Hope for a Hopeless Marriage

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As soon as I saw Rebecca and Gordon over zoom for the first therapy session, I knew that they, and I, were in trouble. Their hostility was seeping out of every pore, poisoning even the relatively sterile atmosphere that is zoom. When I say I was in trouble, I mean that I found their interaction usually disturbing. I’m used to seeing a lot of conflict and drama in the office, but theirs was especially toxic. And they, especially Gordon, didn’t appear to like me. I made some comment during this session that appeared to piss Gordon off, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms. We locked horns for a moment, and I found myself feeling rather bullied. This did not bode well for developing a therapeutic relationship. They did return for two sessions, and the meetings were equally bumpy and fraught. I really had no idea if I could help these poor souls. They were so used to slicing each other into shreds that I doubted I could make an impact. And clearly Gordon didn’t seem to trust me. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t return for another session.

But life, and therapy, being what they are, sometimes unexpected things happen. Apparently I made some kind of impression because they contacted me several months later. Rebecca sent me an email saying that she and Gordon were thinking about getting divorced and could I help them navigate this transition with their kids. We scheduled a time to meet.

When I saw them, again via zoom, they were pretty much in the same place. There was clearly something that kept them together, since in the course of the session, they both expressed ambivalence about separating, claiming that it was “too complicated”, “too expensive”, “too painful for the kids”, etc. They talked about their three daughters, ages four to twelve, and how “sensitive” they were, especially the oldest one. As I explored their hesitation, wondering what in the world was keeping these people together, it turned out that they had a fabulous sex life. This was part of the glue that kept them together. Rebecca talked about how “tender” Gordon was during their lovemaking, and Gordon said he felt “appreciated” by Rebecca during sex. It was everything they wanted from each other. They just couldn’t make it happen outside of bed.

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We had several more sessions, and I got to understand more about the knot in the relationship. Gordon did indeed have a fair amount of tenderness, but he was under relatively constant, subtle attack from Rebecca. She saw herself as an innocent lamb, but in fact she was a lioness. She didn’t give Gordon a break. She complained bitterly about “how mean” he was to her, how he would “berate” her, which I didn’t doubt. But the way I make a diagnosis in the therapy of couples is through what I observe. And I observed that, unbeknownst to her, Rebecca was a powerhouse in this relationship. She monitored everything about how Gordon talked, or didn’t talk, and she found him always wrong. She operated from a deficiency model, and Gordon ran up a huge deficit in their marriage. I imagined he doubted he could repay this debt. He was a man deep in a hole.

As it turned out, Gordon was surprisingly willing to call himself out, to admit his shortcomings, and he even sought individual therapy at one time to try to figure out how to be a better husband. I took this self-curiosity as a good sign. Anyone who wonders about himself/herself, who is curious, who wants to do better, can most likely be helped. Rebecca, on the other hand, was loathe to admit that she had any responsibility for the terrible state of their marriage. Now it was her turn to hate me, as I pressed her on what I saw as her continually throwing Gordon under the bus. She had absolutely no awareness of her power, and she resented my rather relentless challenges to her. But I knew I had to get her to see the error of her ways if I was going to help her have the kind of marriage she dreamed of.

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Then something happened in a session that drastically changed the climate in this marriage. By now Gordon trusted me, he said I was “fair”, meaning that he wasn’t the only “bad guy”. I said, ” I have two patients in our session, not just one.” I think he was used to being the only patient. I don’t know what prompted it, but I asked Gordon what he was attracted to in Rebecca, what. made him want to be with her in the first place. He described how they had met in drama school fifteen years earlier, when they were each aspiring actors. I knew that Rebecca went on to enjoy some modest success, while Gordon left the theatre world for the more lucrative and reliable world of business. What followed my question to Gordon brought the session to a standstill. . He began a loving, elegant, thoughtful, complex tribute to his wife. He said, “She had something I didn’t have, and wanted. She was able to express her needs, she was open about her feelings, even the painful ones.” He added that he was attracted to her creativity–she showed quite a bit of versatility as an actor and was admired by her colleagues for her talent and perseverance. “And she was beautiful. She still is. She is as beautiful today, after three kids, as she was when we met.” Gordon was almost unrecognizable as he spoke. Here was his tenderness outside the bedroom, for once not talking about what’s wrong. As he said in an earlier session, “We’re always building a case against each other.”

At first Rebecca appeared not to know how to react. She seemed blindsided. It had maybe been fifteen years since she’d felt that sentiment from Gordon, if then. She hesitated. Then she continued to look for ways to criticize him. She said, “Why doesn’t he ever say nice things about me? Why do I have to wait until now to hear it?” Maybe she was protecting herself. Perhaps she didn’t trust these words, though they were spoken with genuine and powerful expression. I could see Gordon tighten.

I countered, “I’m stunned at Gordon’s eloquence. He didn’t even rehearse that, and he couldn’t have shown more warmth, more thoughtfulness in how he remembers his attraction to you. That wasn’t fake” I added, “Is he alone in his fantasies about his attraction to you?” Not one to take a challenge lying down, Rebecca responded, “Gordon was my ideal kind of man. He was both creative and practical. He could, and still can, do anything he set his mind to do. And he can be very, very funny!” She added, smiling, “And he’s very handsome.”

The room was silent. I don’t think either of them knew what to do with this turn of events. I did. I expressed my admiration for them, for their creativity in stepping outside their comfort zone of animosity, for risking showing their hearts. They both had been in hyper self-protective mode for so many years, not really expressing vulnerability or need, or affirmation. We talked for a few more minutes, the emotional tone between the couple now more relaxed, more open. I had no idea what impact this session would have on their relationship, if this was a one-off, or if we could build on what they started.

We’ve had several sessions since, and, though the jury is still out, they look different together. The next session things were still sweetness and light. Rebecca said, “Gordon was hardly angry at all this week. He was a lot of fun to be with, and I think the kids noticed. Everybody seemed more relaxed.” Gordon added, “Things were good. And I didn’t feel like my back was against the wall, which helped a lot.” The next session they regressed a bit, and I needed to step in and again challenge Rebecca as she almost reflexively tore into Gordon. He said, “I don’t feel like I can talk to her because she always makes me explain and justify myself. It makes it impossible to be myself. Then I withdraw and want to be alone.” Rebecca retorted, “I only do that because you use such a harsh tone with me. I don’t want you to get away with that.” I had previously gone out of my way to agree with Rebecca, to support her by saying that Gordon is wrong when he loses his temper and becomes mean. But she didn’t realize how she got under his skin, how her relentless needling of him hurt her-and their-cause.

I think she may have finally heard me. They came back the next week in good shape. Gordon said, “We had a good week. We didn’t do what we usually do.” I asked what he meant. He said Rebecca asked him a question about their household finances and he didn’t know the answer. He said, “I may have answered a little abruptly. Usually she would hold it against me, make me feel stupid or wrong. Now she just shrugged it off and we kept moving.” Rebecca smiled. “You know, I tried not to be so reactive. I tried not to take it personally. I tried not to feel like he was blowing me off. ” She added, “It worked. It felt good.” I said, “You sound like a normal couple. A little thing stayed a little thing. Wow.”

This may seem like a magical kind of transformation for this very difficult couple. I must admit, it feels that way. Of course things could always go South, but somehow I don’t think so. At our last session I told them that a long marriage is many marriages, and I believe their first marriage has expired. It’s their chance to create a second, more satisfying one. Rebecca responded thoughtfully; “We’re more mature now, we have life experience under our belt. We have some ideas about where we went wrong. I like the idea of a second marriage with Gordon. I think we can do that.”

Of course it wasn’t as simple as this couple simply affirming each other, and presto, things are better. I took great care to emphasize that there appeared to be considerable caring right beneath the surface, it just got buried under years of emotional rubble. I made sure that they knew that it’s not that they married the wrong person, it’s just how they responded to each other after the marriage that made their life hell. By noticing and promoting the genuine care and attraction these people had for each other, once they revealed it, allowed them to identify with those aspects in themselves and the marriage. They got a chance to discover the hidden healthy parts in each of them, and in their relationship that felt unattainable before. They clearly both wanted this marriage to work. Now they have a chance.

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