Dan Luzer’s post about two law professors who are in the 17th year of their acrimonious divorce proceedings reminded me of how I used to mentally classify the unhappy couples I worked with as a marriage counselor.
The classification is based on a surprising finding from the marital communication literature: Unhappy couples are about as likely to have positive interactions as are happy couples. It’s the negative interactions that mark out unhappy couples.
Everyone hurts, disappoints or misunderstands their spouse at least some of the time during marital communication. But in happy couples, those hurts are not reciprocated. You criticize your spouse about her bouncing a check and she says “I’m sorry” or “Hey, I feel bad already please don’t run me down for it” and then you say “I’m sorry”. In short, in happy couples, the negativity doesn’t get reinforced.
But unhappy couples have a harder time with that, and these are the levels of hell that can result:
(1) A standard of negative reciprocity. When one spouse is critical or hurtful, intentionally or not, the other spouse comes back negatively to get some revenge or express some pain. This is the level of hell in which where you are willing to hurt your spouse because they hurt you.
(2) A standard of aggression. Accustomed to a standard of negative reciprocity and expecting it to continue, spouses try to get the first verbal slap in. This is the level of hell in which you are willing to hurt your spouse because you expect them to hurt you.
(3) Mutually assured destruction. Beyond a standard of aggression exists the dark place where the divorcing law professors, as well as Pryce and Huhne, ended up. In this lowest level of hell, you want to hurt your spouse so much that hurting yourself at the same time seems a trivial consideration.
Some couples in all three levels of hell get back on a more satisfying track in their marriage. But the deeper a couple goes into hell, the harder it becomes to them to find their way back up to daylight.