Here you are. You’ve found yourself a few years into your marriage and things are not going well.
Maybe it’s two years in. Maybe it’s five years in. Maybe it’s twenty years down the road.
This marriage thing is not what you imagined. You’re not as happy as you thought you should be.
The relationship is rocky and there’s seemingly nothing you can do to make her happy.
Maybe the word divorce gets kicked around from time to time.
And so, naturally, you’re puzzled.
Your own parents have been married for 47 years – you remind yourself.
You come from a good family – you tell yourself.
Your parents role-modeled a good marriage – you insist.
So why in the world is she so discontent? Why isn’t this marriage thing working?
You hold your parents in high esteem and see them as a great marriage success…right? You’re doing what they did. You’re doing what they taught you. After all, it worked well for them – no sense in reinventing the wheel…right? After all, they were married for so many years!
Not so fast.
I want to be gentle about how I say this, because I know many have an undying loyalty to their parents and find it difficult to see them objectively. What I have to say here is going challenge you and raise your defenses.
Hang with me though….I’m coming from a place of love.
Sure, your parents may have done some things well in role-modeling marriage for you. I’ll give them that. But for some things – they didn’t do well.
How can I say that you ask! It’s easy….I can look at a few widely known data points:
- 50% of all marriages end. Yikes.
- For those that stay together, roughly only 10% – 20% report being very happy. Yikes.
That leaves us with a pretty grim state of the modern marriage.
Why This Matters
Did you know that we pretty much learn everything about marriage from watching our parents? With astonishing predictability, we can know the future outcomes of just about anyone’s marriage by taking a glimpse into the lives of their parents.
That’s why us therapists are obsessed about talking about your Mom and Dad. I want you to obsessed now too.
Just so you don’t feel unfairly judged by me, my parents, for example, have a despicable track record for marriage. Multiple divorces on both sides… It’s really ugly. But in some ways, I was lucky.
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My parent’s overt and obvious inability to have a successful relationship made it easier for me to see that I needed to steer very far away from their role modeling. Doing absolutely anything different from them was going to be a success! They were chaotic and out-of-control and you didn’t’ need a whole lot of analyzing to know they were a mess. They wore their failures on their sleeves.
On the other hand, there are those couples that are no-less happy in their marriages but hide their problems behind a veil of secrecy and unspoken pain. These couples are white knuckling it day-to-day. If you came from a family that seemingly had it all together….I’m worried about you. I’m talking to you.
I fear that you might have been duped into believing it was good-enough. I fear that if you attempt to follow in your parent’s foot-steps, you’ll end up in quicksand.
Don’t be This Guy (or Gal)
I recently asked a client I’m working with about his father’s ability to be a husband etc. etc. I know, so cliché. Mommy issues and Daddy issues.
I inquired as to how my client imagined his Father impacted him. How his Dad shaped his understanding and experience of marriage.
My client said to me; “My Dad was perfect”. He wasn’t kidding and he really meant it. And I had to be the bad guy to shatter his delusion.
It’s the least favorite part of my job, but I have to. If I don’t, he’ll keep repeating what his Dad did – thinking it was “perfect” as his wife is on the phone calling divorce attorneys.
As we know, his Dad wasn’t perfect. His Dad was a manipulative man, who used his “nice-ness” as a way to manage his own anxiety around conflict. This man was the most conflict-avoidant man, who had rage episodes from time to time when he couldn’t suppress his anger anymore. His Dad was a superficial man. A boring man. A man who was terrified to let people get to know him. His Dad was actually a very lonely man who battled with depression his whole life. But you’d never known it because he didn’t know how to share himself with others. And in turn, his Mother lived a very lonely existence too.
We learned all of this about his Dad after he allowed me to ask some tough questions.
So, here’s the million-dollar question: How do you think my client – who thought his Dad was “perfect” was experienced in his own marriage by his wife? You got it! Just like his Dad!
So here’s a dilemma.
This man is in couples therapy because his wife has 1 foot out the door and is ready to leave. He thinks that he’s a good husband. And that his dad was a perfect human being. Unfortunately for him, his denial is going to be the Achilles heel that leaves him alone and abandoned by his wife.
My job, is to ever so gently, shatter his delusion that his Dad (or Mom) wasn’t so saintly. My intention is not to vilify or demonize his dad but to rather see his Dad clearly and objectively. For all the good and for all the bad.
Killing the Fantasy of Mom and Dad
One of the first things I do when I start working with a couple is to inquire into their backgrounds. I become a detective into their parent’s marriage.
Without understanding how Mom and Dad did it, nothing makes sense about why you do what you do. Why you react the way you do. Why you fight the way you do. It’s all just noise. But we understand our histories better, we can hear the rhythmic patterns to our relationship dance. Then we can change the music.
If you really want to make this marriage thing work, it is incumbent upon you to have the openness and awareness to look at your parents objectively. To consider all the positive and negative attributes of their marriage.
For many people it’s easy to see what your parents did well in marriage, but much more difficult to reflect on the ways they got it wrong. This is really hard sometimes. It’s difficult because we can place our parents on an idyllic pedestal, and to be blunt, are in total denial about their fallibilities. We’re still protective of them, and don’t want to say anything “bad”.
Until we accept that, for better and for worse, they taught us everything we know about marriage, we are doomed to recreate unhealthy historical patterns.
If I asked you to list 10 ways your parents marriage was not successful, could you?
There is a fundamental tenet about human nature that says:
We cannot change what we do not know.
When we learn to see our parents more objectively, and we afford ourselves the opportunity to change the dysfunctional relational patterns and paradigms they been stowed to us.
If this is hard for you to do, just know you’re in good company. It’s hard for me too. My own therapist continues to shatter my illusions about myself and my family. I hate him and love him for that.
This is an exercise in humility. In brutal honesty. It’s hard, but the pay-offs are great. We can finally, once and for all, live the lives we were created to live and have the relationships we deserve to have.
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