Monday, January 30, 2012

Ferris_Wheel Relationship Can Doom Your Marriage

Do the ups and downs of your marriage feel like an amusement park ride?
Does this unending relationship cycle ring a bell: Trouble Begins > Meltdown > Silent Treatment > Cooling Off > Conversation Restarts > Back to So-Called “Normal”.

When I counsel couples who fit this profile, I label the pattern: a Ferris_Wheel Relationship. The biggest problem is that a seemingly benign cyclical pattern may, in fact, be on the precipice of a disaster. After the silent treatment, nothing substantial ever changes and most couples simply resume their lives in order to achieve a modicum of normalcy. In this column, I will describe the biggest danger that I see with this quite non-amusing ride and provide four steps for couples to utilize in remedying this type of relationship.

The Cycle
The Ferris_Wheel Relationship is no stranger in my three decades of counseling couples. An outsider might observe the ups and downs and quip….no relationship is perfect; if they stayed together for all these years, then it must work for them. But that is simply not true and this uninterrupted pattern of ups and downs can be catastrophic to a marriage. The main reason is that one spouse, feeling trapped by the cycle, often secretly plans an exit strategy from the Ferris wheel. Benchmarks in life that motivate spouses to plan their exit include: the transition to empty nesting and stay-at-home Moms who return to the workplace.

Don’t be complacent and think: what comes down will always go up. When the surprised spouse (often the husband) hears “I want out”, he may scramble (trying to use marriage counseling) to repair the damage done but it is often too little and too late. Researchers have shown that two thirds of divorcing couples do not receive even one hour of counseling.

The Repair Strategy
What should couples do if their relationship is spinning like a Ferris_Wheel? And when is the best time in the cycle to strive for a change? The Ferris_Wheel analogy provides these answers. When you’re on top of the ride (for obvious reasons) no one exits or enters. But alas, when you are on the bottom, that’s your opportunity. It’s a win-win strategy because things can’t get any worse.

Unlike a Ferris_Wheel, where you discharge and admit passengers, in a relationship, you have the chance to discharge some harmful habits and welcome aboard some constructive ones. Please heed this warning: when you hit bottom… must change something! No one seeks out a marriage therapist when you’re riding on top of the world, because who wants to dredge up painful feelings? People don’t do much soul-searching or self-improvement when things are just peachy.

Each time the Ferris_Wheel spins around and nothing changes is a missed opportunity. You never know how many chances you’ll get before your spouse takes action to free him/herself from the unrelenting ups and downs of the spinning wheel. One of the techniques I utilize in therapy sessions with these couples is the Marital Dyad Exercise. Each spouse lists what they like about themselves and don’t want to change and what they don’t like and do want to change. They then do it for their spouse. Predictably, the longest lists are…..things that I like about me and don’t want to change and things I don’t like about my spouse that I want him/her to change. Does it surprise you that we tend to be so self-absorbed?

When I advocate that rock bottom is the ideal time for changing something, I am recommending that you pick something you like about yourself and don’t want to change but your spouse doesn’t like and wants you to change……and start the conversation with each other. There is no fast track solution for couples who have circled in the Ferris_Wheel for years. Round and round they go….often not realizing that they have an ominous problem, but also the potential to improve their relationship. Take baby steps at first; large swings of the pendulum are too short-lived and ineffective. Seize the moment at rock bottom to try something different. Do it for your own mental and physical health; for the health of your relationship, and if you have children, especially for them.

Four Steps to Remedy the Ferris_Wheel Relationship
1. Identify this unending relationship cycle and recognize its potential harm.
2. Formulate a repair strategy instead of an escape plan.
3. Get a marriage-friendly therapist involved early on. Two thirds of divorcing couples did not receive even one hour of marital counseling.
4. When you’re at the lowest point and hit rock bottom…CHANGE SOMETHING. Discharge one bad habit and bring one good habit on board.