Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 


An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Mending Broken Hearts: Marital All-Stars

broken heart pictureI struggled in writing this, hoping to get the tone just right.  My intention is to provide hope and support to someone.  I sincerely hope that comes across.  If it helps one couple, it will have been worth my time writing it.

As a marriage therapist, I often see many similarities across cases, and I have mentioned in previous posts that it is very easy for me to have hope for difficult cases; I see enough couples change that I know it is possible, even if I can’t accurately predict outcome.  A few weeks ago, I met with a couple I had not seen for a few months for a check-up type of appointment.  They had already completed several sessions of marital therapy and reported improvement, but were showing up occasionally just to make sure they didn’t drift back into old patterns.

In cases like this, it’s not uncommon to see some level of reversal back into previous habits.  When this couple reported that they were still doing well after 8 months, and described specifically what they were doing differently, I asked permission to describe their story with the intent of providing hope to other couples facing similar difficulties, with the understanding that identifying characteristics would be changed to protect their privacy.  I am certain that many other couples will be able to see themselves in this marriage and will know that there is a way to repair.

I will call the couple Justin and Amber.

Justin scheduled himself to come in alone because he had been depressed for a while.  In our first session, he described his depressive symptoms and told me about his marriage and family.  He said his marriage was “terrible,” and that he couldn’t remember the last time he had been physically intimate with his wife.  He spent most of his time avoiding her and said he was pretty sure she didn’t like him either.  He described their relationship as almost non-existent, except to minimally communicate about practical household management and childrearing.

Like many husbands, Justin traveled frequently, so it became easy to avoid his wife, but his loneliness and depression persisted.  Over time, his coping mechanisms for dealing with his emotional pain were viewing pornography in his various hotel rooms and visiting hotel bars occasionally to drink so he could “feel something.”  Amber had no knowledge that he had ever engaged in either of these behaviors over their 20+ year marriage.  While he was at home, he played the part of the conservative husband who didn’t ever drink or look at porn.

Justin had been to a medical doctor who prescribed an anti-depressant, but he said it only made him feel “numb,” and that he was still miserable.  I questioned him about his medical, psychological, educational, occupational, social and family backgrounds in order to understand his depression better.  Most of what he said looped back to his marital relationship.

This is what I ended up saying to Justin: “I am going to tell you what I think, and you are probably not going to like it.  You are more than welcome to pursue therapy with another therapist who may have a different opinion.  Almost everything you are telling me is related to the fact that you have to hide your coping behaviors from your spouse.”  I further explained that people who have something to hide generally create distance from their spouses and continue to stay disconnected.  I explained that even if we examined his thought patterns and emotional regulation skills, I was afraid that the fact that he was pretending to be a different person when he was with his wife would keep him stuck in his depression.  “You are living incongruently, and that almost always generates discomfort,” I continued, “As long as you continue to lie to your wife, I believe you will continue to be miserable.  I would like to help you disclose your behaviors to your wife in a way that you can be authentic and start a more genuine marriage relationship.  It’s risky.  You need to think about it and decide if it’s worth the risk, but I need you to know that I believe that until you are honest, you will continue to be depressed.”

He immediately agreed and said he knew that’s what he had to do, even though he was terrified.  I said, “I understand.  It is terrifying.  I will help you.”  Over a period of several months, his attendance at therapy was hit-and-miss.  I suspected that he was avoiding our sessions to delay the potential disruption to his marriage.  I was very patient about it, realizing that it is never effective to push people into something, but to gently guide them along at their pace.

Several months after our first session, I asked him to help me understand his spotty attendance at therapy better.  I knew he was probably afraid.  That’s exactly what he told me.  “I’m scared,” he said.  “I know,” I replied, “Tell me what you are the most afraid of.”  He answered, “That I will explode my entire marriage.”  “That could happen,” I responded, “It makes sense that you are afraid because you really have no idea how your wife will handle this.  Do you realize that in many ways you are already living as if your marriage has exploded?”  He agreed.  After that, he wrote down everything he wanted to say to his wife and we spent a few weeks preparing for a joint session with Amber.  We processed possible reactions, and I told him not to be surprised if his wife responded with LOTS of emotion.

I had Amber come in alone first to explain her side of the marriage, and she corroborated his story that the marriage was entirely disconnected, and she wasn’t sure she even cared.  It didn’t surprise me at all that she said she knew he was hiding something but she didn’t know what.  I explained that I wanted to have a joint session in which he could be more honest about what was feeding his depression, and I explained that it might be hard to hear.  She agreed to come in with him, even though she wasn’t sure herself that she really wanted to be married to him anymore.

When the day arrived a few weeks later for them to show up together, I scheduled an extra-long session and was still uncertain that they would show up.  They did.  Justin was very thorough in confessing his hidden behaviors for the previous decade.  His disclosure was very genuine and heartfelt.  I was watching Amber very carefully to see how she was receiving the information.  Predictably, she was teary, sad and angry.  Anger is a very normal response in this scenario.  Anger in some ways can help people feel more powerful and/or protected, and it can even offer temporary analgesic effects from emotional pain.

Despite the anger, Amber stayed with the grief she felt over becoming so disconnected from Justin.  Instead of raging at him, storming out of the room, or any number of angry reactions she could have had (and which I honestly expected), she gave a marriage therapist’s dream response.  I asked her what was happening for her and she said, “I’m angry, of course, but I’m mostly really sad that he feels like he has had to hide so much from me.  I’m sad that he thought I would be harsh and judgmental when I really want to help him.  I really wanted to have a better marriage.”  I had her talk to him about that, and for the first time in almost a decade, Justin could allow himself to believe that maybe Amber cared about him.

Over the next several months, the couple came in regularly.  Their improvement was non-linear (as usual), but they consistently worked at their marriage.  Amber did have episodes of being angry and just wanting to be far away from him.  I didn’t blame her.  He had been very dangerous to her by hiding his behaviors.  However, she continued to stay focused on the fact that she wanted to understand the situation as well as she could so they could repair their marriage and create a higher quality relationship for themselves and their children.  Justin continued to disclose his feelings of fear, anxiety and shame when they occurred, instead of going to his old behaviors.  He disclosed to her when he was being triggered.  She listened to him and instead of blaming and criticizing him, she tried to understand what was going on for him and asked how she could help him with his insecurities.

Over time, she also started going to him with her own vulnerabilities.  Their physical intimacy went from non-existent to mutually satisfying and regular.  Within 6 months the couple was displaying a completely different marriage than the one they had 14 months previously.  I was surprised and yet delighted when they came back several months later and said things weren’t always easy, but they were still doing things differently and staying connected.  In the words of the husband, “We can still talk about hard things.”  Wow.

I learn so much from couples like this.  This marriage worked because BOTH of the partners stuck with it and took risks and kept trying.  Sometimes I will see couples who have been greatly disappointed in their marriages, and they sometimes think they are the only ones in an imperfect marriage.  When they feel this alone, they lose hope for healing.  Some of them divorce, but possibly many more continue to stay miserable and disconnected.

This post is not an indictment of people who don’t want to trust partners who are untrustworthy.  EVERY situation is different.  In this instance, Justin felt safe enough that his wife was able to take risks with him, and there were times that she distanced herself.  There were also times when he wanted to retreat just like before.  I am sharing this post to demonstrate that there are indeed couples who face very big challenges and betrayals and end up building something better from the wreckage.

I would never recommend a betrayal as a strategy to bring marriages closer.  I can confidently state, however, that couples can sometimes use the tragedy to become more connected after the terrible incident.

I’m not naïve enough to expect that this couple could not disconnect later.  However, if they stay focused on their marriage and continue to do what they are doing, they are likely to make it easier for their children to believe in their own marriages, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational security.

They are marital all-stars.