I’ve been Reading John Gottman’s Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. This not his latest book by any means but does cover some of the same territory of his earlier and later books. You can get an an overview of some of his research from his website and can see what I’ve written on my companion blog.
Gottman’s books are marked by a certain interactivity that involves gobs of self-tests designed to measure the health of the marriage. This is similar to what Dr. Phil does in his books and workbooks. After taking one of these quick tests answering “yes” or “no”, he says if you answered “yes” to so-many questions (usually about one-third of them) the marriage is in danger of being under whatever particular influence he is measuring in that test. I’m scoring about 80-90% on most of them, and a high score is not a good thing on these tests.
What I’m discovering is that Arwyn and I have evolved such a pattern of contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling in our relationship that it’s become difficult for either of us to say anything to the other without causing and feeling hurt. We are simply raw with defensiveness. Everything is percieved as a potential attack. We’ve assaulted each other so many times that even a good well-meaning gesture can be interpreted as either a fluke or a trojan horse designed to set up an ambush.
I am more than partly to blame for this. I have become a master passive-aggressive warmonger. An honor graduate of the William T. Sherman school of relationships. A good defense was a better offense. Never let your guard down. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. If the enemy strikes, strike back with overwhelming force. Break the enemy’s will to fight with swift retaliation multiplied by a factor of 10. Make war in such a way that the enemy will never want to go through it again. Make Georgia Howl. Fight to win. Blood makes the grass grow. Show no mercy. Mercy is for the weak. Wax on, wax off.
All this sounded okay at the time. It sounded like a reasonable strategy for conquest and domination. But a marriage isn’t like that, is it?
NOW you tell me!
Maybe I wasn’t quite as bad as that, but maybe I was. I do know for the first couple of years of our marriage I was not emotionally available at all. I wasn’t very interested in improving things or even in maintaining things.
Arwyn probably shut down as a defense to my assaults. Or a defense to my emotional absence. Either way, she had to deal with some pain and lonliness in some way. It was a choice between the lesser of two evils: confront me and fight or withdraw and defend. She chose the latter most of the time. There were times when I could draw her out, but I was entirely too good at fighting for her to make this a regular thing. So we both settled into a hostile/detached pattern that slowly ate away at our marriage.
Under the circumstances, I’m probably lucky to have gotten any sex at all! Thing is, is that I could turn into an even more vicious of a bastard if I was ignored long enough. Hence the pattern of duty sex. But of course, this has never been entirely satisfactory.
By the time I woke up to the fact that we were in trouble, we were already careening off in a cascade of negativity. We were hostile, detached and are still somewhat in a state of living parallel lives. Arwyn has said more than once that she has all but given up. If it weren’t for the kids, she would be GONE. I’ve had thoughts along the same lines, myself.
This is what our marriage looks like now, at this moment:
We are two people who care about each other on some level. But we also dislike each other in the same dimension. We know this is not in the best interest of the kids. We struggle with each interaction seeming like a minefield. Betrayal has run deep on both sides and threatens to rip the family apart at any moment. We have actually conditioned each other to expect pain and hurt. We are always on guard against it. It is like being in a combat zone or a wild jungle where there is a threat around every tree. Defense has become reflexive to the point where we shoot first and ask questions later. Arwyn has learned the art of combat exceedingly well under my guidance and harsh training.
Communication has become a dangerous thing. There is danger everywhere. There is lonliness.
I wrote about some of the positive things Arwen has been doing. Some of these are indeed small, positive steps. Some of them are simply part of the withdrawal strategy.