Sunday, March 09, 2008

Should Your Marriage Be Saved?

One of the most troubling questions I encounter during the first session of therapy with couples is "Should we work on our marriage or should we end it?"

My answer is always the same. "I assume if you have taken the time to call me and discuss this question with a marriage therapist then their answer is 'yes.' Otherwise, you would be seeing a divorce lawyer."

Never go to a marriage therapist and expect them to answer this question any other way. To do otherwise, is like going to a doctor and asking whether or not you should live, or give up and die. A doctor is in the business of saving lives. It's the same with a marriage therapist who assists couples in repairing marriages. I never presume a couple wants to end their commitment, and let their marriage die.

Divorce is often a lack of imagination about how to live in a committed relationship. The real feeling that exists behind a couples' statement that they wish to end their marriage often is, “We are exhausted by trying the same old patterns and encountering the same failure. Can you give us any ideas how we can be different in this relationship?”

Now that is an excellent place to begin. So lets explore the possibilities.

After thirty years of doing marriage counseling, I have found that, in most cases, within thirty minutes of listening to a couple, I can see what needs to change in a marriage. Of course, most couples are not ready to hear what I can see after listening to them for just thirty minutes.

They first want to complain, release their anger, and express their frustration. Then, perhaps, they're ready to hear what is needed to repair the damage.

Marriage counseling is not rocket science. It involves a basic comprehension of couple dynamics and the skills to help the couple see what it is they need to do differently in order to heal their marriage.

Although marriage counseling may not be a complicated process, I would say that marriage is the most complicated human relationship I know of. It is more complex than parent / child, employee / employer, or any other family relationship. Why is this so?

It's complicated because, in order for it to work, the modern institution of marriage must be an equal relationship. In the work place, democracy doesn’t rule. The boss is in charge. In the parent child relationship, the parents are in charge, or they should be. As many parents have found out the hard way, setting boundaries for one's children is the only parenting style that enables children to feel secure enough to become responsible, self-confident adults.

But in marriage, the two partners need an equal relationship. If your relationship is not equal, it will breed a power struggle. When one spouse holds more power than the other, eventually that relationship must come unglued. The reason is simple. An imbalance in the distribution of power will create disrespect and passive aggressive behavior. The more powerful spouse will disrespect the weaker one, and the weaker one will express their hostile feelings in a passive-aggressive manner.

This imbalance of power is at the heart of most marital problems. It affects the self-esteem of both individuals in the relationship and results in the one who is weaker sabotaging the one who is more powerful.

Many marriages of this kind are held together by the negative use of power. For example, traditionally men have the power over money, while women have the power over sex. As a result, in marital therapy, sex and money are the two most disputed issues. But, most declared problems are not the real problem. The real issues lie under the surface and have never been deeply examined. The couple must look beyond their money and sex issues to see the underlying power struggle that has created their dsyfunctionality. Until they see this deeper dynamic, they will go around in circles fighting and struggling, complaining and hurting each other, but never really knowing what is at the route of their problems.

In my experience, most couples blind themselves to their real issues, preferring to instead fight about issues that are merely symptoms of these underlying issues. Until the real issues are addressed, the couple will never heal.

Enter the competent marriage therapist. He should see the underlying dynamic of a marriage and have the experience to guide the couple to heal their original wounds.

Not getting to the bottom of the real issues is like the story of the princess and the pea under the mattress. No matter how many mattresses she placed on top of the original mattress, until the pea is found and removed, will she not be able to sleep. Good marriage therapy finds the pea under the mattresses, and teaches the couple how to remove the disruptions that are causing their strife.