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Chapter 4

A CULTURE OF ANXIETY

 

It is interesting that, in playing cards, a person is dealt a hand that is carefully scrutinized before playing the hand. In choosing marital partners, however, 'taking a good look at the cards one is dealt' is thought to be unromantic.

 

Many marriages are characterized by a culture of anxiety. Where this exists, you can observe the following kinds of relationship concerns:

A loss of nurturance and positive regard for one another begins to surface. This evolves over time as a result of an increased frequency of conflict along with fewer satisfactory resolutions to this conflict. Each spouse begins to pull away, ever so silently at first, as an awareness dawns that things aren't the way they should be.
A creeping sense of insularity and emotional cutoffness also begins to surface. This occurs as the twosome finds more and more things to conflict about at the same time that the happiness ratio declines. Less meaningful topics characterize their discussions, not only with the spouse but with others; mainly out of the need to cover up the fact that there is a stirring uneasiness and unhappiness within.
A tone of deadly seriousness begins to surface. Everything is reacted to excessively, especially the little failings of one another. Things loom large always. Mountains are made out of mole hills. All spontaneity stops when the last guest leaves and closes the door behind them. Laughter that once rang out loudly and joyously is heard no more.
A deficiency of nurturing touching begins to surface. As conflict erupts or when subtle tensions escalate, the twosome touches less and less. Eventually they reach a point where they stop touching as they pass like strangers in the night, respectful of each other's territory and mindful when theirs is being encrouched upon.
Things are thought but never said; and things are felt but rarely, if every, expressed. The effect over time is numbing.
Each spouse learns to pretend to the rest of the world that all is well when it isn't. They carry on socially as before, except that if one looks closely one notices a lack of tender touch and only intermittent eye contact between them. They tend to sit apart from each other and they rarely, if ever, address one another by name. They also tend to accumulate more and more people around them as buffers.
Other-blame is rampant. One can almost hear them say, "My life would be happy if it weren't for her (or him)." They apparently never learned that a happy marriage is made up of people who were happy to begin with.
Each spouse loses sight, in time, of the maintenance aspects of a sound marital relationship; i.e., the things that are done to cultivate intimacy. Probably the best description of this cultivation process can be found in the book, The Little Prince, (14) where the Prince is talking with a very beautiful rose. He says:
"You are beautiful, but you are empty...one could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you -- the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the catepillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose." ~The Little Prince

 

 

MARITAL PROBLEMS

When the average person marries, he or she hopes for the best and rarely ever plans for the worst. There is a certain logic to this, of course, that almost everyone intuitively recognizes.

Courtship, indeed, is thought to be a time for putting one's best foot forward. As a result, there are no tears, no terrible talks, no stepping on the other's toes, no insults about the in-laws, no mortal blows. It is basically thought to be a time for strutting one's most enticing wares.

One's marital expectations play a huge part in the eventual choice of a partner. In other words, not everyone marries because it is the person they love; some people fall in love with certain ideas or images that the chosen person evokes. They fall in love with what they think this person will make happen for them down the road.

Some of the universal expectations that motivate such people to marry include:

Having a loyal, devoted, loving spouse with whom to grow and develop
Having a mate who will be a constant support against the rest of the world, who will stand by my side in time of need
Having companionship and insurance against loneliness
Having someone with whom they will live happily-ever-after
Having a sanctioned and readily available sexual outlet
Having a relationship that will last until death do us part
Having at last a respectable position and status in society

 

People who marry with these kinds of expectations for marriage end up more troubled than not. This is because they spend the bulk of their courtship time assessing the llikelihood that the spouse of their choice will bring with them certain necessary 'ingredients' for success.

That said, passion is probably the best ingredient for marriage and it is also one of the best reasons to get married. Not that things like position or money or like values are unimportant or unnecessary, but they count for naught if passion isn't also there.

 

Some things reliably predict difficult future marital adjustments for newly weds.

EXAMPLE: Couples who meet and marry shortly after one or the other of them has experienced a significant relationship loss are prone to having later adjustment problems. This marriage is often a spontaneous and poorly thought out effort to get relief from their feelings of loss. The loss has driven them to seek solace in marriage, oftentimes with the first person who happens along. Their loss could be a spouse through death or divorce, or a parent, or even a fiance who backed out of a five-year courtship at the eleventh hour. The loss makes the person much more vulnerable to quick relationship realignments, so much so that had he or she waited out the grieving period and let it pass, they probably wouldn't be nearly so inclined to marry the first person who happens along.

EXAMPLE: Getting married in order to get away from home is another wrong reason to get married, and it is another classic predictor of marital failure.

The best marriage partners are those who have successfully emancipated from the family of origin and have lived on their own in the world for at least two years before [entering into] a relationship that culminates in marriage. It means experiencing two full years on their own before even [meeting] the future spouse.

 

EXAMPLE: Couples that reside either extremely close to (or at a great distance from) either family of origin eventually experience marital maladjustment. The reasons for this are varied but they have to do with the nature of the attachments between the generations. Those who cut-off and run-away into the world tend to live at great distances from the family of origin. Those who never managed to fully emancipate from the family of origin rarely have the energy to get very far away from the parental home. Neither circumstance promotes optimal emotional development in the emancipating young adult; hence, they also make less than optimal marital choices.

EXAMPLE: Couples that marry for the first time before the age of twenty or after the age of thirty have predictable trouble adjusting to marriage. The earlier the marriage, the less emotionally mature the partners. The later the marriage, the more emotionally rigid the partners.

This situation is compounded if the couple marries after an acquaintanceship of less than six months of more than three years of engagement. This is because the longer the engagement, the more ambivalent their feelings are about getting married. The 'quickie' marriage is usually between people who are intent upon running away from something. They are the ones who wake up one day wondering how on earth they got there.

Other common predictors of later marital maladjustment include:

Getting married without family or friends present
A pregnancy occurs before or within the first year of marriage
The couple is dependent on one or the other extended family financially or physically
Either spouse has a poor relationship with his or her siblings or parents
Either spouse considers his or her childhood or adolescence as an unhappy time
Either spouse has parents whose own marriage was unstable

 

Such marriages are prone to chronic marital discord with the following things as their most common complaints: lack of communication, constant arguments, unfulfilled emotional needs, sexual dissatisfaction, financial disagreements, in-law trouble, infidenlity, conflicts over children, and being stuck with a jealous spouse.

This is because marriage for them was born more out of necessity or need than for the sheer joy of being with one particular, very, very special person.

 

Contrast this to Cassie in The Cracker Factory (15) who tells her friend, "I'm with Charlie because after eleven years of being a housewife I have nowhere else to go. I'm too sick to get a job and I wouldn't know where to start anyway. And if I left Charlie one week, I'd have breast cancer the next and then who would want me? I'm with Charlie for all the right reasons, Margaret."

 

 

THE MARITAL BARGAIN

The legal term 'quid pro quo' was first applied by Don Jackson (16), a founding pioneer of Systemic Family Therapy. He used it to define the marital relationship bargain.

Literally, quid pro quo means 'something for something.' In familial terms, is a statement of how a couple originally agrees to define their relationship going forward.

This definition is largely unspoken. It holds that the similarities, as well as the differences between spouses, comprise the 'bargain' upon which the relationship going forward is based.

EXAMPLE: A young man who needs rescuing from an abrasive, rejecting mother will hook up with a woman who needs to act out the rescuer role; her aim in life will be to save the poor fellow from an awful mother. He, in turn, admires her strength and her dominance as she responds warmly to his tenderness towards her and to his need for her. Over the course of the marriage such a relationship bargain will be trouble-free SO LONG AS he still needs and desires rescuing and SO LONG AS she still covets the rescuer role. Trouble will erupt if and when one or the other in the twosome violates that unwritten but mutually agree-upon bargain by demanding more.

A very focused kind of emotional investment defines the relationship when the members of a marital twosome flee from the family of origin into a marriage that is meant to be the antidote for old unresolved issues. Their relationship rules not only allude to the past, but they serve also to bind them in the present.

Any effort to [change] the rules evokes a swift and impassioned demand by the other to CHANGE BACK! It is not the present that is important to them, but those old ghosts from the past. Anxiety escalates as the twosome diverges from their original relationship bargain and it becomes translated into a string of musts, shoulds and ought to's that are intended to get the relationship back on track.

Don Jackson provides us with an example of a relationship bargain that fits in well with what many young couples are experiencing today:

 

"A couple had a quid pro quo of total independence; each pursued his own career and was succeeding. They scorned the usual financial and housekeeping arrangements, basing all decisions on the maximization of the independence of both. Though one might wonder how it happened in an atmosphere of total independence, the wife became pregnant; her career and way of life were drastically limited. The marriage floundered because the original quid pro quo could not possibly be made to include maternity and motherhood."

 

The emotional needs of the partners dictate the nature of the marital bargain that assumes unchanging needs; that is to say, it assumes that tomorrow's needs will be identical to today's needs. If needs do change, then the foundation upon which the relationship was based will be ruptured.

The average person feels quite certain that he or she can adapt well to the need for change and they generally enter marriage fully confident of their ability to change whenever it is needed.

However, the more anxious the person and the more unresolved the emotional baggage they bring with them from the past, the less likely it is that they will respond well to change. Anxious persons are the ones who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves saying, "CHANGE BACK, PLEASE!"

One can gain a fairly good understanding of a twosome's original marital bargain by listening carefully to the theme of the struggle when the relationship starts floundering. The accusations that pass between the spouses will relate to broken relationship rules and also to the culprit who is doing most of the unwanted rule changing.

An astute observer can also look at what binds together a newly married twosome and predict, with some accuracy, what the key issues will be if and when serious turmoil starts rocking the marital boat.

EXAMPLE: Take the young man whose mother devastated the entire family by having an affair outside of the marriage when he was fourteen. Then his father dies shortly after telling the young man to forgive and protect his mother. The directive to forgive and protect his mother locks him into a life-long battle of trying to do what his beloved father says, at the same time that he is devastated by what his mother did. He will embrace marriage with the notion (put forth in an intense and deadly serious quid pro quo bargain) that marriage is forever-after until death do us part. Any twosome that so evolves will be engulfed with the fear that at any moment the door will fly open and that old ghost (of mother having an affair) will be standing there.

Such intense self-fulfilling prophecies will cause any marriage to fail.

The real source of failure in a marriage, then, is the past.

 

 

CONTRACTED TOUCHING

Something important is going on in families where parents and children don't touch enough. It has to do with a marital relationship process characterized as contracted touching.

This is a form of touching that develops in marriages where the spouses gradually find themselves engulfed in emotional distance. Their relationship is at the brink of deteriorating. To keep it from totally disintegrating, they resort to a form of pretend touching that gives the illusion of a nurturing relationship when there is none.

If one lifts the lid and looks inside that relationship, however, the vision is far less nurturing.

Examples of what one can find under that lid include:

Absent-minded kisses of 'hello' and 'goodby'
Pats on the hand to comfort
Vacant "I love you's" meant only to keep the peace
Highly routinized sexual interactions (if any)
Shoulder-and-up hugs so as to avoid more extensive body contact whenever possible
General avoidance of situations where the expectation is that one should hug or be hugged
Mostly public touching

 

It doesn't matter what facade they present to the world; if a couple's relationship is beset with forms of contracted touching, then it is a sure sign that intimacy is waning.

Tender touching is as essential to healthy existence as air, food, water and adequate shelter, and it is one of the primary forces that motivate most adults to form intimate twosomes.

When tender touch is lost in marriage, all is eventually lost.

 

Think about the central place that touch has in our daily lives. Words having to do with the sense of touch abound: a person 'feels' sick, good, bad, melancholy, one can be out of 'touch' with reality. We as Americans 'hold' certain truths to be self-evident. We say someone has a firm 'grip' on life.

When touching another human being, we come to know that they exist in a way that hearing or seeing cannot confirm in so a wonderful way. Touching is a self-confirming process that tells us where others leave off and we begin. We permit contact with people we trust and enjoy and we withdraw from contact with those we don't trust or fear.

Most of the time the message of touch has to do with trust, pleasure, acceptance and involvement.

Imagine the confusing nature of the message we give to children when we tell them outright, or insinuate, that it much more proper to restrain, rather than to give in to, one's urge to touch others in the family. It robs them of an important ingredient that cements relationships together and allows them to endure over generations of family.

Children touched often and tenderly by their parents feel deeply cared for. Only then can they find the way to show others how much they care for them.

 

 

THAT'S AWFUL

Things like incest, abuse, neglect, and abandonment erupt in emotionally crippled, anxious and disorganized families. And the world eventually discovers these things because the acts are so horrific.

But a lot more invisible stuff plagues families that are struggling with high anxiety but do not yet find themselves at the brink of collapse.

The following statements by therapy clients give some clues about the more subtle things in families that cause family members great pain:

"My mother never once told me that she loved me."
"I was never listened to."
"I felt unloved."
I didn't dare to express a negative emotion in front of Dad."
"Dad didn't talk or touch; he distanced himself from all of us."
"I had to choose between my mother and my father when they got a divorce."
There were so many things that were off-limits to discuss in our family; our sexuality, our feelings, our fantasies, our needs."
"Dad died before I had a chance to tell him that I loved him."
"There were family secrets that no one could ever discuss."
"My father liked my brother better."
"My mother acted crazy all the time."
"Just before Dad died he told me that I was to be responsible for taking care of Mama, regardless of my own plans in life."
"I always felt that I had to be perfect."
"I never really knew my brother."
"My parents hated each other."
"My mother was a drunk."
"In my family everybody constantly interrupted each other and tried to dominate. It was alwayschaotic."
"I never felt comfortable talking to my parents about anything really important."

 

To hurt in any way is awful but the more invisible, unspeakable agonies are sometimes the more excruciating ones that we carry into our adult lives like so much excess baggage.

It's the little things that mean a lot.

 

 

WHEN RELATIONSHIPS FAIL

The stage at which a marriage begins to disintegrate correlates with the developmental era when one or both spouses experienced intense cutoffness with their parents.

RULE: Cutoffness begets cutoffness.

A cutoff from parents in adolescent years reinforces in the child a strategy of cutting off as a 'solution' in important future relationships. They bring the cutoff strategy with them into adulthood.

The adolescent who runs away at the age of fourteen didn't just then cutoff from his or her parents; their relationship with parents had to have been deteriorating for some time in order for such an intense cutoff to occur. One could speculate that the cutoffness began as early as age three or four, perhaps when a more favored sibling came along, or when a divorce occurred.

It then takes another ten years or so for the parent-child relationship to disintegrate to the point of cutoffness that precipitates the 14-year old's flight into the world.

The child will eventually seek refuge in a spousal relationship that eventually ends in cutoffness, as well.

That's because the earlier parental cutoff draws the grown child to a marital relationship of over-closeness (the opposite of what he experienced in childhood). This opposite attraction is an attempt to somehow 'undo' the issues of old. Around the ninth or tenth year of the marriage a clearly threatening relationship tension erupts that signals an impending cutoff; up until that point the warning signs were either ignored or misinterpreted. On or around the fourteenth year of the marriage the couple finally divorces.

It is as if the person is programmed to be able to maintain a relationship for just so long -- only as long as the original parent-child relationship managed to survive without complete cutoffness.

It is the nature of patterns to repeat.

 

 

RELATIONSHIP EXCHANGES

Relationship exchanging is another problematic theme for some people.

To 'exchange' a relationship is to move from one intense relationship to another without ever allowing for [TIME BETWEEN] the relationships. It also never allows the person doing the relationship exchanging to have quality time for self apart from the fusion of a close relationship.

The person doing the exchanging [i.e., the exchanger] typically begins one relationship while in the throes of ending another. This minimizes the pain involved in separating from the prior relationship and it helps build the momentum needed for leaving that relationship for the new one.

Without some 'safe haven' to go to, the person has far less incentive to leave the prior relationship. Why? Relationship exchangers fear being left alone in the world. They fear that there will never be another relationship possibility for them -- that they will have to be totally responsible for themselves for the rest of their lives.

These are some typical examples of relationship exchanging scenarios:

Men or women who go directly from the parental home into an early marriage
People who live at home with Mother until age 29 or 30 or so, and then marry after a brief courtship
Spouses who become intensely entangled in an affair while emotionally 'warring' with their marriage partner over issues of control; the affair serving a 'payback' function to show who exactly is in charge of whom
Spouses who move in with another lover immediately following a legal separation, and long before their divorce is ever final
Mothers who cling desperately to grown sons or daughters for comfort during a mid-life crisis, and/or move in with them or visa versa
People who meet and marry within a month or less of knowing one another
People who resurrect some old high school relationship to fill in the void after their divorce is final

 

In all of these cases, people fail to do some important things that must first be done if they are ever going to be prepared for a lasting relationship in the future.

People need time between relationships.

They need time to come to terms with their own emptiness and aloneness. They need time to sort out and re-evaluate self. They need time to repair and improve self. They need time to regain a sense of autonomy and independence. They need time to cultivate a renewed friendship with the self, and time to explore new directions for the self.

Those who fail to achieve this self time [between] relationships suffer incomplete selves. They move into new relationships ill-prepared to maintain an autonomous and differentiated self. Instead, they fuse to others in a state of dependency that all too soon starts to look exactly like the relationship they vacated.

In the same way, a young adult needs to be on their own for several years or more before entering into the cocoon of a committed relationship like marriage. This means living in their own apartment, not with a gaggle of friends or a lover.

So, too, divorcees need to spend at least two years of uncommitted time following the final decree of divorce, especially from a spouse with whom they were once intensely involved. Even the lonely widow or widower needs extended time to 'take stock' before moving forward into another relationship of (hopefully) great depth and meaning.

It takes time to regenerate self.

 

That said, the average time between final decree of divorce and remarriage is six months. This is one reason why divorce rates keep skyrocketing; once-divorced people are remarrying again quickly, and divorcing again just as quickly.

 

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LONELINESS

Human companionship is a powerful life force.

In fact, according to James Lynch (17) in his classic book, The Broken Heart, enduring human relationships are important conditions for emotional and physical health. Loneliness, he says, can literally break the human heart.

Premature death very often results from the following social circumstances:

Social isolation
The lack of human companionship
The death or early loss of parents
Sudden loss of love
Chronic loneliness

 

Yes, death rates for single, divorced and widowed people are greater than the rates for married people; and this is true for both sexes as well as for both whites and nonwhites.

"The magnitude of some of the increases in death in the nonmarried groups are impressive," notes Lynch; "They sometimes exceed the death rates of married people by as much as five times." His data support his claim that, in addition to coronary heart disease, deaths attributed to hypertensive disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic fever, chronic rheumatic heart disease, and cardiovascular renal disease all show the same pattern.

However, the specific link between the lack of human companionship and cardiac disease is difficult to sort out due to the nature of most biomedical research studies. This is because they traditionally ignore this influence.

Says Dr. Lynch:

"Electrocardiograms have been taken on thousands of individuals, elaborate blood chemistry studies have been conductred and followed up for decades, plasma cholesterol has been measured again and again, smoking habits have been carefully checked, dietary habits have been painstakingly monitored -- obesity, catacholamines, lipids, proteins, almost anything that could be 'objectively' quantified has been scrutinized. Scientific data on all these factors have been collected again and again on business executives and dockworkers, farmers and fishermen, Indians and immigrants, coumtruy dwellers and city dwellers, Irish and Italians, Jews and Japanese, Lithuanians and Liberians. And yet most of these elaborate studies neglected to evaluate whether marital status was correlated with any of these measures, what type of families these individuals had come from, whether they had experienced early parental loss, whether their subjects were lonely or anxious when their cardiovascular status was measured. If one does not bother to collect certain data then, of course, those unmeasured factors will never be seen as influencing heart disease."

 

Studies still fall short in exactly the same way because medical researchers insist that family factors, including related personality factors, are the stuff of soft science and are therefore not measureable in the way that physical parameters are measureable.

This continues to amaze me.

 

RELATIONSHIP LOSS

The fact is, losses of important family members through death or abandonment, or through chronic and disabling disease, significantly impact surviving family members.

The single, most important effect of the loss of family members is the insecurity that surviving family members reflect thereafter in all important relationships. According to Walter Toman (18) in his book, Familly Constellation, "The graver the loss, the greater the insecurity of the bereaved in his present and future social relationships."

Losses of persons are more severe, in turn, he notes:

 

The more recently the loss has occurred
The earlier in a person's life the loss occurs
The older the lost person is
The longer a person has lived with the one lost
The smaller the family relationship system
The greater the number of losses that have occurred before
The longer it takes the family to find a replacement for a lost person

 

Toman's findings have implications for foster and adoptive children, particularly for those who lose whole families in the course of the foster or adoptive process. However imperative the removal of a child may be from his or her family of origin, there nevertheless are going to be intense relationship ramifications for that child later on.

These ramifications, according to Toman, will be in the form of "subtle, pervasive relationship insecurities that may prevent, or at least inhibit, successful and stable bonding."

The graver the earlier losses, the more fearful the person will be about future losses. These insecurites often set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

SUICIDE

The suicidal person is imprisoned within an intense and insular emotional cocoon of their own making.

The more impermeable that cocoon, the more successful a suicidal gesture will be.

The cocoon grows out of a need to distance from one's family of origin, particularly from one's parents. The distance turns into cutoffness over time, which then leads to intense detachment from all other important relationships.

Here and now relationships may help the person 'buy time' but ultimately the cocoon also shuts them out. Such relationships may even unwittingly facilitate the suicide by contributing to the cutoff person's sense of isolation and pain. This is especially true when historical patterns of rejection and over-control repeat in these current relationships.

There is only one healthy exit from the suicidal coccon and that is reconnection with the family of origin. Suicide is an explosive and deadly exit from the cocoon.

 

Nurturing relationships (such as some therapeutic relationships) can forestall the suicide but the effect will not be lasting so long as the person remains intensely cutoff from important family members.

NOTE: The cutoffness associated with suicide is a reciprocal process. It is never just a one-way street. There is always a force operating at the other end of the cutoff, back up there in the family of origin somewhere. It is this reciprocity that keeps the cutoff operational.

This is true even when the other end of the reciprocal cutoffness is denied or refuted by the cutoff one.

[Both] sides of the cutoff must be actively engaged in cutoffness of significant intensity before a suicide occurs. Attempted suicides, even suicidal gestures, represent a beginning activation of these reciprocal forces and warn of an impending cutoffness that must be dealt with if a suicide is to be prevented.

CARDINAL RULE: Go with the anxiety. Imagine the worst that can happen. Push for the discomfort in the relationship...that's when things will change. Most people, however, just close their eyes and hope for the best.

 

 

A Most Peculiar Man (19)

 

 

 

References for Chapter 4:

(14) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

(15) Rebeta-Burditt, The Cracker Factory

(16) Don D. Jackson, The Transactional View

(17) James J. Lynch, The Broken Heart: the Medical Consequences of Loneliness -- read this interesting interview with Dr. Lynch

(18) Walter Toman, Family Constellation

(19) Simon and Garfunkel, A Most Peculiar Man (YouTube)

 

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