The Foxes and The Rabbits
Several years ago something mysterious happened in Canada. The rabbit population had diminished drastically. Intrigued by this, scientists searched for an explanation. Although they thought the drop in the number of rabbits must have been caused by an illness, they could not indentify any. A few years later, scientists again noticed something unexplainable: The rabbit population increased. Adding to their perplexity, shortly thereafter it decreased once again. Still, scientists discovered no explanation for these variations in the rabbit population. Additionally, at approximately the same time, population fluctuations of foxes were noticed. As before, scientists investigated illnesses which might have accounted for these fluctuations but, again, none were discovered.
By coincidence, reports about the cycles in the rabbit and fox populations were read by another scientist who then put together the pieces of the puzzle. He noticed that as the number of foxes grew, the number of rabbits dimished, and when the number of rabbits grew, the number of foxes diminshed. He figured that as the rabbit population multiplied, they provided an ample food source for the foxes, which resulted in larger numbers of foxes. When the increased number of foxes ate the rabbits, the food supply vanished, which eventually resulted in the foxes dying off. When the fox population declined, the rabbit population increased, creating a new food supply for the foxes. This cycle was self-perpetuating.
The rabbit and fox story illustrates an important point. If one’s microscope is too narrowly focused, the meaning of an event may remain a mystery. This principle also applies to marriages. A wife’s behavior may seem as mysterious as the unexplained rise and fall of the rabbit population until viewed together with her husband’s actions. In order to understand her behavior, thoughts and feelings, it is necessary to study his actions to see how the parts fit together. I will use a couple I’ve worked with in the past as an example of this. Let’s call them Ann and Steve.
Ann called me to set up a marriage coaching appointment after reading in the newspaper about my approach to marital problems. Ann had asked Steve to move out several weeks prior and, although she hoped things could be worked out between them, she worried that it might be too late. The rejection she felt from Steve was more than she could bear. She requested coming in alone for the first session. Based solely on Ann’s description of their marriage problems and Steve’s actions during the last several years, one might have prematurely concluded that Steve’s behavior was insensitive, erratic and selfish and that she was lacking in good judgement when she married this immature man.
However, when Steve came in by himself for the second session he seemed a far cry from the man Ann had described. In contrast, to Ann’s version of their life together, Steve thought he was the one who was rejected by Ann. As he talked about the marriage and how their relationship unfolded, his actions took on new meaning. The picture Ann had painted of Steve as an insensitive lout slowly melted as their marital interactions became evident. Steve and Ann’s dilemma made perfect sense once the complex interplay between them was brought to light.
Ann’s Point of View
Ann, a professional woman in her early thirties, looked tired when she walked through my door the first time, the strain of the two-week separation from her husband showing on her face. She tearfully explained that it was probably too late to save her marriage but, wanting to leave no stone unturned, she set up her meeting with me. Ann told me that Steve was never big on communicating, but there had been virtually no communication at all for the past five years of their fifteen-year marriage. I sensed Ann’s desperation and extreme loneliness as she reflected on what went wrong. The marriage started going downhill when Melissa, their oldest of three, was born:
Steve was a doting father; no one could have been prouder. We loved showing off Melissa to the world and we were getting along really well. But then everything changed. Steve joined a softball team two months after Melissa was born and he was gone a lot. When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was practicing. That would have been fine with me but he also stopped for a couple of beers after the games with his buddies. It seemed like he was never home.
At first I tried asking him to spend more time at home but he didn’t seem interested in the least. I even tried attending his softball games, but it wasn’t always so easy with the baby. To say that I was lonely is an understatement. My only outlet for human contact other than Melissa was my co-workers. We talked a lot about our husbands at work and they all seemed the same. Men!
From that point on, the situation only deteriorated. When the softball season ended, he started playing football. In between team sports, he joined a health club and worked out what seemed like eight days a week. Then, as if all that weren’t enough, he took up golf.
I’m not exactly sure why we had two more kids knowing that our marriage was lousy. Maybe I was hoping that having a baby would bring us closer like it did with Melissa in the beginning. But, it didn’t – just the opposite. Now we hardly speak to each other. I stopped trying to spend time together years ago. I think I stopped caring then too. I have so much resentment about having to raise these three kids by myself, I’m not sure I can ever get past it.
Ann’s firm conviction that their problems were due to Steve’s actions was matched by Steve’s unwavering certainty that Ann was to blame for the problems in their marriage.
Steve’s Point of View
Steve willingly came in for a session and, just as willingly, shared his views on their marriage. He immediately admitted that he was a quiet kind of guy, but added that Ann was not particularly open about her feelings either. He recalled many times when, instead of telling him she was hurt or angry, she would just stew about something he had done. Periodically, she would blow up and then things would be okay for a while. During the last few years, Ann’s outbursts had ceased completely. Now when he tried to ask her “What’s wrong?” or “Can I do something to help you feel better?” she always rejected his advances. Eventually, like Ann, he also stopped trying.
Steve and Ann agreed on at least one thing: Melissa’s birth marked a turning point in their marriage.
Melissa was a real joy to me. I felt really close to Ann after we had a baby; we had a great marriage. I knew our lives would change tremendously with this new responsibility but I had no idea that I would lose Ann in the process. All she cared about was Melissa. Melissa this, Melissa that. She didn’t even notice when I came home from work at night. Many times I suggest that we get a babysitter and go out alone, but she would never let anyone but family watch the baby. Our friends got babysitters for their kids, so I couldn’t see why she was being so picky. I think she just didn’t want to be alone with me for some reason.
As time passed, things got worse. Even though it wasn’t logical, I started resenting Melissa. Being home was a drag. Ann wasn’t fun anymore. My buddies asked me to play ball or go out with them and I was happy that at least someone wanted to be with me. Occasionally, Ann would make some nasty comment about my playing ball, but I think she was just jealous. Her life was dull and mine wasn’t.
Gradually we became more like roommates. She was not interested in sex anymore and it’s a real miracle we had two more kids. It must have been the immaculate conception. Each time I would try to be affectionate in order to feel close to her, she would recoil. She accused me of just wanting to get laid, but she didn’t understand that I really wanted to feel connected. The harder I tried, the further she pushed me away. Sex and marriage should go hand and hand. A guy can just take so much rejection. I figured the next move was up to her, but the next move never happened.
Instead, out of the blue, she told me to move out. She said she wanted some time to think, that it was only a separation, not a divorce. In my book, moving out the start of a divorce. I didn’t want to move out, but I also don’t want to be in a marriage with someone who doesn’t love me.
I know I haven’t been easy to live with and I probably haven’t spent as much time with the family as I should. I’m willing to make changes for our marriage and our family. But she has to let go of the past and tell me what she wants from me rather than holding everything in. I’m sure we can work things out if she just gives it a chance.
The Circular Connection
If one were to ask Ann how their problems developed, she would point a finger at Steve. She would say that Steve started the problem by withdrawing from her. But if Steve were asked the same question, he would say that Ann caused their problem by shutting him out of her life. Perhaps now, after reading both Ann’s and Steven’s perspectives, you can see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Steve’s absences from home make sense in light of his feeling rejected by Ann, and Ann’s resentment of Steve makes sense in light of the distance he placed between him and his family. Each person’s behavior is a response to an action or event which preceded it, while at the same time a trigger for that which follows it.
Rather than thinking about actions and reaction as being causally related (A causes B), for example, “If Steve spent more time at home, Ann would feel like having sex more often,” solution based therapists think about actions being related in a circular fashion (A leads to B leads to A and so on), for example, “she is less interested in sex because he’s not part of her life he is not part of her life because she isn’t interested in sex.” Clearly, it is not an either/or proposition, it is both. According to this view, it is impossible to determine blame or fault because there is no beginning or end to interactions. Attempting to assign blame results in the ultimate chicken-and-egg debate.
Think about the countless number of times you and your spouse have angrily tried to figure out who started a fight or who’s to blame for a particular problem. “You started it” are words echoed throughout living rooms everywhere. The process of determining blame rarely yields a consensus because although we are aware of our partner’s impact on our own thinking, feeling and behavior, we are not conscious of how we impact on our partner. Ann was acutely sensitive to the ways in which Steve’s detachment affected her, but hadn’t a clue that Steve felt a similar sense of rejection because of her lack of attention toward him.
Conversely, Steve felt hurt that Ann seemed disinterested in him, but had no idea that his athletic pursuits left Ann feeling rejected. Furthermore, neither of them recognized that their giving up by no longer pursuing each other was viewed by both of them as the ultimate sign of not caring. Steve and Ann’s myopia was the result of too narrowly focused observations. They missed the bigger picture – how their interactions meshed into an interlocking grid.
Now think about your own relationship. Are there times when you know your partner is to blame for things gone wrong? Do you place full blame on his or her shoulders? If you were to complain to a friend about your partner’s actions, would it be reminiscent of the scientists hypothesizing about the “sick” rabbits? Do yourself a favor. When you think about a difficulty you and your partner are having, broaden out your microscope. See how what your partner does triggers your actions and in turn, how your actions prompt your partner to respond in particular ways. Just remember, that seeing it this way is arbitrary and it could just as easily start the other way around- how what YOU do prompts your partner to respond to you and in turn, you react. Remember, you are two pieces of a puzzle. A doesn’t cause B, A leads to B which leads to C, which leads to D, and so on. The good news about all of this is that either of you can decide to change your actions and therefore, the entire interaction will change! Presto, chango! Try it.
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.