By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT, Bellevue Christian Counseling
References: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, Ph.DSpouses like to think of themselves as being in the same boat. But as you are two different people with different natures and aspirations, it is more accurate to say you are two different boats doing your best to navigate as a team. David Schanrch, Ph.D, director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Colorado, says this disparity creates a “two-choice dilemma.” “You want both absolute certainty of your partner’s course and certainty that you’re not controlling him or her.” And for one partner to have both their choices, it often requires they steal a choice from their spouse. Here is an example–
Jim suffers from erectile dysfunction. When he and his wife Laura have sex, it is brief and unsatisfying. His embarrassment keeps him from seeing a doctor. Jim’s two choices are that he wants to avoid dealing with his embarrassing problem, but he also wants Laura to continue to have sex with him. This means stealing Laura’s choice of having satisfying sex with her husband.
What makes this a two-choice dilemma is that Jim cannot have both his choices. He cannot reasonably expect Laura to settle for bad sex because he refuses to find a solution.
Why do two-choice dilemmas exist?
Two-choice dilemmas are the result of people wanting (1) everything their way, and (2) to maintain the status quo. In this situation, Jim wants to avoid the embarrassment of dealing with his ED, and he wants Laura to have sex with him.
The situation may not be ideal, but changing is scary. People prefer the anxiety they know to the anxiety they don’t.
Two-choice dilemmas begin because of the desires of one person. They carry on because the actions of a second person. In this situation– Laura. No one wants to feel like the bad guy. And although Laura may not enjoy perfunctory sex with Jim, it feels even worse to reject him over his refusal to see a doctor. However, eventually Laura will get fed up with sacrificing so Jim can have both his choices, and they will either have to grow up or separate.
What is the purpose of two-choice dilemmas?
God ordained marriage as a natural people-growing process. It is inevitable structures such as two-choice dilemmas force couples toward marital growth or marital dissolution. Being controlled by one spouse’s desire to have their cake and eat it, too, eventually becomes too much for the spouse who is only getting crumbs. Yes, God does urge believers to show compassion and deference toward their spouses, but biting your tongue as your spouse acts selfishly toward you does neither of you any good.
“Expecting your partner to sacrifice for you in the name of love kills marriage, sex, intimacy, and love… Two-choice dilemmas are the grindstones of differentiation. They are part of a system in which your partner’s mere attempts to have a self puncture your narcissism.” (298)
This is the purpose of the two-choice dilemma. To bring spouses to a place in their marriage where they have no choice but to endure the discomfort necessary for growth or to divorce. This is why Schnarch describes marriage as a natural people-growing process. It forces “differentiation.” Now, for those unfamiliar with Schnarch’s work on differentiation, here is a brief explanation– differentiation is the process of developing your integrity. It means standing up for your needs in a relationship, and respecting yourself enough to refuse to be the kind of person who manipulates their partner. You might be thinking, “But, I never manipulate my partner.” Everyone manipulates their spouse. Just because it does not look like something out of a Lifetime movie does not mean it’s not manipulation.
In Jim and Laura’s situation, Jim manipulates Laura into having sex with him by playing the “I’m so embarrassed by my ED” card. She does not want to seem selfish for rejecting his overtures, even though the sex is mediocre. This shows a lack of differentiation on both their parts. Jim– by settling for mediocre sex because he refuses to face the discomfort of seeing a doctor. Laura– by refusing to stand up for herself, and tell Jim she won’t put up with his selfishness anymore.
How spouses escape their two-choice dilemmas?
Both spouses must stand up. The spouse hogging all the choices must face the discomfort they’ve been avoiding, and the other must refuse to continue to be manipulated. “Our problem is not the two-choice dilemma itself, but our refusal to face it, our unwillingness to meet life on its own terms.” (300)
Jim’s problem here is not so much his ED, but that he allows his shame to conquer him. He relies on Laura’s willingness to have sex with him to prop up his ego. He does not have to live like this; he chooses to. To escape the two-choice dilemma he needs to acknowledge how he manipulates his wife, and accept his responsibility for their underwhelming sex life.
Laura also has some work to do. She allows Jim’s refusal to see a doctor to dictate their sexual relationship. As long as she continues to accept the sex he offers her, nothing will change. If Laura wants things to improve, she has to find the courage to improve them. It may make her feel mean, but she needs to tell Jim she refuses to settle anymore when there is a possibility they could have better sex.
As I said before, this is one of the reasons God created marriage– to force people to become better people. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” (Prov. 11:3 NIV) Problems such as two-choice dilemmas draw on the major tenets of Christ’s teachings– treating others well, and pursuing right even when it is easier not to.
Escaping your two-choice dilemma can be painful and scary, but it has two significant benefits: it improves your marriage and strengthens your integrity. Don’t you think Jim would rather be the kind of person who does not let shame hold him back? Don’t you think Laura would rather be the kind of person who doesn’t allow people to manipulate her into settling for something mediocre? This is what two-choice dilemmas push people toward– seeing where they have compromised their integrity, and finding the strength to correct it.
Christian Counseling for two-choice dilemmas
Walking that line between forgiveness and accountability in a marriage is complicated. Sometimes you do not know whether you should confront your spouse about their behavior or let it slide. A Christian marriage counselor can help you and your spouse see where you take advantage of one another in your relationship. Refusing to deal with weaknesses in your marriage inevitably leads to resentment. Get in touch with a professional Christian marriage counselor who can help you both develop your marital integrity.
Integrity-in-marriage Flickr user andrewmalone
Schnarch-two-choice-dilemma Freedigitalphotos.net user Dan