Our Ever-Changing Relationship Patterns

Unspoken marital contracts, set up early on in relationships, may work in a particular context, but later become unsustainable as a result of changes in one or both partners or new life circumstances. Such unspoken arrangements often involve roles taken on by each partner, usually involving behaviors learned in childhood. For example, with Steve and Sonya, Steve was the “underdog” from the start, but found this role natural for a long time. He devoted himself to taking care of Sonya’s needs, making himself imperceptible, and even taking pride in not needing or depending on anyone.

Later, however, Steve’s success and personal growth allowed him to begin expressing himself more as well as recognize that he wanted Sonya’s support and encouragement. These changes in Steve essentially challenged their implicit marital agreement, creating conflict and destabilizing their marriage at its roots.

In such situations, when a relationship pattern that once worked is no longer viable, marriages must go through a transition and resettle into a new dynamic that works for both partners. This reconfiguration requires role flexibility: Rather than being constrained by having to behave within a fixed set of parameters, partners are able to switch off and take on the other’s role when necessary (e.g., being able to lean as well as be leaned on). Flexibility in the ability to assume different roles according to what works for each partner, as well as for the couple at different times is associated with healthy marriages, just as psychological flexibility is associated with mental health.

Jeannie, David’s wife, also failed to acknowledge her husband’s good deeds, specifically his accomplishments within the relationship. David experienced an atmosphere of unrelenting criticism. Jeannie was angry about the lack of emotional connection between her and David but handled her anger in an unclear and indirect way, leading to further isolation between them.

David, in turn, reacted to Jeannie out of fear. He behaved as if he had no power in the marriage and continually tried to accommodate her. This strategy served to perpetuate the power differential in the relationship and contributed to the development of a bully-victim dynamic, lack of authentic connection, and failure to resolve the real issues.

Unresolved anger may spill into the relationship in the form of unremitting disapproval, nitpicking, and lack of appreciation. In the absence of resentment and conflict, when things are working well they are often invisible and unacknowledged; problems intrude and demand attention. Moreover, when other needs are unmet, the good is easily missed or taken for granted, and entitlement replaces gratitude and appreciation.

Men’s need for love, support, and friendship can go unnoticed because of their own lack of recognition that they need this. It leads to the development of marital patterns in which they feel alone. They conceal their unhappiness — at first from themselves and then from their wives — and overestimate their ability to sacrifice what they need and want. They often contribute to setting up a dynamic where they give up the healthy aspect of their own power. Then, unable to sustain this, they take power back by acting out – or secretly pulling away, building an often impenetrable wall around their hearts and in their relationships. When women in these cases discover the extent and reason of their husbands’ unhappiness, they are often shocked because it was so well disguised — often until it was too late.