Thriving Couples Counseling

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The Tyranny Of Indifference

Dr. John Gottman, the most well known researcher in marriage, has concluded the most common predictor of divorce is stonewalling.  This is when someone, usually a husband, just stares off into space when his wife is trying to get a point across.  Gottman also pinpoints defensiveness, criticism and contempt as highly predictable of divorce.  You have these things as a steady diet and sooner or later you wear each other out and it’s only a matter of time before somebody says this is no way to live and that’s the end of that.

In fairness to Dr. Gottman, he is researching what he can see and measure and his research assistants can code.  He’s looking at behavior.  As a therapist, I look at behavior too, but I have the added advantage of asking people what the spirit is behind this or that behavior.  I used to think resentment was the number one predictor of divorce, but I’ve recently changed my mind.  If a person is resentful, forgiveness is possible.  Or the couple could change the behavior that precipitated resentment in the first place.  It’s a lot easier to forgive someone if the person quits hurting you!

You want to be careful, though.  Your resentful spirit may be precipitating the behavior you are resentful about!  You are one, remember?  For example, you want him to help with housekeeping and you keep reminding him to help and the more you remind him the more he thinks you are being a control freak and just to prove that you can’t control him he refuses to help.  So then you get resentful about it and you are more unbecoming and harsh and cold about the deal and he reciprocates by becoming more and more stubborn.

We could run the same scenario about sex or money or schedules or parenting with the husband being the one making the demands and the wife saying her husband’s a control freak and the wife refusing to budge.  It’s all in a day’s work for me, but if you live your life like that it’d be hell.

This chicken and the egg scenario is one of the reasons marriage therapy works.  If one of them changes, the other can change more easily.  Or both can change together.  That’d be the ideal.

But recently I’ve concluded that one step below resentment is indifference.  I used to think that one step below resentment was revenge.  Maybe revenge and indifference are kin.  Maybe indifference is at heart a sinister version of revenge.  I’ll get back at you by not even caring.

I hope you don’t operate your family this way: I’ll only reach out to you if you reach out to me the way I want you to reach out to me.  If your spouse is taking your cue then no one is reaching out to anyone and you’ll self-destruct.  You’ll end up at the lowest common denominator: the least giving person sets the bar really, really low.

I hear these stories all the time:

If you are mean or indifferent to my family, I’m going to treat your family the same.

If you aren’t going to initiate sex then I’m not going to.

If you aren’t going to initiate hugs then I’m not going to.

If you aren’t going to help around the house, then I’m not going to.

Not going to.

Not going to.

Not going to.

The self-talk goes like this:  I used to be angry.  Not any more.  Now it’s “Whatever.”  I don’t feel anything.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression that everything is alright.  It’d be hypocritical to reach out to you because I don’t FEEEEEL it.  I can’t be nice and reach out unless I FEEEEEL it.  If I don’t feel it, I don’t do it.

Or:   I love you, but I’m not IN love with you.  I love you in the sense I care for you that I don’t hope anything cruel happens to you, you know, that you don’t get dismembered in a car accident, but I don’t love you THAT way (you know, sexuality and intimacy and all that), so if you reach out to put your hand on the small of my back while we’re in bed I’ll pull away.  I won’t kiss you like it means anything.  I won’t initiate sex.  I’m just not into it.  If I’m never sexual again the rest of my life, that’d be fine.  I’m just not the sexual type.  I’ll do your laundry for you (maybe), but to show you any tenderness, to show you that we’re one and married and all, not a chance.  I don’t want to send you the wrong message (That I love you or anything).

So don’t sit by me on the couch, or try to take my hand in the car.  This is strictly a business arrangement.  Roommateville.  I’m totally fine with that.  Keep away from me.  And be happy about it.  If you complain about this I’ll accuse you of being a control freak.

Have you ever been on the other side of indifference?  The receiving end?  It’ll feel like you’re in eighth grade all over again.  Is there anything more cruel than a spiteful 8th grader?

No one can MAKE you care.  I mean actually care that your marriage doesn’t end up in the toilet by your own hands.

Your spouse certainly cannot.  He can sense your drifting away.  So he panics and get’s awful needy, or gives you lectures or prods you or looks at you like a lost puppy, forlorn and destitute.  And rather than warming up to him, it all just pushes you away.  And the further away you get, the more desperate he gets.  And you roll your eyes and judge him in your heart and privately scoff at him.  Later, when you divorce him, you can tell everyone the reason you divorced him is because he was just creepy and sucked all the love clean out of you.

Everyone will nod.  No one wants to be married to someone psychotic.

(How is it that everyone’s, I mean everyone’s, former spouse is psychotic?)

But all you’d have learned is to run away from your problems.  Ha!  Good luck on doing anything different in your second (third?) marriage.  Old habits die hard.  Now in THIS marriage you are going to try?  When your new spouse doesn’t do what you want, you are going to handle that with dignity and self-sacrificial love?  You didn’t do that before?  Why would that change all of a sudden?

I doubt it’ll change.  You ain’t gonna take no crap, remember?  You ain’t gonna settle.  You deserve better.

Indifference can be a lifestyle.

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