Are You and Your Spouse Incompatible?

Take Your Marriage’s Pulse

Take a quick moment to assess the current state of your marriage. On a scale of 1-10, how would you score these 13 areas:

  1. Closeness
  2. Communication
  3. Sexual intimacy
  4. Spiritual Intimacy
  5. Emotional safety
  6. Feeling respected and valued
  7. Teamwork
  8. Trust
  9. Conflict resolution
  10. Friendship/Fun
  11. Finances
  12. Parenting
  13. Negotiation of household tasks

Maximum score is 130 points. How did you do? What areas are strongest? Which ones could use some work? If one of these areas of your marriage could use improvement, what do you think would make it better?

If you are able to recognize yourself as actively contributing to the problem, good for you!

But more often when we hit gridlocks in our marriage, we think our partner is the problem. We might begin playing the blame game, using every method we can think of, from pleading to shaming, to convince our partner to change. If you’ve already attempted every method in the proverbial book to change your partner, and haven’t succeeded, you may even worry that you’ve married the wrong person. You might start believing that closeness with your partner is more impossible than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. As your hope wanes, you may find yourself taking subtle or not-so-subtle steps to distance yourself from your partner. Withdrawal or creating a life apart from your spouse might seem like the last resort to keep from exploding in anger or feeling depressed and defeated in life.

When times get tough and joy leaves a marriage, you may eventually reach the conclusion that you and your spouse are fundamentally incompatible. If that is where you are at, you have my deepest sympathy. This is a dark and lonely place to be. In your darkest nights, maybe the ugly “D” word Divorce even crosses your mind.

To be fair, there are some marriages in which the issues present make safety and trust nearly impossible. These issues include ongoing affairs, perpetual violence, and substance abuse. Issues such as sexual addiction or severe verbal abuse can also present formidable obstacles to the formation of a secure bond in a marriage. In these cases, individual therapy or other forms of treatment may need to compliment or precede marriage therapy.

But more often in the therapy office I see couples who are two relatively well-intentioned and normal people who have simply lost their way in marriage, and have come to believe that happiness with their spouse is a pipe dream.

My goal is to spark hope that maybe the conflict, blaming, shutting down, and heartache between you and your spouse aren’t about incompatibility at all.

Yes, I said it. I hope you will open your mind just a little bit to the idea that maybe you and your spouse are capable of greatness together, but you have lost your way, rather like dancers trying to step in time to two different songs, a cacophony which has caused you to step all over each other’s feet, getting twisted in knots, and elbowing each other til both of you are bruised and tired.

Making your marriage satisfying is about developing the right kind of connection with your partner. Even a husband and wife who are dramatically different as people can often learn to develop a tender bond. Once this “secure attachment” exists in your marriage, working through specific issues tends to happen with greater ease, and without the loneliness and heartbreak. Conflicts are much more easily resolved when a secure bond of safety and trust enables heart-to-heart communication.

So how can you rediscover friendship, tenderness, and even passion in your marriage?? If you are ready to get your hands dirty and work on building a marriage that is deeply satisfying and brings joy to God’s heart, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The first step is understanding Attachment.

Attachment Theory

In case you haven’t noticed, life isn’t perfect, and can at times be upsetting. In our daily lives, each of us experience fleeting or lingering moments of distress. What an individual does with that distress is called their “attachment style”. If you pause and think about that for a moment, how do you handle your distress? Do you tell someone about it? Pull back and handle it yourself?

John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory, said that as young children, each one of us needed an adult in our lives who would be there for us when we were sad, embarrassed, or afraid. We needed someone who could comfort us when we were distressed, but also give us space to explore and develop into unique individuals. Some of our parents did this really well; others didn’t or couldn’t. Whatever adult we were closest to served as our “primary attachment figure” and more than likely, our relationship with this person created a sort of template for future relationships.

Secure Attachment

Some of our parents (or grandparents, or other caregiver) were there for us in a consistent enough way that we began seeing them as a “safe haven” in times of distress. We felt secure in our relationship with them, and we began to believe in the deepest fibers of our being that human beings can be trustworthy and reliable. We made a habit of going to our parents with our distress and expecting them to be responsive.

If the match between caregiver and child is just right, the child grows up with a “secure attachment” to the caregiver. Understandably, this child develops a sense of optimism and confidence in the world. The child is then free to use the parent as a “secure base” from which she can launch, trying new experiences and meeting new people with courage and self-assuredness. A securely attached child will tend to do better in school, make friends more easily, and generally have higher self esteem.

(By the way, if you are a parent, don’t panic! The research indicates that to help your child feel securely attached, you don’t have to perfectly attune to your child 100% of the time. It’s just about being “good enough”, not about being perfect.)

Secure Attachment Example:

Rachel is a precocious 6-year-old who knows Mommy and Daddy adore her. When classmates in Rachel’s 1st grade class made fun of her, she tearfully told Mommy about it after school. Mommy sat Rachel on her knee and wrapped her arms around her, reassuring Rachel that although it hurts when other people make fun of us, Mommy will always be there for her. Despite occasional hurt feelings at school, Rachel enjoys learning, thrives in creating arts and crafts, and has made several sweet friends.

Anxious Attachment

Sometimes a parent is unable to attune to their child’s needs with enough consistency. This might occur because the parent is too busy, feels overwhelmed by their own needs, or simply has a different temperament from the child. Whatever the case may be, if the child experiences Mom or Dad as emotionally present sometimes but not in a reliable way, the child may become anxious, developing what we call an “anxious attachment”. She may feel compelled to constantly “check” Mom’s or Dad’s care for her, or even to try to exert some control over them in order to reassure herself of their love.

Because at their core they doubt the other’s love, anxious-attached children may at times exert a great deal of their energy trying to get the other person to respond to their needs. These behaviors drain energy and stifle the sort of curiosity needed for exploration and growth.

Anxious Attachment Example:

Lauren is 12 years old and lives with her parents, an older sister, and a younger sister. Lauren is a daddy’s girl, but believes her mother prefers her older sister over her. Her parents have high expectations of her and are extremely concerned that she perform well in school. Middle school is rough for most of us, but for Lauren, it’s a nightmare. Despite straight A’s, Lauren experiences high anxiety in her friendships, fearing rejection by peers. She goes through crying spells and is a frequent visitor at the school counselor’s office. She often questions her own worth as a person. Lauren anxiously tries to please and hold onto her parents and her friends, constantly fearing rejection.

Avoidant Attachment

Some children experience their caregiver as unresponsive to their needs for comfort. There are a variety of reasons why this happens; just like with anxious attachment, the parent might be busy or detached, unable to grapple with the parent’s own emotional needs, or simply much different from the child temperamentally.

Subconsciously, these children learn early that their own feelings overwhelm or threaten the family system. Thus, without fully realizing what they’re doing, they develop non-relational strategies to handle their feelings. This is called avoidant attachment. For example, instead of going to a parent for comfort, an avoidant-attached youngster might learn to distract themselves with hobbies or seek to gain approval through achievement. They also might seek out strategies to numb their emotional pain, such as substances or self harm.

Avoidant Attachment Example:

Johnny is 22. Johnny’s parents divorced when he was 13 and he went to live with his mother. Presented with greater financial responsibility, his mother began working full time, which meant Johnny spent his after-school hours alone at home, entertaining himself with video games and tv. Now as a young adult, Johnny spends the majority of his time and energy on his job as a software developer. He has some casual friends, but their camaraderie mostly centers around getting drunk at bars. Johnny knows deep down that he has no one but himself to count on should life take a wrong turn.

Disorganized Attachment

In a home where the child experiences her primary attachment figure as dangerous, the child may develop an “ambivalent attachment”. For example, consider a father who provides for the child’s physical needs, but is harsh and aggressive in his disciplinary techniques. His child is likely to respond to him with both love and fear. It is disorienting for children when closeness and danger are intertwined. When a primary attachment figure is the source of both protection and violation, the child can grow up with a confused understanding of what intimate relationships should look like.

Disorganized Attachment Example:

Ben is 14. Ben’s dad died when he was 3, and his mother remarried 2 years later. Ben’s new step father taught him all there was to know about baseball. In return, however, he demanded sexual favors. Ben tried to share this scary secret with his mother, but she couldn’t allow herself to believe her new husband would do such a thing. Now that Ben is a teen, intimate relationships confuse him and he alternates between seeking out close contact with peers, and shutting others out of his life.

Maybe you are starting to get a clue about how the attachment style we develop as young children can be a pattern or template for the intimate relationships throughout our lives. As we grow up, we may find ourselves unconsciously emulating the sort of relationship we had with our parents, but this time with our spouse.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at how our attachment style can impact our spouse and our marriage. But until then, enjoy this short video demonstrating how profoundly a parent’s attunement and responsiveness impacts a child.

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