In this column we continue our exploration of the different ways that our formation, especially from our family of origin, can detrimentally play out in our marriage. We’ve already covered the most obvious way – that is, incompatible expectations. In this column we’d like to unpack what we call ‘Compatible but Suboptimal Formation’.
Most of the time, the disagreements we have are due to incompatible formation. We debate back and forth which way is better in favour of what we each believe is the ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ way to proceed. This friction has an obvious root: there are two different expectations arising from our different formation experiences.
In contrast, when our formation is ‘compatible’ we can easily fall into the trap of ‘suboptimal’ outcomes because the absence of overt friction between us fails to alert us to a hidden problem.
We can almost see a confused look on your face as you try to get your head around this. It’s not obvious and that’s why ‘compatible but sub-optimal’ formation is a trap for both young and old.
To illustrate the idea let’s take a very obvious example; suppose both spouses came from families where the parents sorted their differences with loud, abusive exchanges. Coming into their new marriage each spouse would be naturally inclined to adopt a similar communication style.
However, this compatibility in communication style is hardly optimal. But because it will feel normal, neither is likely to object to its use and the suboptimal behaviour will likely continue. Their formation is compatible, but clearly it is suboptimal and will ultimately cause them difficulties.
The reality is most of our formation will in fact be compatible, especially if we were raised in similar cultures. That can be a great help to us in minimising conflict but there is also a danger in these situations of settling for the status quo.
A particular behaviour may feel very comfortable and ‘right’ in that it fits with our mental pictures of what is normal, but it may not be in the ideal interests of our relationship. At best, it may lead us to settle for less than the fullness to which God calls us and at worse, may actively erode our relationship.
The most dangerous type of compatible but suboptimal formation is where both spouses share similar formation in what are clearly destructive behaviours; a family history of physical or verbal abuse, porn use, addictions or infidelity. Increasingly, people marrying today can both come from the experience of family divorce and unsurprisingly the research correlates the likelihood of second-generation divorce with divorce in the family of origin.
In these examples of ‘compatible but suboptimal’ formation, it’s relatively easy to see how it will cause trouble due to its obvious dysfunctional nature. It’s the more subtle examples, where the formation is neutral or even positive, that the pattern is more difficult to identify.
For example, in our own formation, we were blessed to be provided with wonderful examples of marital forgiveness and reconciliation in both of our families. Our parents were excellent role models and we entered marriage with a high value for promptly restoring unity whenever we hurt each other.
The phrase “never let the sun go down on your anger”, a quote from scripture, rang in our ears and prompted us to prioritise reconciliation.
Sounds like a great system right? It should have been, except that the way we applied it was causing us trouble.
We hated being out of sorts and distant from each other, so we were always eager to reconcile. But we were so hasty, we tended to rush to the last part of reconciliation, skipping the crucial ‘discovery’ process that makes reconciliation meaningful and effective.
In our haste, we often failed to fully understand how we had wounded each other making us more likely to repeat the past behaviour.
Once we recognised the unhealthy pattern, we chose to slow the reconciliation process down so that we could better explore how we were failing each other. We had to learn how to sit with uncomfortable emotions so that we could confront the attitudes and behaviour that were causing harm to our relationship.
It was hard work but very fruitful and worthwhile.
So in this case, we had adopted what we knew to be very good formation and also very compatible formation. But it was suboptimal for us because we applied it incompletely. We didn’t realise there were many more details to the reconciliation process that we simply didn’t see, and therefore overlooked.
God calls us to always strive for more in our marriage – to seek the fulfilment of his plan for our relationship. ‘Compatible but suboptimal’ formation reminds us that we should never just assume that the easy way, or the mutually agreeable way, is always the best way.