Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.
For the ten years Jim and Judy had been married they seemed like the ideal couple. But in reality both were feeling a growing dissatisfaction with their marriage. They had begun fighting about little things, such as Jim "always" coming home late, or Judy "never" cooking what Jim liked. But the problems continued despite their arguments and a pattern of silent brooding developed. As time went by Judy and Jim came to believe they could not talk to each other and slowly began to withdraw from their marriage.
Jim and Judy's plight is not uncommon. In fact, one of the most frequently cited causes of marital disharmony is communication failure, i.e. the inability or unwillingness of spouses to talk to each other about their interpersonal difficulties. Many couples like Judy and Jim spend much of their marital life attempting to deny, suppress, or overlook serious marital dilemmas with the hope that their quandaries will go away by themselves. The result is often a gradual loss of awareness of the corrosive issues that divide them and, with it, a diminished ability to discuss and resolve these crucial perplexities. But the problems remain, just under the surface, building resentment as the years go by. For Judy and Jim, the underlying causal agent was disappointment over their expectations in marital responsibilities. Left unresolved, this frustration led to years of gradually increasing, but veiled hostility. Unfortunately, resentments like this frequently lead to the development of other difficulties such as destructive game playing, or covert efforts to manipulate and control their partners. These new problems are often quite different from the original, causative issues, such as marital role unhappiness as in Jim and Judy’s case, making the primary concerns even more difficult to resolve. Attempts made to discuss any of their differences had become fruitless. Jim continued to be late no matter how Judy complained because his lateness was the symptom of a totally different issue. And, sadly, the failure to settle this dispute fostered poor communication patterns and created a further unwillingness to discuss other marital difficulties.
There are certain key marital zones or areas basic to a relationship that can generate either marital happiness or discontent. While it is true conflicts and arguments are part of every close relationship to some extent, clinical evidence indicates that problem resolution will more likely be successful if discussions are focused on the underlying issues rather than exclusively on the pain produced by these quandaries. And, as it turns out, the underlying troubles are usually associated with frustration in these specific marital zones. If you can keep these key zones problem free, you will clearly have a better chance of being happy in your marriage.
Listed below are six areas vital to marital happiness. Each zone is presented with a rating scale to facilitate discussion. Rate your partner's behavior on the scale from one to five. A rating of one represents complete dissatisfaction or unhappiness with your spouse's actions with regard to each area. Five represents complete satisfaction or happiness. Remember, you are rating your partner's behavior. You may find it helpful to complete the inventory separately, than discuss your answers with your spouse.
It is important to note, however, that exploration and discussion of issues in these realms will more effectively lead to problem resolution if couples make an effort to understand and accept their mates' feelings and concerns with regard to these areas, and resist any tendency to react defensively.
1. COMMUNICATION - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
Communication is listed first because it represents the basic tool for understanding discord in all areas. Good communication requires a willingness to expose both feelings and thoughts. It also requires a readiness to listen as well as to talk. Jim and Judy's need to be heard by their partner had become so intensified that, paradoxically, it became harder and harder for them to listen.
There is a skill to listening that includes a non-defensive openness to what you are hearing. In other words, admit when you are wrong, and save your explanations until after your spouse has completely finished speaking. You may discover that excuses were unnecessary.
Effective listening is also an active process in which misinterpretations are minimized. This can be accomplished by restating or feeding back to your spouse his/her statements in your own words. If your partner agrees with the feedback, you are successfully communicating.
Lack of communication can also be a problem of another sort. Part of the joy of marriage comes from discussing life's experiences with one's spouse. Love is indirectly, though strongly displayed in this way. And feelings of specialness usually develop. But sensations of separateness and emptiness can also grow when little sharing takes place. With Judy and Jim, the steady withdrawal from each other resulted in few personal disclosures and mounting feelings of aloneness.
2. TRUST - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
Trust is often considered the most important zone in marriage. It is upon this area that much of the relationship is built. But trust is a twofold issue. It requires a willingness to trust as well as a decision to be trustworthy.
There are a great many people who think it is wisest not to trust anyone, including their own spouses. They believe they can best avoid being "taken advantage of " if they remain wary of everyone and everything. Now obviously, some people cannot be trusted. And it is also true that our chances of being deceived are greatly diminished if we remain guarded and suspicious. However, this incurs a high price, for with it we can never allow ourselves any close, intimate relationships. And since we would be unable to relax our suspicious vigil, we would also feel constantly on edge.
It was fortunate for Jim and Judy that they did trust each other. When Jim would tell Judy where he was, she would accept his statement on face value. He cherished her trust and did not abuse it with deception.
Close relationships require the belief that our partners will not take unfair advantage of us or exploit us. And maintaining a close relationship requires the ability to give our spouses the benefit of the doubt in situations where the facts are not clear. Regrettably, when marital trust has been violated it is not easily restored and often takes a lone time to reinstate. But after a reasonable period of trustworthy behavior by one spouse, the decision to trust must again be risked by the other.
3. HOUSEHOLD RESPONSIBILITY - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
This is a broad area that includes the readiness of spouses to do their fair and agreed upon share of household chores. It also includes the acceptance and fulfillment of negotiated marital roles.
In some marriages there are clearly defined lines separating male from female duties. In other relationships, marital equality is expected with frequent sharing and interchanging of household obligations. Either style of marriage can be satisfying as long as both partners agree.
Research has indicated, however, that marriages can be most satisfying when marital role patterns, or family responsibilities are complementary, rather the symmetrical. In other words, each spouse would have separate, primary tasks depending on individual abilities or preferences, rather than having both perform the same duties, or interchanging roles on some scheduled basis. This does not indicate, though, that couples should not help each other perform their various jobs, or even take over for the other on occasion. It is important to note, however, that although complementary roles usually work well, the feeling that each partner is of equal importance and value in the marriage, regardless of their contribution, must also be maintained if resentment is to be avoided.
Jim and Judy's biggest problem was in this area. They had different concepts about what a husband or wife should be. Each saw the other as not performing their "proper" duties, and believed it stemmed from lack of respect or love. This discrepancy could easily have been negotiated if Jim and Judy had known it was the source of their discontent.
Household responsibility also includes compatible personal and household hygienic patterns. An individual's degree of, or desire for cleanliness is often a fairly stable characteristic. Although some measure of change in this area is possible through discussion, often much has to be accepted and adjusted to.
4. SEX AND AFFECTION - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
Sex and affection are actually two very different entities. But contentment with one usually fosters, or is related to the enjoyment of the other.
Sexual pleasure in marriage is clearly enhanced when the partner is perceived as sexually attractive. The development of any modifiable physical or behavioral characteristic that diminishes this desirability must be discussed.
When affection is lacking in a marriage it is frequently because it has become linked too closely with sex. In other words, affection is seen exclusively as a prelude or warm-up to sexual activity. Therefore, spouses who wish to be affectionate, but who are not in the mood for sex may inhibit their affectional desires for fear it will lead to a sexual encounter. However, when couples allow for free and spontaneous affection without any necessary sexual follow-up, they take the pressure off both areas.
5. TOGETHERNESS - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
For many happily married couples, their spouse is also their best friend. Thus, much of their recreational time is spent together. They enjoy each other's company and share many interests. However, when they have many dissimilar recreational interests, problems can arise. For example, Jim enjoyed fishing, but Judy did not; and she declined all invitations to join him. Sometimes they felt guilty when he would go alone, other times angry. But usually, they felt lonely and dissatisfied. Resentment began spreading into other areas.
Such problems, however, can be held to a minimum in at least two ways: First, allow some time for the separate gratification of different interests. Second, develop new pastimes that can be mutually enjoyed. Judy and Jim solved this dilemma by making separate lists of their preferences, then comparing the lists for similar entries. Since they had not discussed this issue earlier in their marriage they were surprised to discover they had so many compatible areas.
It is also true that we all change and grow in life as we age. We develop new interests, attitudes and even values. Couples that do a lot together and spend much time with each other tend to change in the same way. Thus, togetherness minimizes the likelihood of couples growing apart over time.
There are some couples, however, who have a great need for independence and separateness in their marriage. Although there are a variety of valid reasons for this need, it goes against the ideal of togetherness in marriage, and many couples find it difficult to adapt to.
To avoid building resentment, it is important to ascertain the degree of togetherness desired by both, and follow this by a sincere discussion of any differences.
6. FAMILY AND FRIENDS - 1 2 3 4 5 (circle one number)
Some couples are content to limit their primary social involvements to each other. Again, no problems need arise if both agree. However, we humans are basically social animals, and most of us feel the need for meaningful contact with people outside the marriage.
For many, affiliation needs are met through involvement with the extended family, or through friends. Unfortunately, dislike of in-laws, or of mate’s friends is a common occurrence in marriage and can be the source of serious problems. This is especially true when one spouse insists on frequent contact with these "undesirable" others. In discussions of this issue, it can help to remember that in marriage, primary loyalties belong to the marital partner.
It is also true that socialization needs vary widely. In some marriages there is such a great disparity between spouses in the desire for human contact that serious discontentment is experienced on both sides. Again, the best answer is for partners to negotiate and, when necessary, accept their differences.
Let's look at Jim and Judy's relationship once again. Unfortunately, Judy and her mother-in-law frequently clashed. Jim's mother was a strong woman who was dominant in her own marriage. She also attempted to control Jim and Judy's lives. Jim had become used to his mother's behavior and accepted her this way. Judy, however, resented her intrusions and soon wanted nothing more to do with her mother-in-law. Eventually, Jim accepted his wife's concerns, and separated from his parental family. A difficult decision for him, but Jim knew it was in the best interest of his marriage.
The zones presented here have been limited to those areas in marriage that are known to be vital to marital happiness and, when frustrated, are common sources of hostility and resentment. However, individual needs vary, and you certainly may find other areas that require focus in your marriage. But if you are loving and make an effort to understand your spouse's side of an issue, you need not fear open discussion of any of these zones. Most of the difficulties in marriage come not from discussing or even arguing about problems, but from avoiding them.