In my previous two posts, I examined Mr. Perfect and his Crazy Wife, and the Ice Queen and the Martyr. Both of those couples are easier to work with in couples counseling than #3, Mr. and Mrs. Just Not Feeling It.
Emotionally, this couple acts like they are already divorced, and have been for many years. There is rare, or no, sex, and often the partners sleep in separate rooms. The relationship can be entirely cold, sarcastic and bickering, or amicably businesslike.
This type of couple will come in to therapy often as a last resort before divorce, to tell themselves that they did everything possible to salvage the marriage. But the very narrative of the marriage makes it very hard for this couple to become motivated in treatment. Often, the couple’s story is that they never really loved each other, having gotten married too young, or without fully knowing the other, or under pressure (e.g. from a pregnancy or a looking deployment). They do not remember a time where they felt great love or passion, and therefore assume that they were just not meant to be.
There are always excuses for why they continued to stay married (I usually see them after they’ve been married for decades), including but not limited to: the kids, finances, the hope that things would improve (despite no evidence that there was ever a real upswing), and practical difficulties of dividing assets and property and maintaining two households.
This list of excuses provides me with a clue that there is more going on than meets the eye. Very few couples with the intellectual resources to find and see a couples counselor are unable to figure out how to make two households work, if that’s what they really wanted. And they certainly know how much better it would be for their children to witness a loving partnership, which could only happen for each parent after divorce. There is a connection keeping these partners together, under the surface. What could it be?
In many cases, both of these partners have an avoidant attachment style. Both were raised in households where the expression of emotions was implicitly disapproved of. Both partners may have learned that open expression of emotion is dangerous, and, further, they did not develop and practice any skills to tell others about their emotions or even to identify emotions they are currently feeling.
Therefore, when earlier in the relationship, these partners experienced hurt, or anger, or resentment, they stuffed these emotions down, and did not express them openly. The emotions either were not expressed at all, or were expressed indirectly, through barbed remarks, passive aggression, or nonverbal manipulations, like refusing sex or touch. It is likely that these defenses were learned in each partner’s family of origin as well.
In this marriage, issues are never dealt with directly, and attachment panic, or the panic that couples experience when each partner rejects the other’s bids for closeness, is never addressed. So the marriage continues to grow more and more distant over time, and often each partner turns outside the marriage to get their needs met, whether this is with an affair partner, work, the kids, or hobbies. Eventually the partners find it less painful to believe that they ever felt warmly toward each other. This is how the myth grew that the partners never had any connection in the first place.
Now, each partner realizes on some subconscious level that they may have contributed to the dysfunctionality of the marriage, which is why they are hesitant to divorce and try again with a new partner. If this second marriage were to go the same way as the first, it would be proof positive that they were in fact at fault. It is very hard for avoidant people to own their part in a problem, because they are most comfortable being perfect. In fact, the other way to conceptualize this relationship is a marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Perfect (unlike the one perfect and one “crazy” dynamic).
This is a difficult relationship to heal, but it’s not impossible. Both partners will have to admit that they are poor at expressing their emotions, and will have to slowly learn how to open up about their feelings. This will be painful, because years of unexpressed anger, bitterness, sorrow, and resentment will have to be slowly and gradually addressed. Each partner will have to take a turn with expressing their feelings about past disappointments in the relationship, and their spouse will learn to validate and empathize with these feelings.
Physical affection may be a last holdout, because the partners have entirely fallen out of practice with this, but the best approach here will be a “just do it” philosophy. Both partners will have to accept that physical affection will first seem awkward and unnatural, but, with time, could feel healing and connecting.
If this couple is you, it is unlikely that the two of you could become closer again without the intervention of a skilled therapist, because there are so many walls to break down, and your natural style is to avoid talking about problems. However, if you’d like to try to repair your relationship on your own, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is one book that might help you and your partner to finally start opening up to one another again.
Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks While There Is Life, There Is Hope (Well, I Think It, But Cicero Said It First).