There are many, many ways to become stuck in a negative marriage cycle, and one of the most common is the magnification of a partner’s personality trait. Once one partner becomes fixated by a habit or trait of the other partner, especially if it is considered negative, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Married couples seem to have many complaints in common:
- A husband who is dominant or overbearing. He always gets his way in the marriage
- A wife who is overly dependent upon her husband. She needs constant emotional support, which he may not be willing or able to give
- One partner who has no desire for sex
- One partner who has an addictive personality or is highly dependent on alcohol, sex, etc.
As a therapist, I look for traits so I can understand how they affect the relationship. I frequently find that over time, couples increasingly see their partner as one dimensional – they fail to recognize their spouse as a fully rounded individual. They begin to feel as though they are trapped in quicksand with no hope of getting out, because they have narrowed their expectations of the relationship.
Samantha perceives her husband to be dominant and bossy. Jake perceives Samantha’s requests as complaints. He is very irritated by Samantha’s comparison of him to his mother, who is a chronic complainer. When I asked if they each display these traits all the time, without hesitation they both said, “Yes”.
When asked if there were moments during the day that Jake was not dominating and Samantha was not complaining, they found it difficult to identify their spouse’s different behaviors. After thinking hard about Jake’s behavior the previous day, Samantha said, “I can’t think of any moment.” Jake identified a time period when Samantha was not whining. “When she was asleep. That’s the only time she doesn’t ask for something.”
If this couple isn’t aware that their partner has behaviors different than the ones they perceive, this relationship is doomed to fail. Talking about it during therapy won’t solve the problem. They need to believe that their partner has another side to his or her personality, a side that values, loves and trusts them. And the way to develop this belief is through experience.
Jake and Samantha need to see their partner’s personality traits as a “range of possibilities between extremes”, instead of an “extreme, generalized, stable trait”. To help couples deal with this challenge and begin to see their partners in a new way, Dr. John Verhulst developed the Smooth-Rough Scale.
The Smooth-Rough Scale is an exercise that any couple can do at home. It involves creating two columns on a piece of paper, with one column labeled “SMOOTH” and the other column labeled “ROUGH”. During the course of a typical day, each partner makes notes about the other’s behavior, and using a 10-point scale, rates each action. For example, let’s say that Jake makes coffee for himself and Samantha. Samantha may give that a “6” rating in the Smooth column, because it was a nice thing for Jake to do and she did not have to make any effort. Later that morning Jake sends her a quick text message to ask how her day is going. Again, she would give that a rating in the Smooth column, because it demonstrates his caring and emotional support. If they have a conflict that evening, Samantha would note that in the Rough column, and give it a rating. The most important aspect of this exercise is to write down how the other partner behaved during these moments, and the feeling that resulted. When Jake texted Samantha, she could note that it made her feel loved that Jake cared about her day. When they got into an argument, she could note that she felt devalued because he called her a name.
This exercise has two specific goals:
- To help each partner realize that they have narrowed their perceptions, and that there is more to the other person than simply one or two personality traits; and
- To help people set boundaries by identifying what makes them feel good and what makes them feel hurt or isolated.
Each partner should perform this exercise separately, and only share if both feel comfortable. It doesn’t take long before each realizes that the other has both smooth and rough moments, and that each person feels emotions at varying degrees. What might seem like a minor incident to Jake could be very hurtful for Samantha. When spouses are able to acknowledge these differences, that is when a couple can make real progress in addressing the problems in their relationship.
I will leave you with a caution: If you don’t feel that you are ready to share your ratings with your partner, trust your instinct and don’t do it. In this situation, I would encourage you to seek help from a professional. With the guidance of a therapist, you can work together to see your partner’s personality through a different lens. You can uncover your own triggers for the communication, intimacy and connection that you desire. In fact, this exercise can also be applied towards improving intimacy in your relationship by rating the most intimate and sexually stimulating experiences versus the things that turn you off. Again, this exercise should be undertaken with the guidance of an experienced therapist.