Who, or what is killing the marriage? When we originally got together as a couple, we loved being together. We understood each other, wanted the same things, enjoyed a healthy sex life, and, perhaps most importantly, had a sense of belonging at home and in bed with this person.
Three or four…or seven or eight…or fifteen or sixteen years later, the picture looks very different. We don't enjoy being together; talking is a strain, often leading to nowhere, or to argument; we have stopped kissing, and don't seem to desire each other sexually. John and Julie Gottman, the eminent couples therapists and couples therapy theorists, talk about key behaviors that can predict divorce, including criticizing, stonewalling and contempt. We are now doing these behaviors.
The "murder-mystery" is: what happened? We wonder, uneasily, whether it was a recent observable, identifiable change—a job or career change, a disappointment, living with mother-in-law, a move, having children—that has derailed the relationship? Or, we wonder, was it something intrinsic in us, some hidden defect or character flaw that has, since we first became a couple, become magnified so as to cause trouble? Was the problem there, all along, and we simply didn't see it?
If you are a couple whose relationship is showing symptoms of derailment, both of you will be very unhappy. Anger, and the miserable feeling of being unloved, will stalk the relationship. One of you may be more desperate than the other for a particular improvement to occur, like resuming a full sex life, or for your spouse to make a significant change or lifestyle concession. One of you may cajole the other into couples therapy.
Counseling and therapy is about development. We, each of us, are beings on the same developmental continuum. When we first partner up, theory tells us, we do so, unerringly and instinctively, with someone having more or less the same developmental level in terms of our congruence. When we are more congruent, we are more fully in touch with our inner experience and able to communicate that adaptively; in relationship we are more able to disclose and ask, kindly, appreciatively, thoughtfully, vulnerably, and consciously and reasonably, for what we desire. When we are less congruent—younger, less mature—our communication with ourself and our spouse is more "hit or miss."
When we first get together, we do not notice the hit-or-miss element. Our communication seems fine, to begin with. Couples having "more or less the same developmental level" trade or exchange their developmental "blind spots" in a way that, at first, works beautifully. I'm shy—you're gregarious or feisty: together as a couple we function well in society. I'm carefree—you are more cautious and circumspect: together as a couple we manage to have wild time of it without undue risk.
What kills the equilibrium of the couple's developmental pact is uneven or divergent development. One of us becomes more congruent. I grow out of my shyness. But look what then happens: we become unbalanced as a couple. You needed me to be shy, so you could overindulge in being feisty and gregarious—and hide your own shyness out of sight. Now I'm no longer so shy, your overindulgence has no compensation from me, and, suddenly, your feisty gregariousness seems out of place, annoying and immature to me.
Or…you are now more able to balance your excessive cautiousness, having found and connected with your inner carefree spirit. You used to value my sense of certainty—but now my convictions seem to you like obsessions. Neither spouse is getting a good deal from the spousal relationship and we have reached the slippery slope. We begin the cycle of criticizing, stonewalling and contempt. Our uneven development is squeezing the joy out of the marriage.
The work of the couple's therapist is to facilitate congruent communication and developmental convergence between the spouses. Each spouse is gently helped to the realization that the developmental genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The goals-based intervention of psychoeducation is used to reduce/eliminate the damaging behaviors of criticizing, stonewalling and contempt. The process-based work involves helping the spouses communicate their vulnerability and need for each other.
It is possible—even likely—that one or both spouses have a hidden developmental vulnerability that is too sensitive to talk about. This is why we stonewall, or try to urge the genie back into the bottle. Our dilemma, in these cases, is that we dare not go with the couples therapist to the place to which we need to go to rectify our marriage.
If the couple's problem is configured in this way, it may not be easily treatable by standalone couples therapy. I recommend the vulnerable spouse—and this may apply not only to one, but to both spouses—seek individual therapy to overcome the developmental block, and that during this time the couples therapy proceed at a measured pace. While the individual therapy will be more process-based (ie psychodynamic, relational), the couples therapy will be more goals-based (ie cognitive-behavioral, problem-solving). Thus the couple will be equipped with adaptive strategies to contain conflict and rekindle respect, while the vulnerable spouse(s) pursue(s) the necessary developmental work in the individual sessions.
In these cases and where the clinician conducting the individual sessions has a systemic orientation and consults with the couples therapist/other individual therapist, demonstrable improvement in the relationship can occur within three to six months. The marriage is on the mend.
When therapy starts we do not know if we will mend the marriage with converged development or whether we will accept and live with our developmental divergence. In either case, what we are mending is our wellbeing, and our future. If we will do the work in therapy, we will become stronger, more resilient, and more adaptive. What before seemed impossible and inconceivable becomes practicable and satisfactory, allowing us to forgive and love our own and our spouse's vulnerabilies and better accommodate to each other.