Marital Therapy

/Marital Therapy


We got a late start for breakfast on Sunday morning, which landed us shoulder-to-shoulder with half of Nashville, Indiana in the tiny waiting area of Hobnob Corner. An eighty-something couple followed us as we squeezed through the door; the group behind them were left to wait on the sidewalk.

My wife is a serial eavesdropper. She says it’s research for writing; I say she may be overly interested in the business of others–nosy. Regardless, the way we were crammed together, I couldn’t help but hear the conversation between the eighty-somethings beside us.

Mr.       “You want to go someplace else?”

Mrs.      “I don’t think there is anyplace else.”

He shifted from one foot to the other. Tried to stand on his toes to scope out the room for tables with potential for opening. And then made a second pass . . .

Mr.       “You want to go someplace else?”

Mrs.     “It won’t be that long. Here she comes.”

The waitress secured a count for each group waiting, including the party of two, eighty-somethings and us. She made no comment or promise regarding wait time. He grumbled and returned to his shifting from foot to foot.

Third pass . . .

Mr.       “You want to go someplace else?”

Mrs.      “You can’t even wait five minutes!” She rolled her eyes in disgust and marched out the door.

I smiled at Debi and said “We just got our next blog.”

I would guess that the pattern in this conversation between the Mr. and Mrs. eighty-something was set long ago. Neither was direct or honest with their partner about their wishes. Obviously, he did not want to wait in line. He wanted to go someplace else, but never directly said so. He wheedled her into making the decision to leave.

She wanted to wait–eat pancakes at the Hobnob–understandable. But rather than saying “I want to wait. This is important to me,” she tried to redirect him, pacify him, even misguide him into believing that The Hobnob was the only place to serve breakfast in Nashville on Sunday. Simply not true and he knew it.

Maybe he was living up to a reputation of impatience or maybe he was in physical pain or couldn’t tolerate the sardine conditions. Who knows? Because he never told her. He just asked her the identical question three times until she gave up in frustration.

I hope they found a decent breakfast and were able to enjoy it–we certainly enjoyed ours. But the sad thing is, he probably paid for winning that stand-off. She was obviously disappointed and angry. She may have told him off on the way down the street or more likely, she waited until their adult kids were around and announced, “Your dad is such a grumpy old man that he wouldn’t even wait in line for five minutes for breakfast at The Hobnob on Sunday.”

The conversation is classic. Two people who clearly have a desire but are unwilling to clearly communicate it. They behave in a passive-aggressive way rather than being open with one another.  Closeness is sacrificed as the couple accumulates grudges that keep them at a “safe” distance. Intimacy suffers. I see it every day in my office and I couldn’t resist sharing this simple, yet clear example.

The wait, by the way, was about twenty minutes and with all the people watching and eavesdropping opportunities, it felt like five. For me, the wait time was irrelevant. I wouldn’t think of asking, “Do you want to go someplace else?” I know better.

Marriage–A Renewable Resource?

Allow me to begin with a reminder that these blogs are written with the purpose of opening discourse, an encouragement to consider a fresh perspective. They are not research pieces, nor are they ever presented as “The Answer.” Most often ideas spring from discussions I have with clients–especially issues I hear repeatedly.

Roughly half of the couples I see for marital therapy report that their marriage has grown stale.  The vitality they once enjoyed in their relationship is gone.

They report:

“We never thought we’d be here. Never.”

“We miss us. We miss what we used to have.”

“We are not having fun anymore.”

“We have become roommates.”

Typically, they are mentally and emotionally drained. Burned out by responsibilities of their respective careers, kids’ schedules, and keeping up with a home. They once shared the joy of a deep connection; now they share a sense of living tired, overwhelmed, and hopeless. Unhappy, they blame each other and the marriage, resulting in hurt and frustration.

I praise couples for their bravery and willingness to be vulnerable, seeking to improve their marriage before they reach a crisis situation. They’re in the “We’re-okay-but-we-know-it-can-be-much-better,” category.

I always ask clients what they want to hire me to do. Often partners hire me to guide them as they rediscover the fun and enjoyment they once found in their marriage.

The process begins with the following steps:

  • Acknowledge that the marriage needs attention.
  • Sharing and respectfully listening to each others’ perspective on how “we got here.”
  • Review what initially attracted them to one another.
  • Commit to change from the current routine.
  • Examine leisure time–entertainment.

Many couples spend little, or no, time together–alone. They are either with the kids, friends, or family. They cannot recall the last time they did something fun, just as a couple.

I question, “Suppose your marriage was a resource, what are you doing to renew it? Sustain it?” Marriage may be viewed as a renewable resource, but not one that replenishes naturally. We are not solar powered.  The wonderful passion and vitality of a relationship may be consumed to the point of depletion if we do not recharge regularly. We must engage in relationship resource management. Healthy marriages are sustained by a commitment of both time and energy. Happy marriages are treated as a priority.

Stepping into a therapist’s office, openly admitting that your marriage is not the source of joy that it once was is difficult. Sadly, for some, awkward and embarrassing. But for many, it is the first step in renewing a highly valuable resource.

From We’re No Fun Anymore by Schwarz and Braff, “It is not that couples are not playing and having fun because they are angry and resentful; they are angry and resentful because they are not playing and having fun together” (xiv).

Shame Observed

Last week we defined shame and made the important distinction between shame and guilt.  The next step is identifying shame and its origin.  Unhealthy, prolonged feelings of shame, cause us to deny and therefore hide. Unwilling to accept the feeling of shame, we repress the message for corrective action. Prolonged denial evolves into secret avoidance.

When I see clients who are living with a prolonged sense of shame, I observe avoidance to the extent of actual physical and behavioral manifestations.  This may be a passive, lowering of one’s head, not engaging in eye contact.  Much like the way in which a small child will avoid eye contact with her parent when she knows she has broken a rule.  It’s as if she is saying “please do not see me right now so I may avoid what I am feeling.”

Another, seemingly opposite, manifestation of shame is the person who is defensive, overly confident, and arrogant.  They are puffed up to hide their shame, challenging anyone to expose the reality that their arrogance hides.  These responses are different, and yet both are the result of an individual not allowing humanness, accepting shame as a learning tool.

Shame blocks progress.  We lose the ability to be authentic, experiment, and grow self-confidence.  We evolve into a person we were never meant to be; secretive, perfectionist, critical, judgmental, and self-loathing. Shameful people employ distracted behaviors to enforce hiding; lost in alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, food, work, gambling, relationships, religion, shopping etc. All behaviors that potentially may evolve into an addiction, consuming daily life.

The complication of chronic shame not only forces us into various forms of hiding, it also robs us of our power to self-govern.  We become subject to the power of others and/or addictions.  We project our “never good enough” and assume that others believe it too.

We forfeit our personal truth to our spouse, family, employer, church, or government allowing an outside being or addiction to control us.  We forfeit our internal compass, lose connection to the higher power within.  Emptiness.  No identity.  Lost soul.

Shame recognized, it is imperative to identify its origin.  “Where did my shame come from?”
There are many causes of excessive shame.  Most shaming originates when one entity (person or organization) uses fear-based shame as a tool, attempting to control or exert power over another.

In therapy we investigate:

1.   Family of origin–feelings of inadequacy that are passed from one generation to the next. Parents or relatives who are critical, judgmental, neglective, abusive, and exercising conditional love to a developing child. One grows up expecting and projecting that they are to be judged, never good enough, and unlovable.

2.  Personal relationships–socialization that forces one person to feel “less than” because of differences in skin color, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, religious affiliation, educational levels, or physical/ mental health challenges.

3.  Projection from others–a partner or parent who pushes his/her shame onto others to avoid facing their own feeling of inadequacy. One person judges, criticizes and/or rages at another to hide his/her own shameful insecurities.

Understanding the origins and identifying the manifestations of shame is paramount to the healing process, and ultimately, positive change. 

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough. ~Brene Brown

Next week:  Shame Resolved