Is Your Spouse a Stranger or Family?

In my new book, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand a Few Things First)—now available on, I look at what happens when we lose the bits of “formality” and “politeness” in our marriages as we go from being relative “strangers” to becoming “family” with our spouses.

(Here’s a quick hint: we often treat strangers better than family.)

Picture concentric circles. (For those of you who, like me, were a little bit allergic to math, concentric circles are simply circles of ever-increasing size moving out from a point at the center—so if you wanted to draw concentric circles you’d draw a dot, then you’d make a small circle around it, then another, slightly bigger circle around that, etc.)

Now, as we bring people in, closer to the center from the outside circles, they become less like strangers and more like “family”.


The problem is that as people become more like “family” to us, our reactions and behaviors towards them become more like our reactions and behaviors from back when we lived with our families of origin (i.e. you, your siblings, mom, dad, etc.), as we become more and more ‘comfortable’ with them.

For most of us, these old reactions and behaviors of childhood and young adulthood are a FAR CRY from the Emotionally Competent, true adults we are trying to become in our current lives with the families WE’VE now created (i.e. our spouses, kids, etc.)

One of the major pitfalls of marriage and other long-term relationships is that, as we move in from the outer circles closer to the inner-most ones, we are moving into what I call the “Emotional Boiler Room”.

Once we’ve placed someone in our Emotional Boiler Room, our reactions and behaviors towards them tend to be less adult and more child-like, and not in a good way.

We become more reactive towards them, we Comment MORE and Listen LESS (see my LVAC posts or my book, LVAC Nation!, where LVAC=Listen, Validate, Ask, Comment.)

As we approach the inner-circle, or the Emotional Boiler Room, our ability to hold back our immediate responses and emotional reactions lessens, and our impulse to react in a knee-jerk fashion grows.

In other words, we lose those special bits of formality, politeness, and Deliberateness (see my posts on REALADULTS for more on Deliberate living, which is the “D” in the REALADULTS acronym), which bring forth our best ADULT selves to the other person.

Instead, they get the more child-like part of us, which is less likely to Listen, Validate, and Ask open ended-questions (LVAC), less likely to have empathy and to think about them even when we don’t want something directly in return from them (e.g. favors, sex, money); AND less likely to use Restraint (the “R” in REALADULTS– again, see the REALADULTS post or my new “Marriage” book for more) with them.

In other words, they essentially get a child for a spouse instead of an adult.

Now, if I had a dollar for every couple I’ve known that has had problems with physical intimacy in their marriages, I’d be, well, a better philanthropist let’s put it that way. The fact is that if the way our spouses reference us in their conscious, pre-conscious, or subconscious minds is as “child”, then we can FORGET about either emotional OR physical intimacy with them.

The point is that we really DON’T want our spouses to become “family”; not like this anyway, where someone always plays the maladjusted child and the other the incompetent parent.

And we DON’T want to have them dwell in our Emotional Boiler Rooms either.

Instead, we want to keep that feeling and that respect that we had for them when we first met; that sense of awe and specialness, and also that sense of really LIKING them and wanting to be around them.

In fact, in the new “Don’t Get Married!…” book, I talk about the difference between the terms “in love” and “soulmate” as compared to a new term called ‘Emotional Credibility’.

Now if you’ve been following my posts, you already know that Emotional Credibility= trusting the other person + liking them and wanting to be around them.

As a simple doctor, I certainly don’t hold a corner on the market of the meaning of true love.

In fact, I confess that I’m not even sure what the word “love”, as we commonly use it, means at all; except that over the past 20 years or so I’ve seen people profess their “love” to one another, only to then proceed to emotionally and spiritually torture and kill each other consistently and systematically over the years.

The other thing about the word “love” is that, even after all these years of intensive work with people, I still don’t know what it would truly take for we humans to be able to profess our love to someone and to ACTUALLY MEAN IT AND STAND BEHIND IT not only with our words, but with our behaviors.

But I DO have an informed sense that, unless we are working on becoming true, Emotionally Competent Adults, we are NOT QUALIFIED to use the term “love” the way we’re always trying to use it—that’s for sure!

However, Emotional Credibility—now THAT’S something we ordinary humans can work with!

If I am to build up Emotional Credibility with the people I “love”, then I must be actively working on two things: 1) earning their trust (more below), and 2) making it easier for them to actually LIKE me and enjoy having me around them.

In the old show “The Honeymooners”, someone once asked Art Carney’s character how he liked his job with the city, working down in the sewer system.

His response?

(paraphrased) “Oh, it’s a living and it don’t bother me too much.”

The way our spouses would respond (if they were being brutally honest!) to how they liked being married to us could probably run quite a gamut, but let me tell you that a LOT of what their answers depend upon is the degree of Emotional Credibility we have with them.

A lot of Emotional Credibility (or what I call “E.C. Points ” in the new book)= “Awesome!”

Mediocre E.C.= see Art’s answer above

Very little –or NEGATIVE– E.C. points (hey, I’ve seen it!)= “Horrible. I basically hate being around him/her and I try to avoid him/her whenever possible. I’d rather be alone.”

So please know that, as we and our spouses go from that outer-circle towards that inner-circle, or Boiler Room, we don’t always have to slide into that childhood, reactionary, impulsive, disrespectful, inconsiderate, non-Deliberate, knee-jerk, defensive, ‘comfortable’, “family” position with them.

By using the model of Emotional Credibility, which tells us to build trust by using LVAC (Listen, Validate, Ask, Comment), Restraint, and other “adult skills” (the ten major ones are in the REALADULTS acronym), we’ll have a map and a method by which we can actually, and perhaps one day, say the words “I love you” to our spouses and have it mean something real in our adult lives together.

All my best to you and yours,

Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.

(You may also want to take a look at my post entitled, “Will Your Children Visit YOU in the Nursing Home?” for a take on a similar topic from a parenting point of view as well.)


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