Distant Elephants: The Issues We Avoid in Marriage
- 2006 23 Dec
Denial can be a good thing. Who wants to come home from work at the end of a wearying day at the office and have to talk about every little problem we have faced during the day? Or, face every possible difficulty that percolates below the surface of the family? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d rather just whistle and pretend the problems aren’t there.
There is, however, a time when denial is not good. There is a time when denial and avoidance are like listening to distant elephants, believing them to be far away, of no immediate threat, when in reality they are actually parading through your living room making a very stinky mess.
What do distant elephants have to do with me and my marriage, you may wonder? It is this: distant elephants are the thorny issues every couple has in their marriage that they put off talking about.
Gene and Shirley seemed like a nice couple, coming to their initial appointment holding hands and smiling warmly. He was a robust man who wore cowboy boots, a bright silver buckle, and a long-sleeve Western shirt. The only thing missing from his ensemble was the hat. His handshake and greeting were generous. His demeanor carried none of the reluctance most men bring to their first counseling session.
Shirley was equally warm and friendly. She was modestly built, with blond hair down to her shoulders and a short skirt. Her red lipstick matched her fingernails.
Gene and Shirley were both on their second marriage. Their intake sheet noted they were having "a few small problems" they wanted to work on. Their first marriages had been lengthy, ending when their spouses left for someone else. Filled with bitterness and distrust, both remained single for many years until meeting at their church’s singles group where it was "love at first sight."
Now in their late forties, Gene and Shirley obviously cared about one another. They approached this session as if nothing was seriously wrong, and I began with that point of view as well — though my opinion soon changed.
"So tell me what has brought you here," I said.
"Well," Shirley began tentatively, smiling at Gene. "We have a wonderful relationship. But I think Gene may have a problem."
"Not as far as I’m concerned," Gene replied, smiling back at her. "I don’t think it’s anything we can’t solve, but Shirley insisted we come here for a session or two. I’ll see a shrink if my sweetheart wants me too."
I sat quietly, waiting for them to pursue the real issue for which they had sought counseling. Both appeared reluctant to share anything. Finally, I broke the silence.
"So, what is this problem that needs our attention?"
"Gene likes to play blackjack at the casino," Shirley blurted. "I think it’s a problem. He doesn’t."
"Once a week or so I like to stop by The Lucky Eagle and play cards," Gene offered firmly. "I keep my spending under control. It’s been a bit more lately but I can cut it back."
"Is that all of it?" Shirley asked.
"It is for me," Gene said tersely. "I told you it is no big deal and I can cut back any time I want. And I will."
"Remember three weeks ago when I called you on your cell at eleven o’clock, and you were still playing cards?"
"When was the last time I spent my paycheck at the tables? Like I said, this is nothing we can’t work out ourselves."
Shirley looked at me and winced. "Does it sound like we might have a problem to you?"
"It certainly sounds like there might be a more serious problem here than either of you has admitted. I think we should look a little closer."
I spent the rest of the session exploring their relationship and "the problem." What I discovered surprised me.
Gene was a full-fledged gambling addict. He not only liked to play blackjack, as he originally admitted, but was also at the race track on many Saturdays. Reluctantly, he admitted that he had spent numerous paychecks on gambling and that it had played a role in the demise of his first marriage.
Gene’s gradual admission took courage on his part. What was more surprising, however, was Shirley’s posture toward him. As soon as he began to admit a greater problem, her concern for his gambling seemed to lessen. She said he had not spent his paycheck on gambling in the past month. She went out of her way to avoid being overly critical of his behavior and defended his ability to control himself. She was clearly enabling his addiction. She allowed the elephants to parade through her home, pretending they were still off in the distance.
As you listen to Shirley and Gene, perhaps you can see elements of their relationship in your marriage. You may be able to see how you have traits, like Shirley, of codependency — which is any attempt to ignore, and thereby reinforce, another’s weaknesses. This, of course, only makes matters worse. Gene needs immediate help, but will not likely volunteer to get it because of denial. Shirley, because of her own denial and codependency, fears forcing the issue. They will undoubtedly have serious problems in the days ahead.
Christ taught much about peace with others, but also taught about breaking out of denial. He said that it was important to "speak the truth in love," (Eph. 4: 15) and that "the truth shall set you free." (John 8:32) His message challenges us to be honest instead of mincing words. We must occasionally look our mates in the eye and say we are unhappy with the way things are. We do not approve of their excessive drinking, spending, work, drug use, deception, and yes, even avoidance of conflict. We cannot sit with the silence any longer. It’s time to talk. Take a moment with your mate and answer these questions:
• What are the topics we avoid?
• Why do you think we avoid them?
• What can we do to make it safer to talk about the tough issues?
• Is there any action we must take to end certain problems in our lives?
Now, quit whistling and make a commitment together that you will practice speaking the truth in love. Even if it hurts. It’s better than finding stinky elephants lounging in your living room.
This article is second in a series on nine mistakes most couples make. Read part 1: A Critical Mistake Most Couples Make.
This article was adapted from Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make (Harvest House Publishers, 2005).
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center, where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
Read more about The Marriage Recover Center on Dr. David Hawkin's website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.