So, I had a birthday recently. I turned 43. Spring chicken. I know.
My husband is a bit older than me, and on my birthday he was reflecting on what he knew…and didn’t know…about relationships when he was my age. He said he was a little jealous, wishing he knew at 43 what it took him until 54 to learn. I told him I was thinking the same thing. Lord is he ever slow.
Nah. Just fooling around. But his comment did raise the question for us both: Why does it seem to take so long to change so little in marriage? We’ve been at this a long time, he and me. Talking about, thinking about, reading about, writing about, and sometimes screaming about our relationship. We were only homicidal that one time…but it was probably indigestion.
On the whole we’ve done well with each other…AND we still have times when it seems like we’ve developed more sensitivity than sense. You know that thing couples get into when the first spouse doesn’t have to say even one word, and the second one knows what the first one is thinking (and is correct), and the second one shuts the first one down even before they get that first word out. Yeah. We do that. If this kind of sensitivity were an Olympic sport…well…let’s just say we’d rank. But so would lots of people.
Lots of people work and search and read and search the internet for blog posts for years trying to figure this thing out, trying to make marriage work. Why does progress seem to move so slowly, if at all?
As a therapist and student of Bowen Family Systems Theory I am aware that sensitivity in family relationships is one of the biggest factors in why change happens so slowly. Being sensitive to family members leads to both caring actions as well as the not-so-caring. Our sensitivity can be what leads us to offer either a neck massage—if our spouse seems stressed—or to be a pain in the neck—if our spouse seems like they deserve it.
It can be helpful to consider that our sensitivity to each other as a species is something we have in common with all other species: wolves, dogs, birds, and monkeys, etc. Evolution favored the sensitive. Not sensitive enough and one gets eaten or stung or bitten. In addition, sensitivity kept packs, herds, gaggles, tribes and families together for centuries, thus increasing their chances for survival. After all, one must have some idea or sensitivity toward others’ needs and wants in order to form a cooperative group. Fascinating research on wolf pack behavior shows that wolves kiss-and-make-up just like humans. Even wolves have ways of “getting along.” Relatively cooperative groups stayed together longer, and therefore, survived longer. Without sensitivity there could be no cooperation.
But things have changed in the day-to-day needs and activities of any given human. Life is very different now. No more surviving the tundra, fighting for every moment. We can calm down now. But we haven’t been able to figure that one out. Not yet anyway. The momentum of centuries and multiple generations of great sensitivity is still with us. The field of epi-genetics is now demonstrating this scientifically. The environmental stressors (emotional, mental, biological, chemical) that our great, great, great grandmothers experienced is, quite literally, transmitted to us…and our children…through our genetic code.
Much of our sensitivity is now hurting us rather than saving/preserving us. The reason change in marriage takes so long is the same reason evolution takes so long. There is a lot of momentum going in the wrong direction, and the human animal pack simply hasn’t caught up yet. But we will. In time, we will be more and more able to reflect on how our sensitivity and automatic reactivity is really the only problem we face in marriage and family life. We will figure this out. We can’t not figure it out. We are as caught in the force of evolution as are all species, and evolution is bigger than we are. It is the ultimate correction.