||PROVOCATION, REACTION AND ESCALATION SYNDROME
- Thursday, April 12, '01 - Pesach 5761
When couples, younger or older, have marital trouble, often "the trouble is not the trouble." The real issue is deep below the surface. Things "don't come from nowhere." The couple's situation is often aggravated and compounded by their "history," the result of a building up over years or even decades.
A representative scenario is something like this. A couple comes in to see me for counseling. Things can be quite emotional, intense or hostile. I hear out the situation and patterns; and some history of the marriage and of each spouse's family of origin. I notice again and again, with couple after couple, that the picture they paint with their complaints, accusations and heartache is one of a situation often that is a matter of WHAT ACTIONS AND BEHAVIOR REPRESENT UNDER THE SURFACE; PARTICULARLY AS A MATTER OF THE ACCUMULATION OF ENCOUNTERS OVER THE YEARS. What A did is a result of something B did, which was a reaction to something A did, who complains it was because of something B did, etc.; and so it goes, back for years and sometimes to the beginning of the marriage. THE PATTERN HAS TO BE UNRAVELED IN REVERSE CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER, starting from the present and most up-to-date event.
To describe it a little more concretely, let's go back to the beginning and proceed in chronological order. The pattern might go like this. A does something offensive. B gets defensive and does something not nice in return. A is angered and does something punitive to B. B takes vengeance. A is going to show B who is boss and does something nasty. B blows up. A reacts with something hysterical. In other words, their marriage has become the proverbial "snowball" that gets bigger and bigger as it proceeds to role down the hill.
The couple gets so lost in fighting, "winning," punishing, controlling, protecting and accusing; that they no longer realize that THEIR RELATIONSHIP HAS BECOME CHARACTERIZED BY THEIR PATTERN OF TAKING RIGID AND EMOTIONAL POSITIONS, PROVOCATION, REACTION, DEFENSES AND ESCALATION. They fail to see that their behaviors no longer have the meaning that they appear to on the surface. Rather, much of their marital behavior is symbolic of what they will or will not "allow" to happen and is a mounting of intense trouble that has developed over years. They often fail to see how caught up they've gotten in this escalatory pattern and how much their behavior has become "REACTIVE," rather than "active." They have lost perspective on what marital relating is.
What matters as a practical marriage counseling concern is that the pattern has to be uncovered by discerning how a recent event (or series of recent events) that brought them to counseling is the result of a previous provocation, which was the result of the previous one, etc.; to adequately see the pattern for what it is and how it developed in this individual case.
For me, as the counselor, I have to recognize the pattern by unraveling their history in reverse chronological order, to see how the most current stage is the result of the previous, which is the result of the previous, etc., sometimes for years or even back to the beginning of the relationship. Then we have to discern what forces and psychological processes are at work guiding the particular behaviors and general pattern in this couple's individual case. For example, one did something when the marriage was new that was insensitive. The other's reaction was defensive. The other's reaction was immature. The other one's feelings were hurt and did something to get even. The other one, feeling self-worth threatened, got defensive and lashed back aggressively. The other one had to draw the line and took some irrational and rigid position about something. The other one started dissappearing for many hours at a time or overnight, etc. It built up over years or decades to the point where one or both feel they no longer have a life.
It is vital in such a case that the couple realize that their marriage and behavior has gotten out of hand. The situation has intensified and escalated over several years. By starting to unravel the history, and understanding its reactive and escalatory character, the couple can start to gain rational perspective. They can start seeing their behaviors and patterns - and their origin and development - for what they are. By paring down the components of their history to their basic elements, a couple WHICH WANTS TO WORK can get an effective grip on the situation, come to understanding their behaviors and patterns, start changing destructive and unreasonable behaviors, and GRADUALLY turn the complex and messy marriage around successfully.
One or both members of a couple in such a case has generally developed an intense and emotional state. This can make working on repairing their marriage difficult. There is a lot of hurt, tension and resentment built up, and a lot of habituation to adversarial and defensive behavior. It is crucial for the couple to get perspective, to recognize the escalatory pattern for what it is, to catch themselves and discontinue it. By understanding how their problems developed historically and emotionally, and mustering the courage and perseverance to work on their problems, they can slowly repair the marriage and give to themselves and their children a healthier and happier life.