Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Romance

When Love Gets Messy, Keep it Simple

Photo courtesy of Gray Wren photography
Photo courtesy of Gray Wren photography

Before I became a couples therapist, I never realized how many people dread Valentine’s Day.  It seems like every year for the few weeks preceding the Lover’s holiday, I hear varying complaints from many of my clients.  They all basically express the sentiment that when things aren’t going well in a romantic attachment relationship, Valentine’s Day seems mocking and only highlights the pain of disconnection or conflict felt in the relationship.

Love can indeed seem very messy.  Consider the following scenarios, each of which represents an amalgamation of situations I have witnessed repeatedly.

  1. A wife discovered very early in her marriage that her husband had a history of viewing pornography.  Over the years, their pain and disconnection reached overwhelming levels and they have a marriage that looks more like a business partnership.  She has no interest in sharing the same bed, and they both express feeling lonely.
  2. A husband discovered that his wife had been having an extramarital affair with his best friend from college, and that they had been secretly meeting for a few years.
  3. A wife discovered that her husband had set up a profile on a singles website.
  4. A husband disclosed that for the previous decade, while he was traveling, he was meeting women in bars across the country.
  5. A wife disclosed in therapy that she remembered feeling more “chemistry,” with an old boyfriend and was having a difficult time wanting to engage in close physical contact with her husband.
  6. A husband and wife both experienced instances of physical and sexual abuse and have low levels of trust for people in general, making it difficult for either of them to ever feel safe in a relationship with another individual; as a result, the only time they are close is when they are fighting.

Each of these cases represents couples who originally got married because they felt like they were “in love,” and presumably expected that it would stay that way.  Obviously addictions, affairs and abuse are destructive forces in marriage, but even in the absence of these major deleterious influences, many people who married because they “fell in love,” see their partners as their greatest sources of pain.  Many, many people experience the “marital drift,” which is a common byproduct of the various external demands intrinsic to raising a family.

What to do when pink and red hearts are everywhere, pressuring even the most disconnected to get in the game?

Quite simply, keep it simple.  I am a big believer in authenticity.  I think people get into a lot of trouble when they try to pretend like something is different than it really is.  In other words, I believe in acknowledging the elephant in the room.  I had a male client express how pressured he felt about Valentine’s Day and asked how to handle it, since the marriage was clearly distressed and the couple had both caused each other a lot of pain which hadn’t had time to heal yet.

“What do I say?” he asked.  “It just feels dark when right now we can barely stand to be in the same room with each other.  Am I supposed to buy jewelry and a card and pretend like everything’s okay?  She’ll just throw it back at me anyway.  The whole thing just feels oppressive.”  I explained that it wouldn’t make any sense for him to lie to his wife about how he felt about the marriage, because she was already acutely aware of his hopelessness, and she would know if he was faking it.

“Do buy a card,” I suggested, “But express kind and hopeful sentiments which are also true.”

My answer is the same to anyone in a similar situation.  I recommend starting where you are at and reorienting interaction toward the future toward the type of relationship you are hoping to build.  If there has been a lot of pain in the relationship, acknowledge it.  It’s also okay to apologize and express regret for past damaging behaviors.  However, talk about what you would like to happen in the relationship.  Here are some examples of things to say:

“I know there has been a lot of pain in our relationship.  I wish we felt more connected now.  I am hoping to get to the point where we can connect at a deeper level and heal from the past.”

“It’s hard to think about the sadness in our relationship.  I want it to be better.  I’m not sure exactly what to say, but I want to try.”

“I feel bad that we are both so lonely.  I want to start building a more secure friendship in the marriage.”

Another idea is to remember times in the past when the relationship didn’t feel distressed.  For some couples, that may mean having to go back to when they were dating, because for many, it felt difficult from the beginning.  That’s okay.  Again, start where you are at.  Keep it simple.

There is nothing quite so exciting for me as a couples therapist than to see a relationship colored with pain actually begin to heal and shed the oppressive, dark feelings.  It can be done, and it is done….more than I think people realize.

And Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to start!

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