The Hallmark of Unhappy Couples

Elaine Sihera

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If we take all the perceptions, expectations and stages in a relationship, the personal evolution and *** compatibility, there is obviously a lot of adjustment to do with our partners from the very first day and for every day afterwards. Come to think of it, we are talking about two complete strangers, with their own history and anxieties, who suddenly like each other, move in together and share an intimate and exclusive environment. It stands to reason that, to make a success of that fledgling partnership, they have to learn to live harmoniously – which is no easy feat at all.

Any relationship is a tug of war between two different people for power and control. The more confident or controlling one partner is, the more he/ she seeks to make the decisions or dictate behaviour and many people become passive in controlling relationships because of their need to belong and feel secure. Often a sense of duty and a desire to seek approval from other parties keep them soome partners rooted in their tracks, even when it is harmful to their existence. When one member of the relationship is more dominant, or doesn’t permit self-expression for the other, the emotional growth of both individuals is likely to be stunted and at least one person will begin to experience frustration, disappointment, fear and anxiety. Eventually, anger becomes the predominant emotion, which could overwhelm the relationship, often leaving the couple with a sense of despair and confusion.

At this point, many partners tend to think about leaving the union because they cannot understand, or work with, these negative dynamics, neither can they tolerate their own ambivalent feelings. The impulse to run away from it all becomes paramount, but the reality is that no one can run away from himself. It is thus essential that each person is aware of exactly what works for them in a relationship. When each participant can face her inner feelings and behaviour patterns, when he can take responsibility for his actions and leave blame behind, the couple has the best opportunity to repair their relationship.

The stereotype of a happy marriage is one of two people who like each other, understand each other well, and settle disputes easily without much rancour. Yet the law of diversity dictates that many stable marriages will not fit such a stereotype at all. Some are volatile (for example, fighting openly but making up passionately at the first opportunity), some won’t argue at all but fume inside, making their body language speak louder than words, while others carefully avoid conflicts by sticking to their corner without budging. They don’t even try to work things out. Instead, they agree to disagree (Gottman 1994).

Criticism of Partner's Behaviour
Perhaps the difference between happy and unhappy couples lies more in the coping mechanism they employ to deal with difficult issues than in the content of the relationship. It seems that, as a basic rule of thumb, truly happy couples have developed various ways of handling the inevitable conflicts, while unhappy couples have been unable to do that and tend to remain stuck in a quicksand of blame.

The hallmark of unhappy couples is criticism of their partner's behaviour, which evolves into attacking his or her personality. This eventually degenerates into expressing abusive contempt. Naturally the attacked partner becomes defensive. He/she might deny all blame, feel indignant, counter-attack or completely withdraw emotionally from the situation. Both the attacks (more often made by women) and the defensive refusal to deal with the issues (usually by men) are major parts of the problem. Men, particularly those in unhappy relationships, do not listen to the verbal messages of their partners for fear of what they might hear, or because of arrogance towards them, neither do they pick up on the various non-verbal cues. The argument itself becomes the focus instead of the resolution. On the other hand, happy couples may argue, even shout at each other, but their main aim is to resolve the difficulty. To them, a resolution is more important than any argument. Unhappy couples merely exchange hostile accusations of blame incessantly, using their arguments to replace the resolution.

David Olson (University of Minnesota), who has studied over 15,000 married couples, said that 50 per cent of married people will never be happy, unless they get unusually good therapy. Only 25 per cent of couples are likely to have “really good marriages”, though the remaining 25 per cent could achieve a good relationship through counselling or self-help. Other researchers agree that about 30 per cent of marriages are ‘empty shells’ – having little love, little talk and little joy. Olson believes the most important skills and attributes required in any relationship are: communication skills, conflict resolution skills, compatible personalities, agreement on values and beliefs and, of course, skills which enable enjoyable sex.

ELAINE SIHERA (Ms Cyprah - and ) is an expert author, public speaker, media contributor and columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University. Elaine is a CONFIDENCE guru and a consultant for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships. Author of: 10 Easy Steps to Growing Older Disgracefully; 10 Easy Steps to Finding Your Ideal Soulmate!; Money, Sex & Compromise and Managing the Diversity Maze, among others (available on as well as her personal website). Also the founder of the British Diversity Awards and the Windrush Men and Women of the Year Achievement Awards. She describes herself as, “Fit, Fabulous, Over-fifty and Ready to Fly!"


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