Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22.’*

Catch-22, popularized by author Joseph Heller, is a tricky paradox that seems to offer hope, but when analyzed closely we see that hope is merely an illusion. As a counselor I see couples caught in a Catch-22 in their marriage. Not surprisingly – they feel hopeless.

Does this sound familiar? A wife has exhausted herself pursuing a husband who has disengaged from her and the kids. She finally reaches her limit and threatens to file for a divorce. That gets his attention and he makes an attempt to engage – perhaps by asking her out on a date, or by taking the kids to the zoo. He soon discovers he’s not earning any points. His wife is distant and unimpressed. He ends up thinking, “Why do I bother?”

Catch-22 is in full swing. His wife has decided that if her husband really loved her, she would not have had to ask. Now his behavior is seen through a filter: “I know he doesn’t love me.” She redefines his behavior as something other than love for her. It may be love for the children, fear of being alone, or the stigma of failing at his marriage. His efforts are seen as insincere, selfish, or even mocking. None of these satisfy her desire to be loved, and her resentment grows as he offers the very thing she had hoped for. Now she is the primary perpetrator of her own pain. If you are in a similar situation, what can you do?

The first essential is to forgive. Unforgiveness affects your relationship with others, with God and with yourself, and you can do something about it! Forgiving is one of the most self-affirming choices you can make. It sets you free from the excess weight of bitterness. When you forgive, you treat yourself with dignity and respect and you invite others to do the same — and many will. Forgiveness can open a path out of a Catch-22 and allows you to receive small changes in your relationship to build the deeper connection you hope for.

Maybe you’ll recognize this scenario. A husband is weary of being criticized. Nothing he does is good enough. He tells his wife that he loves her, but is not in love with her, and he wants to separate. She had no idea this was coming, and is desperate to fix it. Instead of her usual criticism, she begins to affirm him and all that he means to her. He simply scoffs, mutters “too little, too late,” and turns away. What?!! Isn’t she offering exactly the respect and appreciation that he wanted? He looks at a history of being disrespected, and believes this recent change is nothing more than an attempt to set him up for even more devastating disrespect. The very things he has wanted from his wife are now the source of great fear as they warn him, “Don’t drop your guard!” As he surrenders to his fear he moves further from contentment and treats himself with a growing disrespect. If this scenario touches close to home, how can you break this pattern?

My suggestion is to risk offering a reward. Behavior that gets rewarded tends to be repeated. When your spouse does something that you enjoy, return that with a smile, be grateful, offer a hug – respond in some way to show acceptance. This is difficult when you have faced years of disappointment. However, rolling your eyes and scoffing when your spouse takes initiative to show love does not leave anyone begging for more. And it can kill positive momentum before it has a chance to generate healthy habits.

Both of these hurting spouses are caught in a Catch-22 that has all the circular logic of Keller’s example above: “If you don’t change the way you treat me, I’ll be nasty toward you. If you begin to treat me better, you will reinforce my nasty behavior since I believe that is what ‘worked.’ I’ll continue to treat you poorly with the hope that you’ll treat me better…”

Offering forgiveness and/or a reward are both based on the principle of owning your power to choose. It ‘s important to own the fact that you always have a choice. You can forgive and accept the changes your spouse is making to strengthen your marriage. You can reward and show your spouse that you have received what they have given to show their love for you. When you don’t recognize the power of your choice it’s often a formula for resentment, which can kill intimacy and increase your level of pain.

Maybe you have seen the funny office sign that states, “The floggings will continue until morale improves!” We all recognize the irony of that statement. If you are experiencing disappointment in your relationship, put the whip down and choose something new. Choose to forgive and reward. These small steps can break the crazy cycle of a Catch-22, and bring hope back to your relationship.

*an excerpt from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Copyright © 2006 by Chuck Fallon, Used with Permission

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