Dating When Married
Dating Is Not Always a Good Idea
Willard F. Harley, Jr.
Sherry and Todd had known each other in high school and had dated a few times before breaking up because their arguments were getting out of hand. They lost contact after graduation, but reestablished their relationship when they had attended a mutual friendís wedding. This time, they tried to avoid mistakes of the past by keeping their negative reactions to themselves.
Their strategy of non-confrontation combined with very passionate dating experiences sent both of their Love Bank balances through the romantic love threshold. Within a year, they were married with Jill on the way.
Their lives were relatively simple before they were married. They both earned enough to afford modest apartments, decent cars, and money left over for their dating adventures. They would spend weekends together doing whatever either wanted to do. They would go water skiing, swimming, hiking, fishing, or just getting in the car and driving to a place theyíd never been to before.
But after marriage things became very complicated. Since they were expecting Jill, they had to find a new place to live that would accommodate a child. They had been staying in Troyís apartment after their wedding, but they had to move by the time Jill was born.
Sherry wanted to buy a house, but Todd wanted to rent. Until then, they had tried to avoid conflict, but this was a decision that would not be easily reached. Both felt very strongly about their position. She wanted the privacy of a house while Troy didnít want the cost and all of the responsibilities that would go with owning a house. So, they had a fight to decide the issue.
The decision went to Sherry after she kept Troy up all night arguing with him. They bought a house that she wanted, and moved in just a month before Jill was born. Troy was not happy living there and let Sherry know that she could not count on him to do any painting or remodeling. Even doing yardwork was not guaranteed.
Well, you can imagine what that led to. Sherry became very resentful about Troyís lack of interest in their new home. He would come home and watch TV or play video games instead of fixing things that needed to be fixed.
When Jill arrived, Todd didnít seem any more interested in caring for his new daughter than he did in caring for their home. Getting up at night? Forget it. Diapering? Never.
At first, Sherry tried to keep her resentment to herself, and just went around seething. But eventually, she could not keep it in, and she lit into Troy.
You are a miserable excuse for a husband, she screamed. All you ever think about is yourself, you worthless piece of trash.
Those were just the opening lines. The rest of her diatribe actually got much more personal, berating his failure to get advanced at work, his failure to earn enough to support his new family, and even her sexual disappointment with him.
Troy tried to put up with her insults as long as he could. But when he could take it no longer, he shot back at her.
It was your idea to get this house, and now youíre blaming me for your stupidity. I did what you wanted, and now look at how bad itís turned out. Itís your fault, not mine.
A shouting match ensued, with both of them taking turns insulting each other. It ended with neither of them apologizing or trying to reconcile.
If Sherry and Todd had come to my office at that point, it would have been much easier for me to help them. But I didnít see them until two years later, after they had their second child. During that time, they had one brutal argument after another, full of demands, disrespect, and anger. The arguments that had characterized their first dating experiences came back in full force.
Romance became a thing of the past. There was no affection, no intimate conversation, no sex, and no recreational activities that they would do together. Todd spent most of his evenings and weekends with his friends, away from Sherry, and they slept in separate rooms.
But spending so little time together didnít stop them from making Love Bank withdrawals. It seemed as if whenever they had a chance to talk to each other, it turned into an argument. Their Love Bank balances continued going further and further into the red.
Love Bank balances, like checking account balances, can be overdrawn when there are more withdrawals than deposits. When the balance is slightly overdrawn, like those of Wanda and Peter, spouses usually donít like each other very much, but they usually give each other a chance to redeem themselves.
When Love Bank accounts are deeply in the red, however, they break through what I call the hate threshold. For these couples, the plaque on their desk would read, ďThe Truth Is, Iíd Rather Do Nothing with Someone Else Than Do Anything with You.Ē
So, you can see why many of the couples that I counsel resist giving each other undivided attention every week. They find each other to be repulsive.
Thatís how Sherry and Todd felt about each other when they came to my office. The only reason that they even made their appointment was that they dreaded the prospect of divorce more than they dreaded being with each other. They knew what going through a divorce would be like for their children. Theyíd gone through it themselves and didnít want to put them through it if at all possible.
Hatred, an All Too Common Experience in Marriage
We hate very few people in life. When someone tends to upset us, making Love Bank withdrawals, we usually stop having contact with them which stops the withdrawals. As a result, that personís negative Love Bank balance never gets very far into the red.
But if we are forced to be with someone who upsets us Ė a member of the family, a neighbor, or a fellow worker Ė our negative feelings can intensify, but usually donít rise to the level of hate. Thatís because we can limit the damage by having as little to do with that person as possible. We can avoid going to family functions when that person is there. We can ignore the neighbor or move to a new neighborhood. We can ask to work in another department or find another job.
In marriage, however, Love Bank withdrawals can be so unrelenting, and so hard to avoid, that Love Bank balances can eventually drop below the hate threshold. When that happens, spouses who once loved each other now hate each other. At one time, they had thought that they would be in love forever, and nothing could take that away from them. But now they feel they will hate each other forever, and nothing can change that feeling.
The one person in life that you are most likely to hate is someone you canít escape Ė your spouse. Thatís why every couple should avoid doing anything that makes Love Bank withdrawals.
I call all the ways that spouses hurt each other, Love Busters, because that what they do Ė they destroy the love that a husband and wife have for each other.
How does that happen? Isnít marriage supposed to be relationship of mutual care, not mutual harm? Why would any of us hurt the one we promised to love and cherish?
Iíve already introduced one Love Buster to you when I told you about Wanda and Peterís marriage. It was the Love Buster, Independent Behavior: the behavior of one spouse that ignores the feelings and interests of the other spouse. Itís behavior thatís planned and executed as if the other spouse doesnít exist.
The best way to avoid Independent Behavior is to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. But it doesnít end with doing nothing. This policy creates an opportunity to replace Independent Behavior with Interdependent Behavior: behavior that is planned and executed with the interests of both spouses in mind.
By changing Peterís Independent Behavior into Interdependent Behavior, Love Bank withdrawals ended. That gave him an opportunity to make Love Bank deposits by meeting Wandaís intimate emotional needs at the same time she was meeting his. It wasnít long before they were in love again.
Sherry and Todd had also been making massive Love Bank withdrawals, but they were hurting each other in a different way. They were using the Love Busters, Selfish Demands, Disrespectful Judgments, and Angry Outbursts.
These three Love Busters are instinctive, yet thoughtless, ways to try to get what spouses want from each other. When a request doesn't work, a spouse will often revert to a demand ("I don't care how you feel -- do it or else!"). If that doesn't get the job done, a spouse will try disrespectful judgments ("If you had any sense, and were not so lazy and selfish, you would do it"). And then, when all of that fails, an angry outburst often represents the last-ditch effort to force compliance.
These three Love Busters are also ways to try to keep a spouse from doing something. Again, when a request doesnít work, a demand is given (ďI donít care how much you want to do it, if you do, youíll regret it!Ē). When that doesnít work, a disrespectful judgment is launched (ďAll you ever think about is yourself. You donít care about me at allĒ). Finally, an angry outburst is used to punish the noncompliant spouse.
Demands, disrespect and anger didn't really get the job done for Sherry and Todd. Instead it led to fights. It might have seemed to work for her when she wanted to buy a house, but the resentment it created in Todd made the decision turn into a nightmare for her.
Where to Begin?
When Sherry and Todd told me their story, I knew that I had to first stop the bleeding. I asked them to complete my Love Busters Questionnaire so that I could understand how they were hurting each other. I was particularly interested in how demanding, disrespectful, and angry they were toward each other whenever they had a conflict.
For the next few sessions, I saw them each separately in the beginning and then briefly together at the end of each session. Otherwise, the session would have turned into a shouting match.
In my next session with them, armed with the results of the Love Busters Questionnaire, I showed them that they were making each other absolutely miserable whenever they had even the smallest conflict to resolve. Until they could put an end to this painful and ineffective approach to marital problem solving, there was absolutely no hope for their marriage. And there was certainly no point in them dating to meet each otherís intimate emotional needs until they could first stop hurting each other.
I explained to them that whenever they were demanding, disrespectful, or angry, they were not getting what they wanted from each other. But even if they did, it would have been temporary at best. But these Love Busters were worse than ineffective. They were also ruining any hope for having a romantic relationship with each other.
They both agreed with my analysis of their problem, but were at a loss as to where to begin to repair their relationship. So, I suggested that they begin by learning how to talk to each other with care and respect. I asked them to read the chapters in my book, Love Busters, on Selfish Demands, Disrespectful Judgments, and Angry Outbursts (chapters 4-9) before seeing me a week later. In the meantime, they were to avoid talking to each other if at all possible, because they didnít yet know how to do it with care and respect.
The following week, I quizzed them on what they had read. I asked them to tell me what abuse in marriage was. Itís the deliberate attempt of a spouse to cause the other to be unhappy. They didnít fully understand that demands, disrespect, and anger were abusive, so I proved it to them by showing them their answers in the Love Busters Questionnaire.
The very first question was, indicate how much unhappiness you tend to experience when your spouse makes selfish demands of you. Both spouses had answered that they experienced extreme unhappiness.
The same was true for disrespectful judgments: extreme unhappiness. And, of course, angry outbursts also resulted in extreme unhappiness.
Sherry said, I donít intend to hurt Todd when Iím demanding, disrespectful, or angry. Iím simply trying to express my frustration with him when heís not cooperating with me.
But Todd responded, it sure feels like youíre intending to hurt me. Otherwise, why would you say those things about me?
Their new assignment was to talk to each other throughout the week without making any Selfish Demands, Disrespectful Judgments, or Angry Outbursts, and they both agreed to try. If either felt that the other spouse violated that agreement, they were to record the violation on a worksheet I gave them for each of the three Love Busters. The worksheets had them identify violations by date, time, and circumstances.
I warned them that when they saw each otherís entries on the worksheets, theyíd be tempted to argue about them. But they should resist that temptation at all costs. Instead, they should try to understand how the other spouse could have interpreted what they said as a demand, as disrespect, or as anger, and learn from the feedback.
I encouraged them to replace Selfish Demands with Thoughtful Requests. Instead of telling each other what to do, or what not to do, they were to ask each other how they would feel about doing it or not doing it. If there was any resistance, they were to withdraw the request with no negative consequences. Requests were also to be listed on their worksheets.
When I saw Sherry and Todd next, I reviewed the worksheets that they had completed. I showed her worksheets to him, and his worksheets to her. At first, they both felt that many of the other spouseís entries were pure fiction, total misrepresentations of what had really happened. And the rest of them were misunderstandings Ė what was said was taken wrong. It took a tremendous amount of effort on my part to help them both see that the entries were all accurate representations of how the other spouse felt about what had been said. They were still making demands, being disrespectful, and getting angry with each other. There were hardly any requests listed.
So, when they came into my office together at the end of the session, I told them that their entries were extremely valuable in helping each other see what their demands, disrespect, and anger really are. They should accept the entries of the past week as accurate, and try to avoid any new demands, disrespect, and anger the following week. I reminded them to replace demands with requests, and to document the requests.
Over a period of several weeks, they were able to completely eliminate Angry Outbursts. Selfish Demands were replaced by Thoughtful Requests. They were able to see almost immediately how much more effective it was to make requests instead of demands. But the Disrespectful Judgments worksheets kept coming back each week with at least a few entries for both of them.
Itís very difficult to avoid signs of disrespect when you hate, or even dislike, someone. Tone of voice, rolling of eyes, or even saying nothing can communicate disrespect. Sherry and Todd picked up on these subtle messages that conveyed accurately their disrespect for each other.
Their only hope to avoid these subtle signals altogether was to stop hating each other, and start liking each other.
I mentioned earlier that the Love Bank leaks when accounts are in the positive range. Thatís why a couple should keep meeting each otherís intimate emotional needs if they are to stay in love with each other. If those needs are neglected, Love Bank balances will slowly but surely drop below the romantic love threshold.
But it works in reverse with accounts that are in the negative range. If nothing is done to make further withdrawals, an account slowly but surely rises toward zero.
This tendency of positive accounts losing ground and negative accounts gaining ground when there are no deposits or withdrawals, greatly help couples like Sherry and Todd. By simply eliminating Love Bank withdrawals, they had an instinctive tendency to feel better toward each other.
They were now ready to do more than stop the withdrawals. They were ready to start making deposits. So, my next assignment was for them to learn to meet one intimate emotional need. I chose Intimate Conversation to be the need that they would fulfill for each other next.
But isnít that one of her needs? Why choose that one first, you may wonder.
While itís true that Intimate Conversation is a need thatís usually ranked higher for women than for men, it can also make Love Bank deposits for men. Besides, I wanted to teach them how to enjoy talking to each other before I sent them on a date.
So far, they had learned to stop having unpleasant conversations by avoiding demands, disrespect, and anger. Now, they could learn how to have enjoyable conversations.
Great Conversation is Essential for Dating