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Toothpicks and 2X4’s
By Marc S. Nee, LMFT
He sits on the couch in my office with his head in his hands saying “I can’t believe she wants a divorce. I didn’t think things were that bad.” He didn’t see it coming. Unfortunately, in my experience as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I hear this far too often.
I inquire about how they’ve been getting along, their children, their sex life. “What sex life!?” he snorts, “I don’t get it, I go to work, take care of the house and yard, spend time with the kids. What the hell else does she want?”
“What do the two of you struggle with?” I ask. And so it begins…. The reasons couples have trouble in their marriages are varied; money, child rearing, family, inattention, disrespect, anger issues, lack of support, no quality time, porn, sometimes infidelity, (but not as much as you’d think). Usually it’s a couple of things and always its tragic.
As a therapist, the tragedy is that so often it could’ve been avoided if they had come in a couple of years before. That’s right, a couple of YEARS before. I’m going to guess that many women reading this article won’t be nearly as shocked by this revelation as the men, but that’s the point.
In my experience, when a woman finally says, “I’m done,” it’s the caboose of a train that started rolling a long time before. Usually over a period of many months, and even years, a woman has expressed her discontent about things. She’s repeated it so many times that she’s been called a nag. When that didn’t work, she’s tried to influence his behavior by using various tools and techniques at her disposal, and maybe she’s even suggested couples therapy. Often these women report having gone to therapy themselves because of feeling hopeless to find a solution. All of this represents the proverbial train, passing car by car until finally, she gave up hope that things would change.
So she started figuring out how to secure a future for herself, and for her kids. Then when it’s all set up and lawyers are involved, she announces that she wants a divorce. Unfortunately, this is about the time many men realize there’s a serious problem and start to pay attention. Her decision to leave is the engine that gets him willing to change. Sadly, by then its often too late and he’s left scrambling to buy a ticket for a train that has already left the station.
While I try and avoid the pitfalls of generalizations, this scenario happens often enough that I felt it deserved a name. I call it “Toothpicks and 2x4’s.”
Why this phenomenon persists in an age of feminism is for smarter people than me. Maybe it’s a leftover of centuries of women having to walk cautiously to survive in a patriarchal society. Maybe it’s that woman follow their mother's example on how to handle dad and his temper, or maybe it’s because of a woman’s need to keep a secure nest for her offspring and the serious financial implications of splitting with their spouse. Whatever the reason, it seems that many women have a strategy of trying to nudge their partners into changing. They use the toothpick method, being vague, implying, suggesting, poking and prodding their partner, hoping that enough pokes, enough hints, will get his attention and he will change. The problem with this strategy is that there are still many men holding fast to the model and ideals they watched their fathers live by, namely provide, protect and prosper.
For these men, things are reasonably simple - work hard, play by the rules, and protect your family. If you give them an occasional “Atta boy,” feed them well and sleep with them once in a while they will be fairly content. If pressed about their upbringing, these men will admit that “Sure, mom used to nag dad” and “No, they weren’t particularly affectionate with each other, dad worked a lot and as a result was rather distant, but they raised a family and dad retired, and they stayed together for 50 years.” That’s good enough, right?
Given this paradigm, his spouses’ poking is seen as an annoyance, rather than a communication of an important problem for her. So he ignores it, or avoids it, never realizing his marriage is in serious trouble. Then his wife tries to get him to therapy. To talk about feelings? No thanks. Expressing emotion is not going to be his strong suit so he’s already on the defensive, and then to do it in front of a therapist and his wife? He would rather cut his eyes out with a spoon. No, he thinks, things aren’t that bad. Since he is generally content, he assumes his spouse is as well; she’s just making a big deal out of nothing.
These situations don’t need a toothpick, they need a 2x4.
Toothpick - “Honey, I really wish you would talk to me/ You never listen to me”
2X4 - “Honey, I’m not happy in our marriage. If you are unwilling to work on it with me, I’m going to leave you….”
Toothpick - “I just can’t take this anymore”
2X4 - “I am unwilling to live like this any longer, we need to get help or separate”
Toothpick - “Ugh, sometimes I wish I could just leave – go live on a desert island or something!”
2X4 - “I think we need to separate until you decide whether you’re willing to work on our relationship with me.”
Toothpick - “I really don’t want to argue in front of the kids”
2X4 - “I don’t want our children thinking this is how partners treat each other. We need to fix this or end it.”
Hard to imagine? Painful? Scary? Yes. It’s why most people don’t do it. Or why they do it in the middle of an argument, or say it as a threat without following through. Telling your partner in a calm way your going to leave them is very hard…but not as hard as divorce. Is this a guarantee for success? No. But it’s a beginning.
Difficulties don’t magically go away just because you’re willing to talk about them either. In my experience, both partners are responsible for the shape of the marriage, and as a result, fixing the problems requires hard work on both sides, but it can be done as long as both partners are willing to put in the effort.
Welcome to our education and resources page! Along with our move to a new space, Marc and I have felt inspired to share some of our thoughts about common issues we see when working both with relationships, and individuals. In the coming year (2018) we hope to launch an interactive blog site that can serve as a resource to our clients, as well as those just visiting our site. Until then we will be posting articles here. Below you can read about 'Toothpicks and 2X4's' and/or 'When Problems Become 'A Parent'.' Both address some common communication challenges couples sometimes face.
Education & Resources
Individual & Relationship Therapy
When Relationship Issues Become “A Parent”
by Marc S. Nee, LMFT & Carla S. Ricci. LMFT
In my experience, one of the things that we tend to do as people is to gravitate toward things that are familiar. Knowing what to expect helps to minimize anxiety and increase our sense of comfort. We do this in many ways, from the food/restaurants we choose (always going to places we know or ordering foods we know we like,) to things we buy based on brands (I’m not sure this brand I’ve never heard of will work as well as this other one I know…) and activities we engage in (I don’t quite know what to do with myself if all the treadmills are taken when I go to the gym - I don’t like any of the other machines (even though I’ve never actually used the rower)…) Despite the variety of potentially fresher, healthier and varied options available to us, we tend to gravitate to the familiar, even if it’s not always the best option.
As a couple’s therapist, I see this trend in our choice of partners. We tend to be attracted to, and attract people to us, that on some level are familiar and therefore comfortable. On a subconscious level we find those familiar traits attractive. It is because of this tendency that many of us end up with partners that have many of the same characteristics of people in our immediate family, and in particular, to our parents.
If you’ve been joyfully unaware of this concept, I can understand if this theory makes you uncomfortable. After all, who would choose to marry their mother or father? If we have had difficult family dynamics, it’s hard to believe we would do this. We may even believe we seek out and are attracted to the opposite of what we know, and point to personality differences as proof. While we may choose partners who appear to be very different than the family we grew up with, over time, the similarities in the dynamics (not personalities) start to become evident.
The therapy field is chock full of varying theories, on the “whys” and the “hows” of this, and that is a different discussion than is intended here. For the purposes of this article, for most of us, it is simply that these are the primary relationships that have helped forge our belief systems about how to get along in life. They are the most impactful relationships both physically and psychologically, that any of us will have. It makes sense that when we recognize these traits in others, we respond as we always have.
So why is this a problem? If we have no unfinished business with our parents, and /or childhood, and growing up was mostly positive or uneventful, it may not be a problem. If we still have an axe to grind, or have been unable to extricate ourselves from the emotional tether of our parents however, these issues often show up in our relationships with our partners.
When a client or couple recognizes for the first time that he or she has married someone with mom’s temper, or dad’s distant nature, and that they are reacting more like a rebellious or scared child than a rational partner, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Once the pattern is recognized however, it can help bring clarity to many of the difficulties in a couple’s relationship, which are often a re-enactment of an old dynamic that we are still trying (unsuccessfully) to resolve.
So how does this look? Although there are many variations, one possible scenario ends up with one member of the couple taking on more and more of the responsibilities, and the other less and less. Eventually the imbalance is great enough that one or both of the members are frustrated and resentful. One of the partners can feel unsupported and overburdened, more like a parent taking care of a child, while the other partner feels controlled or they don’t have any “say,” and nothing is ever “good enough” in the relationship.
In this parent-child dynamic, one partner resents having to take care of everything and the other often fluctuates between deferring and rebelling. Deferring passively usually means letting the parental partner get their way. Deferring actively usually means arguing against the parental partner to gain some power in the relationship. As you might imagine, both parties end up feeling unsupported and unappreciated. What is less evident in this situation, are the perks – the one up or parental partner gets a lot of power in this dynamic – they get to make a lot of the decisions for the couple or family and do things the way they most like, while the one down or child partner doesn’t have to take on much responsibility and has more individual freedom. Correcting this imbalance takes work on both sides, the “parent” has to be willing to relinquish some control, while the “child” needs to be willing to step up and help out more, but it can be done.
Here is an example of how this dynamic showed up in my office. I had been seeing this couple for a few of months and this theme had been in the air. One session it finally boiled over and was explicitly spoken.
Her face was beet red and as she stood over her husband (who sat slouched on the couch like a beaten dog). Using her finger as a pointer, she shook it at him to emphasize every word. “ I’m sick and tired of waiting for you to step up and be a responsible part of this family!” she railed. “ I have to do everything!”
I asked him if this was how she usually talked to him when she was upset with him.
“Yes,” he replied.
I then asked them to switch positions. For her to sit on the couch and for him to stand over her wagging his finger at her as he spoke to her. Repeating word for word what she had said. She looked up at him defiantly and he looking scared to death, but he gave a half- hearted effort.
“How’s it feel to be talked to this way” I asked the wife.
“Not good” she reluctantly answered. “And for you?” I asked the husband.
"Scared, afraid I’m going to get punished.” He answers
"By who?” I asked.
"Who do you think!?” he said nervously laughing. “ Mom- don’t upset mom!”
I continued, “Did you feel this way as a kid?”
"All the time! And now I get to feel this way as a husband.” He says with exasperation, and then asked to sit down. “ Not yet, just stand there for a minute” I replied
I looked at the wife, and asked, “Does this remind you of anyone in your family history?”
Wife: “Yes, this is how my dad treated us.”
“So you learned this from your dad?” I confirmed. “How’d that work for you growing up?”
Wife: “I left at 18! She snorts, and now we’re here… so not great.” as she started to cry.
The moment was awkward, and then he hesitantly reached out and started rubbing his wife’s shoulder, mumbling. “ Its gonna be okay, we can do this.” In that moment he was no longer a scared boy with his mom, but a man comforting his wife and a sliver of balance had been restored.
To be fair, I also see the parent-child dynamic in reverse. I’ve had husbands come in to my office exasperated because although they feel like they are killing themselves at work, taking care of the bills, helping with the kids, and trying to support their wife’s various career choices and interests, they are met with contempt and blame. She complains that if he was “more this” or “a better that” than she would be happy yet the more he tries to help, the more upset she gets, often threatening to leave. He has become dad, and she is like a teenage girl that is struggling to prove her independence.
From her position, he is not trying to support her, but control her, and that becomes proof he lacks confidence in her. If he backs off, he is seen as unsupportive. For his part, he feels like he can’t win, but continues to ‘try’ because he’s sure if he tries hard enough he can “fix this.” Again, success starts with breaking the cycle by stepping out of the maladaptive roles and into their adult selves.
These examples and explanations are undoubtedly over-simplified, and not all couples in these dynamics are unhappy. These dynamics are not exclusive to heterosexual relationships (or even romantic relationships.) This parent/child dynamic can show up in LGBTQ relationships as well.
My goal in sharing my experience is to help unhappy couples realize there is hope. A life of misery, or getting a divorce are not the only options. My hope is to help shed light on how easily and how often couples end up in unsatisfactory situations that can be remedied, if both partners are willing to work on their part. Every day I witness how our past is constantly informing our present relationships, in both functional and dysfunctional ways.
If things aren’t working in your relationships, or in your life, I invite you to stop and examine whether your past, and the things that are “familiar” are serving you, or getting in the way of the relationship and life you want. If you find yourself in the latter position, a skilled therapist can help you and your loved one untangle the past from the present, and put things in the correct time and place so you can see each other more clearly for the people you actually are.