Sunday, August 17, 2008

Marital Crisis versus marital problems: What is the Difference?

One couple explain to their marriage counselor that they are having difficulty connecting; they feel distant, like roomates. They each state their displeasure with their marriage. They have thought about divorce, but would like to work to restore the relationship they once both enjoyed.

Another couple has similar complaints. They agree that their relationship is mutually dissatisfying, that they have been distant - echoing that they feel more like roomates than an intimate couple. However, the husband is uncertain about his commitment to the marriage. He has spent much time thinking about divorce. He finds himself torn, divorce has the possibility of hope for a happier future, yet he fears the consequences, particularly for his children. Yet, the marriage feels like a never-ending sentence of unhappiness, with no possiblity of release.

These couples may have similar complaints about their marriage, but there is a crucial difference, only one couple has a mutual commitment to working to improve the marriage. Marriage counseling requires a mutual effort to build intimacy. If the therapist encourages the first couple to develop skills to reconnect, then the couple will likely work together and be successful.

However, the second couple will be unlikely to experience similar success when presented with the same treatment plan. The second husband is uncertain in his commitment and such effort to build intimacy will feel as though he is being pushed to do something he is uncertain he wants. A push to become closer to his wife will feel like someone pushing him off a high-dive diving board. Not only will he not want to jump off the board, his initial response will be to resist the push.

The uncertain husband's wife and therapist must give the husband time to decide to work on the marriage. The wife's willingness to cooperate in healthy decision making and her understanding her husband's painful position can actually attract him to recommit to the marriage. Pushing the husband for a commitment can have the opposite effect, particularly when emotions become hostile.

I term the first couple as experiencing marital problems, albeit serious, long-standing problems. The second couple are experiencing a marital crisis. The response necessary and the goals for each situation is different. The difference is crucial and can make a lifetime of difference.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What is a Marriage Crisis?

A marriage crisis occurs when one or both partner's commitment to the marriage becomes uncertain. A marriage crisis is different from marital problems, which confront two committed partners. With With one partner's commitment uncertain, the path to restoring the relationship is quite different than anything you'll find in most "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" type books. Responding as though your partner is still committed to the relationship can actually deepen the crisis, rather than alleviating it.

A crisis in a marriage is different from a marriage headed to divorce. A crisis in the relationship can be a point at which the marriage improves, depending on how the crisis is managed. Intense, overwhelming emotions are normal in a marriage crisis, but acting on these emotions can spell danger, often leading to decisions you'll later regret. Trying desperately to hold onto the marriage - or completely torching it in an impulsive "take that!" approach--via emotional outbursts, spending sprees or sexually destructive behavior, can lead to self-harm and harm to the marriage.

A marriage headed to divorce is motivated by hopelessness, the belief that the marriage cannot be satisfying. A marriage crisis is characterized by ambivalence, strongly competing emotions and desires. Ambivalence is different from confusion. Confusion can be resolved with additional information, but ambivalence is a tougher nut to crack. That's why the ambivalent spouse appears to be stuck on a fence, trying to decide on which side lies happiness and satisfaction. As one side starts to feel more attractive, there's a counterbalancing tug in the other direction as doubts dim what once was attractive. The fear of coming to regret whatever decision is made can be paralyzing. Stress builds as the fence becomes a more and more uncomfortable place to be, while a clear choice remains out of reach.