AB: One of the many pleasures of my family therapy practice is when family physician students come to my office to observe. As a long-time teacher in family medicine, I have the ongoing opportunity to share what I know about couple and family dynamics with these young family doctors-in-training. It was not long ago that I turned to one of my students, who was observing a particularly turbulent couples’ session, and said to him, in front of the couple, “This is what a pre-divorce couple looks like.”
I had never openly characterized a couple like that, even to myself. But it got me thinking: What was it about this couple that stood out from the many couples I see? It wasn’t the degree of distress: I’m used to seeing couples in a great deal of turmoil. I have worked with all kinds of couples in trouble: Couples with too much conflict, or not enough conflict. Cool couples with little sex or passion, or hot couples burned out from too much drama. Couples where one person has medical problems, or anxiety or depression. None of these scenarios predispose to divorce.
Indeed, many couples come to therapy when they’re at the end of their rope; no one (almost) comes to therapy because they have nothing better to do. But, in my experience, the vast majority of couples benefit from the process, both as a couple and in terms of their individual growth. Occasionally, however, the therapeutic road leads to divorce. I admit; I almost always feel sad when this happens, especially when there are children involved. And I often wonder if there was something I could have done differently, something I overlooked in the therapy. That said, I have seen that sometimes divorce can give everyone an opportunity for a better life—even the kids.
So what was I seeing and experiencing with this couple that made me call them “pre-divorce”?
Here’s a snapshot of the therapy: I had been seeing Michelle and Howard, a couple in their mid-forties, for several months. They came to see me after having burned through several other therapists, with no improvement. This was the second marriage for Michelle, the first for Howard. They had been unexpectedly blessed with the birth of their daughter, now three years old, after trying to get pregnant for several years. According to them they always had “problems”, but the conflict became more or less constant after the birth of their daughter.
In the course of our therapy, I had supported and challenged both partners. To their credit, they kept showing up: They showed a strong commitment to working on their marriage, motivated especially by the little daughter they adored. They came for sessions weekly, and appeared to be fully engaged. But in order for therapy to be effective, both people are going to have to tolerate learning something about themselves they don’t already know. No one escapes therapy with their self-image completely intact. This is a good thing. Of course, just being alive in the world with other people also invites us to see ourselves as others see us. But therapy expands on this this process—hopefully, in a helpful way.
In the case of Howard and Michelle, I spent several sessions challenging Michelle in a variety of ways. After the “surprise” birth of her child rather late in life, Michelle’s protective mothering instincts led her to put their daughter’s needs front and center, even when it wasn’t necessary. Howard felt sidelined much of the time, a lonely place to be. Michelle also unknowingly patronized Howard, chiding him for parenting faux pas, or belittling his efforts in the romance department. But—but—Michelle heard me when I talked about this. She responded, she understood, she reflected on her behavior and emotional responses. She made efforts to change. I enjoyed working with her. Our relationship felt dynamic.
Not so with Howard. He wouldn’t let me tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. Whenever I attempted to expand his vision of relationship that conflicted with his own version of events, he tried to shut it down. He showed a remarkable pseudo-innocence, a virgin-man, like someone who had not made mistakes in life and taken responsibility for them. We of course explored his personal history; an only child, he enjoyed an especially protective, close relationship with his elderly parents. And he knew how to be caring: he enjoyed being the family breadwinner, and took his role as “provider” seriously.
But Howard always ran up against his own limitations as a partner. Thus far, he has been unable—or unwilling—to hear Michelle’s pain in the relationship. He has mocked her in our sessions, or shown disdain for her viewpoint. He has thrown mini temper-tantrums when “accused” of behavior with which he disagrees. Mostly he remains stubbornly, rigidly, unable to look at himself. The verdict, of course is still out. We’re taking a break for awhile; Howard’s work requires him to be in London for the next several months. They intend to resume therapy when they return.
But the relationship remains in trouble: While at times during the therapy the marriage has felt calmer and more connected, inevitably it falls apart. As long as Michelle is loving toward Howard, the relationship rolls along relatively calmly. But if she is upset with him, angry or hurt, Howard is unable to hear or use this information. His armor is impossibly thick, at these times— not a recipe for an ongoing, growing, connection. This lack of penetrability, or emotional rigidity, is, in my view, the #1 promoter of divorce.
We are all patients in our intimate partnerships. Our view of ourselves is always partial. At different times, in different circumstances, we are required to take a look at what we call our “self” in relation to another. But when one of the partners refuses to become a patient, refuses to admit to the clumsiness or failures that we all experience, who refuses to let himself/herself be changed—this operates as a powerful roadblock to building and sustaining intimate connection. What the “Howards” of the world don’t realize is this: Excessive protection of one’s pride or self-image only creates more personal suffering, from which there is no escape. Emotional flexibility, being able to be “wrong”, changing course, learning something new about ourselves are requirements for a vital, dynamic relationship.