Dr. John Gottman’s world-renowned research on couples satisfaction discovered that couples wait an astounding six years on average to seek outside help from a couple’s counselor after problems arise. By then resentment, bitterness and relationship hostility have crept in and become like a pesky, unwanted houseguest that has taken up permanent residence in the home.
How is it possible that couples sustain unhappiness in their marriage for so long before reaching out? What I have found through couples counseling is that partners participate in a deliberate aloofness, if you will, or what I like to call the “ignorance is bliss” syndrome.
Conflict can evoke such discomfort for people that they will avoid it at all costs. It is so distressing to quarrel with the ones we love that we consciously turn away from the painful disagreements, “pretend” that everything is fine and in turn, lose out on important moments of connection and repair. Denying any problem at all creates frustration and irritation about the marriage.
Here’s a common example of how couples withdraw from one another:
Husband: What’s wrong? You seem upset.
Wife: I’m not upset.
Husband: Something is clearly wrong. I can tell. What did I do now?
Wife: I already said I’m not upset. Why do you assume that I’m mad at you?
Husband: I don’t know. Forget it. Is dinner ready?
Wife: Almost. Let me finish up so we can eat.
The wife is clearly agitated about something, yet doesn’t speak truthfully about what’s bothering her. In her mind, she’s tried reaching out to him so many times during arguments yet all he does is shut down on her. At this point, she’s given up. The husband tries to engage but immediately thinks he’s done something wrong after being criticized so many times that he breathes a sigh of relief when she doesn’t press the issue, so he quickly changes the subject. Both ultimately ignore the issue and pretend that everything is fine, when indeed it is not.
These small moments of disconnection, over time erodes the relationship and causes emotional distance for the couple. For fear of rocking the boat even further, they shy away from all disagreements and instead, discuss benign issues like housework, bills, dinner and co-parenting.
Try catching the “ignorance is bliss” syndrome early on by watching out for these warning signs:
- You no longer spend quality time together
- You’re on autopilot and don’t check in throughout the day
- You have a sense that things are off but don’t know how to broach the subject
- You feel lonely, empty and defeated
- You chalk it up to work, kids or the feeling that “this is marriage I guess”
- You become indifferent or disinterested in their life or the relationship
- You seek fulfillment from friends or others outside of the marriage
- You keep putting off raising an issue for argument’s sake and letting it build and fester
Healthy conflict is possible, even if you’ve fallen trap to repetitive conversations that get you nowhere. When we turn a blind eye and not address the issue, we bury what we want the most from our partners. Dr. Sue Johnson describes three of our primary needs in romantic relationships in her book, Hold Me Tight.
Accessibility – Can I reach you? Do you hear what I need?
Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally instead of turning away? Will you be there in my time of need?
Engagement – Do I matter to you? Will you value me and stay close?
In order to shift gears and feed our most intimate desires from our spouse, we need to recognize the negative cycle of interaction so that we can speak from the heart:
- Recognize the demon– Identify the negative patterns that cripple your ability to communicate with one another (this is the demon; your relationship is not). Does Sue come after Joe with an angry and accusatory tone in order to get her point across? Does Joe shut down or walk out on the conversation? What triggers can you identify in your relationship? How do things escalate so quickly? Where do your sensitivities lie? Being able to identify the negative patterns is the first step in stepping out of these patterns.
- Find the raw spots– Once couples can look past their negative dance and tune in to underlying feelings of vulnerability, fear, shame or embarrassment instead of reacting impulsively, they can get to the heart of the matter.
- Hold me tight– As partners see what’s happening underneath the surface, they can be accessible, responsive and engaged (A.R.E). They can turn to each other and create a safe haven for their loved one’s pain and distress.
For most, it’s risky to wear our heart on our sleeves. It’s easier to ignore (or stay ignorant to) our raw and vulnerable emotions. Pretending like nothing is wrong is more manageable and easier to control than speaking the truth. For some, it’s the only thing that protects us from feeling shut down, tuned out or disappointed in our significant other.
Except that gets us nowhere when it comes to love. Rather than drifting apart in a sea of unhappiness for years, until something brings the discontent to light, don’t sweep problems under the rug and have the necessary we need to have in order to feel close and safe with our partners. If you can’t seem to get it right, couples counseling can help.