Spouse bashing makes me uncomfortable.
As a marriage counselor, I understand that many people are struggling in their relationships. Living with the same person for the rest of your life is often challenging. Sometimes, we need to vent. I get that. But when one spouse is constantly bashing the other, it signals the relationship is approaching toxic levels and intervention may be warranted. The most consistent indicator of future divorce is contempt between spouses. Bashing rarely leads in the right direction.
And in many cases, spousal bashing reveals more about the basher than the one bashed. The focus on the other often betrays problems that exist within the basher and demand some fixing.
What’s behind spousal contempt? In my experience, it’s usually rooted in one or more of nine common causes that predated the marriage:
Impulsivity. The couple got married too quickly. Each spouse thought they’d met their ideal mate, and they didn’t take the time to really get to know each other. After the wedding reality set in and took them by surprise.
Premature intimacy. The common expectation these days is sex by the third date. But once sex happens, everything changes. The normal communication that builds true emotional intimacy and bonding is replaced with physical activity that counterfeits intimacy. A physical bond—sometimes more accurately described as bondage, dependence, or addiction—keeps the couple together, clouding their judgment about long-term compatibility. Pregnancies and marriages often result, followed by difficulties and higher rates of divorce.
Forcing your will. I’ve seen many relationships where one or the other party had a goal to get married or to marry a particular person—no matter what. Sometimes they’re competing with someone else to marry first. A strong-willed person is often enamored with the easy-going nature of the romantic partner and bulldozes toward the goal, meeting with little resistance. Later that easy-going nature is seen as laziness or aloofness, leading to frustration, conflict, and yes, spouse bashing.
Repeating attachment patterns. There is a surprising statistic that 70 percent of adult children of alcoholics marry alcoholics. It’s called “repetition compulsion.” Because they grew up feeling helpless to change a parent’s behavior, many unconsciously believed that when they grew up and were in control, they’d be able to make a party animal stop drinking and live happily ever after. Those who don’t learn from history often repeat it.
Ignoring Red Flags. Dating is a time to get to know the other person. That means asking important questions, making observations, and listening for clues and inconsistencies. Many ignore evidence of alcohol or drug abuse. Especially among younger couples, fresh out of the college party scene, this behavior may look normal at first but may in fact be a red flag for future problems.
Wishful thinking. We all want a fairy tale ending, but real life requires us to act on facts, not fantasies. Negative character traits, excessive emotional drama, addictions and/or abuse don’t magically disappear when you exchange rings.
Settling. Yes, you had dreams and hopes for Mr. or Mrs. Right. But you started to fear that you might never find him or her, or your biological clock started ticking, or low self-esteem urged you to settle for the consolation prize.
Goal shifting. I’ve seen this over and over. The original goal was to be happy. You decide marriage will make you happy. You start dating. You meet someone dreamy. You believe marrying this person will make you happy. You decide you want to marry this person. (Note: goal shift). You get married, and problems develop. You go to counseling. Your new goal is to make it work. (Yet another goal shift.) This all happens at the expense of your original goal: happiness. Spouse-bashing ensues.
I started by saying that intervention may be necessary in cases of spouse bashing. But until a spouse-basher is ready to shift the focus from their spouse alone, to include their own behaviors and role in the crisis, intervention may be fruitless. If you’re bashing your spouse on a regular basis, consider this: no matter what happens or what is making you unhappy, you always have choices. You can make changes. When we’re unduly focused on the faults of another, we rob ourselves of our own power to change both ourselves and our marital situation.
Here are some suggestions which I hope will empower you to see your situation for what it is and to take action accordingly.
Stop bashing. Stop overtly criticizing your spouse. Stop talking negatively about him or her to your friends and family. And especially stop bashing in front of your kids. Just stop. Now.
Talk to a therapist. Even if your spouse is not interested or cooperative, talking to a therapist on your own can be a big step toward helping your marriage. Things can get better if you’re grounded in reality and willing to do the work on you and change what you can control. An experienced therapist can help you discover patterns and develop coping and communication strategies that are critical to a successful marriage. A therapist can also help you heal unresolved issues from your own past that may be contributing to the problem. Most importantly, a therapist offers objectivity. That’s harder to get from a friend. If you do confide in a friend, don’t choose someone who is in a similar situation. Seek out a friend who is successfully married and/or supportive of marriage and who doesn’t have preconceived notions about you or your spouse.
Focus on the good. It’s exceedingly rare that someone has no good qualities. If you can’t find them in your spouse, ask someone else what they see. Write down the good qualities and review the list regularly.
Participate in activities you enjoy apart from your spouse. Marital crises can be all consuming; it can be hard to imagine being happy when your relationship is struggling. Your marriage should be a priority, but engage in other activities that bring you joy. Balance is important.
Bloom where you’re planted. It’s easy to write off your marriage as a mistake and tempting to trash it and find a new one. But you’re there for a reason and God uses all things for good, even our weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings. Walking away will likely short circuit your biggest growth opportunity and hope for ultimate happiness. And chances are a new marriage won’t work out much better. Second and third marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. Making your current marriage work can save a lot of heartache in the long run. So stop lamenting your commitment to your spouse as a mistake, and start working to make your marriage better. There may be more to gain from your circumstances than you think. Sure, being married to a saint would’ve been easier, but without resistance we rarely grow.
Pray. But instead of asking God to change your spouse, ask for the virtues you need in your marriage. Wisdom. Humility. Patience. Humility. Forgiveness. Humility. Counsel. Humility. Hope. Humility. Charity. Did I mention humility?
Inventory your own faults. This is one of the 12 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program and an important aspect of the spiritual life. As easy as it is to diagnose someone else’s faults, we have no power to change them. Focus your energies on you and what is in your power to change.
Go to confession (even if you’re not Catholic). Being accountable to God through another human being, humbly telling your sins and faults and receiving absolution are therapeutic. Find a priest, minister, rabbi or prayer partner that will keep your confidence and listen without judgment.
Remember, for Christians marriage is a sacrament—a visible sign of God’s presence. As such, God has given you and your spouse the grace to grow in love, despite the human difficulties all marriages encounter. But you’ll need to let go of the fantasies and expectations that you brought into the marriage and ask God to show you the treasures that exist in the real life marriage that you are living.
We must embrace marriage as our vocation—the state in life to which God calls us to become the best version of ourselves. That perspective can open new vistas on this mystery of human love and life, and through the challenge enable us to become the best that we can be.
Allison Ricciardi blogs at her website, The Raphael Remedy
©Copyright 2015, Allison Ricciardi. All rights reserved.