I get asked all the time if I always believe bad marriages can be fixed. While marriage counseling is not for miracle workers, I am usually optimistic about the outcome for couples if both people really want to try.
I am also very realistic: Sometimes it just doesn't work out no matter how hard you try.
But if there is one thing that makes my skin crawl more than anything it's when someone talks about a "bad" marriage.
Instead, I'd like to think that marriage is a lot like jazz.
"There's no such thing as a wrong note," said jazz pianist Art Tatum. "It all depends on how you resolve it." Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis had a similar philosophy. "It's not the note you play that's the wrong note," he said. "It's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong."
I do realize that, like jazz, this philosophy is exasperating for some people.
A friend of mine wondered, "Was there any time it made sense to say someone has a bad marriage?"
I fired back with wondering if he would ask his heart surgeon, before surgery, if he thought there are some hearts that just aren't worth the effort of saving?
Like your heart surgeon, I imagine you would want your marriage counselor to tell you that he has never met a marriage that wasn't worth believing in.
So now that you know where I stand on this matter, I don't mind sharing some of the things you might hear someone say as "proof" that they have a bad marriage.
We have choices. You can either see this list like a ten car pile-up, or the altered scale of a sizzling jazz score.
10 Signs You Have a Bad Marriage
10) You've thought to yourself "I wish my wife were in a bad car accident and died."
9) Your husband slept with your best friend. Now that he's an emotional basket-case, you have the inexplicable urge to comfort him.
8) The only time you can bring yourself to initiate sex with your husband is after book club night, when you're totally intoxicated and have spent the night flirting with your new neighbor
7) Your wife spends all of your money and complains, (to your teenage kids), that you're not a hard worker
6) Your husband enjoys the sport of putting you down about your weight--in front of his friends
5) You are so good at stonewalling your spouse that you secretly want her to try to fight with you, just so you can feel good when you shout her down to tears
4) You try to pick a fight with your marriage counselor because you'd rather not pay someone thousands of dollars just to confirm that you are headed for divorce
3) On Thanksgiving day right before the guests arrive, you privately tell your mother-in-law that your wife thinks she was a bad mother for not leaving her alcoholic husband
2) When your husband got colon cancer and almost died, you told him it was his fault for eating like a slob and drinking so much
1) You lied to your wife about cheating on her and then lied to your lover about lying to your wife about cheating on her
Which one of these is the most outrageous to you?
For me, the whole list drives me crazy because I know that underneath an obviously negative behavior is a pattern of untreated hurt. When we give steady, compassionate treatment to our emotional injuries the result is a healthier relationship. We become a better person and see the good in others.
I wrote about this in my post Ten Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Relationship.
Therefore, I am pretty slow to use the label "bad marriage," when I know that shades of gray are anything but dull and monochrome when it comes to healing emotional hurt.
Are there any scenarios in my list that you think are are unforgivable and worthy of the "bad marriage" label? If so, start a post to me at in the comments section below or on my facebook page.
What's the Problem with Saying You Have a Bad Marriage?
Now that we have our "bad marriage" list going, I want to start a conversation about whether you think it's a problem to label the badness in your own marriage. Do you agree with the jazz analogy that there's no such thing as a bad note? Does it just depend on what note you play next?
Perhaps the question is different if we talk about labeling kids. Do you ever hear a parent describe someone's kid as "bad?" Were you ever labeled and tracked as an underachiever?
There is a great book called No Such Thing as a Bad Kid!: Understanding and Responding to the Challenging Behavior of Troubled Children and Youth, by Charles Appelstein.
The point is that bad behavior in children is not a sign of the parent's or the child's personal failure. But when we react with negativity and defensiveness--as if we have failed--we make it harder for kids to succeed. No learning takes place when we are over-stressed.
Everyone wants a chance to reset and try again when we're ready. Kids that are given the chance to learn from mistakes, and are not judged by them, grow up become more successful.
Marriages work the same way.
Sometimes we reach our limit and can't contain our anger and frustration. How do you manage your emotions as a parent or as a spouse when you are ready to blow up and give up?
"Good" vs "Bad" Thinking Is All Around Us
I get why we call things "bad" or "good." When I'm at a Red Sox game and they are playing the Yankees, I might boo Derek Jeter (even though I think he's one of the best players ever).
I even understand that some relationships become so broken that they can't survive without removing so much scar tissue that it no longer resembles the original version. Sometimes the wedding rings have to come off in order to recover and heal.
In therapy we consider differentiation, the setting of boundaries, to be a vital part of being able to have healthy connection. But if you let your negativity do the boundary setting for you, you'll be in for a surprise when the boundaries aren't respected. Negativity paints a target on us that says "I can be pushed." It takes confidence that comes from embracing the power of our own vulnerability, not our fear or anger, to set boundaries that repel attacks.
Therefore I don't use negative labels lightly, with myself or others, as if there is no harm to me by indulging in unrestricted judgment. Like a Krispy Kreme donut that can't be resisted, sometimes it just feels good to have it. But I don't make the mistake of saying that it's good for me to do it.
There is always a boomerang effect.
Like junk foot high in saturated fat, it seems like our culture is saturated with black and white, all or nothing thinking, as if the only options are the polarities of good or bad. Here are the most commonly searched for terms related to good verses bad on Google:
We Have a Choice: To Say You Have a Bad Marriage Takes Away Choices
Here's the thing. We have a choice in how we react, how we label, and what story we choose to tell about ourselves, about the people that hurt us, and about our marriage.
It takes courage to not label your marriage as all good or all bad and see it in shades of gray, as a work in progress (even if progress is lying dormant under a three-mile deep pile of rubble, at the moment).
You can go ahead and say you have a bad marriage if you want to. But I say words matter. Labels matter.
To get out of the habit of labeling things black and white, I have to let my thinking cortex integrate with and guide my raw emotions. I tend to rely a lot on my training in mindfulness and meditation to try calm my primitive emotions. It doesn't always work, as evidenced clearly by this story I shared on the Love Good Facebook Page (posted 3/16/13).
We evolve and thrive when we learn how to overcome our fear and embrace new experiences in life and in love.
Maybe what we need to do is put our own top-ten list of bad-marriage events into a matrimonial compost pile.
Take out the trash in your marriage. Make a compost pile for negativity. Reduce, recycle, reuse.
Reduce...your "bad marriage" attitude
Recycle...inaccurate beliefs about your partner and replace with new ones
Reuse...previously discarded caring behaviors you have stopped doing
Key Questions...Please comment!!
- Are there any scenarios in my "bad marriage" list that you think are are unforgivable and worthy of the "bad marriage" label with no caveats?
Is it a problem to label the badness in your own marriage. Do you agree with the jazz analogy to marriage--that there's no such thing as a bad note? Dos it just depend on what note you play next?
What do you think about labeling kids as bad? Were you ever labeled and tracked as a "bad kid" or an underachiever?
How do you manage your frustration and negativity in your marriage or as a parent?
I love your tweets...thank you!