Putting it back together (Part 3 of 3)

“There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” ― George Sand

By the time couples come for therapy, the damage, the erosion of the marital relationship, is so extensive and deep for some of them that saving the marriage is an impossibility.couples therapy

Almost immediately in couples therapy I ask clients to answer the question “Are you here for marriage therapy or do you really want help in figuring out how to extricate yourself from the marriage without hurting the children?”  In most instances, after giving it some thought, people choose the first option and we begin the difficult process of fixing what’s broken, saving and building upon what’s positive in the relationship, and throwing out anything that gets in the way of the repair and rebuilding process.

If you talk with 100 divorced individuals after the smoke, blaming and anger has cleared from the divorce process and ask them to reflect on what happened, you’ll invariably hear that “we stopped talking.”  Certainly, infidelity, drinking, or other deal-breaking behaviors will be discussed, but always, if we dig a little bit, we’ll find that a breakdown in communication, simple conversation, led to loneliness, resentment and regret and opened the door for those toxic behaviors to take root.  It boils down to becoming disconnected and apart and it starts with the communication piece.

The work of the therapist, particularly those trained in Family Systems Therapies like Minuchin’s Structural Family Therapy, will examine what was good about the couple’s relationship in the beginning, what got lost along the way, what can be resurrected, and what new structures and activities can be adopted to allow the couple to, once again, feel coupled in a way that is gratifying and fulfilling.

The process of repair always must begin with honest communication.  On the surface this may seem simple, but it’s never easy.  We’re dragging out long-held disappointment, resentment and hurt, and we’re usually assigning blame to our spouse.  Difficult to do under any circumstance, but particularly scary when we realize that the marriage and future of this (our) particular family hangs by a thread, the therapist must actively moderate, mediate and manage the communication, bringing it from darkness into the light in a way that is informative but not hurtful.

If the couple can endure the discomfort of this early stage dialogue, the chances for meaningful, self-directed communication increase dramatically.  The therapy, likewise, begins to take shape in such a way that the business of repair becomes more and more central.      

As therapy progresses and the couple feels a renewed sense of hope, it’s time for the therapist to begin the process of withdrawing.  After all, the couple can talk to each other, can enjoy being with each other and will feel a stronger, more open and better grounded sense of their couplehood.

Eventually, the therapist can leave the business of being married to the couple, safe in the knowledge that they’ve adopted new tools and mastered new skills.

Also, the therapist is clear that he’s available to the couple for future tune-ups, and knows that they’ll return to do marital maintenance work when they know it’s time for a neutral and trusted third party to be involved.     


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OnOctober 1, 2015, posted in: counseling, mental health, psychotherapy, relationships, therapy by

Why marriages break down (Part 2 of 3)

“I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see
The love you don’t feel when you’re holding me” – “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt


The Erosion of Love

Robert S. Weiss, a UMASS sociology professor, (Weiss, Robert S., Marital Separation, 1975, New York, Basic Books), offers a well-written, cogent piece which provides an up-close and personal snapshot of a PROCESS that begins in hope and ends in despair.  The work is that of a sociologist reporting, through the eyes and minds of his subjects, what it’s like to be in the midst of a difficult and often confusing life-altering period.  It is primarily descriptive but offers useful insight into the How and Why of marital breakdown.marital breakdown

Immediately following the birth of Baby Jack, one of the stars of our March Blog, significant changes began to occur in the lives of new parents John and Mary.  Among them, Mary found herself more physically and mentally exhausted than she’d ever imagined.  Care of the baby, rightly, took center stage.  John, too, was actively involved in baby care and, recognizing Mary’s fatigue, took a more active role in chores around the house.

While the baby was a source of undeniable wonderment and joy, the pleasures that were central to the Couple Relationship began to wane and, imperceptibly, John and Mary began to lose touch with one another in the Boyfriend-Girlfriend, Intimate Partner sense — which had been, since the beginning, the foundation of their lives together.

Sex was the last thing on Mary’s mind, given that being able to grab 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep had become more important.  John understood this on a cognitive level but began to feel lonely and discounted nonetheless.  And though it was the last thing John ever wanted or expected, a shadow of resentment began to cloud his life.

Precisely at this point, an essential piece of Relationship Maintenance Behavior needed to occur, but it did not.  John, whether out of a sense of compassion for his wife’s plight or, more likely, because of a sense of shame and embarrassment regarding his “unreasonable, self-centered” feelings, put the issue out of the way and decided to not talk about it.

Mary, for her part, had been feeling a vague sense of distance from John and, for whatever reasons, also neglected to identify and discuss her concerns.
Overwhelmingly, when I help clients articulate the underpinnings of their own divorces, the statement “We stopped talking to each other” is at the forefront of the dialogue.

“Did she (he) get tired or did she just get lazy?”  Yes, on the first part and Probably on the second.

In any case the “We just grew apart. We no longer knew and weren’t really interested in who we’d become.” is always, ALWAYS, a consequence of a breakdown in communication.

The Erosion starts there.

Next month, let’s take a look at Repair and Rebuilding…

- Mark

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Why marriages break down (Part 1 of 3)

Salvador Minuchin, MD, a brilliant Argentinian psychiatrist and the creator of Structural Family Therapy (Minuchin, S. (1974) Families and Family Therapy, Harvard University Press), offers us a framework for understanding families as coherent and dynamic systems which evolve and change over time.  As these changes occur, naturally and organically, the system often undergoes stress which requires the members of the system to adapt and change expectations and behavior in order to maintain balance within the system.  When the requisite adaptation does not occur the system becomes unbalanced and, to one degree or another, dysfunctional.  Phew!new parents, baby, relationships

John meets Mary for the first time.  The encounter is pleasant.  There is often a “click,” chemistry…  pleasure enough to make a second meeting desirable.  In time they develop a more solid attraction.  Friendship grows and they evolve into an exclusive, romantic and intimate pair.  They become a couple.  They become a system.

Soon, they recognize the strength of their love and the mutuality of their goals and decide to make a commitment for life and they become engaged.

Life is good!  They are deeply involved with and interested in one another.  They are untouchable.  Each is the center of the other’s universe.  They have fun.  They plan.  They dance and kiss and make love (with someone they love.)  They are truly and deeply engaged.  They are still a system.

They marry.  Their identities shift.  They are still John and Mary but now, also, Husband and Wife.  Life is good!

They set up housekeeping, buy what they need to buy, and begin their lives as a “Married Couple.”

They work out rules:  division of labor, meshing of schedules, reworking of social networks and activities, how money is handled, how their respective families will interface, etc.  They are growing, communicating and enjoying the new journey, glad to have made the decision to marry for life.  Life is still good!

And now for the next big shift in the system: Mary gets pregnant, has a complicated pregnancy and, finally after nine anxiety-ridden months, delivers the fabulous 7 lb 10 oz, 22” Johnny Jr., who they elect to call Jack.  A joyous event!

But not so fast!

This is when the system shifts dramatically.  New, unexpected challenges are imposed upon the couple.  Important work must begin to maintain health and balance in the developing family system.

If it does not occur, this… out of a backdrop of celebration and joy…  is where the ultimate breakdown of a happy, hopeful marriage begins.

The April Blog installment will explain the Why and How of marital breakdown.  Why it happens and How it can be managed.

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OnFebruary 1, 2015, posted in: mental health, relationships by