Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger, you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again.
~ Oscar Hammerstein II, from South Pacific
In Elizabeth Nelson's guest post on my blog, When Conflict Brings You Together… And Then Drives You Apart, she described how couples are often attracted to one another on the basis of having similar or analogous conflicts in their respective families of origin, the very nature of which eventually becomes an irritant in the marriage and drives the couple apart. A very common occurrence indeed.
This brings up two related questions. First, how to the members of these couples find one another? Second, what is really going on here?
I must confess, when it comes to the first question, I'm not completely sure. In some cases, it is fairly obvious. A couple from families where alcohol is an issue is highly likely to have met one another in a bar. However, I met my wife-to-be in a singles bar, and neither we nor any other member of our families is an alcoholic, so that cannot be the whole answer.
The uncanny process by which mutually conflicted couples find themselves almost seems to be due to some sort of radar. They can be at opposite ends of a room full of hundreds of people and yet gravitate right towards one another in the blink of eye, soon leaving the party together to go off and do some partying of their own. I don't know how they do it. Maybe they have some subtle signaling behavior, sort of like the way a gay person recognizes that another person is also gay. Gaydar, as it is called today.
Now as to the second question.
The answer to this question lies in the concept of enabling, or what family systems therapists refer to as a marital quid pro quo. I use what I consider a more descriptive phrase, mutual role function support.
Most people are familiar with the concept of enabling from Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon. An enabler is someone who helps the alcoholic procure alcohol and negotiate the various problems created by the alcoholic's behavior. This allows or enables the alcoholic to continue in his or her drunkenly ways.
What is usually not said explicitly in 12 Step Groups, but which is intrinsic to the entire "Let Go and Let God" concept of Alanon, is that the alcoholic is also an enabler as well as being one who is enabled. The alcoholic's behavior enables the enabler to continue unremittingly in the role of the enabler. In other words, an enabler needs an alcoholic as much as an alcoholic needs an enabler. Each one has covertly contracted (the quid pro quo) with the other to behave in ways that allow them both to continue in their non-productive and misery-producing behavior.
But why? Surely the couple is unhappy being stuck in this miserable dance. If they deny it, I would be seriously skeptical.
This sort of "enabling" is not limited to families in which alcoholism is an issue, but occurs in all families that become dysfunctional due to unacknowledged but mutual ambivalence over the same exact issues (the psychoanalysts would say they both have the same intrapsychic conflict, while the behaviorists would say that they both share the same approach/avoidance conflict).
I think the answer to the why question lies in the concept of dysfunctional family roles, some of which I pointed out in my posts, Dysfunctional Family Roles, Part I and Part II. Each member of the couple has developed the problematic role they are playing in response to the perceived needs of each's own family of origin. The roles are noxious, or what analysts call ego dystonic, so the people playing them enlist other people to give them much needed assistance in carrying out their distasteful "duties."
Interestingly, when one of the members of this sort of couple tries to back out of their enabling behavior, the other member of the couple feels betrayed. They feel this way even though they may have been nagging the other person incessantly to drop the role they themselves had previously enabled.
A good example of this occurred in the case of a woman who, when she married her fiance, agreed to many things about which she was covertly unhappy. She agreed to live in a house in the same neighborhood as his parents, use furniture donated to the couple by his family, and join his family's church rather than one of her own denomination. She also dressed in a somewhat frumpy manner, because he seemed somewhat insecure about having an attractive wife, which she definitely would have been had she not dressed that way.
When she complained and even threatened divorce, her husband would talk on an on about how the couple's children would be adversely affected were they to get a divorce and start dating other people. That, not surprisingly, was something the woman had heard frequently and quite vocally from her own mother.
Well, finally she decided to get a divorce anyway because she could not take this any longer. For a while, the husband pouted, and tried hard to make her feel guilty about how the divorce was negatively impacting the children.
Within a couple of months, however, he sold their house and the parents' furniture, changed churches, and started dating another woman who dressed quite attractively. He completely stopped guilt tripping the woman about the children and the divorce. In fact, he openly flaunted his new relationship in front of the kids when they were with him!
Despite the fact that her ex was no longer driving her crazy and had knocked off the guilt trips she had loudly complained about, she felt completely betrayed. Why?
Simple. Because she had been making sacrifices for him that she thought he really wanted, and as it turned out, he did not really want them at all. The sacrifices were all for naught.