Risk Factors from External Circumstances

Additional Information for Chapter 11, pages 182-185

Here we consider risk factors (or red flags) that contrast with mismatches or personal-defect red flags.  These are typically situational issues, which are not intrinsic to either partner.  Three of these issues are discussed in some detail in The Compatibility Code: one or both partners coming from a broken home, long-distance relationships, and unhappy extended family. This represents only three of an almost infinite number of situational concerns that may influence the quality or the success of a relationship.

In this prescript we blur the lines a little between pre-marital and post-marital issues.  The reason is that in pre-marriage you are looking at factors that may influence the quality of your future marriage.  Take the three issues described in some detail in The Compatibility Code (and mentioned in the first paragraph, above).  Coming from a broken home, unhappy extended family, or a long-distance relationship certainly place stress on a committed dating relationship, but the severity of challenge is much greater in the context of a marriage.  Some of the issues addressed below may have little impact on a dating relationship but provide serious challenges to a marriage.  For instance, the decision to move to a new location or the choice to make a foolish purchase that places you in financial difficulty will have greater impact when your lives are tied in the mutual influence of a marriage than while you are single.

The question that comes to many is, “Why does something that is external, something that comes from outside, something that is the fault of neither partner cause difficulty between them?”  A couple of answers:

First, sometimes the external circumstance IS the fault of one of the partners.  For instance, shop-till-you-drop Shelly goes on a shopping spree causing severe financial challenges for the couple. This has created an external circumstance (crushing debt) that challenges them both, but the cause of the difficulty is easy to identify.  This can result in the predictable rift because blame, recrimination and fault-finding may become part of the divisive conflict that follows.

Second, the majority of external circumstances are not caused by either of the partners-neither is to blame-and yet the pressures of this difficulty cause difficulty between the partners.  The reason psychologists have discovered is due to a phenomenon called the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis

It may seem unusual that an external stressor might harm the quality of a relationship.  It might even seem that external stressors might work to cement or solidify a romance or a marriage.  Sometimes they do, but usually not.  John Dollard and Neal Miller, way back in the 1930s proposed and tested the frustration-aggression hypothesis.  This hypothesis suggests (and many studies support) the contention that when people are frustrated, regardless of the source of frustration, they tend to be more aggressive.

How does this relate to dating and marriage?  Most challenges from external circumstances are not caused by and are not the fault of either partner.  And yet, the result is often conflict between partners. For instance, one of the greatest causes of divorce in North America is financial pressure.  Now, occasionally financial pressures can be blamed on one of the partners-as described a few paragraphs earlier.  But studies have controlled for that, and, when financial pressures are not either partners’ fault, and both partners acknowledge that neither is to blame, the result is the same: An increased likelihood of conflict between partners often leading to dissolution of the relationship. In short, when stressors are high whether they are financial or another issue the likelihood of divisive conflict between partners increases.

Therefore it is wise to consider what external challenges might provide challenges to the relationship while you are still in the dating phase.  If you have many moderate external challenges or severe external challenges you put the relationship increasingly at risk.  The first year of marriage has enough difficulties without being forced to weather additional ones.

So, let’s make an effort to understand some of the types of challenges a marriage might face.

Types of external-circumstance red flags

One type of dichotomy is as follows:

1.  Uncontrollable events
2. Events based on mutual choice of partners
3.  Global or On-going conditions (over which you have little or no control)

1. Uncontrollable events

The first one is easy.  Events over which you have no control might include a fire or natural disaster destroying your home, an economic downturn resulting in loss of your job, being the victim of a violent crime, experiencing a life-altering injury, or others.  While there may be some things you can do to minimize risk, even the most obsessively careful will be victim to these things at times.

The reality is that there’s not a lot you can do that’s proactive to protect against the uncontrollable events. Do such things place a strain on the relationship?  Of course!  The only safeguard is that you have developed a strong enough relationship prior to the event to weather the challenge.

2. Events based on mutual choice of partners

As described earlier, sometimes choices that lead to difficulty are one partner’s responsibility leading to destructive blame and recrimination.  However, we leave this possibility and consider only mutual choices-choices where blame cannot be assigned. The choices may be for good things and for good reasons.  Some examples:

  • Choice to have a child
  • Choice to have a second child
  • Choice to adopt a child
  • Choice to purchase a pet (adding 10 to 20 years of daily responsibility and often a substantial financial burden)
  • Choice to move to a new location
  • Choice to change jobs
  • Choice to purchase anything that requires daily, weekly, or monthly maintenance
  • Choice to make an unwise investment
  • Choice to purchase a house
  • Choice to renovate your home
  • Choice to marry someone with existing children (blended family)
  • Choice to incur house, auto, or credit card debt that eventually leaves you bankrupt
  • Choice to start your own business

As the old saying goes, “we have freedom to choose but we do not have freedom from the consequences of our choices.”  Many of the choices listed are good things, but even good things add complexity to life and the consequent stress.  Let’s use an off-the-wall example to illustrate:

My brother, John David (JD), used to sell cars for a living.  He would take customers to the auto auction. They would select an auto of interest, and JD, an independent dealer, would purchase the car and charge a set percentage of mark-up for his profit.  He made a good living selling cars until he began to notice a creeping difficulty. About one out of every ten customers would come back with some complaint-wanting a refund, a repair, or some adjustment.  Now if you are GM or Chrysler you include complaints, repairs, returns, into your overall budget and hire people to deal with the complainers.  But if you are one individual, problems arise.  One person’s complaint is OK (after selling 10 cars).  After you have sold 100 cars, you have 10 people complaining.  After you have sold 1000, you have 100 people complaining and the burden has become crushing.  JD no longer sells cars for a living.

Now let’s complete the analogy to a couples’ life together. Many choices you make add complexity and stress to your life.  A child cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and requires thousands and thousands of hours to raise. This does not mean you shouldn’t have a child, but it does mean that you consider carefully whether the two of you are in a sufficiently secure position financially and emotionally to take on that burden.

How many gadgets do you have that require periodic repair, replacement or maintenance? I will make personal inventory for my immediate family: 5 computers, 2 printers, 5 telephones (land based), 2 cell phones, innumerable MP3players, blackberries, ipods (I don’t even know the names of them all), Fax machine, scanner, 2 cars, 2 fridges, washer, dryer, heater, air conditioner, stove, 2 ovens, TV, DVD/VCR player, 12 (or more) speakers in various locations, 2 amplifiers, CD player, turn table, 139 light bulbs, 2 vacuum cleaners, 2 lawn mowers 1 tread mill.  We’re over 100 without even thinking very hard.  George Gershwin wrote a song in his opera Porgy and Bess: “I got plenty of nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me; I got the sun, I got the moon, I got the deep blue sea . . . I got my gal, I got my Lawd, I got my song”

Then, how about a pet?  We write about our dog Amber in The Compatibility Code.  But let’s talk reality: Amber cost about $7000 in the first two years.  Really?  Yup, initial cost, invisible fence, innumerable vet bills, dog shows, holiday dog care, cages, crates, outdoor runs, collars, dog food, treats.  The kids did a power point presentation to finally break me down over two years.  There were schedules for feeding, pooping and peeing, exercising, playing.  Today I (not the kids, not my wife) get the dog up, peep and poo the dog, feed and water the dog 5 of 7 mornings.  I peep and poo the dog and put her to bed 7 of 7 nights each week.  I probably exercise the dog 5 times as much as everyone else combined. Do I experience distress about it? Nope. We got the dog, we’re not going to get rid of it, what function does distress serve?  But if it were my choice, the dog wouldn’t have happened.

How about starting a new business? You’re sick to death of being bossed around and, besides, you can do “whatever” better than they can anyway.  Consider the little quip about McDonalds: “Can you make a better hamburger than McDonalds? [of course!]. Can you produce a better distribution system than McDonalds?”  You get into business and find that you are real good a making the widgets, but how about distribution, promotion, advertising, record keeping?  85% of businesses fail within 5 years.  Can you imagine the stress to the family who goes through that 5-year sequence?

The sum of this entire discussion is to consider the consequences of your choices in terms of the additional stress of life and challenges to the marriage.

3.  Global or ongoing conditions (over which you have little or no control)

We now shift our attention to a biggie.  There are many factors over which you have minimal or no control. We list a few-many of which may not apply to you, but they do apply to a lot of people.

  • Living in a war-torn country
  • Living in a 3rd-world country
  • Growing up in grinding poverty
  • Experiencing prejudiced attitudes against you
  • Living in a low SES neighborhood
  • The expectations of others
  • Hostile extended family
  • Unhappy friends
  • Lack of resources (house, car, money)
  • Crushing debt
  • Conflicting schedules
  • Poor health
  • Broken home
  • Long-distance relationship

Your irritating optimist will pontificate, “don’t complain about the darkness, light a candle!” But let’s acknowledge for a moment that some situations can be very very [even if using very twice is poor English] difficult to handle.  The top four particularly are worthy of our compassion.

But now we have “wept with those who weep” let us address the topic of how do you relate to these things.

For each of these issues and millions more you will still consider, what will be the effect of these circumstances on our marriage?  If you experience the top four on this list (war, 3rdworld, grinding poverty, prejudice) does this mean a particular couple shouldn’t marry?  Of course not!  Consider Tzeitel and Motel in Fiddler on the Roof: Desperately poor, a persecuted ethnic minority and urgently in love with each other, seemingly since childhood.

So for the truly uncontrollable circumstances you consider the influence and determine whether the two of you are strong enough to overcome the difficulties.

For other issues you consider the possibility of at least some change: We reproduce a portion of the list above with some suggestions that might be considered.

  • The expectations of others: Are their expectations realistic or desirable? If you don’t fulfill their expectations, what are the consequences? Are they open to a frank discussion of the destructive influence their expectations carry? Will these expectations continue over time or will they fade over time? What immediate influence will those expectations have on our marriage? What long-term effect will they have?
  • Hostile extended family: First recognize that this is a huge killer of relationships. Hostility by in laws can be severely divisive as there is an almost biological urge to side with one’s family. That aside, consider: Why are they hostile? Any chance of changing their attitude? If there are specific issues that cause their hostility, are those issues changeable? Does their hostility represent a valid concern? Is the hostility likely to continue once the two of you are married? If you decide to marry despite this hostility can you map out how you will respond to parents/in laws, how much contact, what to do with major holidays, how to minimize damage?
  • Unhappy friends: This is similar in some ways to hostile in laws, but often not as lethal. Friend’s unhappiness about your relationship is more likely to identify that you and your partner might not be right for each other than blind family self-interest. Never the less, you ask the questions: What is the cause of their unhappiness? Are their concerns valid? How important is (or are) that (or those) friendship(s)? Is it just one or two unhappy friends, or are many unhappy? The more unhappy friends, the greater the likelihood that there is a serious problem with the relationship you are currently in.
  • Lack of resources (house, car, money): Financial challenge is one of the great devastators of close relationships. Can you do anything about your financial difficulties? Despite lack of money, can you create and live within a budget with your current income? Would it be better to put off the marriage until you are in a stronger position financially?
  • Crushing debt: see “lack of resources”
  • Conflicting schedules: Is there any way that schedules can be coordinated? How long is this likely to continue?
  • Poor health: Are you already doing everything possible to regain your health? Is it possible to regain your health? What are the long-term implications of the two of you marrying given the present health challenges?
  • Broken home: Whether the broken home is the families of origin or your (or your partner’s) past divorce(s), this one increases the likelihood of divorce (given that you marry) at least two fold. There are many important questions that must be asked. What were the causes of divorce? How did I specifically contribute to the divorce (if at all)? Have the issues that caused past difficulties now been resolved? In addition to the questions you need to read and apply thoroughly the principles of Chapter 2 of The Compatibility Code (What Does Happily Ever After Really Look Like). It is urgent that you gain a valid picture of the dynamics of the new relationship that the two of you will share.
  • Long-distance relationship: This is another challenge fraught with difficulties. Is there any way that the two of you can be together? If not, then it is important that you understand the potential challenges of a distance relationship. In The Compatibility Code a real story (not real names) explores nine different serious biasers that influence the couple experience a relationship at distance. Make sure that you carefully consider whether you are the victim of any of the biases.

Challenges of a Long-Distance Relationship

We reproduce this story here in case you don’t have the book handy. If you haven’t bought it yet, Buy it!

The Story of Walter and Amy

Walter was a sociology graduate student at a leading university when the story takes place. Walter had been through a divorce a couple years earlier, felt that he was not in a good setting for meeting available others, was not particularly skilled socially anyway, and felt eager to be in a relationship that would lead to marriage. While such desires sound normal enough, Walter’s desire to be in relationship was intense. He was sick to death of being single, lonely, and, being a proactive person, wanted to do something about it. Enter bias number one:

1. An intense need to be in a relationship: There is nothing wrong with either the need or the desire, but when the need is excessive, many blunders typically follow. He discovered dating services that showed pictures and had brief descriptions of Asian women eager to marry an American. Walter would leaf through the various magazines from several of the agencies, look at the pictures, read the descriptions and grow increasingly excited about the possibilities of obtaining the warmth of a life partner (without the effort of dating) by making contacts with these women. Several of the women responded to Walter’s letters, and it was evident that there was both eagerness and willingness on the part of those who responded. Excitement grew as Walter began the sorting procedure. Since marriage was not possible without actually flying over to Asia and meeting the individual in person, the idea of actually dating several of them was not an option. The situation, in Walter’s mind, required narrowing down to one person before the very expensive trip took place. Here we encounter bias number two.

2. Choices are made in the absence of thorough knowledge: Because of the high cost of contact in this setting, there was no valid opportunity (Walter felt) to actually meet other women. Bias number three quickly emerged. Walter chose one woman. We’ll call her Amy. When a tentative choice had been made and interaction accelerated (mostly letters and phone calls) powerful images of the perfect wife emerged and nights were spent dreaming of pleasures that might soon become reality.

3. Intense love for an unsubstantiated image. In short, the intense emotional arousal blinded Walter to the potential pitfalls. It failed to register with him that his love object, Amy, might possess serious flaws or that impossible differences might exist between them. The letters were now augmented with frequent phone calls. The letters dripped with unbridled affection; the calls spoke of some substantive matters but shimmering infatuation predominated most conversations. The fourth bias then emerged:

4. Belief in the accuracy of an image without actual contact: Walter and Amy essentially became engaged by phone and mail without ever seeing each other. Walter thought that from letters, phone calls, and descriptions that a clear image was emerging. And, he was right. A clear image was emerging, but it was unrelated to the reality of the person who controlled his affections. The fifth bias immediately followed.

5. No consultation with objective others: Most of these contacts were made without the knowledge of any of Walter’s friends or family. Only as the relationship began to move solidly toward the engagement stage did Walter begin to talk with others. The choice of engagement took place outside of the advice or knowledge of anyone else. Once the choice to become engaged had been made, several thousands of dollars were set aside for the trip over and several weeks in Hong Kong. Bias number six now moved into position:

6. Inoculation against any advice due to the certainty of choice: Once the trip and the engagement were in place (Walter never told others that they were already engaged; he realized that such a choice in the absence of contact was sure to arouse negative responses), Walter began to inform family and friends of the impending trip. Even though the “E” word (engagement) was not ever used, the simple reality was that Walter’s interactions with family and friends were designed to deceive, so along comes bias number seven:

7. Deception of others: As Walter began to divulge even his sanitized version of the story people quickly anticipated the real purpose and set up a shrill series of protests about the scheduled trip. Walter was so blinded he was unwilling to hear any of it. He had already discovered the “truth” (he was convinced that the choice of engagement was correct) and was able to ward off any criticism. We dub this attitude “the engaged person’s disease.” When one’s mind is made up, when that person is truly inoculated, no information or argument can shift his or her perspective. The overtures of friends and family were summarily dismissed-a serious error indeed. Specifically, Walter’s brother pleaded with Walter to call off the trip but to no avail. Additional evidence emerged shortly before the trip was to be made. It turned out that Amy was technically married. She was from the Philippines where (according to her story) there is no legal form of divorce. If you are rich enough, you can bribe a judge and he will take the documents out of your file. In Amy’s case she had no children and had had no contact with her former husband for over three years (he had abandoned her). Bias number eight now emerges:

8. Self-deception: Walter convinced himself that her long-since defunct marriage was no problem despite the fact that a divorce had not occurred. The final bias emerged only after the trip to Hong Kong, their point of meeting.

9. A feeling of entrapment: Walter flew to Hong Kong. At the airport he met Amy for the first time. He found her smaller and less attractive than her pictures indicated. He remembered quickly an additional reality; people provide only pictures that make them look better than they really do. If Walter had met Amy on the street, he would have never had the slightest attraction but now he felt trapped and obligated. He had chosen engagement in good faith and now he felt they must go through with the marriage. A few days later they did. Amy and Walter were together about five weeks during the Hong Kong venture and spent another two weeks (in the Philippines) three months later during the Christmas season. Walter found her to be honest in her desire to please and commit to the relationship, but Walter and Amy were as mismatched as any two people could possibly be: Walter had a Ph.D.; Amy it turned out was below average IQ. He took Amy with him to visit professors in several of the local universities; Amy couldn’t begin to understand the conversation. Amy said that she had a college degree and apparently did but barely squeaked through with a C- average. Amy said she spoke five languages, and while that turned out to be true (Tagalog, her native dialect, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English), she couldn’t speak any of them at anything higher than about a third-grade level. Walter found her conversation profoundly trivial with little interest in anything except friends and shopping. Walter was an accomplished musician; Amy had no comprehension of anything musical except what was locally popular. Walter was quiet and even-tempered; Amy was volatile and argumentative. Walter had been trained to be perceptive of other people’s perspective. Amy had no idea that another perspective even existed. The list goes on and on.

Walter and Amy divorced after only seven weeks together-all spent on the other side of the world. The divorce was profoundly disturbing to Walter (they had both entered into the relationship in good faith), profoundly relieving (a life together was incomprehensible) and profoundly bewildering (how could he, an extremely bright, rational person, and presumably an expert in human relationships with a Ph.D. in sociology, ever become involved in such a mismatch?). The answer is the foundation of this book. In Walter’s case the emotional biases (listed again below) had rendered an excellent brain totally dysfunctional. We restate the nine types of biases:

  • Intense need to get into a relationship
  • Choices in the absence of knowledge
  • Intense love for an unsubstantiated image
  • Belief in the accuracy of an image created without actual contact
  • Choice without consultation with objective others
  • Inoculation against any advice due to the certainty of choice
  • Deception of others
  • Self deception
  • A feeling of entrapment

The unfortunate reality is that Walter’s case is not unusual. I have met at least twenty people who have married through the same type of magazine that attracted Walter. Not one of the marriages has been successful. But the complaint is not against the magazine. There are millions of marriages that occur every year which operate under similar biases and produce similar disastrous results.

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