I felt a wave of revulsion as I read their file: They both had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. The husband had raped his 12-year-old stepdaughter six months before and his wife's response had been to relinquish custody of the girl to her own mother so that she could continue to live with Mr. Wonderful.
Only she hadn't been thinking of him as especially wonderful recently. Curiously enough, this had nothing to do with him raping her daughter. Both husband and wife shrugged that off as understandable drunken behavior. This couple had been court-ordered into rehab and found themselves clean and sober for the first time in their eight year marriage. They weren't sure they even liked -- let alone loved -- each other sober.
And so they were sitting before me, their anger escalating as they cursed each other in English and Spanish. I watched for a moment or two, aghast. Finally, awkwardly utilizing one of the techniques I had learned in couples counseling classes but had never applied in real life, I interrupted them and, attempting to bring them back to a happier time in the relationship and to discover the glue that held the relationship together, I asked them how they met and first came to love each other.
They stopped fighting in mid-scream and stared at me, suddenly united in their total disdain for this counseling novice before them. The wife's lip curled slightly as she replied "We had the same crack dealer, okay?"
The couples that followed -- court-ordered couples during my internship, less volatile but nonetheless troubled couples in my private practice -- were somehow never quite so challenging as that first couple, but all were in obvious pain.
Marriage counseling can be intense and is quite different from individual psychotherapy. In individual work, there is a therapeutic bond between the therapist and client. The therapist may be quiet and concentrate on listening and reflecting or may be more interactive, utilizing techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. But there is an intense one-to-one relationship. The dynamic in couples counseling, however, is quite different: the emphasis is on the bond and relationship between the two partners, with the therapist observing, jumping in, making comments and recommendations, but being careful not to side with one or the other. Instead, the emphasis is on facilitating communication and resolution between the two partners.
And through the years, the couples I saw in therapy taught me a lot about how relationships work and how they don't. Most of them were married. Some were young engaged couples. And some were long-time gay or lesbian partners whose issues tended to be quite similar to the others. Thinking back on all the couples I've seen -- both couples who saved and improved their relationships -- and those who didn't -- I think about the relationship skills and qualities that successful couples so often share.
Successful couples learn to handle anger and conflict in a direct, but non-punitive way. No marriage or love relationship is without conflict. It's how conflict is handled that can doom a relationship or facilitate its growth. Some people come into marriage with a distorted view -- perhaps a legacy of their own growing up years -- about what marital conflict entails.
For example, in statements to the press, deflecting media speculation that his young third wife Jessica was both verbally and physically abusive to him, the late Davy Jones remarked "Well, there is some verbal abuse, but isn't that the case in every marriage or relationship?" No. Verbal abuse is not a part of loving, lasting relationships.
Mature, loving couples handle their differences by discussing what is going on and how to resolve this -- minus angry accusations and judgments. That isn't to say there are no tight-jawed moments or raised voices. But there is rarely, if ever, any screaming or name-calling or, on the other hand, long sulky silences. Successful couples tend to face conflict head on, express their thoughts, resolve their issues and then go on.
My brother, who had a number of love relationships before finally marrying in midlife, marvels at the way he and his wife Amp are able to resolve problems. "We've never had what I would call a fight," he says. "We can get upset or irritated or frightened -- like when I accidentally left the gate open and we feared, for about ten minutes, that our daughter Maggie had escaped the yard and was running through the neighborhood (until we found her asleep in my home office). We stood there upset and I said that I would remember from then on to double check the lock on that gate. And Amp said quietly 'Yes, you will. We both will.' And then we hugged each other -- in relief and reconciliation. And that was it. That moment was more constructive and had much more power than a screaming fight would have had. We're true partners."
Successful couples are kind to each other. We're kind to our friends and even to strangers -- so why not to each other? It's amazing how unkind we can be to those we love most. I once saw a play that highlighted this phenomenon: a couple came to visit another couple at home and were treated, not as welcome guests, but as family members. The hosts spoke to them as they might their children or each other: "Don't do that! What were you thinking??? Clean your plate -- now! Don't put your feet up! Don't touch that!" And so on. And yet, kindness can mean so much over the years.
I first saw one couple I'll call Briana and Josh when they were in college and dating. Although they professed to love each other, they treated each other with a combination of barbed humor, screaming accusations and vicious threats. It took some time to unravel the complicated web of their life experiences and personality traits that led to this inflammatory style of loving. In the interim, I urged them to strive to be kind to each other as each struggled with internal issues. It got to a point where they would anticipate my thoughts.
"Yes, I know what you're thinking," Josh said in a session one day as he struggled to rephrase a comment that had Briana in tears. And then both he and Briana, smiling through her tears, chorused "Be kind to each other!"
The lesson finally took. They learned to be kind even in disagreement and in adversity. And, many years later, they are the happily married parents of a young son.
Successful couples don't make idle threats. A number of couples I've seen go straight to threats of divorce when angry or disappointed. The "D" word isn't something that successful partners use easily -- if ever -- during times of distance, anger or disappointment.
Even mentioning divorce as a possibility while in conflict conjures up a feeling of impermanence that can interfere with a couple's ability to work through some of the inevitable rough patches in their relationship.
There is the joke about someone asking his long-married grandmother if she and Grandpa had ever thought of divorcing during all their years and challenges together. And the grandmother replies "No, never. Murder, yes! Divorce, never!"
But there's something to that -- homicidal feelings aside. When divorce isn't on the table during your most difficult times together, you have more incentive to strive to make your relationship work for both of you.
Successful couples don't give up when the going gets tough. Among the saddest moments I have seen, over and over, in therapy have been those couples wanting to call it quits at the first disappointment, the first major disagreement, the first instance of life happening around them. Some give up so easily -- thinking that they will find someone who isn't so hopelessly human and fallible.
Some years back, my long-married friend Mary McVea, observing that many couples in their Chicago-area social circle were divorcing, said that "When I ask one of them what the critical point was, what make them decide to divorce, I'm always struck by how minor it sounds. I want to say 'You're giving up on each other over that??"
Of course, with many emotionally estranged couples, what they say is the problem may simply be the last straw -- the last of a series of betrayals.
But too many seem poised to bail out of the relationship at the first hint of trouble. And, as a therapist, I always found that sad and a challenge to encourage them to rediscover and fight for their loving commitment to each other. Sometimes it worked. And just as often, it didn't.
Successful couples don't panic during a less intimate cycle in their relationship. There are many marriages within a marriage. There are recurrent cycles of intimacy and distance, of drifting apart and then rediscovering your love for each other. Some couples have more dramatic cycles of distance and intimacy than others. Some have down cycles that coincide with the stresses of major life changes -- the birth of children or the departure of children from the family nest or work challenges or retirement. Some couples panic at this juncture, wondering if the love and closeness they once felt is gone forever. Some of these couples seek marriage counseling -- and may be able to rediscover their loving feelings. Others, knowing that every relationship weathers its share of storms, feelings of distance and joys of reconciliation, hold tight to each other and the relationship. Sadly, others panic and bail -- convinced that love is gone forever.
Successful couples want the very best for each other, making the partner a top priority in their lives. Couples have taught me over the years that love must be nurtured and treasured. People who start out with heartfelt good will, shared hopes and dreams can grow irrevocably apart if they don't give their partners and the relationship high priority in their lives -- and warm encouragement to pursue their dreams. That can be a challenge during the busy parenting and working years or times of career changes or going back to school. But it can be done.
When I returned to graduate school in my mid-forties to earn degrees in clinical psychology, I was one of relatively few married students as well as the oldest. One professor, welcoming us to the program, told us to "kiss your partner goodbye for the next few years and maybe forever. People tend to get divorced quite often in this program because of the intense academic and time demands -- on top of many of you working full-time."
But the Dean came to the podium a few minutes later to suggest "Instead of kissing your significant other goodbye, embrace him or her and ask for support and pledge your support and your love through the challenging times ahead."
I took his directive to heart. And Bob was incredibly supportive as I embarked on an eight year odyssey of graduate school, a 3,000 hour unpaid evening/weekend clinical internship while working full-time and finally, six months of written and oral licensing exams before emerging --at last -- as a psychotherapist.
While I always preferred doing individual therapy from day one, I did a lot of couples counseling because I was the oldest and only married intern at my first internship site and thus in demand by troubled couples. And by the time I was licensed, I had so much experience with couples/marriage counseling that it continued to be a major part of my private practice.
But it was emotionally demanding. And Bob was there for me the whole time. Of course, ethically, I couldn't discuss my caseload specifically with him. But during my internship, after nine hours of working with warring, tearful, distraught and sometimes abusive partners, I would come home, look at Bob with love and appreciation, and embrace him quietly. And I would say "You're so wonderful."
And he would smile and reply "Oh, my. It was that kind of day, was it?"
When I was in private practice and could handle the rigors of couples work with greater ease, Bob could still tell by looking at me when I walked in the door at night.
"You've been seeing couples tonight, haven't you?" he'd ask, knowing the answer already.
And I would tell him I loved him as I slid into his warm embrace.