The Death Spiral and the Gospel
By: Jeff Pipe, PsyD
Until you come to a point of realizing that the relational/marital expectations you had prior to marriage were distorted by the limmerance buzz, misplaced and impossible, then you are ushered into a building sense of disappointment with your spouse. They become the scapegoat for your un-fulfilled longings and you must get them to do the loving or romantic or protective things that seemed so natural for them before. Their failures and weaknesses become the focus of your attention. Frustration, resentment and anger progressively build inside of you and eventually - maybe after a week or maybe after a decade - it begins spilling out.
Your ability to trust is immature; it feels like you can’t absorb any more disappointment or hurt and you’ve got to take charge. Of course, you don’t think of yourself as controlling. You’re just reasoning with them, or pointing out what they’re not seeing or calling out your own sacrifices and work in the hope that they’ll reciprocate. You have to get them to do something - help around the house, help with the kids, make more money, plan a date, talk more - anything that shows you that they see you and care. The tragedy is that anything you get from them in this manner can’t really be received as a reflection of their love for you… they only gave it to you because you threatened them, demanded it, earned it or cajoled it out of them. Do they love you or are they just scared of you - even worse, obligated to you?
If you’ve got a modicum of self-awareness, your eyes turn inward and you see what’s below the surface: selfishness and a fear that maybe the marriage - maybe you - are just not worth that much to them or, even deeper, that you’re just not worth that much to anyone.
Or, perhaps, you find yourself on the receiving end of a spouse’s disappointment and anger. You say that you’d be fine if they would just relax. Why can’t they be content with what they have? It was good enough before you got married. You scramble to try and please them, but never seem to quite get it right. It starts to feel like no matter how much you do for them its never quite enough.
So, you resign yourself to failure and begin withdrawing and/or avoiding them. You stay at the office a little longer (you feel adequate there and they seem to love you), get busy with a hobby or numb out in front of the television. To avoid the inevitable conflict, you stop talking about real things with your spouse; better to keep it light. Eventually, you build an emotional buffer around yourself.
If you look inward, you will come to see that they are threatening to expose your inadequacy. You haven’t figured out yet that you can’t meet all of their needs and you’re not responsible for doing so. So, their disappointment and anger is registering as a direct reflection of your adequacy. Your spouse has become a mirror in which you see your own weaknesses, flaws and shortcomings. So, you back away from the mirror - emotionally and then physically and then sexually - to avoid the pain and shame.
So, one of you is angrily trying to get your spouse to meet your needs and make something happen in the marriage - deal with the conflict, provoke action, facilitate engagement, initiate intimacy - while the other is desperately trying to avoid conflict, exposure and failure. One of you is over-working and over-responsible, driving things forward for fear of what you would discover if you stopped. You’re scared of being alone in an empty marriage. But your increasing desperation and intensity is received by your spouse as criticism and rejection. Although the emotional buffer they have donned leaves them looking indifferent, they are deeply troubled. Their seeming apathy and lack of emotion is a marker for their self-protective emotional withdrawal. But they’re not withdrawing because you’re unimportant to them. They’re withdrawing because disappointing and failing you feels intolerable. It exposes their failure as a spouse and as a person. They fear that if you see too much of them - if you see them for who they are - then at some point you’ll reject them. But, of course, it doesn’t look that way and their withdrawal just confirms your deepest fears, driving you to work all the harder.
That pattern - that dance of pursuit and withdrawal, attack and disengagement - becomes a self-perpetuating marital death spiral that progressively escalates conflict and creates growing emotional distance. And unless you are able to get to the fears undergirding it - find a way to talk vulnerably about those deeper insecurities - your relationship will eventually become what you fear.
The irony, of course, is that the Gospel is immediately relevant to those deeper fears and insecurities. The Good News is that you are inadequate… you really have failed both your spouse and your God. You are naked in the Garden and God is calling you to come out from behind the bushes. The gig is up. You deserve to be rejected and abandoned. You are not worthy of love or care, not to mention a new car or more help around the house. You deserve to be left alone. But God is out there beckoning for you to come out. His eyes are filled with compassion and forgiveness. Jesus took care of it. He knows you’ve failed and He accepts you anyways. He sees the ugliness inside and still embraces you. He knows your disappointment and your need; He wants to care for you.
If the Gospel is true, then you can risk engaging with your spouse even though you have come up short with them. You can tolerate their disappointment because you are not responsible for it. You can empathize with him/her in their disappointment because the God of the Universe has forgiven you and you stand clean before Him.
If God truly loves you and cares for you, then you can surrender your efforts to manage your spouse. You can wait for your spouse to come to you. You don’t have to get them to take care of you because your very Creator loves you and is close. He has committed to care for you. You don’t have to fear the loneliness because He is with you. And those disappointments are purposeful - they mature hope, shifting your focus away from your spouse and toward the day when you will see Him face-to-face… the day when everything your heart longs for will be yours.
Legacy Strategy Blog
Legacy Strategy, Inc. is a private counseling practice in Kennesaw, Georgia.