Relationships In Repair: What Happens When Good Men Do Nothing?

When good men do nothing while blindly watching their relationship sink until their partner finally says ‘Enough’s enough’, it’s a wake-up call - one that’s going to take some careful navigating. Here’s how to get your relationship into the repair shop so it survives (and hopefully) thrives.

“Nothing’s wrong”, he says. “We’re happy. I don’t understand why she wants to break up our marriage. I work long hours so she and the kids have everything. That’s what I was raised to do, be the provider. I don’t want to lose her, I love her – but I don’t know what to do to keep her from leaving,” says Stan a Geelong-based manager working in Melbourne.

Stan works long hours at a high-level job solving problems and keeping production running all day long, yet feels clueless about how to save his unravelling marriage.

The role of power and privilege are often enmeshed in a work environment, yet if applied to modern day relationships heralds a death knoll.

Old ‘Safe’ Patterns Spell Discontent

As couples step into my office, I’m seeing more and more good men who’ve relied on old behavioural patterns frustratingly caught in a laser beam of despair by discontented partners.

Their ‘innocence’ at their situation could be disarming, except for the fact that the words of hope and the sense of desperation expressed by unhappy partners don’t match the years of neglect being described. It’s as if decades of relational blindness falls away (as if for the first time) as the unsuspecting male pauses long enough to really hear what’s been missing for so many years by their other half.

More often than not the unhappy partner feels as if they’ve been living in a service-based transactional arrangement rather than a partnership built on love and cherishing each other.

Too Little, Too Late

As I listen, Stan’s strong exterior melts as he hears for the first time what Melody, his wife, feels. Somewhere between the ‘I do’ and the ‘I want out’, meaningful love got lost and the relationship has become no more than a casket waiting for closure.

‘He’s a good man’, says Melody, ‘Just not at home’. Stan’s sense of humour, camaraderie and benevolence is left at the door each evening as vacant looks, grunts or angry outbursts of wrong doings at work spill like a barf bag, staining the air, leaving Melody’s green eyes rolling as she responds with hooded contempt to the nightly charade.

But Stan misses it. Again. Partly through his self-righteous entitlement to release the pent-up stress he’s feeling, rarely pausing to hear his wife’s experience of her day – or her hopes and desires. He doesn’t get that barfing has little to do with sharing (and even less to do with managing stress) for someone who’s become numb to his venting as she’s ‘heard it all before’.

The unspoken rules of a couple’s relationship are often written in lemon juice – invisible unless placed under heat and pressure.

It’s only with the relational slap from the ‘love of his life’ that Stan sees the closing door on his once ‘solid relationship’ and is ready to remove the blinkers that have concealed him from reality for the past decade.

The Problem With Breaking Old Patterns

Occasionally, if the pattern is shifted, in time the birth of a new relationship can happen – one that rekindles love, hope and the desire to cherish a love gone cold.

So where to start? Working out your relationship’s unhealthy patterns may feel like you’re spring cleaning a hoarder’s hovel in the hope of creating order from chaos. An impossible feat as one layer reveals the fermenting debris buried beneath.

Here’s what to do:

Begin with an honest assessment of what’s working in your relationship and what’s not. Most problems involve a pattern and it’s in decoding this pattern that insight starts and progress builds.

For example: Stan retreats to the TV when he comes home. Melody, knowing Stan likes to chill out, aims to create calm to help Stan relax. The more Melody takes care of things with the children and home, the more Stan retreats. The more Stan retreats, the more Melody busies herself to distract herself from the growing sense of loneliness she’s feeling in the marriage. The more Melody distracts herself, the further Stan retreats – believing everything is ok. On the surface, life is calm – no fighting or yelling, yet below the surface a seismic shift is preparing to open that will shatter both their worlds.

It’s impossible to fix a problem if you don’t know it exists, or the pattern that’s enabling it.

One partner is usually more aware of the problem, yet it’s become ‘normalised’ and ‘ritualised’, so raising it as an issue can feel as if you’re questioning the structural roots of how you communicate.

This leads to things ‘building up’ because they’ve been bottled up. And when this happens the ‘problem’ isn’t expressed clearly and calmly, but rather with white rage, finger pointing and an unhealthy dose of acting out. Not surprisingly the accused partner responds with denial, self-righteous indignation or downright anger while reloading the arrow of recriminating blame.

A no-win situation.

Sadly, this is the state of many relationships – issues only addressed when the evacuation call and alarm bells can’t be switched off any more.

It’s relational madness robbing a couple of intimacy, love and respect. And a family of both parents.

How To Build New Patterns That Repair Burnt Bridges

Instead of letting things build up and keeping a silent scorecard, work on identifying the pattern and looking clearly at what each of you is doing to sustain it.

If you see yourself:

·         Retreating (staying at work longer to avoid home life, watching TV to avoid conversation, isolating yourself)

·         Venting (dumping stress on your partner), blaming (looking for faults)

·         Judging (telling your partner what they’re doing wrong)

·         Or acting in ways that is minimising intimacy, take time to name the specific actions up.

1. Write down what you’re doing. Be honest with yourself. Write down what your partner does in response. Own your own issues – don’t look for a scapegoat by being defensive.

2. Consider what alternatives could be possible.

3. Choose one that you feel you can (and will) do.

4. Get a journal and begin noticing what difference this one change is bringing.

Getting Help

If you’ve reached a point where you need a ‘sanity check’, someone to talk to who can help you weave a new pattern into your relationship - then let’s talk.