Many habits keep a marriage unwittingly stuck. What marriage are you creating?

A relationship is co-created by the couple and has a life of its own.    

When working with couples in couples therapy, I consider the relationship as the third person sitting in the room and on the chair with the couple.  Think about that for a minute.

Are 3 People In This Relationship?

When I ask couples to think of their relationship in this way and flesh out the characteristics of the relationship, they’re often perplexed.

But is your marriage hungry? Does it have an insatiable appetite? Is it starving, needy, anxious, creative, controlling, avoidant or empathic, open, extraverted or perhaps a little neurotic? Maybe it’s a giant taking up too much space or so small you don’t even notice it.  

Remember, it has a life of its own; it’s not necessarily all about you or what your partner is or isn’t doing.  A delicious cake doesn’t look much like the eggs or the flour it is made of, but the cake wouldn’t exist without those ingredients.  

Thinking about the relationship in this way allows the couple to take a step back, put some space between them as individuals and the relationship, depersonalise the problems and most importantly, prioritise the relationship. 

Killing Me Softly

The reality is that most couples come to couples therapy when the marriage is harmed and unsafe. Perhaps it’s even feeling in danger of being killed off. In this way, they can also begin to see what the relationship needs and the possible ways in which they are causing it harm. 

Lack of safety in a marriage is not conducive to trust.

We need to trust that our partner is dependable.  We need to feel that our partner has our back and protects our shortcomings. Trust is the bedrock of a relationship, and when it’s diminished, connection and intimacy become virtually impossible.

When trust breaks down, this is the point when couples find themselves wondering whether they should stay or leave the relationship.

The relationship, that third person, doesn’t feel safe.

The 5 Toxic Habits In A Stuck Marriage

So what are the things that contribute to a lack of safety in a relationship and keep your marriage stuck in a rut?

Here are five significant ways couples harm the relationship you want to avoid:

1. Controlling Behaviour

Many people enter a relationship with a deep unconscious fear of rejection, which motivates various forms of controlling behaviour.

Most people think this only relates to people with narcissistic traits, but that’s not the case. People with ambivalent attachment styles who are more prone to people-pleasing behaviours also exhibit controlling behaviours in a relationship.

And, in any event, we all have what Carl Jung referred to as a Shadow side to ourselves.  At times perhaps we control others to manage and self-regulate our own challenging emotions, such as fear, without realising our own controlling behaviours. 

Controlling behaviour falls into two major categories: overt control and covert control. 

  • Overt control includes many forms of attack, such as aggression, rage, violence, judgement, criticism and ridicule. 
  • Covert control includes gaslighting, manipulation, compliance, enabling, withdrawal, defending, explaining, lying and denying.  

Often a person at the other end of the attack will respond with some form of covert control to have control over the attack. Very few people like to feel controlled, so controlling behaviour always inevitably results in resentment and emotional distance, bringing about the very rejection it is meant to avoid. 

2. Denying Your Needs 

We all have needs. Often the problem isn’t that we have too many needs but instead not recognising or denying our needs, not wanting to be perceived as needy.

Basic human needs include connection, autonomy, play, peace and physical well-being.  David Richo says that we need affection, attention, acceptance, allowing, and appreciation in a relationship. 

When disconnected from our needs, we might feel entitled to getting our needs met. On the other hand, we project on our partners.  We perceive them as needy and then feel suffocated and depleted by the relationship. When you both feel drained and exhausted in this way, it keeps your marriage stuck.

Many people enter a relationship believing that it is their partner’s job to fill the gap, remove their emptiness, and make them feel good about themselves. When people have not learned how to take responsibility for their own feelings and needs and define their own self-worth, they may pull on their partner and others to fill them with the love they need. 

Your partner’s job is not to complete you but to compliment you.

3. Blame

Many people are acutely aware of what their partner is doing that is causing relationship problems. Most couples come to therapy with a complaint about the other.  But often, they are utterly unaware, or willing to become aware, of what they are doing to create the relationship they have. 

The truth is that anytime we blame, we are draining away our power. Blame results in bitterness from seeing yourself as a victim of circumstances and powerlessness. That, in turn, leads to a power struggle. 

You cannot change anyone. It is not your job to fix your partner. You can only change yourself. 

Couples are usually confused about what part they individually play in relationship problems. 

What kind of partner do you want to be?

What’s the real challenge to you being that person?

Blame keeps your marriage stuck.  Refusing to blame is the quickest route back to empowerment. 

4. Withdrawal 

Some people enter a relationship with a deep unconscious fear of losing themselves. 

This fear likely results from having a poorly defined sense of self in the first instance. However, when this baseline fear exists in the relationship, it creates an atmosphere of frustration, stagnation, and resentment. 

When one partner is controlling (covert or overt), and the other is resistant, which is really an attempt to have control over not being controlled – the relationship becomes immobilised and stuck.

When there is an experience of what they perceive as their partner wanting control over them, they respond with resistance and withdraw. 

5. Punishment and Hurt

Couples get involved in power struggles and games of tit-for-tat as an ineffective way of getting the other to stop doing what they don’t want them to do.  Unmistakable and more subtle forms of punishment become part of the game.  

The birthday gift you’re asked to return. You’re waiting on tenterhooks to see whether they will turn up to a family event that comes days after you’ve had a heated argument.

‘If I hurt you enough, you’ll stop.’  Punishment gets acted out through blame, criticism, contempt, aggression and even affairs.

Most of us walk around with the belief that punishment changes behaviour.  And yet psychologists have known for decades that punishment is not that effective for behaviour change.  What most powerfully transforms our own behaviour and those around us are giving positive attention and rewarding what we want to happen.  

John Gottman found that partners offered five appreciations for every criticism in relationships that last.  In relationships that thrived, the ratio was 20:1.

Punishment is another form of control.  It is an insidious habit that inevitably blocks connection and intimacy.

Over To You

Is your marriage stuck, and you’re wondering, should I stay or leave?’  If you want a safe space to explore this difficult decision, get in touch for a clarity session.  I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. 

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. PASS IT ON

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© Sandra Harewood 2022

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialises in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.

Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.