It might be time to look inward, at sources other than your marriage, as the root of your troubles.
By Samantha Rodman Whiten
Written on Oct 29, 2023
Photo: Dean Drobot | Shutterstock
This may seem like a strange article for a couples counselor to write, especially a couples counselor who has written posts on ways to grow closer to your partner, how to connect via conversation, sex, and therapy, and even written a book about how to grow closer to your partner by writing emails.
As much as I believe that a struggling relationship often can benefit from increased focus (or “work,” as modern lingo has it), there is a time and place for this focus. Sometimes, overly focusing on marital problems can in fact distract people from focusing inward on other, deeper sources of their troubles.
Often, in counseling, I see couples where the man thinks that things are fine and the woman is highly dissatisfied. Frequently, couples can benefit from increased communication and concentrating on reconnecting. However, after a while, let’s say six months to a year, if one partner is still dissatisfied, it may be time to stop focusing so much on the marriage and explore alternate reasons for the pervasive sense of dissatisfaction that plagues (usually) one partner, or both.
Here are 7 clues that at least one partner is focusing excessively on the marriage:
1. Conversations about the state of the relationship occur for more than 5-10 hours per week (not exaggerating), and/or occur every single day
I am not talking about this going on in the immediate aftermath of infidelity, or after a huge empathic rupture. I am talking about couples who have endless (or at least it feels that way to one partner) discussions about the relationship for weeks if not months on end.
2. An increasing number of conversations about the marriage occur in front of the kids, merely because there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to save them for after the kids go to bed
3. The couple discusses things that happened over one month ago numerous times during each week
4. Partners find themselves limiting how often they interact with others because they just can’t concentrate on these friendships
5. Sex has stopped or occurs only as “make-up sex”
6. Partners are losing sleep at least once per week in order to have late discussions about the marriage
7. Self-care has stopped for at least one partner, including exercise, eating well, and engaging in leisure activities
Why would a partner become obsessed with the relationship, and point to it as the source of all ills?
First, it is easier than digging deep into other potential reasons for their unhappiness, such as their own depression, anxiety, personality disorder, or lack of fulfillment in their career or family life. The partner may recognize that their life is not what they want, but this is so overwhelming to contemplate that their marriage becomes the straw man, reaping all the blame. The idea of changing their life dramatically is so scary that it is (subconsciously) easier to pin everything on a failing marriage or disappointing partner.
In fact, people often blame other perceived failures in their lives on their unhappy marriage, saying things like, “If I had the emotional support from my partner, I would be a better parent/worker/lose weight/seek my own counseling.” While it is certainly true that a happy marriage gives people a jumping-off point to be more successful, it is usually not the case that an unhappy marriage completely prevents either partner from success in any other arena.
Also, the person who focuses excessively on the marriage likely has preoccupied attachment issues that predate the marriage, but s/he is uncomfortable relating their insecurity and anxiety to childhood family-of-origin issues. Instead, the partner gets blamed. It may be less psychologically scary to blame a partner for your insecurity and fear of intimacy than to recognize that a parent was the one who implicitly taught you not to trust others.
This is why I believe that, in most cases, couples counseling should be supplemented with individual counseling for both parties.
When couples counseling goes on for longer than six months, individual therapy is even more important, at least for the party with “more” complaints. While both people, and I think all people, could likely benefit from individual counseling, the partner who is more focused on the bad aspects of the marriage often has more severe unresolved attachment and trust issues, at least in my experience.
If you are the partner who recognizes yourself in this article, then it may be time to work with an individual therapist on issues unrelated to the marriage.
Anxiety and/or depression may be relevant, and attachment issues are almost invariably at play.
Additionally, it is essential to take stock of your life and look at what you can change to make yourself feel more fulfilled. This doesn’t mean “happier,” although that is good too, but identifying the sorts of things can give your life more meaning. Focusing on your career (or changing/starting a career), spirituality, community involvement, and artistic/creative pursuits can help with depressive tendencies and also provide you with an outlet for your intellect outside of analyzing your relationship, whether it is good, bad, or middle of the road.
If you are the partner who recognizes your spouse in this article, and who feels trapped in a never-ending cycle of conversations about the marriage that far outstrip the pace of once-a-week couples counseling (and one or two more relationship-focused conversations weekly), it is useful to think about what purpose the marital focus serves for your spouse.
Does s/he feel disconnected from other useful pursuits? Does s/he have a difficult history with their own family, that is being triggered now? Is there depression or anxiety present?
If so, encourage your partner to seek their own counseling, and if the only way to get them to do that is to get your own as well, then do it.
You likely fall into the more avoidant side of the spectrum and could benefit from exploring that further. Put limits on the number of conversations you can have about the marriage, but be more present during the ones you do have.
For instance, be present and active during one “emotional check-in” (and/or marital counseling session) per week, but after that, say that you feel that the conversations are leading to you feeling more disconnected. Try to express your love and commitment as much as possible, as well, and recognize that if your partner cares this much about the relationship, s/he loves you, and also feels very insecure. Try and bolster their sense of security if possible. Read the book Hold Me Tight to understand more about attachment and how to get out of toxic cycles.
Share with your partner if you feel you may be caught in this cycle.
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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.
This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.