Marital Expectations (reprint)

One of the most common mistakes in a marriage is to view each other as what I call “reference points for perfect mental health.”

Brothers and sisters, you can fuggedaboutit!!!!

Your spouse is NOT a reference point for perfect mental health and neither are you (or I for that matter.)

We’re all just somebody else’s messed up kids, and we need to not forget that when dealing with and reacting to one another.

When we first meet our spouse, we do what’s called “idealization”.

In other words, we have a fantasy about who they are and what they’re like and it’s usually not all that accurate in real life.

This fantasy, of course, comes tumbling down eventually, and we’re left with a whole lot of disappointment and resentment (and I’ve even heard “repulsion” and “disgust”.)

So, in summary: at first our spouses are superstars who can do no wrong; then, eventually, they are giant disappointments who can do very little right.

This eventual state of the relationship is what I call the “devalue phase”.

The sad fact is that many marriages really never progress much further than these first two steps: idealize, then devalue. There’s the initial idealization or “ga ga” phase, then, eventually, there are all the disappointments and resentments and maybe even some contempt thrown in for good measure.

In fact, in many marriages, the spouses never actually get to know each other for real. Not idealization, not the devalue phase, but reality. Doesn’t happen.

It’s not all that uncommon for a couple who sees me to have been married for twenty or more years and to admit that they really feel like they are strangers to one another.

Now back to that idea of not being reference points for perfect mental health.

We need to stop seeing our spouses as substitutes for the perfect, all giving, all caring parents we never had.

We must realize that our spouses are our peers, not our parents. We are supposed to give and take in a marriage, and we’re supposed to work together and communicate through our problems. We are each just somebody else’s messed up kid after all.

So the next time your spouse doesn’t do the right thing by you, tell them what you want in a respectful, compassionate, but non-apologetic way. Don’t hold in your true feelings and build resentment towards them. And don’t immediately act out with sarcasm or with belittling, shaming, or blaming tones.

And don’t assume that you really know each other or what the other person is thinking or feeling. Instead, be prepared to get to know each other through a steady diet of Listening, Validating, Asking open ended questions, and, if necessary, Commenting. (i.e. LVAC Technique-> )

Each person goes into their marriage as “just somebody else’s messed up kid”, and they’re going to need to use the marriage to heal and to grow as individuals.

Try to act the opposite of the way you normally would react with your spouse:

If your tendency is to hold it all in, start to trust more and share with them, even if you’re angry or disappointed with them.

If your tendency is to let it all come out and to hold nothing back, start to learn to restrain a little since you might be overwhelming them like their caregivers did when they were children.

If you tend to get angry and snap back right away, practice restraint and let the strong anger pass before you speak.

If you tend to need to fix everything, step back a little and Listen more without trying to fix.

If you tend to be anxious and always in a rush, try to take it down a notch or two and give the people around you (and yourself!) a chance to find some tranquility for a few moments.

If you need to keep busy all the time, learn to Stop.

If you never say “I’m sorry” or “Thank you”, start practicing saying these things.

If you need your spouse to quickly answer your questions or somehow make you feel better right away or fix the situation, try to back off a little bit and deal with your anxiety.

If you need to be in control of things all the time, ease up on that a little.

And, perhaps above all, deliberately invite your spouse to give you feedback about your behavior, even if it’s not exactly going to be pleasant. You need to be able to trust each other with your observations of one another, as well as of your lives together.

Again, remember: neither you, nor your spouse are reference points for perfect mental health; you are each simply somebody else’s messed up kid. So try to treat each other with more consideration, more compassion, and more gentleness.  If you are having particular trouble with anger, anxiety, or anything else that makes it hard for you to reasonably control yourself with your spouse, get some professional individual counseling for it.

Best of luck to both of you!

Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.


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