There was a point in my career when any couple who wanted to get married in five local churches had to pass through my office for three sessions on the way to the altar. In those three sessions, I was supposed to make sure they were as ready as possible to be married.
Marriage is an important — many argue the most important — relationship in adult life. People pledge to spend the rest of their lives together “till death do us part.” Yet nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce. And each following attempt to find the “right person” has a declining rate of success.
A very important relationship of adulthood and it has close to a coin-toss of a chance of survival. Why?
Let’s go back to those couples coming into my office. Interestingly, not a single couple thought they would fall to the fail side of that coin toss. Every couple thought they had already beat the odds before they even said, “I do.”
There was one simple reason for this: they believed they possessed the love, the attraction, and the connection that would weather life. They thought they had discovered “true love,” while others had obviously failed in their quest.
And they were not wrong. They did have love. They did have connection. They were attracted to each other. But having spent 18 years as a therapist at that one location, I knew that many of those same marriages did not survive. Try as I might, I was not able to prepare them for a lifetime journey in three simple sessions. It broke my heart to watch, and I know their hearts were broken, too.
It happened to “Linda,” who told me that she knew she had found her soulmate — and then it fell apart. She said, “We were so in love, so in sync. I thought we would grow old together, support each other, and stay in love. I was wrong.”
It happened to “John,” too, who told me, “It was so good in the beginning! I knew we were going to be okay, to make it through. I didn’t think there was anything that could get in the way. We would have great careers, great kids, a great life, and love would conquer all. I was wrong.”
As I noted earlier, I never met a couple who intended on heartbreak and divorce. They never intended to be struggling and disconnected. There was no malice, no intent.
And yet… that is the outcome nearly half the time.
What happened? And more importantly, can it be prevented? Can it be fixed?
If couples get married, deeply in love and connected, and there is no malice, there has to be some reason why marriages find themselves in such deep trouble and pain that they decide to end it, thinking divorce is the only solution to stop the hurt.
To be clear, divorce is not without hurt and pain. In fact, a recent study on mortality risk factors found that a history of divorce was the second highest mortality risk factor — only behind smoking in risk factoring for mortality.
The damage to the relationship starts benignly enough… in a way that many couples fall prey. In fact, to some degree, nearly all marriages fall into this trap, unknowingly and accidentally. Not half, but nearly all. It is not based in maliciousness or a lack of love.
It is far more subtle and accidental.
I call it the Pause Button Marriage. Couples hit Pause on their own relationship, to attend to other things. They reason that they will place their relationship “on hold,” take care of other things, then get back to their marriage down the road… when things “get back to normal.” Except that those reasons for pausing are part of normal. The reasons people hit pause is part of life. It’s not a temporary moment, a short abnormal pattern. It is two people living their normal adult lives. It just seems to be a disruption to the flow of marriage. Instead, it is just the flow of life.
Which causes a problem for the marriage.
People don’t know that marriages cannot be paused. They are either progressing or declining. They are either growing or receding. They can’t be placed in suspended animation. If you hit pause, your marriage recedes and declines for a specific reason.
The lifeblood of a relationship is connection. Feeling connected is what keeps us close. A relationship grows with more connection. When that lifeblood of connection is circulating, your relationship is nourished. But a relationship starves when connection is restricted.
Let’s stick with that circulation idea for a minute. Let’s say you wrap a belt around your arm and tighten it. If you cut down circulation to your hand, it will lose strength. The muscles don’t get the oxygen they need to operate. So, they are working in a weakened state. If you cut off circulation, your hand will go to sleep. Think about when you sleep on your arm wrong and you wake up with a numb, non-working hand. But since you don’t keep it closed off for long, it tingles as it comes back to life. Uncomfortable, but not horrible.
But put a tourniquet on your arm and keep it there. You are pausing the blood circulating to the hand. First, the hand goes numb. Then the hand starts to die, choked off from the lifeblood it needs. Restore circulation soon enough, and you may save the hand. But wait too long, and nothing can be done to save it. The only difference between hurting and dying is a matter of time and restriction. The longer the time and the tighter the restriction, the more the hand is at risk.
Many people treat their marriage more like I treat my laptop.
If I am not using it, I shut the lid of the laptop. The computer suspends activity, keeping things just as they were (if all works right) until I need the computer again. Then, I open the lid and jump right back to where I was (less just a little battery life).
In other words, many people treat their marriage as something they can attend to when they want to and have time, and then suspend it when busy. That is what the Pause Button Marriage is about.
Years ago, I was a young therapist and not married long. An older couple came into my office. Their kids had all left for their own lives, their careers were successful, and their lives had been full of activity. One day, sitting on the back deck with glasses of wine in hand, they looked at each other and both had the same thought, “Who are you?” Both had all along thought they would do their thing and come back to the marriage when life had been tended to. They hit the Pause Button.
But there they sat, on their back porch, staring out at all they had accomplished. With wine glasses in hand, they realized they had little to nothing to say to each other (other than updating each other on their schedules and commenting on the kids). Neither knew what the other really was thinking or believing. They were intimate strangers. Lost to each other, only connected by their intermingled life.
At that time, I had a “That was easy” button on my desk from an office supply store’s advertising campaign. I looked at them, pointed at the button, and said, “I think you hit the pause button.”
But when they were ready to un-pause, they realized they didn’t know each other (and didn’t know if they even liked each other). They were not just paused. Their relationship was in a coma. Right then, they were deciding whether or not they should just “pull the plug,” or work to resuscitate their dying marriage.
Hitting pause seemed like the right thing to do. It started when the kids came along and careers needed care. They had dreams of a lifestyle (far more than dreams of a life). The lifestyle required resources and attention. So, they dove headlong into their life-path. They parented with excellence. They built amazing careers. And their lifestyle was impressive, with lots of stuff — lots of toys and travel, friends and fun.
Not much connection, though.
They stayed busy enough to not notice, though. And the more they became strangers, the more they distracted themselves. But the more distracted they were, the more they detached.
Until that moment on their deck, when each looked into the eyes of an intimate stranger… and felt nothing.
Over the years, couple after couple, comprised of very nice and successful people, have had that same experience. They stared into their spouse’s eyes one day, when life slowed down (and sometimes while life was flying by) and saw a stranger.
Which leads to a problem. Since we need that connection (it is wired into the human DNA), when it is threatened, we react with alarm and threat. And sometimes, because of that sense of alarm and threat, the spouse is seen as enemy. The spouse is at least a stranger, and sometimes the enemy. Then, the team of a marriage begins to be a relationship of opposition. The person with whom we should pull together is the person we push against. Which leads to deeper pain and hurt, blame and alienation.
Some couples realize their marriage has gone numb, and they work to restore the connection circulation. Those couples might seek out a book, some coaching or counseling, maybe a seminar or workshop. For any of those “treatments,” the most important factor for success is the intentionality of restoring the lost connection. Just becoming focused on each other and the marriage is often enough to restore the connection circulation and bring life back to the relationship. It is CPR for the relationship, if not a little defibrillating shock. The heart is restored and circulation resumes. Connection returns.
But for other couples, the situation is more dire.
The symptoms were missed or ignored. The pain was buried or blamed. And the marriage slipped into a life-threatening coma. It takes far more intensive care and effort to pull the relationship back from the edge and back to life.
Some don’t realize it until the relationship is flat-lined. They simply fall apart and just decide to go their separate ways (which is actually far more difficult, practically and emotionally, than either think it will be — as it turns out, there are still lots of knots of connection holding them together).
Many times, the situation feels far more dire than it needs to be. The sense of alarm and threat, the feeling of alienation and disconnection, looks like a dead relationship. With a bit of care and concern, the connection can be re-established. Since connection is such a deep need, we have a deep desire to reconnect and pull close. It often pulls us beyond the hurt feelings aimed at the spouse, because of that deep wiring to be connected.
But how do you heal the wounds? Connection does that. The real wound is the hurt of disconnection. And reconnecting restores the circulation to the relationship. Many times, people point to the symptoms of the disconnection — the hurt, the anger, the reactions, the blaming, the arguing, and struggling — and see it as deep damage. But when the underlying issue of disconnection is resolved, the symptoms dissipate.
If you go to the doctor with a fever and the doctor just treats the fever, it may temporarily go down. Yet the underlying infection that is driving the fever is still rampant. Until that infection — the cause of the symptom — is addressed or goes away, the only thing you have is one less symptom (at best). Not a cure. Remember that the fever is really the body’s attempt to deal with the infection.
Many times, couples (and therapists, too) focus on symptoms of disconnection. They try to eliminate the symptoms, only to find that others emerge… and the disconnection actually deepens in the process.
Is life just limited, then, to your marriage?
To be clear, couples do need to tend to other parts of life. Children and career are important, toy and travel are enjoyable. The problem is asset allocation. You only have so much time and energy. Often, time and energy are pulled from the marriage. The marriage does not get the same attention it did earlier. And sometimes, it can’t. Immediate priorities shift. There may be a crisis or a demand that requires more focus at that moment.
The short-term priority may be about a pressing matter. The real question, though, is the long-term priority for the couple.
In research, married couples do list their marriage as a top priority in their stated priorities. It is their explicit and stated priority that has their marriage at the top. But many times, their implicit, lived out priorities show otherwise. One study years ago showed that couples, on average, spend less than seven minutes per day talking with each other about things other than scheduling, kids, household, and job reporting. In other words, they default to day-to-day matters, rather than connecting matters.
My observation is that, many times, even in these short seven minutes, there is distraction and assumption that makes even that exchange less connecting and fulfilling than it could and should be. So even the short times given to connection are not as nurturing as they could be.
And this starves the typical couple for connection. Which starves the marriage of connection. And slowly, the couple disconnects. The relationship loses strength.
Until one day, you are staring into the eyes of an intimate stranger.
This article may be descriptive or preventative. If you have avoided hitting pause, good for you! Stay on-track and stay connected. If you hit pause, time to un-pause. Time to tend to your relationship.
The first step to unpausing has already happened. It started when you began reading this article. If you are not aware of an issue, there can be no resolution. First, you must become aware of the condition and the risk. Then, you can begin resolving the issue. So, let’s take the next step and begin to un-pause the relationship. Let me offer a few thoughts and suggestions.
Over the years, I’ve learned some lessons from these couples.
1. People don’t intentionally hit the Pause Button. They don’t really even know they did it, except in hindsight. Once they marry, they tend to think that the marital relationship will take care of itself. After all, you are married! And usually, that means you are in the same home together, seeing each other on a daily basis. That leaves room to take care of all the other areas of life. Except marital relationships are not self-maintaining. They need time and attention.
2. The damage is cumulative. It doesn’t happen all at once. It is more of a slow choking off of connection. At first, neither person is likely to notice it. After all, usually, both people are busy tackling the rest of life. They are distracted by the damage. And with enough little bumps of connection over time (vacations, date night, anniversaries and celebrations), each gets renewed expectations of coming connection. But slowly, the connection habits become disconnection habits. You lose touch with each other and forget your connected selves. And the pain begins to grow.
3. While both people are involved in the disconnection, one person is the canary in the mine. While both are losing the connection, one person often notices it, feels it more deeply, and reacts to it more readily. It is often a surprise to the other — who just assumed “we will get back to us one day.” The one who feels it first may ask that they get help. But it may also be a request for “space,” or separation, or even divorce.
4. The Pause Button Marriage also makes a marriage more vulnerable to infidelity. The human need for connection is deep… all the way to our DNA. and our wiring. We are relational creatures. And when we don’t find connection in one place, we begin to look for it in other places. Sometimes, spouses through themselves into parenting or friend groups. But sometimes, it is into the arms of another person. The lack of connection does not cause the infidelity. It raises the risk. It makes the marriage more vulnerable to outside sources. At that point, both people are responsible for setting boundaries to protect the marriage. Without that protection, and without connection, the stage is set for infidelity.
5. While repair takes a great deal of energy, staying connected is much easier. In this case, an ounce of prevention is easier than a ton of cure. Maintaining connection maintains the momentum of connection. But the inertia of disconnection is tough, especially when one or both feel so disconnected, there is little desire to reconnect. Staying connected is a matter of building connection habits, while avoiding disconnection habits. The hurt from disconnection, though, means that recovery is not just changing habits, but healing the hurt.
6. Connecting isn’t as hard as it feels. You are just out of the habit! If you have been on pause for a while, it might feel awkward. It is kind of like meeting a friend from long ago. There is so much you don’t know, so much ground to cover. So, it feels strange and odd. Like something is “off.” But once you get started, the connection ball starts rolling. You do have to break the inertia, take a risk, and start. Otherwise, you just stay stuck, telling yourself that this must just be the wrong person, that you are no longer in love, and nothing can be done. The fact is, you don’t know what can be done until you do it.
7. A Pause Button Marriage does not mean a marriage is doomed. The sooner the connection is restored, the better. If you find your marriage paused, work on un-pausing it. Work on restoring the connection. Realizing the issue is the first step. Recognizing the solution is the second step. Restore the connection. Repair the damage.
Is your marriage on pause?
Do you see the places you hit pause? If you and your spouse hit pause, you cannot go back and un-do it. But you can begin a re-do. You can start working on restoring the connection. You can focus on the priorities of the relationship. You can begin to repair the hurt, taking responsibility for your side of the pause. Don’t spend the time in regret when you can spend the time in repair.
Habits of disconnection are like all habits. When you first take action to break them, it will feel awkward. But that is true with any change you make in life. The fact that it feels awkward does not mean the action is wrong. It is just not a habit yet. If you decide to change any habit, those first awkward attempts can make you feel like something is wrong, that your actions are wrong.
Given time and attention, habits of connection will replace the habits of disconnection. New habits are always pushing against old inertia. The only way we grow and change is by pushing against the awkward until it is normal. Especially when we are consciously choosing better habits, rather than falling into less healthy habits.
If you hit the Pause Button on your marriage, it is time to un-pause.
About the author: Lee Baucom, Ph.D., is a relationship coach. He is the host of the Save The Marriage Podcast, and the creator of the Save The Marriage System. His System has been used by over 90,000 people around the world to save and transform their marriage, even when only one person wants to save their marriage. He is also the author of a number of books on healing relationships and thriving in life.