On our wedding day, we took our first steps as husband and wife and relished our joining together in the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage. We each came to the Altar with our own beliefs about marriage and what married life would hold for us as a couple. The future was bright in our minds, and our love was overflowing. This romantic phase of our life as a couple is common to most of us when we are just starting out. Everything is new, filled with hopes, dreams, and promise. We embrace the excitement of blending our lives together and we savor each moment.
This type of love filled our first weeks and months, and then something we hadn’t expected slowly began to develop. We became aware of small things about each other that either had previously gone unnoticed or that we had considered “benign” and/or endearing. My husband who had originally admired my ability to get things done began to notice that my drive to complete tasks also resulted in a lack of flexibility and spontaneity. The sense of humor that I found so endearing in my husband while we were dating seemed to become his way of deflecting serious topics. We had begun the slow migration from love to a new stage in our relationship: disillusionment.
Disillusionment starts small (as in our case), but it can rapidly escalate as we begin to notice even more faults and allow annoyances to gain a foothold in our lives. Once in a cycle of disillusionment, it is not uncommon for couples to head into a downward spiral as they find more and more to criticize, and they become more and more disillusioned. Needless to say, our perception of what we thought was a perfect union began to deteriorate, and we each felt a sadness and disappointment as we tried to mitigate our original impressions of married life with our current–and very altered–reality.
This particular phase is common to many relationships in life. Think of your first job, and how much you loved showing up for work during the first few weeks; and then recall how things began to shift when you found yourself dealing with an overbearing boss, unreasonable demands, or difficult clients. Even in parenting, we go through these cycles: the child that cuddles with us and tells us he loves us at bedtime can become surly and truculent the very next day, avowing to run away from home.
The interesting thing is that we seem to treat disillusionment in our marriages with a different measure of reason and rationality than we do with disillusionment in other areas of our lives. Because it attacks what is most central to our lives, we succumb to hopelessness and lose our perspective.
The good news is that we can break this downward spiral and climb back from this emotional descent. It requires prayer and courage to confront our disillusionment, and to trust enough in our spouse’s love to risk broaching the issues that challenge us.
Here are steps that we can take to break this cycle:
- Recognize the spiral early (it’s so much easier to deal with before it grows out of proportion).
- Set a time and a place to discuss what is troubling you.
- Pray together before starting the discussion and ask God to guide your hearts and words, and to open your ears to hear one another.
- Take time to look for and acknowledge one of your spouse’s good qualities (those qualities are still there, and it is important that we are able to notice and value them).
- Focus on the central issue (e.g., feeling unloved/unlovable, unappreciated/incapable, overwhelmed).
- Own what you feel, but do not make accusations. Invite your partner to become a participant in resolving the issue. Example: “I am really feeling overwhelmed with trying to keep up the house. I’m finding myself becoming resentful, and it’s not a quality I want to see in myself. Can we explore ways that we can share some of the household responsibilities?”
- Brainstorm possible solutions and pick one to try.
- Set a date to revisit the issue and evaluate the solution you choose. If it works, celebrate. If it doesn’t, look at other possibilities.
Fortunately, we had had enough conversations prior to marriage about what we would do if ever we hit a point of “challenge” in our relationship. We were, therefore, both committed to working through it. As we delicately dissected our disillusionment, we had to overcome our fears of rejection and remember that getting our marriage back on track was far more important than any discomfort while tackling difficult issues. What waits for us at the end of this process is a third phase where we get to rediscover the gift of our love and commitment to one another. This is a return to joy, and it is where God’s ability to transform us becomes most evident.