Are you in a Hokey Pokey marriage?
If you’ve ever been to a wedding, at least one with nerdy white folks like me, you’ve probably at least watched people do the Hokey Pokey. This awkward, ultra-cheesy “dance” (a generous term for sure) involves standing in a circle goofing around with other friends and relatives you haven’t seen since the last wedding. Dancers are told to “put your right foot in, put your right foot out, put your right foot in and you shake it all about.” If you can leave all self-respect at home you’ve got a decent chance at having some fun.
What’s the Hokey Pokey Marriage Syndrome all about?
The sad truth about a lot of the couples I work with in therapy is that they suffer from what I call Hokey Pokey Marriage Syndrome. All too often couples wait to enter therapy until they are at their breaking (up) point. They are on the brink of divorce and may no longer be living together at the time they call to start counseling. There are obviously many problems that can bring a couple to this edge. One of them is Hokey Pokey Marriage Syndrome.
Couples experiencing HPMS have at least one partner who is contemplating ending the relationship. They may only be 1% out the door, but they’ve started leaving in their mind already. They’ve started thinking beyond the relationship. They wonder what it may be like if they leave. They begin planning ahead, looking at apartments, setting aside money, and anything else they think might help make a transition to single living easier if that time actually comes someday.
What’s the harm in planning ahead?
You might wonder how a little planning ahead can be dangerous. In reality, for the individual, it may actually be a smart move. It sets them up to be better prepared than their partner for single life when they eventually leave. The problem, however, is the mental state of this partner with one foot out the door. They are already thinking as an individual as opposed to a committed partner in a relationship. It may be helpful for the individual member of the relationship to plan ahead. Unfortunately, if they do, they’ve essentially committed relationship suicide. By “putting one foot out” they have already stopped doing everything they can to save the relationship they’re already in.
What is tempting you to put one foot out?
It’s convenient to forget certain parts of our vows when we are unhappy. Your partner may be doing a lot of things to make your life miserable. Maybe he’s a poor communicator. Maybe she’s not taking care of your “needs.” Maybe he changed his mind about wanting kids. Or she wants to go back to work instead of staying home with the kids. Maybe your partner has an addiction that’s wreaking havoc in your marriage and family life.
With few exceptions (i.e. physically or sexually assaulting you or your kids, having an adulterous affair), I’m a big believer that as long as both parties are fully committed to working on the relationship, any marriage can be saved. Even in those exceptionally troubled relationships, fully committed partners have a decent shot at turning things around. It’s the “fully committed” part that seems to often be the most difficult for partners in today’s immediate gratification, all about me (think “selfie”) culture. It’s hard to be fully committed to a relationship when we’re so committed to making ourselves happy first.
Is happiness such a bad thing?
The commitment to your own happiness first is an easy way to justify putting a foot out the door and starting to think beyond the relationship. It’s just not what you or your partner signed up for. And having that “me first” mentality is almost a guarantee that your relationship will not work out. If you want your relationship to not only survive, but thrive, you need to be thinking about your partner first.* Your partner also needs to be thinking of you first, but you can’t control that. If you want your relationship to last, you’ve got to keep both feet in, fully committed to making it work. Otherwise, you’ll likely fall victim to Hokey Pokey Marriage Syndrome and sabotage your chances of being happy in the relationship you already have. You can’t think about your relationship the way you did when you were dating. It’s different now. It’s not about you. It’s about your marriage.
Do you and your partner have Hokey Pokey Marriage Syndrome?
Do you have one foot in and one foot out? Have you started thinking beyond your relationship? Have you noticed your partner displaying some of the above signs of HPMS? If so, it’s time to talk to someone. It really would be best to talk to a couples counselor before you get to this point, but you can only be where you are. For some guidance on what to consider before choosing a marriage counselor, click here. Get some help now, before it’s too tempting to take a foot out and you start living for yourself instead of your partner and your relationship. That’s really the only way to make things work long-term. And if you both live for each other, you’ll probably end up happy too. Maybe even happy enough to do the Hokey Pokey.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.
*In putting your partner first, it’s important to remember that you need to keep firm boundaries in place to protect yourself from harm. Leaving for an apartment or a parent/friend’s house for a while may be the best way to stay safe while holding out hope for reconciliation with your partner as they go through a change process on their own. Looking to serve your partner and seeking their happiness before your own should not come at the expense of your safety. It also definitely does not mean you need to serve as a doormat for your spouse. Standing up for your basic human rights and dignity is different from looking for temporary happiness at the expense of long-term relationship success. If you are in a relationship that involves domestic violence, couples counseling is probably not the best option right now. Individual therapy would likely be a better first step.
Teaching your partner how to respect you is one of many important steps toward a healthy relationship. On your way to getting both feet back in the dance, you’ll each learn how to communicate in ways that are safe and empowering for both partners. This will help you both move toward respectful discussion of any inequities in your relationship that may be getting in the way of fully realizing the future of this most important relationship in your life.