Several weeks ago, comedienne Janeane Garofalo acknowledged that she had been married for 20 years and never knew it. Apparently, even the knowledge that you’re married, when it happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
While Ms. Garofalo was undoubtedly not constrained by a marriage she never knew she had, individuals and couples who bring their marriage concerns to us are in a very different situation: They consider themselves married, when in fact their marriages “stopped” some time ago. Partners grow into a state of chilly, occasional conversation punctuated by major arguments. This arrangement is highly constraining, as partners feel trapped in patterns of relating that seem impossible to change.
As therapists, our task is to understand how couples create these patterns. This goes beyond the usual “help with communication” that many cite as their primary need. It’s convenient to identify communication issues as the core problems in a couple’s relationship. But it rarely tells the entire story, because communication often isn’t the biggest issue. Spouses tend to benefit from their patterns, often without realizing it.
Maybe the emotional distance between spouses keeps them from facing deeper issues. Maybe the husband believes that if he cares for his wife differently, she will want more of his time, and he doesn’t want to give that up. Or perhaps the wife is more comfortable talking about how her husband doesn’t relate well with her than actually doing the relating.
Each couple has unique ways of developing their relationship, and it may require unique, and at times, surprising changes to move forward into something more fulfilling. The focus for each partner is on changing what he/she can change rather than on what the other can change. I’ve not interacted with a couple in which both partners didn’t have significant opportunities to create changes, as long as there is courage to do so.