Distorted thinking (we should never have conflict; my spouse should meet all my needs) can lay "ruts" in your mind.
As pioneers headed West in their wagons, they tended to follow the same trails as those who had gone before them. Eventually, the soil became compressed and ruts appeared. These ruts wore so deep that they still exist today.1 In northeastern Oregon, you can actually walk out behind a museum and see the literal Oregon Trail.
Add a little mud to such deep ruts, and you can well imagine a covered wagon getting its wheels stuck, so immobilized that even a team of oxen or horses couldn't pull it out. We can guess it took a little shovel work – and a lot of manhandling – to get back on the trail again.
Or if you've ever gotten stuck in deep snow, spinning your wheels, needing a push or some traction – you know how difficult it can be to pull out.
Marriage ruts can be the same. When you and your spouse disagree . . . or get hurt . . . or become frustrated . . . or reach an impasse . . . the easiest thing to do is what you have always done! Human nature tends to follow the same patterns of interactions and reactions over and over again – especially when we're under stress.
Like the early pioneers, we might know we're stuck, but not know what to do about it. Eventually, distorted thinking, attitudes, and behavior become a normal part of the journey together.
And we ride the ruts into the sunset.
Sometimes I realize I'm doing the same hurtful, nonproductive things over and over, and it isn't helping a thing! I can hear myself make the same useless comments I made last time – and get no more traction with them than I did then!
You want an example? Easy.
For many years in our marriage every time my dear wife disagreed with me, I got defensive. Instead of trying to understand her point of view, I reacted. Maybe blew up.
That, my friend, is a rut. And it got deeper every time I spun my wheels in it.
Rhonda gets into ruts as well. She manages our finances and does a wonderful job. But sometimes when money is tight, she tries to shield me by fixing the problem on her own. When I probe to find out what's wrong, she doesn't want to talk about it. I pressure her and she becomes more frustrated. I get defensive, she gets defensive, and then we argue, criticize, and withdraw. We have learned new ways to handle things, but we resort back to the past.
Same lousy ruts, same nonresults.
Our friends Mike and Ellen are also familiar with marriage ruts. One night over coffee, Ellen mentioned an ongoing pattern that was wreaking havoc in their marriage.
Ellen stays home with the kids, and by the time Mike arrives in the evening, she is exhausted. She wants him to jump into the parenting ring and do a little fighting. Because Mike works only one mile away, he has had little time to unwind. As a result, he's on edge when he walks through the door. When Ellen unloads on Mike everything the kids have done wrong during the day, he feels even more aggravated. As Ellen vents her frustrations, Mike sees her lips moving, but he doesn't hear a word. All he hears is nagging. Ellen picks up on Mike's frustration and assumes that he doesn't care. The ruts in their marriage road have been established. Ellen gets angry and doesn't talk to Mike, and Mike withdraws into his study and spends the evening on the computer. Sadly, the kids play alone.
After hearing their story, Rhonda and I could relate. We fell into a similar rut earlier in our marriage. We finally recognized the unhealthy pattern we had gotten into and implemented some changes that worked for us. We offered what worked for us to Mike and Ellen. We suggested that Ellen give Mike at least fifteen minutes after he arrives home for time to unwind. We also encouraged Ellen to break her complaints into smaller chunks. Most people cannot handle a truckload of bad news all at once.
Ellen agreed. Mike also agreed to give Ellen some time to unwind after his arrival by taking the kids to the park.
We also helped Mike and Ellen take a look at their negative attitudes, such as: "He doesn't understand"; "He doesn't care what I go through"; "She always acts this way"; and "She doesn't respect me anymore."
Over the next weeks, Ellen and Mike joined forces to move out of the old ruts they'd created, and they developed new, healthier ways of relating.