Road signs alert drivers to prepare for what’s ahead: pedestrians crossing, a curve, or a hairpin turn. Signals also exist that warn us of possible relationship hazards that are easy to miss. So watch out for these three relationship traps:
Trap #1: I’m Right — You’re Wrong
This attitude means that one of you is not respecting the other’s right to be herself or himself. Many people new to therapy label some of their partner’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors as “wrong.” I tell them that right and wrong are terms that apply in religious teachings and legal procedures.
It’s more helpful to view therapy as a time to gain understanding of themselves and each other as individuals. Arguments about who is right or wrong breed resentment, which blocks caring and understanding. When someone who comes to see me for therapy starts out with a right-wrong attitude and finally understands that different simply means not the same, it feels like a breakthrough.
Strive to respect the dignity and essential value of your partner’s perspective as well as your own. Only then can you create solutions that satisfy both of you. By acknowledging differences and responding to relationship challenges constructively, you will grow as individuals and as a couple.
Trap #2: The 50-50 Trap
“Shouldn’t marriage be a 50-50 proposition?” asked a woman in a workshop I led.
“Actually no,” I said. “That kind of thinking causes weighing and measuring.”
Too much focus on fairness can lead to “what’s in it for me” thinking and tit-for-tat nitpicking that sucks the romance and generosity of spirit out of your relationship. Fairness has its place, but use it sparingly.
For example, if you feel resentful about doing the lion’s share of the housework, you might ask your partner to help plan a more “fair” way to divide tasks. If you hold a weekly marriage meeting, in accordance with the step-by-step instructions in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, you can discuss the subject during the Chores part of your marriage meeting, or during the Problems and Challenges part if the topic feels emotional.
Ideally, both husband and wife focus on doing what pleases the other. Rabbi Manis Friedman shows how to do this, using an example of a couple with a conflict. The husband wants their bedroom window open at night; his wife wants it closed. Here’s how they argue: he insists that the window remain closed, and she insists that it be open! When I heard Rabbi Friedman say this, I was still single and could hardly believe my ears. Until then, I had thought conflicts in marriage consisted of power struggles that lasted until one spouse gave up and let the other “win.”
It has been over 25 years since I heard Rabbi Friedman’s version of how a couple should argue. I still remember what he said because it was so different from my sense of what was possible. Back then I couldn’t imagine letting go of my own strong preference in order to allow a husband to have it his way.
Miraculously, I am able to do this in my marriage — not always — but much more often than I expected. Fortunately, my husband does this too, and neither of us is counting.
“But isn’t marriage all about compromise?” the same woman in my workshop asked. Well, not necessarily. When compromise means reaching a middle ground, both parties can lose.
For example, a couple decides to go out for dinner. The wife wants to go to an Italian restaurant. The husband wants Chinese food. They compromise by going to an American restaurant. Both think that’s fair. But each ends up feeling let down to be going out to eat the same old same old. They have achieved a no-win compromise.
Sometimes instead of finding a middle ground it makes more sense for the partner who cares less about something to accommodate the one who cares more. What if you’re not sure who cares more? Ask your spouse, “How much do you want that (whatever it is) on a scale of one to ten?” You can ask yourself the same question.
Trap #3: The Martyr Trap
Some people think the key to a good relationship is to be kind and selfless at any cost. What can be wrong with such virtue? A good relationship is free from too much weighing and measuring. But when the scale tips way out of balance, someone suffers. Being kind and selfless is wonderful as long as doing so does not cause resentment.
A martyr in a marriage typically expects a reward, at least subconsciously. When there is no reciprocation, a martyr feels bitter. It is easy for one spouse to start taking the other’s sacrifices for granted, to continue expecting more of the same from the martyr and giving little in return.
Rescuing yourself from the martyr trap is a do-it-yourself job. Notice if you are doing more drinking, drug use, or overeating. Other warning signs can be depression, anger, anxiety, decreased interest in sex, insomnia, aches and pains, and lack of energy. The cure for martyrdom is to become responsible for your own well-being. Learn to balance self-care with concern for your partner. A good marriage supports the growth and vitality of both partners.
Martyrs drain the life out of themselves and their relationship. If you are feeling overburdened, tell your partner. Use positive communication skills. Say what you would like to be different in your relationship and in your life.
If after trying everything suggested here, you still feel stuck in any of these traps, you may be reenacting a script or pattern you learned in childhood. A skilled therapist can help you recognize and overcome obstacles to healthier functioning and inspire you to create a happier, more fulfilling relationship.
For many couples, the best support of all is the caring, loving relationship that partners create and maintain by holding a weekly marriage meeting, as described step by step in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.
Note: This article is adapted from a section from Chapter 6: “Addressing Problems and Challenges” of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library).
Road sign photo available from Shutterstock