This is the sixth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through eight we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.
Low Relational Intelligence
It is a common sense observation that different people are naturally good (and bad) at different things. Some people are blessed with the ability to grasp language; others art, music, athletics, mechanics, cooking, growing plants, comforting others, etc… There are also people who are born with two left feet, a brown thumb, limited mathematical ability, etc…
We are used to talking about someone’s IQ (intelligence quotient), but give much less thought to someone’s EQ (emotional quotient) or RQ (relational quotient) – how naturally capable are they of grasping emotions and relationships? However, the standardization and testing for RQ and EQ are not as developed as IQ testing, especially for adults.
In recent years, Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have brought these kinds of issues to light. But in the same way that there can be cognitive challenges that do not qualify for mental retardation (an IQ score under 70), there can be RQ challenges that are not necessarily Asperger’s.
In the same way that an individual with a low IQ may be very personable and an excellent friend, a person with a low RQ may be very competent in areas of intellectual, work, artistic, or other forms of functioning. You can have low natural abilities in one area and still have high abilities in other areas.
When the self-centeredness of a spouse is rooted in a low RQ, he/she will typically be of the passive variety – trying to avoid interaction until backed into a corner. Often their abilities in other areas are used to shame their relational challenges, “How can you be so good at other things, but so bad at marriage or parenting?” Framing the question this way makes the presentation of legitimate challenges come across as excuses.
The person with a low RQ will frequently have odd interpretations of actions, emotions, or conflicts. These may be expressed hostilely in a conflict, but with further examination the cause of the a-typical interpretation is consistently confusion rather than malice or manipulation. The fact that few people understand his/her response to events further reinforces their tendency to withdraw from relational or emotional contexts.
But, in the same way that a low IQ is a reason for academic effort in school, a low RQ is a call for greater marital effort not a “get out of conversation free card.” We are saying two things that must be kept in balance. First, a low RQ is a form of suffering (an affect of the Fall) and is not their “fault.” Second, a spouse with a low RQ is responsible to make every effort to love their partner and children as well as their growing ability to understand relationships will allow.
Counseling in this type of case will often be slow. It can be difficult to get mutual agreement that this is the problem. The offended spouse may feel like it is a fatalistic assessment and the low RQ spouse can feel like it is an insult. After gaining agreement that this is the centerpiece of the marital struggle, the counselor has a three part agenda:
- Helping the couple to establish realistic expectations for their current situation. Both spouses will likely have unrealistic expectations of themselves, their spouse, and the marriage based upon years of “explaining” the problems with an incorrect assessment.
- Coaching the low RQ spouse on how to understand and assess current relational interactions and emotions. This may involve helping him/her verbalize insecurities, overcome patterns of passivity, naming emotions, reading emotional cues, and learning the “common sense” of relationships.
- Guiding the couple through current conflicts and hardships. As this guidance is provided, objectives one and two should be kept in the foreground as much as possible and the current conflict treated as the most recent case study of these larger concerns.