Have you ever had a vivid nightmare where you’re being chased and, trying to get away from what is pursuing you, you try to run faster? How did that work? Given the nature of nightmares, it probably wasn’t very successful.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what too many couples experience in their day-to-day, ultimately making them feel stuck in marriage. Many couples feel like they’re stuck in a bad dream. They’re facing a problem or challenge and repeat the same things over and over to make it stop … with no change.
More of the same never brings change — it doesn’t wake you up from your bad dream.
Famed counselor Paul Watzlawick illustrated the “more of the same” concept in what he called first-order change versus second-order change.
First-order change is continuing to do the same thing even though it shows no modification. This could look like running faster in a bad dream or trying to change a spouse by saying the same thing repeatedly — even though the last 10 conversations didn’t improve anything.
But second-order change “wakes us up.” It occurs when something from the outside breaks in and provokes us to a new state of being, ushering in a new way of relating, understanding, awareness, hope and encouragement.
In a bad dream, the something “outside” that wakes us up could be the baby crying down the hall, the alarm clock going off or the daylight streaming through a window. Even if a bad dream seems vivid and real, that second-order change agent prompts us out of bed. And from that new position comes a new state of awareness, causing even a bad dream to lose its grip on us.
Consider the following four ways to “wake up” and start moving toward healing if you feel stuck in your marriage, like a repeating bad dream.
‘Stillness’ causes you to be stuck in marriage
Consider the psychological study featuring a mother and her young child. The mother and child are strongly connected; she makes good eye contact, brightens her eyes and smiles at the child, who smiles back. She engages her daughter in mock conversations and hugs her — all the things you’d see a loving mother do to bond with her child.
But then, as part of the study, the mother’s face suddenly goes completely still. The need for connection that the child is used to having met is confronted with a frozen mask. Almost immediately, the child knows that something has changed. She does everything she can to cause her mother to wake up and respond by making noises, waving her arm, even crying, before finally turning away.
After only a minute or two of “still face” (the title of this study), the mother again engages in all the connection cues that marked an expressive, loving relationship, and the child warms up. It’s an unforgettable picture of the intense feelings that come when someone we love and need steps away.
In most cases, the couples who feel stuck in marriage keep doing one thing over and over — they “step away” from their spouse when they feel they’re getting nowhere. Have you stopped speaking or no longer make eye contact? Maybe you’ve stopped touching or stopped reaching back when the other person reaches out for days, weeks or even longer. Interestingly, the word in the Bible for life is “movement.” The word for death means “to step away.” So, one way to “wake up” from that bad dream of feeling stuck in marriage is to start moving back toward connection.
‘Movement’ wakes you up from feeling stuck in marriage
“Waking up” from being stuck in marriage begins when you start moving in a different direction: toward your spouse. “Movement” begins when you hold hands while talking about something difficult, when you look them in the eyes again and choose to sit next to them.
Waking up from a bad dream in your marriage also looks like increased self-awareness during conflict. It’s realizing that if you step more than three feet away from your spouse in an argument, you’re going to raise your voice (and not just for “emphasis”). It’s knowing that you’ll negatively impact your spouse if you use a “still face” to punish them or withdraw from them.
By committing to take small steps in positive, engaging ways instead of being emotionally absent, you and your spouse can move toward a fulfilling marriage.
The most powerful force for second-order change can be found inside your heart
As tough as things might be, there’s Someone stronger and able to help get us back on our feet again. He is the source of movement and life! Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Often when we’re feeling stuck in marriage, we also give up on reaching out for help from God or others. Yet the most powerful second-order change agent in the universe is “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27).
Even if you’ve stepped away or someone has stepped away from you, a powerful starting place for reconnection is knowing you’re safe and secure in His love for you. Jesus tells us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).
The reality of God’s love enables us to drop our pride and seek to understand our spouse, to open their car door, help them with a household chore without being asked, send a text saying we’re praying for them or make that call to finally go in to see a counselor. Reengaging with God’s love can help us refuse to settle for the things that keep us stuck in marriage and remember that God is able to bring us life, new hope and new commitment.
Your “bad dream” often has you dancing to the oldies
That “bad dream” you’re stuck in is like a dance that you and your spouse play on repeat. Such a negative dance is often set to music from an “oldies” station. Here’s an example of what I mean:
From the beginning of our marriage, bill-paying day at our house was like a bad dream for my wife, Cindy, and me (or rather my attitude and actions made it seem like a recurring nightmare.) At the end of each month, I’d see the bills on the table and become upset, even if we had the money to pay them. That would irritate Cindy, and around and around we’d go — her telling me I was overreacting and giving those same “stay away from John today” attitudes and actions, while I got angry in return.
Finally, a wise person asked Cindy and me about the “music” behind our monthly bad-dream dance around bill-paying. We were asked the simple question, “What was bill-paying like in your home growing up?”
It was a question that woke me up to an uncomfortable reality. I’d grown up in a single-parent home. My mother was often sick and unable to work. At the end of the month, it was a super stressful time for my mother, as she’d try to figure out which bills to pay and which ones to push back yet again.
What a shock that I’d grown up and repeated the pattern I had seen over and over in my childhood, contributing to Cindy and me feeling stuck in our marriage. I’d become oversensitive and angry when I just looked at a bill. I would hear the music of fear and anxiety start playing from my past and would negatively react in the present moment.
It took lengthy conversations with my wife for me to realize that “bad dream” we were stuck in was set to music from my past. I eventually realized that I had a choice in the present to wake up and move past those memories. I didn’t have to do “more of the same.”
Invite a loving community of friends to help you “stay awake”
Many of us feel stuck in marriage, reliving unhealthy patterns. Repeating unhealthy habits points us toward what behavioral researcher Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” This occurs when trials go on for an extended period of time and instead of trying again when the “bad dream” feels inescapable, we fall down and give up.
If that sounds like your situation, you can bring an “outside” second-order change into your “more-of-the-same” world. This could look like bringing in a group of loving, accepting friends in the form of a supportive small group.
Remember that when Jesus brings us life, it’s meant to be lived out in community and connection with others. When you let other people into the rooms of your life, it’s difficult to stay in the dark or continue to feel stuck in marriage. When you hear about another person’s struggle that’s even more challenging than yours or perhaps is the same as your situation, you no longer feel alone in the dark.
A small group of friends who are wise enough to admit that there are situations they don’t understand and at times don’t know what to say is powerful. Individuals in your life who remind you that they care and, more importantly, God cares, is crucial for the health of your marriage. We need people who help us believe — through their belief in God and us — that we surely will come through a tough time.
A supportive small group can be God’s “second-order change” alarm clock for you — waking you up, showing you the way back toward your loved ones and Him … and bringing life to your marriage. But the “bad dreams” I’ve talked about aren’t ones that are more like horror films. If your “nightmares” involve emotional or physical abuse, call a counselor or seek professional help right away.