Marriage: Vicious and Delicious Circles
By Dr. Michael R. Edelstein
Marriages are said to be made in Heaven, which may be why they don’t work here on Earth. –THOMAS SZASZ, The Untamed Tongue
Like most married couples, Carol and Steve agreed perfectly on what was wrong with their marriage — the other person’s reprehensible behavior.
As they entered my office for the first time, I immediately noticed their physical resemblance — they could have passed for brother and sister. They were both lean, dark-haired, and smartly dressed.
I introduced myself and offered a friendly handshake. They both responded mechanically and without warmth. Both answered my questions sullenly and refused to be drawn into free-flowing conversation.
In their answers, they accused each other of various relationship crimes. Carol, 32, was trying to balance a new career with raising a young child. She complained bitterly that Steve rarely talked to her, was overinvolved in his work, and spent too many evenings away from home. She sounded distant, as though she had already given up the relationship.
Steve, a year older than Carol, was a family practice physician. He lamented that Carol no longer responded to his amorous advances, never took his child-rearing advice seriously, and was under the thumb of her mother. He sounded hurt and betrayed.
Something Only You Can Do
I plunged in and gave them their first lesson in healthy relating and emoting, just as it was explained by the Roman philosopher Epictetus over 2,000 years ago: Only you can upset yourself about events. The events themselves, no matter how obnoxious, can never upset you.
“But when my wife rejects my sexual advances night after night, month after month, that’s very, very disappointing,” Steve interrupted, sitting on his anger.
“Yes, it is,” I said supportively.
“In fact it’s infuriating,” Steve added, getting more visibly upset.
“You choose to infuriate yourself about it,” I corrected, holding my ground. Now he began to get angry with me.
“I choose to infuriate myself about it? Carol’s the one who chooses which TV channel to watch all night,” Steve replied sarcastically.
“Yes, but you choose your reaction to that. Suppose a hundred husbands like you all had wives like Carol, who rejected their sexual advances every night. Would all one hundred of them be equally upset?”
“Well maybe not equally. Even I’m in a forgiving mood at times,” Steve said thoughtfully, his anger diminishing.
“Right. Some would be even angrier than you. Others would feel about equally as angry. Some would feel only mildly angry. And one or two would just feel keenly disappointed, without becoming angry at all.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
“And you can choose to feel keenly disappointed without becoming furious.”
Like most people, Steve wasn’t immediately convinced of this, but he was intrigued enough to give the idea a chance.
Taking the “Must” Out of Your Marriage
Suppose that you, like Carol and Steve, and most human beings on the surface of this planet, believe that your partner is upsetting you. What can you do? You can tackle the problem in three stages:
- Take responsibility for your upset;
- Identify your “musts”;
- Dispute your “musts.
- Take responsibility for your upset. Face the fact that no one else can ever upset you. Only you can upset yourself. No one can get into your gut and churn it up. Only you can do that, by the way you think.
- Identify your “musts.” Once you have fully acknowledged that only you can upset your own emotions, identify precisely what you’re telling yourself. The culprit can usually be found in one of three basic “musts”: a demand on oneself, a demand on other people, or a demand on “The Universe”. In marital frictions, these “musts” take the following forms:
= “Must” #1 (a demand on oneself): “I MUST do well by my mate and get her approval, or I’m no good.”
= “Must” #2 (a demand on others): “My mate MUST treat me well, or she’s no good.”
= “Must” #3 (a demand on circumstances, or on The Universe): “The relationship MUST go well, or life’s no good.”
Try to discover what you’re demanding of yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Not until you’ve identified your key “must” can you most effectively reduce your distress. As is often the case with feuding couples, Steve’s and Carol’s self-defeating thinking included all three “musts.”
Steve’s “must” #1: “Because Carol is rejecting me, that conclusively proves what I’ve always suspected — that I’m just not good enough for her and will never have the loving, supportive wife that I MUST have.”
Carol’s “must” #1: “I MUST have Steve’s undivided attention, and if I don’t get it that means he doesn’t care for me at all and that I’m worthless.”
Steve’s “must” #2: “Since I’m her husband and she’s my wife, and I feel like having sex, she MUST always comply or else she’s a louse and deserves to roast in hell.”
Carol’s “must” #2: “Steve SHOULD spend more time at home with the family, and he’s a louse because he doesn’t.”
Steve’s “must” #3: “The relationship MUST provide me with sexual satisfaction whenever I desire it, and I CAN’T STAND being frustrated when I’m horny.”
Carol’s “must” #3: “The marriage MUST last forever and never have significant problems, or else life is awful, terrible, and horrible.”
6. Dispute your “musts.” Question and challenge those beliefs which are upsetting you. Once you’ve exposed your “musts” to the pitiless light of day, ruthlessly attack them. .
The only reason you could remain disturbed about marital problems is that you are vigorously and persistently telling yourself nonsense about them. Change that warped view to a “must”-free one, and the emotional disturbance will probably diminish, or even vanish.
You make that change by asking yourself, in writing or in your head, again and again: “What is the evidence for that “must,” “awful,” or “can’t stand it”?
Steve did ask himself — in the form of written Three Minute Exercises — “What is the evidence I MUST have an invariably supportive wife?” “What is the evidence she MUST comply with all my sexual requests?” “What is the evidence the relationship MUST provide me with total satisfaction?”
And he concluded, over and over: “No damned evidence. No reason I HAVE TO have an ever-supportive wife, since she may choose not to support me at times. She doesn’t always HAVE TO comply with my sexual requests, since I don’t run the universe. The relationship doesn’t HAVE TO provide me with total satisfaction since life and relationships often consist of one hassle after another.”
The Three Minute Exercise is a quick and easy method for analyzing and treating any emotional or behavioral disturbance. We label that disturbance “C” for “Consequence”. We then identify “A”, the “Activating Event,” the situation or occurrence which seems to precipitate the Consequence. Next, we try to find the “B” or irrational “Belief” that combines with the Activating Event to cause the Consequence. This “B” will usually be a “must” or unreasonable demand.
The next stage, “D”, is to dispute the irrational Belief, simply by questioning it, which leads to “E”, for “Effective new thinking,” a statement of the more reasonable way of thinking which denies “B.” Finally, if this works out OK, we arrive at “F”, the new, better “Feeling” which replaces “C.”
Once this method has been learned, it can be applied in three minutes, whenever the occasion arises. Actually learning the method, of course, takes somewhat longer.
Here, in one of Steve’s Three Minute Exercises, is how he reached some of those conclusions:
Steve’s Three Minute Exercise
A. (Activating event): Carol rejects my sexual advances.
B. (irrational Belief): She MUST have sex with me whenever I want it.
C. (emotional Consequence): Anger, fury, rage.
D. (Disputing): Why MUST she have sex with me whenever I want it?
E. (Effective new thinking): There’s no law of the universe stating Carol MUST have sex with me whenever I want it. I strongly prefer she does, but I don’t run the universe and I can’t control her inclinations.
Since she’s an independent human being with free will and free choice, she may decide not to have sex at times, perhaps even much of the time. That’s very unpleasant, but hardly a horror. Although I distinctly do not like cold, unsexy behavior in my wife, I can stand what I don’t like.
Rather than eating myself up inside about it, I had better face the fact once and for all that whenever I make an advance, Carol may reject me. How unfortunate! But in reality, the cost of enjoying the advantages of any marriage consists of suffering the disadvantages. I can accept that.
F. (new Feeling): Displeasure rather than anger.
The aim of a Three Minute Exercise is not to make you feel that the unpleasant stimulus (the Activating Event) is welcome, or a matter of no account or slight importance. You will usually continue to feel that the Activating Event (in this case Carol’s unresponsiveness) is unfortunate, unwelcome, or distasteful. Feeling that way will not unduly disturb you. The object of the exercise is to fully understand and appreciate, at the “gut” level, that, while you definitely prefer that things be different, there is no “must” about this.
How Vicious Circles Work
Nearly all serious marital problems involve vicious circles. A vicious circle arises when one partner’s response to the other partner’s unwelcome behavior actually encourages more of that unwelcome behavior. In the case of Carol and Steve, one vicious circle went like this:
- Steve didn’t like the infrequency of sex with Carol.
- Steve chose to react by trying to pressure Carol into having sex, by displaying coldness and hostility when this didn’t work, by spending less time with Carol, and by being less inclined to share concerns with her.
- Carol chose to respond by being less inclined to have sex.
A vicious circle can always be described from at least two points of view. In this case, we could equally well describe it as:
- Carol didn’t like Steve’s pressuring, coldness, and staying away.
- Carol chose to react by less frequently agreeing to sex.
- Steve chose to react to less frequent sex by pressuring, coldness, and staying away.
As a result of Steve’s Three Minute Exercise, some vicious circles were replaced by delicious circles. As Steve succeeded in reducing his resentment about Carol’s lack of sexual interest, Carol interpreted Steve as less antagonistic and more supportive. Much to Steve’s delight, sex became more frequent.
Steve then became more interested in spending more time with Carol and stopped devoting such long hours to work. Steve became more comfortable with sharing things with her. They talked things over more often, and Carol began to feel more comfortable about not always conforming to her mother’s wishes. She began to let Steve have his way more often with the kids’ upbringing. These events began a process in which Carol and Steve abandoned their resentment of each other, became more affectionate, and gave up any thought of ending their relationship.
It Takes Two to Tangle
In any vicious circle, each partner plays a necessary role. It follows that a vicious circle can be broken by either partner’s unilateral act. In this case, the vicious circle could have been broken by Steve unilaterally behaving in more desirable ways toward Carol, or it could have been broken by Carol deciding to agree to sex more often. This doesn’t mean that the outcome would be equally satisfactory for both parties, but either party can halt the vicious circle.
Some Common Vicious Circles
- Sheila wants Mark to talk to her more and tells him so.
- Mark feels criticized.
- Mark clams up.
- Charmaine thinks that Victor has become less interested in sex.
- Charmaine gets used to this idea, draws back, and becomes less physically affectionate.
- Victor notices this behavior of Charmaine’s, and also draws back.
1. Frank often works late at the office.
2. Alice feels slighted and acts more coolly to Frank.
3. Frank feels that home is a less welcoming place, and becomes more inclined to work late at the office.
- Andrea criticizes her lover Holly for not giving positive feedback.
- Holly feels resentful at being criticized.
- Holly becomes even less inclined to give Andrea positive feedback.
- Bill feels hurt by Jennifer’s insistent scolding.
- Bill reacts by becoming quiet and withdrawn.
- Exasperated by Bill’s unresponsive behavior, Jennifer tries to “get through to him” by scolding him more sharply and more frequently.
- Ruth is tormented by the thought that Harold has his mind on other women.
- Ruth chooses to react by always being ready to pounce on Harold, sharply monitoring the direction of his eyes and his thoughts.
- Harold doesn’t like receiving this suspicious attention, and finds consolation in day-dreaming about other women.
Applying Problem-Separation to Vicious Circles
A reader of my “Ask Dr. Mike” column recently presented me with this common marital dilemma: “My husband puts in such long hours at work that I rarely see him. When I do, he has nothing to say. I’m feeling resentful and hurt. Can you help me?”
I told her that she had two very different problems. Her Practical Problem was how to get her husband to spend more time with her and be more communicative. Her Emotional Problem was that she was unnecessarily upsetting herself.
Whenever someone is suffering emotionally, I have found that a simple procedure is immensely helpful in clarifying the situation:
- Identify the Practical Problem.
- Identify the Emotional Problem.
- Get the sufferer to look at the connection between her Practical Problem and her Emotional Problem.
So I advised this reader to begin by tackling her Emotional Problem. It always has at its core some demand — of herself, another person, or a situation.
Her thinking went something like this: “My husband SHOULD spend more time with me. He MUST care for me. I SHOULD not allow him to treat me this way. I MUST do something to rekindle his love for me.” It was this kind of unreasonableness — fueled by her “musts” and “shoulds” — that was upsetting her, not her husband’s displeasing actions.
She would cease to be distraught if she changed her beliefs, getting rid of her “shoulds” and “musts.” She would view her plight differently if she said: “I strongly PREFER my husband spend more time with me, but I’m determined to enjoy my own projects when he’s not around. I don’t LIKE it when he ignores me, but I don’t run the universe and I don’t control him. I keenly DESIRE that he treat me better, but I’m never a worm, even if he doesn’t. I certainly WOULD LIKE to influence him, so I will act determinedly, not desperately.”
This more realistic thinking would be the best bet for solving her Emotional Problem. I advised her next to attack her Practical Problem systematically:
- “Make a concerted effort to discuss the issue with your husband. Convey your concern and find out how he feels about it.
- “In later discussions, suggest various remedies to the problem until you find some he is willing to try. For instance, have him tell you about his day or ask you about yours, discuss plans for future shared evenings, weekends, or vacations, or reminisce about past times together.
- “Even if he is at first unwilling to consider any modifications or talk at all, persist in bringing it up.
“If after some concerted effort you still get nowhere, consider other approaches:
- “Court him, and make the relationship so heavenly he decides to improve.
- “Suggest a deal, whereby you agree to alter some of your behaviors, in exchange for him agreeing to alter some of his.
- “Assume he’ll never reform, and just improve your own life.
- “Coolly assess the prudence of divorce. If the minuses of the marriage outweigh the pluses, and if this cannot be changed, divorce is the logical option. In that case, give an ultimatum as a last resort (and be prepared to stick to it), something like: ‘Although I love you, unless you take this seriously, or make changes, or get therapy, I’m leaving.’
“If, while attempting the above strategies, you find yourself becoming resentful, angry, or hurt, that means you are again creating emotional issues out of practical ones. Use the same technique again: Find your unrealistic ‘should’ or ‘must,’ then confront and refute it, kick it out, and resolutely return to implementing your problem-solving strategies.”
Often, people who take this advice find that their Practical Problem quickly becomes a whole lot easier. Once they start to question the demand that underlies their Emotional Problem, they may cease playing out one of the steps in a vicious circle. The woman reader, for example, may well have reacted to her husband’s staying away with some behavior that encouraged him to stay away. This behavior might include yelling at him, becoming tearful, or withholding sex. Once she recognizes her belief that he MUST spend more time with her to be pure foolishness, she may find herself easing back on some of these unhelpful responses.
However, the method of separating Emotional and Practical Problems is the best method, regardless of whether it also breaks a vicious circle. The possibility does exist that the other person’s behavior will not improve, even if you start to behave more rationally! But acting rationally is still the best policy.
A Disagreeable Duo
Donald and Donna agreed that their marriage was rapidly going down the tubes. When they spoke to each other in my office, they were both tight-lipped and reserved, Donald slightly defiant in his manner, and Donna quivering with injured dignity.
They had met while working at a small software company and had been married for three and a half stormy years before they finally came to me for counseling. Donald sported a trim blond beard and a lean and hungry look, while Donna carried 20 extra pounds.
Donald described himself as enjoying hard work. He frequently stayed late at the office. In addition, he was currently immersed in two other projects: adding a porch to their house and restoring his boat.
He complained that Donna felt like a failure and kept letting him know it. She was usually depressed, yet always had to have the last word. Donna, he said, would pressure him and get angry whenever he didn’t immediately take her hints to do needed chores around the house.
“She cuts me up and tells me I’m a failure. She tries to control me by telling me exactly how to run my life. She rants and raves when I don’t do every little thing her way, and then I get depressed and feel as though I have to walk on eggshells to avoid an emotional explosion.”
I turned to Donna, who seemed to be seething with suppressed emotion: “And what’s your side?”
She responded tersely that he had become more contentious lately. In the middle of an argument he would raise his voice, swear, kick, and punch things. He was unreliable, promising to fix things and then never getting to them. When he did work on some project, he would always leave a terrible mess. He was cold and indifferent except for sex, and he would always favor his own kids over hers.
Donna abruptly stopped talking and stared sullenly into space, fighting back tears. Since an emotional catharsis in the office would prove a waste of their valuable time and money, I offered Donna a tissue but continued my dialogue with Donald.
Counseling Half a Couple
Donna didn’t return after the first session, so I worked on the marriage with Donald alone. It was a bit like swimming with one hand tied behind my back — slow, difficult, and quite a challenge, with a diminished chance of total success. However, I explained to Donald about vicious circles and how one person could often improve matters by breaking the circle.
Later, I encouraged Donald to keep a “therapy notebook,” divided into various sections with titles such as “Irrational Beliefs,” “Situations where I get upset,” and “Undesirable emotions I experience.”
Over the next few weeks, Donald collected a number of his “Irrational Beliefs”:
- Donna SHOULD not continually pressure me!
- She MUST not cut me up!
- Life OUGHT not to consist of unnecessary problems!
- Donna SHOULD never say I’m a failure!
- I SHOULD not have to restrict myself!
- I MUST not upset Donna, and it’s AWFUL when she becomes so hostile and weepy!
- Donna SHOULD not try to control my life!
- I HAVE TO help the kids, or I’m a louse!
- I MUST make the relationship succeed!
- Donna MUST not punish me for not doing things her way!
- My ex-wife MUST not endanger my relationship with the kids!
Over the next few sessions, Donald and I devised these homework assignments to improve the marriage:
- Write out a Three Minute Exercise every day and bring the past seven days’ output to me every week.
- Give Donna positive feedback every day.
- Speak to Donna without swearing.
- Speak to Donna without raising my voice.
- Speak to Donna without kicking or punching things.
- Go along with her nutty demands whenever possible, and when not possible, don’t become excited about it.
- Calmly do my own thing at times.
- Set up conversation times with Donna.
- Push myself to show affection to Donna, especially when I don’t feel like it.
- Read How to Live with a Neurotic by Albert Ellis.
- Remind myself twice a day of the bottom line: “I’m doing it for me.”
- Implement the above strategies for four months, then leave if they don’t work.
Donald’s Three Minute Exercise
(Activating event): Donna seems angry at me for something I did, but I haven’t the foggiest notion of what.
A. (Activating event): Donna seems angry at me for something I did, but I haven’t the foggiest notion of what.
B. (irrational Belief): I MUST not upset Donna. It’s AWFUL she’s so upset. I’m a skunk.
C. (emotional Consequences): Depression. Walking on eggshells.
D. (Disputing): Why MUST I not upset Donna? How is it AWFUL she’s so upset? How am I a skunk?
E. (Effective new thinking): Although I prefer not to distress Donna, no law of the universe states that I MUST not distress Donna. At worst I’m an imperfect person acting imperfectly, not a skunk.
Being human and fallible, Donna will disturb herself when she chooses to. I’m not in control of that. It’s sad that she does that to herself, but not the end of the world. She has angered herself in the past and survived, and unfortunately will anger herself in the future, but will probably survive. Depressing myself about it just makes matters worse, and doesn’t help Donna.
By philosophically accepting that all relationships have their difficulties, that another relationship might have fewer (or more) hassles, but never zero, I will diminish the distress I’ve been creating for myself.
As long as the advantages of this relationship outweigh the disadvantages, it would be wise to hang in while attempting to improve it, and minimize my unrealistic notions about it.
F. (new Feeling): Regret rather than depression. Being myself rather than walking on eggshells.
During the four-month trial period, Donald succeeded at softening his stubbornness, acting more attentively, giving Donna positive feedback, and greatly reducing his tantrums.
For her part, Donna appeared to become overtly less critical, but did not change significantly enough to make the relationship worth it for Donald. Not surprisingly, the last I heard from him he had left the marriage and was pleased he had finally done so.
It’s difficult for most individuals to be untroubled simply living with themselves. When two people attempt a partnership together, their problems are often compounded. However, when couples conscientiously use the Three Minute Therapy approach, they dramatically increase their chances of having a fulfilling relationship.