The Marital Disaffection Iceberg: What’s Under The Surface?

Rescue Love Couple Therapy

When I work with couples who are at the end of their relationship rope, which I describe as 11th-hour-and-59th-minute marital intervention, there usually has been a recent precipitating event—the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since my couple therapy is limited to issues of marital infidelity, this recent event may have been the discovery or admission of an emotional and/or sexual affair or other betrayal of trust, such as financial deception.

Disaffection history

Early in therapy, however, it often becomes clear to me that the loss of loving feelings for one or both partners has a history (whether causal to the betrayal or not) that rarely gets immediately identified.

When appropriate I like to explore a partner’s feeling of “not being in love anymore,” yet still caring about, and possibly still living with, their partner.

We can almost always look back from the recent event (straw by straw), and sometimes way far back, to when love was first choked and has been gasping ever since.

The 17-year-old couch

One such couple I worked with decades ago demonstrates this well, and I have used their story to teach hundreds of couples about the insidious process of disaffection ever since.

The couple visited a furniture store to buy a new living room sofa. The wife spoke with a salesman about one she liked while her husband looked around. He returned and identified one that he liked asking, “Is it okay if we get this one?” She replied, “Well, I guess so,” and his pick was purchased.

Seventeen years later they were sitting in my office as she recited reasons for not wanting to remain in the marriage including his selfishness and control.

“It’s always about what he wants—just like the couch.” The husband looked at her with incredulity and said, “The couch? What does that mean?”

The wife went on to explain the hurt and disappointment she experienced in the furniture store; the same hurt she has suffered time and time again. He then asked her why she agreed to his preference and offered that she could have just said “no,” because he never really cared that much about furniture.

The wife didn’t answer and, instead, identified the most recent example of his “narcissism.”

The process of disaffection

Since they had been together for a few years before “the couch,” it is likely that her love had already been choked and was gasping in the furniture store! Her hurt and disappointment over the subsequent seventeen years continued to be pushed down into the resentment that erodes love over time.

This is the process of marital disaffection resulting in the loss of loving feeling.

For a richer understanding of some of the factors and forces contributing to the wife’s non-assertiveness, please read my blog entry: American Woman: “What About Me?”

The Iceberg Effect

Relationships are rarely totally open and honest enterprises—nor should they be!

Details about every previous relationship or traumatic experience aren’t necessary to disclose or inquire about. But when hurts and disappointments aren’t revealed, the perilous Iceberg Effect may occur.

Like icebergs that are almost 90% hidden beneath the surface, your partner’s surface view of the relationship may be falsely positive, while trouble awaits hidden below. Instead of being alarmed and taking corrective action (dialogue, disclosure, therapy, etc.), the relationship may be on a collision course, doomed and destined to be shipwrecked!

Drop the H-Bomb (mostly for her)

Fearing and failing to effectively express your hurt, disappointment and dissatisfaction, without blame, to your partner contributes to the Iceberg Effect and possible shipwreck.

Despite unsuccessful attempts to get through to your partner, it is critically important that you not push down your hurt under the surface.

Instead, I suggest that you load the bomb bay, taxi out and take off, climb to altitude, then drop the (hurt) H-Bomb. And, unlike in marriage counseling which worships dialogue, this is a one-way disclosure/teaching that lowers defensiveness in your partner allowing them to listen, learn and (possibly) love you the way you want to be loved.

H-Bomb strategy outline is available on this website under Resources-Form #13.

Accepting influence (mostly for him)

John and Julie Gottman are renowned relationship researchers who have vastly increased our understanding of couple connections–for better and for worse.

One positive concept is that of accepting influence from your partner. This is especially important for guys since we are usually socialized to call the shots (yes, in many ways it’s still a man’s world), and this trickles down into our love relationships.

It is perceived as power and control and undermines your partner’s sense of worth, autonomy and well being.

Asking for your partner’s opinion and decision-making input is vital. Deferring and yielding to your partner’s preference at times is important in maintaining a more-or-less level playing field.

Bidding for connection (for you both)

The Gottman’s research produced a terrific way to conceptualize connection and disconnection in love relationships.

There are three modes of possible couple interaction:

  1. We can move toward our partner,
  2. We can move away from our partner, or
  3. We can move against our partner.

So, if our partner were to make a bid for connection by commenting on the high price of gas, we might say “yeah, I saw that”—indicating a move toward our partner. If we completely ignored their bid for connection we would be stonewalling or moving away from our partner. And if we reacted with, “duh, no kidding” we would be moving against our partner.

Awareness of your partner’s bids for connection and your responses is a relationship builder.

Knowing is not enough

Awareness of these strategies is necessary, but seldom sufficient to promote positive relationship change; unless that awareness is accompanied by effective emotional management, personal assertiveness, and unconditional self and other acceptance.

So if you have trouble getting to altitude to drop the H-Bomb on your partner, there is always REBT to help you soar!


“Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.”  ~ Dan Wile


The STRESS Doc, Richard E. Madden, earned his MSW in Clinical Social Work and his PhD in Electromedical Sciences. He is licensed in New York State as a Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) for the direct practice of psychotherapy with individuals, groups, couples and families. REBT/CBT is a modern, efficient and results-oriented approach toward achieving unconditional self-acceptance, frustration and discomfort tolerance, emotional control, elimination of self-defeating behaviors, mood management and improved love & work relationships. Dr. Madden defines this relative freedom from self-imposed emotional distress and self-defeating behavior as “rational living.”

All content copyright ©1975- Richard E Madden, PhD, LCSW, Rational Living Made Simple. All Rights Reserved.