When I meet couples for marriage counseling at my office in Salisbury, North Carolina, they are usually uncertain and apprehensive. At least one of them probably doesn’t want to be there. One partner may think everything is fine while the other is all but ready to file for divorce.
“Tom and Tina, so good to meet you,” I say. “What brings you in today?.” They look at each other, neither wanting to be the first to speak. Finally, Tina speaks up. “We have communication problems.” Tom nods in agreement and then they sit and wait, hoping I will hand them the magic solution.
Instead, I go for some details. “Let’s see, you’ve been married 10 years. Three children. You both work. Must be a busy household.”
They launch into a recital of their complex and truly busy schedules. The way he travels for work and she is left to do everything for the household and the kids, and how hard it is to reconnect when he gets back home.
“When you do manage to find an hour to be together—what happens?”
“We fight. Tina is always complaining. We can never just have an ordinary conversation,” Tom says.
“Of course we can’t,” Tina retorts, crossing her arms and moving as far away as possible on the couch. “Because you won’t talk. I might as well be talking to a wall! Either that or you blow up!”
“Yeah, well I stay quiet because I know I can’t ever say the right thing. But I can only take so much,” Tom’s voice trails off as he stares at the carpet.
Now we’re getting down to it.
“So Tina brings things up. Tom, you keep quiet until you can’t take it and then you explode and the fight is on. Am I right?”
They both nod, agreeing on at least this one thing.
“So how does it end?”
“I finally just leave,” Tom says. “I go for a walk or get on the computer.” Tina gets on her phone. Eventually, we go to bed and the next day we go on as if nothing happened.”
I hazard a guess, “But two days or two weeks later it all happens again?” “It’s a roller coaster,” Tina says and Tom nods in agreement.
Tom and Tina are representative of many couples that I see for marriage counseling. Typically, one partner is a pursuer, driven to resolve things—and the other is a withdrawer, intent on keeping the peace and preventing unnecessary fights.
The pursuer comes off as critical and blaming, leaving his or her partner feeling attacked. While the withdrawer gets defensive and shuts down. They go round and round—the more she pursues the more he withdraws and the more he withdraws the more she pursues.
Until one of them blows up—or gives up. It’s a negative cycle that repeats over and over.
Both are doing their best to protect themselves and the relationship but all either can see is how the other is ruining it. Both feel desperately unhappy and alone.
The first step toward getting past the impasse and finding the communication and connection they are longing for is changing the negative cycle. Since it has been in place for years it can take months to undo it. The key to successful marriage counseling is staying the course, accepting baby steps as progress, learning to forgive and let go, and eventually accepting your partner with all his or her foibles.
Repairing a bond that has been stretched thin or frayed to the breaking point is neither simple nor easy. But emerging with a stronger marriage and a more secure connection is so worth it!
Also published on Medium.