Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Mastering Marriage Part 1: Interpreting Plateaus in Marriage and Recovery

Mastering Marriage - a 2 Part Series:

  1. Part 1: Interpreting Plateaus in Marriage and Recovery
  2. Part 2: Practicing the Process of Marriage and recovery

This week we discuss three different characters as they relate to infidelity and its restoration. The names of the characters may be humorous, but they relate to struggles that are necessary to overcome not only to mastering a talent, but also marriage and the consequences of infidelity. When we endeavor to heal from any major crisis or trauma, the power is most definitely in the process of that journey. This week we will dissect three differing approaches we tend to utilize in our efforts.

After you read this week's article, I'd like you to identify which character you MOST relate to. You may even notice all three tendencies in you or your spouse. Remember, if we can’t take ownership and accept where we’re at, we’ll never get where we want to go.

At 13 my parents gave me a guitar and enrolled me in lessons, but that’s not where my aspirations of being a rock star began. My dream was launched as I listened to the Beatles, The Who, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix. Not only did I believe it was possible, but I could see myself doing it. That goal kept me motivated through endless hours of practice even when it seemed I was getting nowhere. I knew that someday I would make it and as a result of that determination I became pretty good at playing the guitar.

Later in life, I chose to pick up the banjo, but my reasons were not nearly as defined. With the guitar I wanted to become a rock star, but my only reason for playing the banjo was my belief that it would be good to add an additional instrument to my repertoire. Sad to say my discipline was lacking. I felt I should be picking it up faster. I was bored by the constant repetition. It seemed regardless of how much effort I applied progress was slow. Eventually, I lost interest and moved on to something else.

Am I just incompetent and unable to learn the skills necessary for playing a banjo? Not at all, but my own defects of character certainly sabotaged my efforts. Mastery of anything, whether it’s a musical instrument, an athletic sport, a professional skill or a relationship takes time, patience and a willingness to stick to our goal even when the rewards don’t seem to come. Learning anything takes ongoing effort and practice even when you’re on a plateau where it seems nothing is happening.

In George Leonard’s book “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” he suggests the reason we tend to fail is our resistance to continuing on when our efforts don’t produce the immediate results we desire. We fail to recognize that mastery isn’t getting it right or having finally arrived, rather mastery is about the process or the journey. It’s not reserved for the super talented or for those who got a head start, rather it’s about a willingness to get on the path and stick with it, even when it feels as if no progress is being made. In a culture of quick fixes and immediate gratification, the process of mastery is counter to what we’ve been taught to expect. Quick fixes and immediate gratification actually prevent us from developing the necessary skills for a solid relationship and threaten the stability of our families.

I spent far more time trying to master my guitar then I ever did trying to master my relationship with Stephanie. It was normal for me to spend at least an hour a day practicing scales and learning new music. Had I spent as much time developing relational skills, I can only imagine the profound impact it would’ve had on my marriage. What would’ve happened if Stephanie and I spent an hour a day practicing heartfelt listening or learning how to communicate concern and compassion during difficult conversations? What if we practiced the skill of communicating respect as we spoke with one another? Instead we assumed things would just work out and falsely believed that if they didn’t it was a failure on my mate’s part, not mine. I had yet to learn that my mate is never my problem; my mate only reveals the problem in me.

Leonard points out that growth is not a simple linear progression. As we try to master anything such as the guitar, a sport, or recovery from infidelity there are always plateaus where it seems no progress is being made. Learning occurs in stages and time is required for new knowledge to be integrated into our belief system. We’d love to be able to snap our fingers and have our spouse instantly get it, but it just doesn’t work that way. It’s not until we’ve practiced each new skill for months before it begins to feel natural. For mastery you have to continue intentionally practicing that new skill, working at perfecting your style, if you ever want to master it. If ground is to be gained, you must view the plateaus, not as a sign that you’re stuck, but as a necessary step to long term change and integration. For mastery you have to practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice rather than getting frustrated while on a plateau. Leonard identifies three characters who struggle with the road to mastery: the dabbler, the obsessive, and the hacker, who go through life and in our case here, recovery, their own way rather than choosing a course of mastery. See if you identify with any of these characters.

The Dabbler” approaches each new sport, career, or relationship with enthusiasm and loves the first stage of starting something new. When they see spurts of progress or reward they are thrilled and can’t wait to show friends and family what they’ve accomplished. They’re the ones who can’t wait for the next lesson to continue their progress. The fall from that initial peak of growth shocks and disorients them. The plateaus of growth are unacceptable. For the dabbler, if you are not being rewarded by continued progress your enthusiasm will wane and boredom will set in. The dabbler specializes in the honeymoon stage and loves the feelings generated as they share their life story and the ensuing validation from their partner. When the excitement generated by first experiences begins to cool they begin looking around for something else. They are like an eternal kid, always looking for the next adventure or novelty, but though partners change they still remain the same.

The Obsessive” is a bottom-line type of person who refuses to be second best. What’s important are quick results, and they’re constantly looking for the validation of how well they’ve done. In the beginning they are always reading books and attending seminars trying to achieve perfection at record pace. When the obsessive hits the inevitable plateau they simply redouble their efforts and may even be tempted to take shortcuts to get the desired results. Unlike the dabbler, when the passion in their marriage begins to cool they don’t look elsewhere, rather they try to maintain the passion at whatever the cost: extravagant gifts, romantic rendezvous, or erotic escalation. They see little reason for the plateau, and so the relationship swings back and forth between ecstasy and tragedy. The inevitable breakup results in a great deal of pain for both parties but does little in the way of learning and personal growth. When the obsessive is unable to maintain continual forward progress, the ensuing failure leaves them as well as their families hurt and ashamed that their efforts couldn’t save the relationship.

The Hacker” has a different perspective. This person doesn’t mind the plateau; in fact they’re willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. They lack the necessary drive to achieve mastery through long term dedication. They don’t mind skipping the necessary steps for mastery. Their interest lies in hanging out with other hackers. “Good enough” is their motto. They are the teachers and professionals who don’t bother with professional meetings because they’re just interested in getting by. At work they do the minimum requirements, always leaving on time and taking all of their breaks and they’re confused as to why they don’t get promoted. In marriage they tend to be content with living as roommates. They are willing to settle for static monogamy, an arrangement in which both partners have clearly defined and unchanging roles, and in which marriage is primarily an economic and domestic institution. While that may serve as an ideal situation in their mind, rarely do they marry someone who’s satisfied with that arrangement.

Lifelong commitments are never truly mastered in a lifetime. It’s not a matter of how well we’re doing, it’s a matter of how well we’re working at what we’re doing. The dabbler, the obsessive and the hacker have to learn life isn’t about getting it right. The real goal is to stay focused on doing it right and to commit to continually practice the process of relating to one another. The dabblers, along with the obsessives, need realistic expectations. Life isn’t about a continual series of peaks; there are always valleys and plateaus on the journey. In fact, there would be no peak without the valley. Mastery in marriage is about continuing to intentionally do the work even when it seems nothing is changing. Refusing to accept mediocrity is essential for the hacker. A great relationship is an outcome, not a goal. To develop a great relationship you have to practice the process. It’s about practicing the behavior of respect, communicating concern, and developing empathy for each other.

Of course one person rarely fits any one stereotype perfectly, and it’s possible to exhibit characteristics of all three. However for the sake of personal growth these categories can help you identify what may stand in the way on your path to personal or marital recovery.  Hopefully, your goal is to figure out how to move down your own path with new momentum and new resolve for the process of healing. If you’re not sure how to get started or what process you should be following, come to an EMS Weekend. We’ll walk you through each step and point you in the right direction for either personal or even marital restoration. 



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The 3 Characters

What a Wonderful Exposition and insight into the probable reasons why my husband (&his addictions) & our marriage (?) Likely has over time & Most likely Ultimately End. THE DABBLER is the person who waa the PERFECT CON/BETRAYER (bad enough). However it is THE HACKER (the leftovers for me) that bring soooo much sadness. For him he just wants to b comfortable (Narcacisst/Extreme). He even said to me after we made "love", I'm sorry I'm not as Happy and Funny as I used to be. I'm older and don't have the stamina I used to.... For me I have known for awhile, he won't ever really b happy again until he can "dabble" in whatever addiction he can get away with/or more Aptly hide (Hyde). Its been almost 4 yrs now since the cracks appeared and ended in Disclosure of a hidden life for 35yrs. I have never doubted there is soooo much more I will never know (pathological lying). The Beauty is I can continue my own recovery and eventually have a life that lives & breathes again!! For him the Grandiosity Gap will slowly grow wider and wither altogether except in fantasy. All I can see now is a Left Over of a life so sadly wasted for so many years--a constant plateau..You are correct in stateting they usually do not marry partners who can accept that status quoe. WE WANT TO LIVE!!

The other character not

The other character not highlighted is the narcissist/abuser. There is no healing with Mr. Hyde because he cares only for himself anyway and always will. Even the hint of remorse comes out of his own self pity and not at all about the pain his hurt Spouse feels. He will continually blame his spouse for one thing or another... starting with the affair. He is the one who insists he's the one who was rejected even when he has been the one to stop all counseling.

Where's the "Correct" or healthy perspective?

All these are very good, (including the "Abuser" suggested above by another user), but where is the outline for the healthy profile? Would be nice to see a profile of something to work towards, or strive for. I see a bit of myself in two of the profiles described, but not in a complete or whole way. We all may show some attributes of every profile, but I would like to know where I am as far as the healthiest prospect goes. Something to contrast the negatives outlined above.