The Need to be Frustrating in Marriage

Aug 05, 2021

I remember talking with a client about the progress he and his wife were making in their marriage. He was so happy that things were getting better that he began sliding back into an old pattern: ignoring his own wants and feelings whenever they threatened to upset his wife. Like any caring spouse, he was afraid of doing something that would throw them backward, so he did what’s natural for many of us. He started protecting their progress by filtering out the parts of himself that might be irritating. His strategy highlights something that is widely misunderstood in marriage – we need to be frustrating to our spouse sometimes. I hope it’s obvious that I am not giving permission to be intentionally irritating, vindictive, hurtful, or disrespectful toward your spouse. What I am suggesting is that a healthy marriage is between two real people who have their own thoughts, desires, and interpretations.

Lots of us were raised with the idea that a good marriage has little conflict and a perfect marriage should have no conflict at all. On the surface that seems right, but if you are anything like me, you make one of two assumptions when you see perfect marriages portrayed in movies: (1) they are aliens or (2) this is the first few minutes of a horror film and everyone is about to die in terrifying ways. My point is that when we see a “perfect” relationship with no conflict, we don’t buy it. We simply can’t believe they are being real with us. We instinctively feel guarded, anxious, or annoyed. That’s why romantic movies are so romantic – despite the mess, hurt, and reasons to close down, they let each other all the way in anyway.

My client’s desire to keep the good times rolling was noble, but consider his wife’s experience. What do you think she feels when she notices her husband hesitate in a response but won’t tell her why? What does she wonder as she watches him tip-toe around a situation? Would she trust him when he is clearly stifling his anger but then says, “I’m fine”? The more he tries to shelter their progress, the more she feels shut out, alone, anxious, or angry. In a painful irony, his effort to protect their connection by filtering out his “negative side” actually causes the very destruction he feared.

Refusal to be frustrating in a marriage automatically creates two consequences: (1) you must carry your own hurt, anger, or fear alone and (2) your spouse gets cut off from having a whole relationship with you. On the surface, avoiding the conflict seems like the best road, but that road usually ends up in disaster.

This confusion is why my wife and I created a podcast called Solid-ish. We wanted to offer a reprieve from the expectation that marriage is supposed to be perfectly solid all the time. On the podcast, we have honest conversations with couples about the raw reality of their marriage and then we offer some therapeutic insights. We show how the feelings you worry are “wrong” or counterproductive are actually valid and vital to the relationship.

I know how scary this idea can be. I know the real consequences that will come of it. I had to go through this crucible of change myself…and it wasn’t fun. What I can tell you is this: do it anyway. I have seen marriage after marriage (my own included) turn from hopeless to hopeful, from bleeding to healing, from scary to safe, and from empty to satisfying. What was the center point of change for each of these couples? They risked being frustrating.