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The Three Year Twitch: How to keep your marriage from ending before it’s even begun (pt. 2)

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by Jen DuBos, MA LPC

We’ve talked about some causes of The Three year Twitch so you can spot the warning signs – now let’s talk about some strategies you and your spouse can do to limit insecurities and keep The Three Year Twitch to a minimum.

As insecurity and pressure mounts, and satisfaction in the relationship decreases, couples become high risk for sabotage. Sabotage is the act of fouling up your own team from within in order to control an anticipated negative outcome. If it seems inescapable that the enemy is going to capture your fort and all the weapons therein, sabotage dictates that you damage all your own weapons and burn your own fort to the ground so at least you can control the terms of your retreat and minimize the damage the enemy can inflict on you with your own defenses.

This is the phenomenon I see most often in marriages where one or both partners feel insecure and criticized. As a result, around year three or four, before there are kids, people may begin to behave badly. Rather than try to bear up under a critical spousal eye, invest even more deeply in the relationship and therefore, prove your love once again can stand the test of trial and time, many people say “What’s the use? Obviously he or she is falling out of love with me so why would I try even harder- so I can be even more hurt when this thing blows up?”

The most common form of sabotage is having an inappropriate relationship with someone outside the marriage. Cheating is still the most universal relational no-no in both the religious and secular community. If you want to control the dissolve of your marriage and your worst fear is that your spouse will leave you, having an affair first is the most fool-proof way to seal your marital doom.

If we extrapolate this out a step further, we also find that acts of sabotage are fed by one of the primary human fears: fear of abandonment. Although people often want their own way, if we are honest with ourselves, we would sacrifice nearly anything to save a genuine connection with another soul. But fear and love are equally powerful motivators and sometimes fear is even more forceful- when the instinct to protect self is in play.

Fear of abandonment is caused by trauma in primary relationships at any age that has not been worked through and resolved. It is safe to assert that everyone experiences heartbreak or disappointment at some point in their early life, but it is the process of grieving and resolving the trauma that releases us from the long term relational problems abandonment or betrayal can create. If your life experience includes the break- up of your own parents, long absences of either or both parents during childhood, abuse of any kind from a primary caregiver, significant other, or even a bully at school; if you’ve been cheated on, harshly punished, or experienced intensely conditional love from a person who was expected to love you unconditionally, the urge to sabotage is likely familiar. Rest assured there are tangible and practical ways to ensure that you and your spouse weather the storms caused by risk in relationship, and come out of them tested and stronger than ever.

First and foremost I suggest that if you relate to any of the primary causes of fear of abandonment listed in this article and you don’t feel resolution, regardless if you’ve had counseling previously, consider seeking counseling. For fear of abandonment or a tendency to sabotage, see a therapist experienced in grief, trauma, and marital counseling. Including your spouse in your process towards healing is an excellent way to draw nearer to one another- as vulnerability activates the nurturing impulse in all of us. If you are confused about what attracted you to your spouse or you feel estranged from him or her, seek a therapist who will utilize psychodynamic, existential, or other forms of self-psychology to help you learn more about yourself. If the discussion about kids is bringing up issues from your own childhood, or you and your spouse have a hard time deciding how you will raise your children, seek a therapist experienced in family systems, marital, and/or developmental models.

If you don’t believe you are ready or in need of counseling, simply adopting a more open, honest, and genuine posture towards your spouse and yourself can help tone down tension and misunderstandings. If you have concerns about patterns in your relationship or how you will co-parent, write them out to clarify your own thoughts and ask your spouse to sit down with you at a designated time to discuss. Let your spouse know ahead of time what you’d like to talk about so your other half can also gather his or her thoughts and contribute meaningfully to the conversation. Often times, we begin talking about who was supposed to do the dishes and end up yelling out why it means you’ll be a terrible parent. When things escalate this way and get intense so quickly, there are deeper issues melting into smaller more trivial matters. Take the time to address these, and soon, before they get built up and seem overwhelming.

Finally, decide to trust your partner, and yourself, unless you have been given gross and overt reasons not to. If your spouse, to your knowledge, has not cheated on you or violated your trust in some other dramatic way- do not waste your emotional energy fretting over whether he has or he will and what that will do to you. Make the firm decision today not to live in fear. Instead, remember the promises you’ve made to one another and trust in that commitment. Treat your spouse as you would like to be treated and adopt a positive outlook that expects success in your relationship. You can make it through the Three Year Twitch and if it gets a little too twitchy, we are here to help.