FAQs: Marriage & Relationships
My partner won’t go to a marriage counselor. Would it do any good to go by myself?
Yes, this can be quite constructive on many levels:
- It can help you learn what part you may be playing in the marital discord and to clean that up.
- It can help you understand your partner better and that can lead to a new way of relating which will make things less volatile.
- It can lead to you feeling better about yourself and about your partner. Often this is a bit contagious and your partner will want some of what you are getting.
- Usually the partner who won’t go fears that he or she will be blamed for all of the problems in the relationship. When they see that you are not coming home blaming them they tend to soften their stance.
Tell me something about how you work with couples or with individuals who want to understand their partner better.
I see myself as kind of an interpretive guide, helping each side to understand the other. The masculine mind and the feminine mind are quite different in the way they approach life. The good news is we each have a touch of the other in us as well as our dominant side. This gives us a starting point which we can use to get to a common ground. Because I was raised in a family of all boys and because I raised a family of all girls, and because I’ve done a lot of personal work I have gained a really good understanding of the world from both viewpoints. My years in engineering have honed my masculine analytical skills, and my years in the helping professions have honed my feminine feeling and relating skills. I enjoy explaining one world to the other, without making either side wrong, and watching the peace and forgiveness that comes to couples as they find a common ground of understanding. Both ways of seeing are valid yet incomplete. The truth always lies at a balanced point somewhere in the middle.
What makes marriages fail and how are they rescued?
In one sense there are about as many answers to this question as there are couples. But, in another there are some general trends and trajectories that many couples follow. This is the generic marital journey that I have seen more times than I can count.
You start out with the best of intentions, and oh so in love. Then a few short years later you can hardly stand to look at one another. What went wrong?
We are all looking for someone to fill our secret fantasy picture of what it looks like to be in relationship. We want someone to love us, honor us, nurture us, trust us, build us up, read our minds, and all unconditionally. To get this we try to be just what our partner is looking for. It all seems to be working. The world is right. This is romantic love.
People freshly in love start with a lot of positive projections onto one another. We grant our partners so much good will, so much benefit of the doubt. We assign them fantasy roles in the drama of life we are producing. We even find their quirks to be charming. Now, those very quirks we found so charming we find so disgusting and embarrassing.
Basically, when we are newly in love we are high on endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine, those feel-good chemicals secreted by the brain when things are going well. In this rosy glow we tend to see the world a bit more positively. But, after a while we start to notice things about our partner that we had overlooked, maybe because we were blind in love, or maybe because they hid them from us. Then we start to worry that things may not work out. We get a little scared, or maybe little resentful. That’s when we start to try to control things to make them better. We try to force our partner to match the picture we created of how it would be. We can see what’s wrong with our partner and what they need to do to change. It’s all so clear from over here. We plead a little, we nag a little, we stomp our foot and demand a little. We try to tune out our demanding partner. They turn up the volume because we obviously didn’t hear them. While we were high on endorphins it was easy to be what our partner wanted, but now that biochemical exhaustion has set in these little demands from our partner are met with resentment and resistance. The full blown power struggle has set in.
Who’s going to control this relationship? "If (s)he really loved me (s)he would change for me!" The demands begin to escalate. Our resistance to being manipulated grows with our partner’s demands. We must hold our ground or we will lose what little we have left of our ‘true’ self. Arguments start and the sulking begins. With each battle we bring out heavier weaponry. The damage grows and the resentment builds. We may even begin to fight dirty. This is survival, baby!
But, we are still hopeful of saving it. We haven’t tried every avenue yet. Maybe if we just get that perfect job. Maybe if we just buy a house together. Maybe if we just have kids it will draw us back together. It will make the picture look right again. But, it doesn’t. It just delays having to deal with the underlying problems that are driving you apart. For the sake of the investments, for the sake of the kids, you stay together, with the resentment waning and waxing, but all the while growing from season to season.
Before long one of you reaches your limit and feel you have to leave. Then, like a gift from God someone new crosses your path. Someone with no track record, no past hurts. Someone you can project all good things on while projecting all bad things onto your partner. This dichotomy of the new perfect partner and to old evil one helps you feel justified in having an affair. My partner just doesn’t understand me. My new affair person is everything I’ve ever wanted.
When the affair is exposed, a dull simmering conflict breaks out into WWIII. This is the make or break moment for the marriage. The finality of it all can be quite sobering. Divorce or try to pull it back together?
If you think getting divorced will make things magically better, you’re in for a shock. You will carry your mistaken beliefs and desires into the next relationship without even realizing it. You will play them out again with the new person. And, maybe again, and again.
You see, these things that we think we need, and our relationship destroying behaviors, are stored deeply in the unconscious mind. Freud said the conscious mind to the unconscious is like a flea to an elephant. We have only a fleeting glimpse of what we really want. So, we always think it is our partner’s fault, when in reality it is both of us. Attributing all the problems to that evil partner only makes matters worse.
In marital therapy we do a number of things. We first have to reach an agreement that we will try to work together to solve your problems in good will and good time. This takes getting through the ambivalence of the partner who wants to leave. We need to address the emergency issues, which are usually the ones that bring the couple through the door.
Then you have to be willing to look at your own contributions to the problem. You have to be willing to look at your behaviors and attitudes that you were born with and that you learned in childhood as well as the ones that seemed to appear only in the last few years. We have to see which ones of those are helping and which are hurting the relationship. You must make a commitment and conscious effort to change and heal the destructive ones. All of this takes a large amount of what feels like swallowing your pride. This is where the skill of the therapist comes in. A therapist who is a good match for you will have you doing these things without having you feel like you are being blamed, and will give you a sense that you are on a daring adventure of growth and healing. It really can be quite fun…and, oh so rewarding.
We have to learn about forgiveness and we have to learn what it means to make amends. This doesn’t just mean I say "I’m sorry" and you say "I forgive you" and all of the past hurt is erased. It is a process, like peeling an onion. There is layer upon layer that has to be examined. True behavior change has to precede forgiveness. It takes a lot of good will to stay in the process as the healing unfolds and not fall back to the blame and resentment and being right all the time. A good therapist is like a skilled ambassador, shuttling back and forth between the two parties helping each to get what they need without either of them leaving the process feeling that they somehow lost.
In this process we learn a whole lot about ourselves. We come to forgive our shortcomings. We grow in wisdom. We learn to better read our partner intuitively. We get to know each other on a whole new level, a deeper, more real level, which makes us feel connected again. But, this time not just in fantasy, but grounded in a more spiritual dimension of really knowing and appreciating the essence of the person we are committed to. This is mature love.
I have seen this process work again and again for couples who really want to pull it back together and I always feel so privileged to be a part of the miracle that is a relationship healing.
Why is the divorce rate so high these days, and is divorce something that happens with a lot of your clients?
Second question first. No, most of my clients find a way to pull their marriages back together. I have been married (to the same woman) for over 33 years. I strongly believe in marriage, and my conscious and unconscious beliefs are that almost any marriage, no matter how bad it has gotten can be saved if that is the desire of both of the partners; sometimes even if it is only the strong desire of one of the partners. Now, there are people who got married for the wrong reasons to the wrong person, or who because of their abused childhoods have ended up with and abusive partner. If they can’t find a way to come to a place where both of their needs are getting met divorce may be appropriate. In that case I can be great deal of help in re-visioning a new relationship path and grieving and letting go of the old without all of the resentment and blame that are so damaging to both partners and the children.
Now for the first part of the question: I believe the divorce rate is so high today because the shame and stigma of divorce lifted in the 60’s, the courts have made it much easier, and because we live in a society that perpetuates the myth that you can have it all now. We have had such good fortune in this country that we have become a bit too entitled. We fall into the thought trap that we deserve riches, we deserve happiness, and we deserve to have someone else take care of us; all without having to work for it; and all right now! Look around. How many people do you see taking shortcuts to try to get to the top? This is the dark underbelly of the American dream. Some people have lost sight of the big picture. If you want something badly you invest of yourself and set your sights on that distant prize and work hard over a long period to get there. This is the way you build fortune, this is the way you build happiness, this is the way you build relationships. And, the journey is its own reward.
Why are good relationships so hard to find?
Because good relationships are not found, they are built. Waiting for a good relationship to find you is like “shootin’ up some food and up from the ground come a bubblin’ crude.” Any business person will tell you that if you want to build a fortune you have to learn the ways of business and then strategically go about putting together the elements that make a business, then spend years nurturing them into fruition. Any gardener will tell you the same thing about growing a beautiful garden that will nurture you and bring you peace of mind. Any teacher will tell you the same thing about becoming an intellectually fulfilled person. Why would relationships be any different? You have to spend a period of time learning the basics of relating (this usually takes place in childhood, but some people didn’t have very good teachers/models). Then you have to do the work on yourself so that you can relate out of who you really are and not the façade you built to try to win your parent’s love. Then you have to build a common base together with both of you pulling in the same general direction. Working with a skilled therapist is the best way, as an adult, to fill in the missing pieces in your relationship knowledge and to get the coaching and cheerleading that help to keep your relationship on track when it starts to veer off.