Why the Stay-at-Home Order Magnifies Your “Normal Marital Hatred”
And how you can help your marriage survive it…
My husband and I have been shut in since March 14th, like much of the country. Just the two of us.
Seven and a half weeks of an empty nest – wedded bliss, right?
No kids around, plenty of time together to focus on our relationship with no interruptions. Days on end to enjoy each other after we finish with each day’s Zoom calls…
When we were first dating (and during the first 2 years of most relationships) that would have been heaven. In fact, I remember back then several snow storms that kept us trapped at home for 4-5 days, when I wanted it to never end!
Now? Not so much!
Isolation Takes Its Toll
Isolation is taking its toll on everyone.
The important and necessary measures helping ensure our safety have emotional and relational impacts we will be assessing for years and decades to come, once the threat of COVID-19 is behind us.
If you feel it taking its toll on your marriage, you are not alone.
Part of falling in love is a process called crystallization. When we’re infatuated with someone, we do see the flaws or weaknesses of our beloved, but we ignore them, or dismiss them as unique and charming.
Our brains are wired to do this through the dopamine system, the “reward” center of the brain, the neural network that generates wanting, seeking, craving, energy, focus, and motivation.
All traits of romantic, passionate love.
But if the stage of romantic passionate love lasted forever, we’d never get anything done. We’d be too busy staring into each other’s eyes to notice we need to get food, collect firewood to survive the cold night, or run away from an approaching saber-toothed tiger. Any caveman or woman whose brain was wired like that died out before having children. Our ancestors weren’t like that, so neither are we.
Our dopamine system is designed to bring us together, solidify a connection and then wane so we can make a living, feed the kids, take out the trash, tend to our neighbors, and do the laundry.
This doesn’t mean we’re doomed to never again experience the romantic love for our partner we felt at first, but it does mean there’s an ebb and flow to it, and that it requires tending.
First, let’s focus on the ebb of those feelings.
Normal Marital Hatred (NMH)
Nobody really talks about it, but everyone instantly recognizes when it’s mentioned.
In long-term relationships, our partners’ flaws don’t remain quaint or charming. Over time, they become annoying and irritating. We have moments and thoughts that cast our partner and our relationship in the most negative light possible.
This is known as Normal Marital Hatred. (as coined by my mentor, Terry Real)
For some, NMH grows to the point where it becomes why “we never should have gotten together in the first place…”
That’s not an objective fact, but rather the product of your relationship decaying to the point where ending it becomes as possible as crystallization made it possible to start it.
If you want to preserve your marriage, you have to be aware that NMH isn’t an objective reality. It’s something to mitigate when your mind hands you that thought.
Want some examples? I’ll share some from my own experience…
My husband’s way of organizing puzzle pieces in neat rows by color or category seems a bit OCD to me, and I’ve been known to roll my eyes at it (not my proudest moments).
His chewing cashews as we watch the millionth episode of whatever show on Netflix during this quarantine makes my nervous system cringe.
And it isn’t that I’m so perfect either…
My leaving dirty dishes in the sink rather than putting them in the dishwasher irritates him, as does my leaving the ‘not clean but not dirty enough for the hamper’ clothing on the side of our tub…
I think I got the better deal in him – he has to put up with way more than I do… 🙂
NMH During Isolation
Every marriage, during a pandemic or not, experiences ebb and flow. Sometimes we feel our heart swell with love. Other times our partner’s flaws seem incredibly unbearable, beyond annoying.
When that happens, we may catch ourselves thinking, “If only he’d stop XYZ our marriage would be great!“
Part of having a strong, mature, long-term relationship is to recognize that these feelings are normal, not a fatal flaw. And don’t be alarmed if during this time of quarantine you notice an increase in frequency and duration of those NMH episodes. These are stressful times that test our nervous systems, our physical bodies, and our relationships. They’re all connected. Do not make decisions about the health of your relationship based on NMH.
Helping Your Marriage Survive NMH and Quarantine
First, recognize that the increase in NMH you may be experiencing is normal. This is what happens to couples under stress. You will argue over more things, you will turn on each other, you will take things out on each other because you don’t feel you can control the bigger picture.
To counter NMH and keep it from undermining your connection to your partner, it’s important that you hold your relationship in warm regard, flaws and all. This is known as Relationship Esteem.
You are two flawed human beings joined together, and currently under unprecedented, stressful circumstances.
Your relationship matters. You need to treat it with respect and connection, despite its imperfections. Remember, you’re not perfect either, and you’d like to be loved despite your flaws, right?
Get back into the flow part of “the ebb and flow, by moving from polarization to collaboration. This means focusing on what this is doing to us, not just to me. Yes, you have your needs, feelings and concerns and those are important, but not to the exclusion of the “we”, the relationship. Focus on solutions and actions that attend to what the “us” needs, not just the “me”. This shift will give you a life raft to cling to through these turbulent and uncertain times.
Do things that nurture your brain’s dopamine system, such as:
- Focus on the things you love and appreciate about your partner. Literally stop, take 2 deep breaths and think to yourself “I really love how thoughtful he is with the kids. I really appreciate how she makes my favorite meals…”
- Make sure to touch. Hold hands while watching Netflix, kiss hello and goodbye- even if it’s when you are simply going only as far as the other room for a work meeting, give a foot massage…
- Find new things to do. If you’ve never done crossword puzzles together before, do it. If you’ve never walked that trail before, do it. Even during isolation, there are new things to discover.
- Use your imagination – pretend to go out on a date, talk about your dreams for the future
NMH is normal. How you respond to its intrusion into your psyche, your relationship, will bring you into genuine intimacy or lead you toward disconnection and disillusionment. At a time when so much of our lives are not in our control, take control of this.
In the meantime, stay healthy, safe, and connected!