Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Pay Attention To Spouse's Complaints Before It Is Too Late

October 2, 2006

How does it happen that one partner in a marriage can be so surprised by their mate’s sudden desire to leave the marriage? Does it really come out of the blue? Aren’t there warning signs?

Different patterns. Here are some patterns of marital problems that are disguised sufficiently for one partner to be blindsided by his or her spouse’s unhappiness.

- Opposites repel. When couples have poor communication skills, resolving conflict may be too difficult and only makes matters worse. One or both partners may be too reactive and unable to listen to their partner’s point of view - or unable to empathize with it. Intense conflict is inevitable and discouraging. One partner may adapt while the other chafes with recurrent conflict.

- Pursuit/withdrawal. One partner is overly sensitive to confrontation, dislikes anger, and is quick to withdraw from conflict discussions. The other partner is perceived as having a "too" intense manner that comes across as critical, unreasonable and unrelenting.

Whether the withdrawal triggers the intense pursuit or the intense pursuit triggers the withdrawal, the pattern gets established. It is often in this unpleasant mix of pursuit/withdrawal that communications break down and unresolved problems accumulate. Frustration and disrespect mount on both sides.

The angry conflict shows up in their avoidance of sexual relations which accelerates the downward slide of their marriage. This additional problem weighs heavily on the marriage.

- Poor communications. The saddest situations are where one partner decides that to get along in the marriage, he or she gives in and goes along with this or her partner’s expectations. The unassertive partner submerges his or her personality, strong opinions, values, and complaints. True feelings aren’t expressed. There is no push for corrective action in the marriage.

Years of not dealing with each other on an equal "give-and-take" basis accumulates and deprives the marriage of true intimacy. Finally, the unassertive partner gets tired of the one-sided relationship and wants out. It is paradoxical that once the decision to leave is made, there is a willingness to be totally honest about the past.

- Failure to take responsibility. One partner may try to get by being lazy, self-centered and selfish. It is only his or her world that matters. These kinds of partners don’t cooperate, do their part, or respond to their partner’s difficulties or needs. They don’t take their partner’s requests seriously. They take their spouse for granted and ignore requests for change.

Sometimes this lack of responsibility extends to money management, work, parenting, health concerns, addictive or compulsive behaviors, temper problems, cooperation in the home or other issues that affect their partner’s well-being.

The disrespect and frustration mount and may eventually overwhelm the desire to be with someone who

appears not to care about them or their concerns. The "responsible" partner finds him or herself being equally chilly or indifferent in return. He or she doesn’t like the person he or she is becoming in order to survive in the marriage.

The "responsible mate" may even feel conflicted – caring for his or her spouse with a parental or quasi-sibling love but not connecting with his or her mate in an equal, respectful way. Their spouse’s laziness or callous neglect interferes with the desire to be warm, loving and affectionate. Sexual attraction and desire drop when a spouse is not viewed as a true partner.

The dilemma. Withdrawal accelerates when the unhappy spouse tries to solve problems, makes repeated requests, demands, demands again, and finally gives up. He or she goes underground with feelings of disrespect, anger, contempt, and ultimately apathy.

For a while a couple may get by with separate lives, ignoring the emotional pain and distance between them. They may be caught up in children’s activities, career pursuits, friends, and can sidestep the obvious dissatisfaction between them. Unfortunately, one partner’s patience wears down and he or she entertains divorce as preferable to living in a painful marriage.

What is amazing to me is that all the requests for change aren’t listened to, believed or taken seriously until the threat of divorce becomes real. By then, promises for changes are not believed. Feelings of love and care are gone - or almost gone. Counseling with couples who wait until the brink of divorce is painful and hard. They are like locomotives headed in opposite directions.

The "shocked" partner is ready to change. His or her partner doesn’t believe it can happen - or isn’t interested. The withdrawn partner has been too unhappy for too long, and doesn’t want to risk getting emotionally involved again.

A warning. A lot more marriages could be saved if marital problems were taken seriously sooner. Counseling needs to be tried sooner. Living with problems only makes things worse. It drains motivation from the spouse who wants change.

Problems can be solved when two people are motivated and trying at the same time. Sometimes it may take guidance from a third party. Don’t wait until it is too late.