Marital Gridlock And Growing Up

Communication, Relationship Design, Sex and Intimacy

Yesterday’s post on marital gridlock was a bit heavy. I realized going in to the topic that it would be a difficult concept to convey. Today, I want to clarify a bit more about gridlock and its role in growing up within marriage.
First, lets reinforce the belief that marriage is indeed designed to grow us up into better people. It’s not about happiness, or completion, or stability – it’s about growth. These aspects are present at times, but they’re not the ultimate purpose of marriage.
If you buy into this belief, then you have to add to it the fusion fantasy we all bring into marriage. The belief that we will be one with our partner and live a tightly choreographed life together. As if we could read their mind, or they could read ours. The illusion of this connection is the source of much of the marital discord and gridlock in marriage.
To break free you must recognize the separateness between you and your spouse, and not react to the fear this separateness can produce.
So, marriage is about growing up and the mechanism for our growth is the constant push and pull of our own desire for separateness and togetherness with our spouse. Gridlock in marriage results, and is increased, when we believe we can get our spouse to come around to our way of thinking on an issue. As if when they see our point of view they will accommodate us and the issue will go away.
Reality is, a majority of issues in marriage will not go away. In fact, John Gottman has discovered that roughly 2/3s of the issues we face in marriage are perpetual.
So if our problems won’t go away and my spouse isn’t going to think the same way as me (or always accommodate for my way of wanting things) what am I left to do?
There are four possible responses:

  • Dominate my partner,
  • Submit to my partner,
  • Withdraw physically or emotionally from the relationship, or
  • Grow up.

David Schnarch refers to this kind of dilemma as a cruciblea severe test of our selfhood and personal integrity that is built into emotionally committed relationships.
So how exactly does this play out in the process of marriage? Let’s look at the fictional story of a married couple.
Steve married Michelle when they were in their early 20s. Neither had experienced the world nor life on their own away from their family of origin, and both entered marriage with the naive belief that life would be wedded bliss, aside from the silly arguments that occasionally would surface.
Steve realized early on the push and pull his relationship with Michelle had on him and he fought the forces by avoiding, both emotionally and physically. He would seek out Michelle when he wanted something from her, and push her away or avoid her when she wanted something from him.
It wasn’t long before some chronic issues surfaced between them – particularly in sex and sexual desire.
There were heated discussions surrounding their differences in desire for sex. Michelle frequently avoided the discussion and rarely initiated sex (or fully engaged in the sex that occurred) because sex was largely focused on Steve’s needs, not hers.
Steve and Michelle fell into the common and ineffective pattern of sexual interaction referred to by Schnarch as the devil’s pact. Steve would complain that Michelle never initiated sex, to which Michelle would respond, “You never give me the chance to initiate because you’re always initiating.”
So Steve and Michelle made the fateful agreement that Steve would stop initiating sex so Michelle could be more forthcoming with her desire.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Create a vacuum and the low desire partner will fill it because they’re no longer pressured by the high desire partner.
It doesn’t work in practice because it doesn’t fundamentally change the system – in fact, it reinforces the status quo. Initially, Michelle didn’t initiate because she enjoyed not feeling pressured to have sex, plus, she wanted the sex to be meaningful and pleasurable rather than simply a catering to her husband. As the days passed however, Michelle felt more and more pressure because of her awareness of Steve’s growing frustration. Since one purpose of the pact was to keep Michelle from feeling pressured, she could feel entitled to not initiate because she still felt pressured. Michelle wouldn’t initiate sex because she refused to capitulate to Steve who could seemingly pressure for sex by not initiating.
To break free of gridlock, Steve and Michelle had to face to difficult personal truths. It was easier for Michelle to say, “I just don’t like sex” than it was for her to say to her husband, “I don’t like sex with you. I get very little pleasure out of it.”
Once the emotional gridlock was in place, it was easier for them to live within their comfort level than to tolerate the discomfort and anxiety surrounding their individual growth. But it’s this tolerating of anxiety that is necessary for the relationship to move forward.
Growth in their marriage required each of them to live according to their individual strength and integrity. To discover the deeper parts of themselves, and at times, create the deeper part of themselves.
When Steve faced his selfish sexual style it forced him to become accountable for his unrealistic view of sex (shaped largely by his struggle with pornography), and his deep fear of being unable to truly satisfy his wife’s sexual desires. By keeping the focus on himself and spectatoring (focusing on performance rather than connection) throughout the encounters, he kept the emotional levels at a tolerable level. When Michelle upped her presence and began speaking up about what she wanted during sex, this forced Steve to face his own “inadequacy” fears.
At the same time, Michelle was struggling through her growth into viewing herself as a sexual being rather than a sexual object. She had to develop the ability to speak up for her wants, not just in sex but other areas of her life as well. She had to face head on her dependence on Steve and her fear of being emotionally betrayed or hurt by him.
Today, Steve and Michelle still deal with desire differences, but Steve recognizes more of the subtle initiations Michelle makes towards sex and Michelle recognizes Steve’s desire to be closer to Michelle on an emotional level outside of the bedroom. They both recognize the improved presence of each of them during sex and marriage.
Have the desire differences gone away? No. Will they? No. Has their marriage improved? Yes. Has sex improved? Yes. Can it get even better? That’s what they’re still growing up towards!

(photo source)
David Schnarch, Constructing the Sexual Crucible