I received more comments about my article “What does it take to sustain passion?” (published March 3, 2005) than any article that I have written. Most of the comments that I received were from people who told me that my article had accurately described the sense of emotional distance and disconnection that they feel in their marriage. People related to my description of how couples lose touch with each other and how such losing touch can lead to sexual issues between the spouses. Over time, such emotional disconnection becomes more and more destructive and leads to broader deterioration of the emotional ties between the couple.
Marriage is most difficult when partners have lost respect and empathy for each other. Couples experiencing that kind of pain come into therapy desperately wanting help and often pessimistic about whether or not they will ever again have a healthy sense of intimate connection with each other. Such fears maintain distance between the partners. Neither of them wants to be hurt more than they already are. This fear of being further hurt results in continued defensiveness, which perpetuates the pain and distance that separates the couple.
Healing and growth in marriage requires a “leap of faith” that things can be different, that we and our partners can learn how to respond differently to stressful, painful situations. This kind of growth is called “Differentiation”, something that have I written about before in previous articles. Those articles are also posted on my website.
Couples who define a “vision” for their marriage are better able to make this necessary leap of faith. A vision for marriage is like a business plan for corporations- it defines a philosophy and goals and establishes parameters by which performance can be measured. A couple’s vision for their marriage helps them identify both their strengths and the specific areas in their relationship that need work.
Defining a vision for one’s marriage involves each partner thinking and communicating about their core values, what they want for themselves and each other, and how these values and wants are incorporated into the different facets of the marriage. This kind of exercise is something that is often done as part of pre-marital counseling or programs like “Engaged Encounter”, but is rarely done in an ongoing way after marriage.
It is beneficial for couples to regularly review their vision for their marriage. Doing so helps couples ensure that their marital vision is evolving and responsive to the challenges that life and marriage bring. When couples think and talk about how the realities of their marriage compare with their vision for their marriage, they will be more aware of the areas of the marriage that need work and better able to focus their constructive efforts towards improvement, thus moving closer to the ideals of their marital vision.
One of the best descriptions that I have seen of the work of marriage comes from an article entitled “Happily Ever After” published in the November 12,1995 edition of “The Family Therapy Networker”. The authors Judith Wallerstein and Susan Blakeslee define what they regard as “The nine tasks of a close relationship”.
To detach emotionally from the families of childhood, commit to the relationship, and build new connections with the extended families.
To build togetherness through intimacy and to expand the sense of self to include the other, while each individual carves out an area of autonomy.
To expand the circle to include children, taking on the daunting roles of parenthood from infancy until the child leaves home.
To confront the inevitable developmental challenges and the unpredictable adversities of life, including illness, death, and natural disasters, in ways that enhance the relationship despite suffering.
To make the relationship safe for expressing differences, anger, and conflict, which are inevitable in any marriage.
To establish an imaginative and pleasurable sex life.
To share laughter and humor and to keep interest alive in the relationship
To provide the emotional nurturance and encouragement that all adults need throughout their lives, especially in today’s isolating culture.
To sustain the innermost core of the relationship by drawing sustenance and renewal from the images and fantasies of courtship and early marriage and maintain that joyful glow over a lifetime.
I have found it useful to give this list to my clients and to ask them how this compares to what they want for their relationship. I have yet to have any client tell me that these nine things are not important to them. As my clients develop their vision for their marriage, they are better able to develop a plan for positive change. I hope that this list will be useful to you as you think about what you want in your marriage and how to make the most of it.
Peter Roussos, MFT (Lic MFC 34711)
Couple, Individual and Family
Address: 1125 Camino Del Mar, Suite F, Del Mar, CA 92014
Tel: (858) 755-2505
Fax: (858) 755-1621
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