Murphy’s Love: Advice on Intimacy and Relationships
Dear Stacy, Read your column last issue about the woman whose husband was addicted to video games [May 4], and as a former WoW (World of Warcraft) widow I wanted to chime in. Many people play not specifically because they are addicted, but because they are depressed. My husband played when he was the most in the dumps because in these games you get to accomplish things, be big and strong and feel in control. All things he didn’t get to feel in real life. I know that many recovering gamers admit they did it because they were depressed. -No Longer WoWed
Dear Stacy [In reference to the May 4 article] I won't call it cheating so much, but more of a giant failure or breakdown in communication. He may use games as an escape to avoid the potential confrontation of dealing with the breakdown of communication with his wife. Sometimes guys don't want to share every detail of their day. To some, if work is stressful or they've had a bad day, just saying “I’m stressed” is enough. He is not looking for a fix. When communication in a marriage breaks down, it can be easy for one partner to avoid the breakdown by saying the other one is grumpy or distracted. Meanwhile, the other uses video games to avoid the pre-sleep chitchat. To me, no one is guilty of cheating, but both are guilty of avoiding the real issue: a breakdown of communication. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing healthy about playing video games all night, but this appears to be more of an issue of avoidance than addiction. -Anonymous
I received a few letters about last month’s column, in which a wife described her husband’s daily practice of playing video games into the early morning hours. I labeled this behavior an addiction and took a hard line with the wife who had made excuses and accommodations for his habit that sounded codependent in nature.
Understandably, my assessment was controversial. Video gaming and Internet use are both incredibly common in our culture and easy to criticize. Many people enjoy gaming as a hobby and are still productive members of society. For some, gaming is a stress-relieving activity just like golf, reading or cooking. For others, particularly those who neglect other responsibilities in order to maintain a habit, gaming is an addiction.
The “depression as a source” question is very important. I agree that it’s likely that the husband suffers from depression, and that the depression invited the WoW coping mechanism. I also think it would be interesting to know more about the couple’s communication style in general: What’s been going on in the marriage that allowed this pattern of extreme screen time to take hold? Still, when a member of a couple is actively engaged in an addictive behavior, there is no chance of improving depression or communication while the addiction is still functioning. In Imago therapy we call that an exit from the relationship. All exits must be closed for true understanding and safe connection to authentically take place. End of story.
I did not name depression or communications issues as part of my response because I felt it was a disservice to provide the wife with another list of “Possible Reasons for His Behavior.” Codependency thrives on such lists. My response and concerns were for the wife, the letter-writer who was seeking advice.
Dear Stacy, “I've been married to my husband for seven years and we have two wonderful children, five & two. I'm a stay-at-home mom and love all the challenges and benefits my job provides. My husband, the sole breadwinner, has been laid off from his job. He is actively looking for new employment, but the stress of what the future might bring is starting to take its toll. He can have a short fuse and alternatively, I can be too sensitive. If he gruffs or has a mean look because the stress is getting to him, I take it too personally. Some days are better than others, and I try to be as supportive as I can, but I get frustrated and scared. The "what ifs" keep creeping into my head, and sometimes into conversation. He is very confident that he can and will find a job, but again, what if...? I am absolutely not worried about our marriage; I feel that we have a strong relationship and will no doubt survive this. But, I'd like us to get through this with as much love and respect as we can. Are there any tools or hints you can give us to help during this time of transition? Sincerely, What-Iffing in Washington”
Dear What-Iffing, I think your letter reflects a very common scenario across the country, and I thank you for opening the door to some conversation about what helps and what doesn’t when it comes to supporting a spouse during a very difficult time. It really sounds like you have a strong relationship – Husband certainly has a strong ally in this struggle – so much that you are able to look for new ideas to make it even better. So let’s talk about that.
While the short fuse/oversensitivity loop is incredibly common to couples, it packs a lot of power during times of extreme stress. Marriage expert John Gottman names criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling the “Four Horsemen” of a relationship’s apocalypse. In other words, any of those four communication patterns can decimate a relationship. I am not hearing any of these patterns in what you’ve written. I only bring them up as something to watch out for on your “Don’t” list.
For Gottman, criticism is more than just critiquing an idea your partner has put forth. It’s criticizing who the person is, rather than just what he’s said or done. Contempt is an attitude of utter disrespect, which makes the recipient feel worthless, and it has no place in a marriage. Defensiveness, although a very common reaction to conflict, can reflect an inability to take responsibility for how one’s actions impact others. Stonewalling is a way of avoiding issues entirely and can look like one partner completely tuning out the other.
This period of uncertainty is not the time to dig up old relationship wounds and reformat your family communications – save the deep conversations about how you’ve never really liked your father-in-law for another year. But a brief talk about how you both are coping could also include a No Tolerance Policy regarding Gottman’s four don’ts. Beyond that, making sure you have lots of patience (deep breaths), good outlets for your own emotions (girlfriends, exercise), and an attitude of openness (more deep breaths), all may help reduced stress. Be gentle with yourselves – you got into this knowing you were in it for better or for worse, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a negative reaction to the “worse” part. It’s completely natural and stretching your grace-under-pressure muscles could even make your marriage better in the long run. For sure, it will help your kids create a template for their future relationships that is stronger than the average blueprint.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing at the Imago Center of DC in Georgetown. Her website is TherapyGeorgetown.com. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Please send your relationship questions to Stacy@Georgetowner.com