This is how a client, a husband, recently described his marriage to me:
Functional but unhappy. Just like my parents. At least that’s how I saw their marriage, functional but unhappy. They looked so good from the outside, but living with them it was obvious: they both were miserable. Our home life was miserable. I swore I’d never end up like them. But here I am.
It hadn’t started that way with his wife of 22 years. Theirs had been an electrifying romance. High school sweethearts, two striking individuals, both with razor-sharp minds and wicked senses of humor: everyone around them had concurred, they seemed made for one another.
So what happened? Neither are individuals who run from adversity. Both are deeply committed to one other and to making their union successful. Together they had created a good life – a home, a successful remodeling business, while raising their three children. Yet when they walked into my office, they sat at opposite sides of the sofa scowling. When the husband described their marriage as ‘functional, but unhappy’, the wife could barely contain herself.
I’ve been complaining to Kevin for years that our marriage is in a state of crisis. But he either hasn’t believed me or he just didn’t care. Only now, when I tell him I’m done, completely done, does he sit up and take notice! It took me getting to the end of my rope to finally get his attention! How sick is that? We never talk. Or when we do, it’s awful.
Kevin chimed in with how all he ever hears from Carrie is how he never gets anything right, and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot please her.
They both agreed that for years, after their discussions they only felt worse: frayed, upset, and disconnected. Fed up and deeply discouraged about their marriage, Carrie had begun to look at apartments to rent; she was planning to move out once their kids were out of school for the summer. Something needed to change between them and quickly.
While dire, I also observed shards of relational strengths: Kevin demonstrated a willingness and knack for soothing Carrie when she was distressed. His voice was like gossamer as he reached over and took her hand. Even better, a couple of times he was able to crack a joke that got her to smile.
Once soothed, Carrie was able to genuinely acknowledge all the efforts Kevin had recently made . This, and other indicators, told me there was still some degree of emotional safety, fondness, and respect between them. These strengths would come in handy as I assisted them in tackling their various layers of discord.
What Carrie and Kevin needed was a place to dive in and sort through their issues, especially the highly-charged financial issue; a place where those behaviors that weakened or hindered productive communication could be reined in and replaced by new, more effective approaches. I suggested that, for the time being, they reserve their stressful conversations for when they were in my office, so I could assist them in processing the old hurts and coach them through new ways of communicating. Away from my office, they were encouraged to notice and voice appreciation of what the other was doing ‘well’, and to build rituals of connection.
As we dove into the work, what became evident were their different styles of conflict management (one engaged, one conflict-avoidant) and different styles of money management (Kevin felt highly anxious without a substantial amount of savings while Carrie wanted to offer their children a variety of lessons, travel, and other enriching experiences). I taught them how to identify when one or both were flooded, how to disengage, and to self-soothe. I then guided them through new processes on how to discuss finances. I coached Kevin on how to stay engaged without stonewalling and assisted Carrie in taking her small mountain of complaints and choosing the two or three most important messages she needed Kevin to hear.
As each person spoke his or her feelings and needs more clearly, their partner came forward with a heartfelt willingness to hear their spouse’s point of view. As each person explored the deeper meaning of his or her point of view, their differences became something to explore, rather than something that was ‘wrong’ about their partner. Slowly they began the process of building a bridge between their two different points of views and needs.
With success on their largest, most-highly-charged issue (finances, which had led to painful emotional disengagement), Carrie relaxed and dropped her threat to move out. Because each person was willing to take responsibility for his or her part of the negative dance, because each strove to do something different than he or she had done before, change was possible.
Together they began the journey to create the loving and harmonious relationship they both desired.