Generally one spouse within a drifting marriage notices first that there is a disconnect or loss of closeness. Usually, this spouse is the wife, says marriage and family therapist Tim Heck, PhD. Women just tend to be more in tune with the emotional health of the marriage, he says.
Depending on how she (or he) addresses the issue and is responded to, the relationship may go in different directions. Hopefully, the other spouse will understand that a perceived disconnect is still a disconnect, and will be motivated to work together to solve the problem. This happens in relationships where there is a balance of respect and power, and a mutual desire to stay connected. If approached in an ideal manner (“I feel…” or “I miss you”), the other spouse may respond very positively.
Sometimes the spouse who is hearing the concerns will feel attacked and will instead become defensive. And sometimes he (or she) doesn’t see a problem and is not at all motivated to change. Maybe he even knows there is a problem, is not committed to improving the marriage, or has one foot outside the marriage.
The latter scenarios can lead to an imbalance of power in the relationship, with one spouse asking for more, and the other spouse pulling away. In these couples, there is often an imbalance of respect, too, says Dr. Heck. As one partner pulls away, it’s natural for the other spouse to pursue them, but it continues to distribute the weight toward the partner who is pulling away. The pursuing spouse loses respect in the process—often self-respect as well as respect from the distancing spouse.
A skilled therapist can often help this couple get back on track. Dr. Heck says he often recommends in order to re-stabilize the relationship that the pursuer pull back. This can work effectively unless the spouse who is pulling away has already reached a point of “seemingly no return,” where perhaps there has been an affair or emotional alienation. In these cases, pulling back may be a catalyst for the emotional divorce to turn into a real divorce, says Dr. Heck.
Another scenario that sometimes occurs involves the pursuer becoming frustrated after sometimes years of trying to get their spouse to respond. By the time the distancing spouse realizes the marriage is in crisis, the pursuer has given up and has made plans to end the marriage. Dr. Heck sometimes hears from husbands in this situation, who are suddenly willing to read anything and do anything and want to be in counseling immediately; however, the wife has lost her motivation due to years of unresponsiveness from her spouse.
Understanding of these kinds of patterns and causes and effects are what makes a trained therapist so helpful during crisis periods. For instance, a wife may be working to do anything to win her husband’s love back, but in the process be pushing him further away. The problem is not the wife, but the husband’s lack of motivation. Unfortunately, couples may wait an average of seven years before seeking professional assistance. During those years much damage can be done, and sometimes the spouses are too far apart to come back together.
Of course, Dr. Heck recommends preventive strategies to help keep marriages from reaching these crisis points. “Friendship is so vital,” he says. “Have fun together. Be a student of each other’s life. Don’t develop two different worlds. Be aware of and on top of what is going on in each other’s life. Maintain regular conversation. Take care of the marriage even if it means pulling away from the kids.”
Dr. Heck also recommends bringing faith into the marriage. “Praying together makes a great deal of difference,” he says.
Whether couples are doing well or in counseling due to a crisis, Dr. Heck suggests focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses. “If you keep talking about your problems, it tends to get depressing,” he says, adding that this “problem approach” is not highly motivating. The average spouses he sees have good motives for their actions, but are dealing with entrenched conflict or disintegration. The strength-based approach calls out the good, even within less-than-good situations.
Finally, Dr. Heck says the sexual relationship within a marriage often becomes a metaphor for the rest of the relationship. Sometimes couples are afraid to address this, but “you give them a language to address all areas.” They may not have broached the topic before, but therapy “gives them permission to talk about the untalkable.”
I found Dr. Heck’s insights to be thought-provoking. What do you think?
Have you thought about the balance of respect and power in marriage in this manner? Have you experienced an imbalance in the past that you were able to rebalance?
Photo Credit: ©PhotoXpress.com