Hard-wired to avoid pain?

Q. I am a 35-year-old married male and the manager of a tire company. I enjoy my work and plan to stay in this job for some time to come. I have been married for 10 years. The first five years were great, but the last five have not been. I don’t know what’s happened. My spouse thinks I am too laid-back and not involved enough in our home life. I don’t agree, but I’ve gotten used to her criticism so I shrug my shoulders and do my own thing.

I have good friends and they listen to me when I feel frustrated. Sometimes they suggest we should go for marital counseling. But I think there is too much water under the bridge by now. It’s difficult to feel anything for my spouse anymore.

Oddly enough, I don’t believe in divorce. But I cannot see myself staying in this relationship for the rest of my life. We put off having children since we don’t know where our relationship is going. During the last six months I have been thinking more and more about leaving her, but it troubles me since we had a great first five years.

A. I am glad you still value your marital relationship and recognize its potential. I am also glad you shared your story before deciding to leave your spouse. I think it would be unwise for you to leave her because you seem to no longer have feelings for her. Instead, I suggest you take responsibility for working on your marriage. If you don’t, you may take your unhelpful behavior patterns, such as “shrugging your shoulders and doing your own thing,” into future relationships.

More specifically, I would suggest you take responsibility for your loss of feelings for your spouse and find a therapist to become more aware of what was working in your marriage before and what caused the downturn. It’s rare that I meet someone who does not have a clear picture about what went wrong in his or her marriage when the end is already in sight.
By now you must also know you cannot change anyone but yourself. This is not as discouraging as it sounds. When you become more aware of how you respond to your spouse and how you may need to respond differently, your relationship with her will change.

A word of caution: should you go for help, remind yourself that the main reason for seeking counseling is not to challenge your spouse to do likewise but to grow in your own understanding of yourself. Over time she may very well become interested in seeking help for herself. Should this happen, the next hopeful step would be seeing a therapist together.
After all of the above, I want to stress that various theorists believe the number one cause of human misery is avoidance – an everyday defensive behaviour that helps us evade psychological or emotional pain. Fortunately for us, we need to grow to maturity. But this growth can indeed be painful! When life’s issues become more complex and our habitual responses no longer work, we must learn to do things differently. But we often want to play it safe and look for an easy way out. And so, over time our hard-wired tendency to avoid the pain of growth actually causes more suffering.

I encourage you to see a therapist. Do not be afraid to talk through your pain. Believe the comforting presence of God can and will help you move forward as you honestly open your heart and seek healing and health for yourself and eventually for your marriage. 

  • Arlene Van Hove is a therapist, a mother of four adult children and a grandmother to an ever-increasing brood of delightful grandchildren. She also belongs to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, a subsidiary of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which raises funds for grandmothers who are raising the next generation in countries devastated by the Aids epidemic.As a writer Arlene hopes to provide a comforting voice for all those who struggle with the complexity of life. At the same time, she believes one of the roles of a columnist is to unflinchingly challenge 'the map when it no longer fits the ground.' And while she has less advice for others as she herself is aging, she hopes her columns will encourage her readers to develop questions and answers for themselves that continue to be worth asking and answering in the 21st Century. She is a member of the Fleetwood CRC in Surrey, B.

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