I’ve spent most of my professional life with couples who feel like the just aren’t moving forward. I suppose that makes sense. Most people don’t seek help when things are going well. They wait until their relationship has come to a grinding halt, frustrations have escalated, tempers have flared and life begins to feel unbearable. The up side to this is that I get to witness a whole lot of frustration along with responses to it. I’ve become something of a frustration expert.
Recently I’ve noticed that what is often labeled, “stuck,” is actually not stuck. It’s something else. Stuck is when you can’t move forward for some reason. It happens when your car is on ice…wheels spin, there’s no traction to be had. You are stuck. For me, it happens when I’m confronted with a math problem. (I’m really bad at math.) I can turn the problem every way I know but I can’t find a route to the solution. I’m stuck. Stuck happens with couples when both of them genuinely want a solution and they’ve tried everything they know to try without creating movement. They are stuck.
Often, however, couples think they are stuck but they really aren’t. They aren’t stuck because, in fact, one or both of them is parked. Being parked and being stuck share some features. The most obvious shared feature is the absence of movement. No one is going anywhere. Nothing is moving. Another shared feature is the presence of frustration. Whether a couple is stuck or parked, they usually feel a lot of frustration. The major difference between being stuck and being parked is that when you are stuck you can’t move forward. When you are parked you won’t move forward.
It can be really difficult to tell the difference between “stuck” and “parked.” It’s the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” I’ve come to believe that we often think of ourselves as stuck when we don’t have the courage to move forward. It’s not that we can’t move. It’s that we lack courage so we put ourselves in park and label what’s happened as “stuck.” When we lack courage we tend to look outside ourselves to find an explanation for our situation. We aren’t usually eager to admit our own contribution to the problem. So, I feel stuck because my partner won’t listen to me. Or, I feel stuck because my boss won’t give me a raise. I can’t move because you won’t do what I need you to do. It’s like the car on ice. It’s stuck because the surface is slick. It’s not the car’s fault. The car is doing everything it can.
If you’re feeling stuck in your marriage, look at the situation closely.…Look at yourself closely. Notice if you are frightened. Ask yourself if your fear has led you to park your life. It might be that you are genuinely stuck. That certainly happens. But, it might be that you’ve chosen to put yourself in park because moving forward is just too scary.
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Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.