Marriage Heart Attacks: What You Need To Know

Apr 28, 2023

I often consult with people about complex family dynamics that intersect marriage counseling and fee-only financial planning, my combined area of expertise. It is my true joy to help families sort through their love and money stories. 


Recently I was consulting with Melanie (Not her real name) about a family dynamic she was facing and uncertain about what to do. As we talked, I said they had a relationship heart attack and needed professional help. To which she exclaimed that is a great way to describe it.


The conversation went something like this.


Ed, can I ask you a question?


Sure, go ahead, Melanie.


Well, my in-laws just moved apart from each other. This is not the first marriage for either of them, but they have been married a long time, and I don’t understand what is happening.


Ed: Oh, tell me more about them. 


Melanie: Well, he moved closer to his adult son in Arizona. My mother-in-law previously asked him to go to therapy to discuss their differences, but he refused. Now that he moved out, she wants to leave him and doesn’t want to go to therapy.  


Ed: What else is going on in their life?


Melanie: My mother-in-law has a handyman she always talks about, and something seems to be off. She has bought him a car recently, and he is paying her back for it, but it seems like there is more to it. I also think it will be much harder financially if they don’t work it out on my mother-in-law.


What do you think they should do?


Ed: That’s a great question. Let me explain a few things I am considering for them. 


Relationship heart attacks come in some common shapes and sizes. One is when a marriage partner moves out from the other. 


What is a marriage heart attack?


A marriage heart attack is when sufficient strain on the heart of the marriage has been placed that one or both people decide to kill the marriage consciously or unconsciously.


When we get married, we form what Dr. Dan Siegel calls a MWE (Me+We) relationship. The science of interpersonal neurobiology helps us understand how we bond with each other and what happens when we start to sever the relationship. 


As marital partners, we have the ongoing task of learning how to live with ourselves, our partners, and the relationship we live with between us, not to mention all the other family and social relationships we also have. 


A marriage heart attack is often the final outcome of blocked marital arteries becoming so congested that there is no longer the lifeblood of marriage flowing through the heart of the marriage. Both partners have suffocated and blocked the beating of the relationship heart. 


The heart of marriage is about intimacy and bondedness while also allowing space for individuality. The ability to be and work through emotional engagement and disengagement with each other. It is not about the quality of our ideas or beliefs about the nature of marriage alone. Ideas and beliefs alone are insufficient to keep a long-term vital marriage thriving.


There are other common places that ultimately lead to marriage heart attacks, including but not limited to untreated addiction and mental health issues, affairs, financial conflict/differences, workaholism, religious/cultural beliefs, and practices. The reality is that all of these factors can become risk factors for deteriorating relationship heart health. 


Let me please add a caveat. While I am strongly pro-marriage and the recovery and healing of relationships. If you are in an abusive or neglectful relationship, sometimes it is not savable. Sometimes a relationship heart attack is necessary to create safety and freedom for you.   

Risk Factor One - Insecure Attachment


Many diverse professionals have been studying the risk factors of physical heart health and how to heal after a heart attack, many other professionals have been studying the risk factors of relationship health and how to recover after a relationship heart attack.


One of the most significant predicting factors for a relationship heart attack is a person's attachment style and attachment history.


When people have either an anxious or avoidant attachment style, they are far more likely to experience intimate partner distress and dissatisfaction, often leading to either divorce or long-term unsatisfactory relationships. 


This is why knowing your attachment style and continuing to learn more about attachment styles is very important to protecting the heart health of your relationship. I have a simple attachment style quiz that looks at attachment style and money. You can take it here. 


I also encourage people to take the attachment-style quiz offered for free by The Attachment Project. This assessment has wonderful additional feedback about the general patterns of attachment and what they mean for your relationship health. 


Just like everyone has a physical heart, everyone has an attachment style that becomes a part of the heart of their relationship. Melanie's in-laws likely have varying depths of insecure attachment that are working against their relationship health. 


One thing to note is that relationship attachment is about what it feels like to be in a relationship with yourself and others. This is developed in the first 5 years of life and becomes encoded in our brains and bodies before we even have many words to describe what relationships feel like. 


I share this to say it is much deeper than our patterns of communication, and this is why we can’t just change our communication patterns. We have to work with our patterns of attachment and bonding. 


One of my favorite books on the topic is Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How To Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships by Dr. Diane Poole Heller. 


Risk Factor Two - Trauma So Much More Than You Might Expect


What comes to mind when you read the word trauma?


Stop and sit with it. Now let your mind relax and expand to consider a more expansive definition of trauma. 


One of the most painful realities of doing this introspective and self-refective work initially is the realization of the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. 


There continues to be more groundbreaking research across the healthcare field about the influences and impacts of childhood trauma on physical, mental, relational, spiritual, and financial outcomes in adulthood. 


Depending on where you are on your healing journey, this may feel like old news to you, but this reality for Melanie’s in-laws is hardly on their radar. From their generation, they did not consider or want to think about the complex impacts of life’s difficult experiences on the functioning of their brain, mind and body. Moreover, the research and theory to support this way of understanding the world was not well developed. 


Childhood trauma comes in a wide variety of experiences and absences of experiences. One of the most commonly sighted research studies which has decades of research behind it now is The ACE score (Adverse Childhood Experiences)


As I work with clients, I am especially attuned to experiences of childhood abuse and neglect that may still be impacting them, in many cases well into their eighties. 


Understanding is often a first step in healing no matter your age. But it is only the beginning of healing from trauma. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris the first Surgeon General of California, wrote an incredible book called The Deepest Well: Healing The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Which helps to unpack the science of childhood trauma and its impacts in a very approachable way. 


What you can do about relationship heart attacks


Relationship heart attacks don’t have to happen. They are preventable, just like heart disease and heart attacks. 


The first steps are becoming informed by the science of relationship health and childhood trauma. This is not easy, as it means that you will start to reconsider how life has shaped you and how important and meaningful relationships have shaped you literally. 


Remember the science of interpersonal neurobiology. This science helps us understand how relationships wire and re-wire our brains. We may not initially like what this science reveals, but in time it can be a source of great liberation and relationship heart health. 


If you need help sorting through and working with the impacts of insecure attachment and childhood trauma and its impact on your financial life, I would be honored to work with you as a Therapy-Informed Financial Planner™. Where I bring together the worlds of therapy and fee-only financial planning to help clients restore, develop and maintain relationship and financial well-being. 


Feel free to schedule a 30-minute consultation here


As for Melanie and her in-laws, they have a big journey ahead of them if they are open to looking at their attachment styles and childhood histories to begin the journey of healing the heart of their marriage. 


For Melaine, she may want to consider working with a couples therapist to help her and her husband work through how they want to respond to his parents. 


While this is a general statement, more often than not, women become responsible for relationships and practical caregiving as parents age. Both their own and their in-laws. This can put a tremendous psychological and financial strain on them individually and then on their own marriage. 


Gray separation and divorce don’t just impact the couple it affects the whole family system. Taking time to get help sorting through relationship heart attacks can be tremendously helpful. 


Wishing You Relationship Heart Health,
Ed Coambs - Therapy Informed Financial Planning™


Curious About Your Attachment Style? 

Take the Attachment Style Quiz now and learn how it impacts your relationships, finances, and life!