needs so that we could *both* live a more balanced life. That was enough to break up our family and seek greener pastures.
There were a ton of emotional and practical issues that we had between us, but in the end, I was demanding a change and she was claiming that I hadn’t changed enough. I actually think she wanted me to continue pulling in the big bucks regardless of the health impact it had on me. It was definitely an easier lifestyle for her.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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- The 5 Love Languages Gary Chapman
- Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone – Brené Brown
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