Updated: Nov 4, 2021
A couple of days ago, a patient texted me this about her marriage:
I don’t know—sometimes it feels like we’re mushers in a dogsled race. Except he’s a dog sitting in the sled and I’m me dragging him through the frozen tundra.
And I texted back:
Yeah, and I don’t know another woman who doesn’t feel that way.
And she replied:
Ahahaa so it’s a thing
And I answered:
Yeah, a big horrible disgusting thing
So what is this thing?
It’s where one person in the relationship has a notion of how two people are supposed to relate to each other, care for each other, share things (including chores), take responsibility for things. And the other doesn’t seem to have a clue about this. You could say it’s just an Oscar and Felix thing: one’s too fussy, one’s too messy. Or you could say, yeah, sometimes, but too often it’s one person knows how to behave like a human being and the other just grunts, eats stew with his hands, and never heard of foreplay.
It’s kind of a beauty and beast thing, where the beast stays pretty beastly. And it’s made up of a number of ingredients:
Gender. Being in a male/female couple is a huge risk for this. You two people were brought up differently. The women grew up knowing, feeling, believing that family and relationships were their thing. They grew up yearning for that. In general. More or less. With exceptions, of course.
The men? Wildly different expectations. Especially, and fundamentally, an utterly different sense of what the word “wife” means. For the guy, the wife is a person whose innate thing it is to be oriented towards household-y, relationship-y stuff. She’s cares about that shit, she deals with that shit, that’s her shit.
And if he does whatever the heck he does, it’s to appease her. His job, as he sees it, is to figure out the minimum he needs to do keep the volcano Mt. Wife from erupting.
Upbringing. It’s not just about gender. This business of dragging your partner along through your marriage is also common in same-sex marriages. For example, one of you grew up in a pretty organized household, the other in a disorganized one. Guess who’s gonna be dragging whom through that marriage? Or one of you grew up in a family where people dealt with their issues in a more or less functional way, and the other, well, didn’t. Guess who’s gonna be dragging whom through that marriage?
Personality. By which I mean, traits that tend to be stable over a person’s lifetime. And you gotta say, some traits pretty much predict your partner’s gonna be dragging you along through your marriage. Such as? Well,...
Being distracted. You know, forgetting things. Not getting things done. Running around all over the place.
Being self-absorbed. Some people have their antenna out. Other people don’t seem to have antenna. To people with antenna, it can seem as though the no-antenna people don’t care. Well, no. They would care. If they saw what there was that you wanted them to care about.
Work-aholics. And other super-conscientious people. Taking care of business trumps, for them, taking care of you. Seeing you, even.
And there are, for sure, other traits that result in people being only semi-present in their relationship.
Now the first thing to say about all this is: NO EXCUSE! You, sir or madam, are a grownup in a grownup relationship. Shape up!!
This isn’t as stupid a thing to say as it may seem. Some people are doing the best they can. But container-ship-loads of people are, as I said earlier, doing the minimum. Just trying to stay on the safe side of things blowing up. These are the relationships that die before you know it.
So how do you deal with this issue of feeling you’re dragging your sluggish partner’s reluctant carcass through the frozen tundra of your marriage?
There’s an axiom in therapy that many people don’t know. It’s that the problem isn’t the real problem. The real problem is what maintains the problem.
So what maintains this problem?
Let’s look at this from the point of view of the person being dragged along. By the time either person in the relationship is aware they’re in trouble, the dragger is overwhelmed with unmet needs and is exhausted. So for the person being dragged this means two things:
First, the dragger’s being overwhelmed with unmet needs means she’s dumping problems and needs on her partner all the time, and doing so in an angry way. Sure, maybe this is all the draggee’s fault, but still, here we are. All this anger and all these needs mean that the draggee is in a state of utter confusion. He doesn’t know what to do or how to do it.
Second, because the dragger is tired, she lets a lot of things go. So the draggee is given the message frequently that stuff is okay that in fact isn’t okay at all.
When you look at it this way, a solution is obvious. The two of you are in a well, and the only way to climb out is step by step. So the dragger has to try, as overwhelmed and exhausted as she is, to
Pick one issue
Focus on that issue
Discuss with her partner what they can do to create real change in this area
Maintain focus on that issue every single time there’s a problem there
Now, by doing this, you maximize the probability of the draggee’s being able to learn and make progress.
And when there’s progress in one issue, you go on to the next.
By the way, I have a secret for you. As impossibly sluggish (or sluggishly impossible) as your partner may seem, there are only 3 or 4 issues, out of your huge, long list, that cause you the most pain. Deal with the few issues at the top of your list, and the vast majority of your pain will go away.)
Or you could just complain and suffer and make threats about leaving. It’s up to you.
It would also help tons for you to get a copy of Why Couples Fight for both of you to read. Way, way, way less time and money than therapy or divorce.