The best marriage advice you will ever get is also the most dubious.
You have trouble staying in your relationship. There is a dissonance between what you want and what you want. You want to leave but you want to want to remain. So you go into therapy to give you arguments for ‘remain’ – and help you suppress ‘leave’.
Confusing? Not really.
One part of you, the one from inside, doesn’t want this anymore. He is your incomplete, underdeveloped, shunned self trying to assert itself (yourself) for the first time in ages. Probably doesn’t even know what he wants instead. And you are probably doing it wrong because you never learned how to assert yourself without hurting others. But that’s for a different post.
The other part of you wants to remain. The voices in your head want you to remain. Society wants you to remain. And the part of you that had been grown and fed by them wants to want what they want – and not resist them. Because that you is mentally overweight and lazy. That you wants the comfort.
And ‘remain’ is the comfortable decision because
1) it’s inaction and
2) because no one would disapprove.
‘Remain’ is the comfortable thing even if your partner beats you, abuses you or you feel like dying inside.
So you go to marriage counselling not to help you decide – but to help you ‘remain’. To help you make it bearable, more precisely. And the key to endure ‘remain’
without internal resistance happily is developing dependence. You have to convince yourself that there’s no way out.
Of course, you may see no way out for the right reasons.
- Because you truly don’t want to live life without that specific person. And it is mutual.
- Because he or she makes you better and stronger and more successful. And it is mutual.
- Because she gives more than she takes – and so do you.
Or it can be for the wrong reasons.
- Fear of the alimony.
- In-laws with sharpened pitchforks and double-bladed divorce lawyers.
- Your own, loving mother refusing to speak to you again if you let that perfectly good cash cow go.
If you are at the marriage therapist, you’re not there for the right reasons – by definition. You wouldn’t need a therapist then. The trick now is to take the wrong reasons – and turn them into right-sounding ones. The reasons you can smugly tell at dinner parties about how you are doing so great in your marriage. (Or maybe you shouldn’t.)
And the keyword here is ‘gratitude‘.
Now both gratitude and the inability to see a way out are key ingredients to dependence bonding – otherwise known as Stockholm syndrome. We do it every day, but it only strikes us as odd when
1) someone else is doing it, or
2) we bond with someone who hurts us.
Like a kidnapper. An abusive partner. Or an abusive parent. In fact, we are born to bond with whomever we depend from – to help us survive the absolute dependency of childhood. Maybe this is the only mind trick there is, and we just lapse back into it way too easily. We aim at survival – at the expense of living.
When we are in a bad relationship, for instance. When it doesn’t work or it is just over.
So we go in therapy for arguments to stay. And then we invariably get one iteration of the same advice: gratitude.
The two steps of Stockholm syndrome:
1) the realization that there is no way out, and
2) then you start to ‘love’.
You are probably past the first step – this is why you’re in therapy: to ease your stay and demolish your inner resistance – not to leave. The second part is to feel gratitude – and call it love.
To achieve this you only need to learn to see your situation in a new light. Which is a fancy way of saying that you turn those wrong reasons above into right-sounding reasons. So you are instructed to start looking for the good things. To start focusing on why you would miss him. Be grateful. Do the mind trick.
- Remember what you used to like about her. Even if it’s no longer present. Live off the pleasure of the past. Feel grateful for the good times and use it as a fuel for the bad times. (This, of course, only makes sense if you think of bad times as transitory. Not just something you get used to and learn to live with by going into therapy.)
- What he does for you. I call this the butler argument. He brings up fresh bread in the morning, fetches the paper, she cooks your food and raises your child? By all means, demean your partner – just as you demeaned yourself when you came to therapy to deny your inner feelings. If you didn’t respect yourself – why would you respect her? Butler it is.
- Think about the awful things are not happening if you remain. And turn them into relief.
This third trick is the most conspicuous reminder of Stockholm syndrome: loving the aggressor for not taking your life. This particular aggressor might not be hurting you on purpose and the stakes are less than your life – but the dynamics are the same. Repackage the shit storm that would follow a breakup – as a disaster your spouse averts by staying. All it takes is adjusting the angle.
- Divorce would be costly? Keeping a financially dependent spouse feels unfair? See it differently and look at her as an investment you get so much out of.
- Is he beating you up drunk every night? Focus on how repentant he is every morning. And how crazy he would get if you tried to leave him – he cannot help it, it is passion…
- Her relatives would come after you with a pitchfork? Reverse it and feel grateful to her for keeping her relatives at bay.
Your partner will probably help you with it and play the good cop (“I would, but my family“). Or tell you stories about the bad cop (that he would find you even if you changed your identity and left the country). Or by emphasizing how much childbirth cost her.
Do these things make your situation better? Of course not. But it doesn’t get worse.
Now be grateful. There, you feel love.
By focusing on the threats of breakup you convinced yourself that your dependence is absolute, that the monsters out there are much more frightening that the ones inside, and only your prison warden keeps them away from you – how could you not love him/her for it?
Another striking feature of hostages with Stockholm syndrome is their inability to find fault with the aggressor – and blaming themselves for being a trouble for him. And your “aggressor” didn’t even want to hurt you. Didn’t attack. He or she is your fellow victim. So it’s much easier for you. Blame yourself. See how ungrateful you are. They suffer just like you do. Rather than seeing your partner as your involuntary prison warden that keeps you in this situation – see them as the generous ones for not hurting you even more. Even though they could.
This is how your marriage counselling meets Stockholm syndrome: they suggest you Stockholm syndrome yourself to seeing no way out. You can call gratitude ‘love’ (a very easy mistake to be made). You look for the positives in your partner – and look for fault in yourself. (You want to leave, of course you are at fault!) Exactly what hostages learn to do in the long run. To learn to live in a situation they should not be in in the first place: to survive. And hostages do it only if they’re resigned to the fact that they cannot escape. This is why they can be left alone with he door open and don’t make a run for it. Because they shut it closed in their own minds with hard work. They did change their own minds, they are not just pretending to feel gratitude and love.
This is what you came for. This is why you paid for marriage counselling. Any therapist who would advise you to leave would quickly go out of business and run out of clients.
Not sure what it means, just saying. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that anyone who finds himself or herself in a relationship they don’t want anymore has been wronged or doesn’t deserve it. Not every divorcee is a special little snowflake finally making that long overdue step towards independence. For some, being pushed around by a partner, occupying each other, and putting a cap on their dreams is really the best they can do. Because they are too lazy to do the real thing.
But for honest people, with an honest intention to finally start making their own decisions and taking responsibility for them, the solution is not ‘keep drifting’ and learn to love it. If you were genuinely seeking a solution you would take a sabbatical from your marriage – with an option to say ‘no thanks’ at the end of it.
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