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Why Some Marriages are Like Earthquakes

Updated on September 29, 2015
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The Marital Quake in the Therapy Room

After being a marriage therapist for many years, I had experienced some marital relationships as something more than just a bad marriage with a dysfunctional communication style. It felt more powerful than that. When these conflicted couples were in my office it felt more like the room was shaking--from the top of the ceiling to the very foundation of the building.

While there was some couples that only quaked a bit, mild tremors that were hardly noticeable, there were other embattled couples that reminded me of the massive quakes of Northern California.

Some married couples had greater earthquake magnitudes than others. Some created more disturbance and structural damage, while some marital quakes were minimal and nothing to be alarmed about.

Faults and Marriage

Some faults, cracked and unstable ground deep below the surface, are the reason for earthquakes. Some faults very rarely get agitated, while others get agitated on a regular basis and cause minor to major earthquakes.

Like marriages, there are faults below the surface. This unstable ground is what we call our baggage. Baggage is what we all bring into our marriage from our family of origin. It is the dysfunctions, the dependencies, the bad habits that we were all raised with. It is the weakness of our soul's foundation. Some baggage we are aware of, but most of our baggage is hidden from our consciousness. It dwells deep inside all of us, ready to be exposed at the slightest prick or push from our intimate partners.

For some couples, the ground rarely shakes and when it does--it is just a minor tremor. The tremors can be over a core disagreement, like how to raise the kids or on issues of sexuality or finances. But some faults within the marriage are so weak and cracked that the marital quakes are very active. These couples have higher quake magnitudes that can rock the marital foundation, destroy a marriage as well as have a major impact on the children and surrounding family members.

The core or fault of a marital foundation may be weakened by the following issues:

  • infidelity
  • dishonesty
  • parenting differences
  • in-laws
  • money
  • controlling partner
  • emotional reactivity
  • close minded partner
  • anger

For the most part, these are the issues that trigger the marital earthquakes in my office and made it feel like the very building was splitting open. Lucky for me, these marital quakes didn't last too long and it didn't totally ruin my office or break my therapy spirit.

A Cat and Dog Fight is Nothing Compared to Marital Conflict

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Size Matters, Sometimes

As a therapist I experienced all sizes and magnitudes of marital quakes.

The bigger the marital quake in the office, the more difficult therapy would be, but that didn't necessarily mean that the therapy failed. Sometimes having a big marital quake can be a positive therapeutic occurrence, sort of a cathartic effect--relieving some marital pressure. Some clients liked to get it all out in the office, venting their pent up animosity and then, when thinking more clearly, they could start to work on the marriage. Some were successful, while others couldn't stop the quaking process.

Sadly, for other clients, disaster was inevitable. The big quakes tended to be a sign of a major, irreparable marital dysfunction and the couple who was stuck in their repetition of quakes had no hope of rectifying or reconciliation. The magnitude of their quakes would not lessen with time or with more therapy or with some magical intervention. The prognosis was poor.

I Wish that Preparing for a Marital Quake were this Easy

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Dealing with Major Marital Quakes

People in California are knowledgeable about earthquakes. They know what to do when one occurs. In fact they are prepared. They have an earthquake kit or box of survivor supplies for the Big One. This might include flashlights, medical supplies, transister radio, batteries and other things necessary for surviving a major earthquake should one occur. The kids in California are taught in school not to go outside the house when a quake occurs; they are taught to stay away from glass windows or movable furniture and to shelter themselves under the most solid foundation of the house, like the bathroom.

People who experience marital quakes aren't so prepared. They tend to panic, stay in the line of fire and get hurt, some more seriously than others.

During a marital quake, the couple tends to say things that they regret and with much venom. Some couples get physical--they throw things at one another or even throw punches. They put their kids in the middle of the line of fire and bring in innocent bystanders to help out in their battles.

It gets very ugly. But it doesn't have to get so ugly if they would only follow what people in California do when there is an earthquake. If only couples would know what to do when a marital quake occurs.

Limiting Marital Quakes or Fighting Fair

There are fair fighting rules that the couples could follow in the therapy room that would lessen the severity of the quakes.

The couples that follow these rules, are the couples who tend to be more successful in therapy. They tend to utilize therapy to their advantage and not waste their time or the time of the marriage therapist.

Fair fighting is a conflict resolution process, with the aim of improving marital communication. Fair fighting can reduce the severity of these marital quakes so effective marital therapy could take place.

Fair fighting is a set of rules designed to help couples discuss their differences within healthy or positive boundaries, and in this way preserving the relationship. Fair fighting is a way that spouses can effectively communicate their needs to each other and utilize effective problem-solving skills.

Do's and Don'ts of Fair Fighting

Do's
Don'ts
Deal with present issues
Stay in the painful past
Take responsibility for your behavior
Blame the other
Listen and hear
Talk over your spouse
Attack issues, not the person
Attack your spouse unmercifully
Deal with one issue at a time
Deal with many issues at once
Take time out when needed
No breaks, keep on fighting until you win
Speak softly
Scream, yell, holler and hit
Don't judge your spouse
Speak to your spouse as if the devil
Source: For more Do's and Don't of Fair Fighting, check out this site: https://happylists.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/37-rules-to-fighting-fair/

What magnitude is your marital earth quake?

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Postscript: Good Marriages

Dr. John Gottman, well-respected marriage researcher and author, has studied and analyzed married couples for much of his career. He offers scientific advice on how to have a good marital relationship based on his extensive studies of marital couples.

He has found two major things that heterosexual couples have done to maintain strength in their marriages as well as to avoid major marital quakes.

  • The male needs to take influence from the wife. He has to be open and willing to listen and not just have it his way. It also means that the man must respect the woman's viewpoint and is willing to discuss the matter more extensively, and not quickly dismiss her.
  • The female needs to be less emotionally reactive. This is especially true during starting up a difficult conversation that might involve differences in opinion. If her start up is soft--respectful and sensitive--the couple will get better results.

Source: For more about John Gottman's research: http://www.stayhitched.com/factors.htm

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