A grave digger’s perspective about one kind of marriage

I used to be a grave digger. College summer job. No heavy equipment. Just two good shovels, pick axe, tape measure, string, and a tarp.

I wasn’t that philosophical then.

I could not have imagined that someday I’d see parallels between that and my current psychology practice specializing in couple’s therapy.

I’m talking about the price that some couples pay to keep the peace in their marriage. The slow, torturous death of continuous acquiescence.

Every couple knows it is important to compromise.

But what happens when conflict avoidant couples carry it too far?

What parts of their relationship get buried when they deny or distort their dreams?

What price is one or both partners willing to pay to be accepted or loved?

Too many people choose a form of death over speaking up for themselves. Not literal death like when I scooped the last shovel of dirt on the grave. But killing off parts of themselves to fit in, be accepted, do whatever it takes to avoid scorn, ridicule, rejection, or failure.

I have done it too often in my own life.

Giving up on what makes me feel alive.

These “small compromises” done often enough can lead to becoming a zombie – without the fearsome looks.

This process can happen on a larger scale. The psychologist Rollo May said, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”

In a different context, Patrick Henry eloquently stated, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Patrick Henry faced a parallel and painful dilemma many couples face today: the slow strangulation of excessive accommodation vs holding on dearly to what makes you feel alive.

Stop digging your grave. Put down your shovels. Talk to your partner about what makes you feel alive. Talk about what you can do to bring out the best in each other.

The good folks I buried could not return from the grave and get another shot at life.

But for your marriage it is not too late.

There can be liberation, freedom, and coming back from the grave if you don’t give up what makes you feel alive.

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Thank you for these helpful insights!

Zoe Laidlaw

I am alive but feel that I can’t bring that life into my marriage and that is torturous to me. My husband is passive aggressive. He shuns all closeness, rejects any attempts to put things on the table and says “we should be better friends.” He’s been saying something similar for the past 26 years but I don’t see that we have achieved an intimate friendship despite all the effort that I have put into the relationship. I find it impossible to conform to what he would like (which he never states explicitly, of course). Whatever I do for him, he’s never satisfied. I have found outlets for my talents and involve myself with subjects that I enjoy but it pains me so much that I can’t share myself with him. His rejection is so subtle that it is very difficult to describe to therapists, but the bottom line is that he’s not willing to agree to anything I suggest, communication with him is like stepping on eggshells and I try to limit it to technicalities so that I don’t get frustrated with his statement-of-facts way of philosophizing (don’t try to understand what that means…). Our physical relationship almost never happens unless he’s absolutely expecting it and sometimes not even then. He almost never initiates intimacy himself. I believe that there is an underlying cause to his behavior, probably his relationship with his mother (demure but domineering) or something, but he will never let discussions get deep before he disappears, falls asleep or fakes sleep. We have been to various types of couples’ therapy but he has nothing to say. If he does complain it is something so minor that it is petty (“why do you always turn off the light when I’m in the bathroom?” duh?! If I knew you were in the bathroom, do you think I would turn off the light? So now I just leave the light on in the bathroom when there is a chance he might be in there…) but he views it as if I’m “erasing his personality.” When he has been to therapy on his own he deliberately speaks about his lack of work achievement (he has told me so). I understand that it is important to him and that if he feels better with himself his attitude towards our relationship may be more positive, but he in therapy he ignores our relationship.

I don’t know if this is what you call digging my own grave, but I am certainly very frustrated about the whole thing. I feel that I have put so much into our marriage (and bringing up a household of beautiful kids) but he expresses no appreciation for my efforts, nor does he appreciate me as a person at all. I feel that for him to acknowledge me would somehow be like falling into oblivion. I can understand that that must be scary for him, so I don’t expect it of him anymore.

I read your email messages and find that they usually offer sound advice, but I don’t feel I can implement any of the things that suggest open communication, because he just doesn’t communicate his feelings at all, even when I give him ample opportunity do so at quiet, loving (from my position, that is) moments. I constantly work on my own negative feelings and forgive him for everything on a daily basis (literally!). I have read the information on your site regarding dealing with passive-aggressive behavior. I also read your downloadable leaflet on the subject. Sometimes, we begin to work on something together but then comes a stage where I feel that I am like the giant carrying the tailor in the tree (Brave Little Tailor). I didn’t really find any advice in the leaflet on what to do in this situation. If I refuse to finish off jobs that are his responsibility, he gets angry because he is so busy and I should be willing to help him etc. This could involve a time limit, like paying a debt on time etc., etc. In short, H-E-L-P!!!

Dr. Peter Pearson
Dr. Peter Pearson

Wow! what a mess.
Here is a last ditch effort.

Go to my website and bring forth the information on the link below. I ask couples to read this before I see them the first time. It explains and describes what it takes to create a relationship that works.

At the end of the blog are three questions that are good for most couples to reflect on and discuss.

if you both read it and discuss the questions you may get a toehold on improving how you get along.

If he refuses to do that much, then you have difficult choices of the heart.
Am I better off with him or
without him?

Nobody can make that anguished choice but you.
You are the only one who knows the trials of staying
or the trials of leaving.

But if you each do the exercise and have a constructive discussion, please let me know. Go to:
Good luck



I would love a blog post about this type of couple:
2. These friendly conflict avoiders are warm, gracious and engaging. They just can’t bring any depth into their conversations. In fact, their shadow side is often completely denied. To avoid shame or humiliation, they won’t acknowledge negative feelings or impulses.

Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple. Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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