Over the last three years I have had the opportunity to sit with married couples, listen to their concerns and provide counsel. Issues have ranged from mistrust to problems with sexual intimacy. Each person in the relationship comes to counseling for different reasons, but the outcome is always the same, they are hurt and want to be heard.
As a therapist, my goal is to assess the severity of the relational problem/s and prescribe a specific course of treatment, much like a doctor would for a physical illness. Keep in mind what I am writing here is more experiential, rather than a data driven researched-based piece. Many of the couples I see face a vast chasm of separation that has slowly occurred over the many years they have been together. Whatever relational equity they had at the beginning has been spent and they find themselves fighting to not find reasons for divorce. In my experience, I have found that it is not common for couples to one day wake up and say they want a divorce. The decision to divorce is usually a long and arduous one that causes lots of anxiety and depression. Couples have to consider their children, social relationships, finances, etc., when looking at dissolution. By the time a couple makes the decision to go to counseling it is often too late, the damage has been done. In fact I will hear from these same couples that they had been thinking about counseling for months, but other things got in the way.
Marriage therapy is hard and often times messy. Each marriage is different and the individuals in it come with unique baggage. I want to offer, what I feel are three components to a successful marriage. I’m sure there are equally important components out there, but based on my experience here are three.
1. Sacrifice (time)-I chose the word sacrifice because I believe it embodies a selfless perspective. Webster’s dictionary defines sacrifice as “the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone.” Marriages are symbiotic, they need two spouses to survive, but more importantly they need two spouses that are looking to meet each other’s emotional, mental and physical needs. A question to assess your level of participation in your marriage is, what gets your time (devotion) or how much time do you give to your spouse? Does your spouse get 100%, 75%, 40%, 5% of you? This is an important area of evaluation, in that many spouses will feel rejected by the other based on how much of them they get.
2. Communication-There is lot that is said on communication and what is considered healthy. If you want a scientifically data driven approach to marriages consider reading John M. Gottman’s “The Marriage Clinic”. What I can say definitively, is that each person in the marriage has feelings and wants those feelings acknowledged. Acknowledgement of your spouse’s feelings is often where they begin to respect you. Humility is another important communication tool. Ask yourself the question, “Can I admit when I am wrong and my spouse brings that to me?” If you and your spouse were to begin looking at how to rebuild communication in the marriage consider starting with acknowledgement of each other’s feelings and showing humility.
3. Physical touch (sexual intimacy) - Sexual intimacy is a vital part of a marriage ecosystem. If the ecosystem is not functioning like it should the marriage dies. Sex is a sacrifice, that both spouses need to be in agreement on. Likewise there are reasons a married couple would take a break from sex, but they are often agreed upon as well. Sexual intimacy requires trust, honesty, vulnerability and commitment. In my experience, I have seen a lot of damage come from a spouse who refuses to have sex with the other. Ask yourself the question, “How do I approach sexual intimacy with my spouse? Is it about meeting my needs or their needs?”
My hope in writing this piece is to provide practical help that can have a positive impact on your marriage. Consider the three components I mentioned above along with their questions as I believe them to be critical to the health and success of a couple’s marriage.
Christian Bringolf MA LMHC
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