Case study 3 – A broken marriage revived and transformed
I was Simone and Suresh’s third couple therapist in 25 years of marriage with brief periods of recovery in between treatments. They were now in a sexless marriage living apart in the same house. It was an empty nest. Neither had had an affair. Both doggedly held onto a now fruitless ideal of marriage. Their previous counsellor advised them to divorce. After ten couple therapy sessions with me they slowly began to revive, re-connect and re-build intimacy from the ground up. On an accidental two year follow up, they said what helped was their determination, the safe place I gave them, and not faith but just dumb luck.
What happens in adult relationships is that often people end up sapping the freedom and the separateness in the name of a kind of connection and safety that is illusory at best. And they sap the very erotic vitality out of their relationships. At first they welcome the unknown. That’s how they met. But then they start to find the same dimensions at home, threatening. Now they don’t want surprise. And they slowly start to create something that is more fixed and flat, more safe, more secure, but also more boring. And they complain of marital boredom. Esther Perel
Most tired or broken relationships do not have deep friendship, vitality or broad shared values at their core.
In another sense they have given up the surprise and mystery, often by simple neglect.
One couple described their experience from the very beginning as not ever having walked beside each other.
Suresh and Simone ran a tourist business in the Brisbane CBD. They went to the same High School in Brisbane. They had a strong physical connection from the start but not strongly heart nor head. They spent 16 years fighting over those weaker two thirds until both were broken, and the marriage like a deceased estate.
She criticized, he withdrew. He criticized, she withdrew. They demeaned each other and said regretful things. Some cut deep. A toxic dance ran the show.
They recovered from the dance but each time around both were emptied of a little more good will.
They developed a culture of quiet and sometimes aggressive rudeness. The tone of voice, set of the jaw and raised eyes said it when words failed.
Both could name the day when a critical breakdown in their relationship occurred.
It was a moment that later crystallized into a realization that in their actions, they were not on the same team. They had not been since the kids were born. They did the talk but not the walk.
They undertook relationship counselling from a registerred psychologist using a problem solving approach. 10 sessions.
It improved significantly, for a while.
Then slowly over a number of years it reverted to demon dialogues and the four horsemen described by Gottman.
It was affecting the kids. The kids were the center of their lives.
They took to another counsellor, whose main field of interest was individual psychotherapy. The marital differences seemed irreconcilable at the outset. At the start of the fourth session the counsellor recommended they separate, and declined to offer further couple sessions.
They described the counsellor as providing band aid treatment based on a conflict resolution method.
They decided to create more separateness at home instead.
He to get out more and give them both more space.
He slowly built another life in sport and community services. Each step led him to a more completely separate life from the marriage.
He took the kids on camping weekends around the Noosa everglades, and in the Gold Coast hinterland. She stayed home.
They have good friends and a strong community around them.
He didn’t meet anyone but was busy. She didn’t meet anyone but was isolated.
Truth be told, their belief in marriage wasn’t so broken that they were open to an affair.
Such an opening is usually framed by one partner as:- ‘this is not a marriage so the rules don’t apply’. For Simone and Suresh, the rules still applied.
That core marital value they shared.
She asked for time with him.
He said, ‘I might have an hour in the next month but I can’t say when.’
She wanted to be wanted. She didn’t really want him nor he her.
So they continued in separate beds. This was their modus mortis.
Their kids about to enter the teens. An empty nest looming.
They occasionally did sex. Luke warm. They had not made passionate love for as long as they could remember.
Maybe the caring and protective elements that nurture love and the way that love flourishes in an atmosphere of mutuality and reciprocity are the very ingredients that block the unselfconsciousness and freedom that is needed to experience desire with the one you love… It would not have been difficult for me to write a book about people who can’t stand each other, don’t communicate, and therefore don’t have sex. What was interesting was that I have all these couples come to see me saying, we have a great relationship, we love each other very much, we have no sex. They say, I know he loves me but it’s been years since I’ve felt wanted. Esther Perel
Therapy with me marked their third attempt at repair in the previous ten years.
All that may seem hard to believe but in a culture that accessorizes and dumbs down just about everything, it is not surprising.
They got married because that’s what you do and what their friends were doing at the time. It was the done thing. The quintessential accessory for a happy life.
By the time you’ve got the wedding plans under way you also have got the blinders on. Larson
Sex was enough to bond them initially, and later to carry them over the empty feeling. They knew this was not what they signed up for. Was this as good as it gets?
Their problems were there from the start, in the pre-marriage preparation or lack of it. They had attended a marriage preparation course.
They reached empty after 16 years and hung on because that’s what you did. It’s what their parents did. They hadn’t even moved far from where their parents lived in New Farm.
They read the research. Divorce didn’t typically: reduce symptoms of depression, raise self esteem or increase a sense of mastery. Read my how to end a relationship with dignity.
They decided on a 12 month separation. She upstairs with a view of the city. He downstairs near the shed. Later they thought, he would move out when the kids were a bit older.
From the moment of that decision peace reigned at home. Finally they had given up hope. They stopped pretending it was a marriage. Dropped their expectations to what IS rather than should be.
They told the kids. One was devastated.
When separated she wondered if he would then make time to date her.
In their first session both sat on the edge of their seats. I saw them looking across a chasm to the inconceivable other on the opposite side of a broken marriage.
They seemed to want the last rights.
To confirm there was no hope.
It’s that moment in hospital when family gather for the switching off of life support.
They had become other. Strangers.
Like invisible tenants of a common estate.
‘I don’t know who you are any more.’
They were familiar to me and to every other couple’s therapist reading this page.
These are the burnt out relationships where mending is sometimes possible.
It was their third time seeking help for their marriage.
They came as if carrying a vessel that had brought them to their knees.
For another to bear witness to the pain of parting.
For them to give testimony to the joys and anguish of their journey?
These are the remnant sparks of life, easily overlooked.
They held them like a flicker does in the fading embers of a fire.
Just faint enough for them to notice the possibility that they could come home, together and for the first time.
In a sense they had not married. They had been on another journey.
One that brought them back to the beginning.
We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee. Leonard Cohen
Reader’s question about a dead marriage revived
Q. Your example raises more questions than it answers. Does that couple actually exist? How many therapy sessions? Wasn’t the second counsellor on the right track and shouldn’t the couple have taken that advice? By the time they saw you wasn’t it time to call it quits? Why make so much work of it for themselves? Are they still together and are they happy? Surely they are an exception?
A. They and many like them exist. You will find them in your neighborhood giving of themselves in volunteer organizations, partly to compensate for the emptiness back home. We spent 18 sessions together. A decision to end or mend has to come from within it can’t be imposed. The second counsellor may not have had couple process skills, may only have had a problem solving approach or even just individual counselling skills. By the time they saw me they were at the end of the road, and had surrendered their relationship to life (perhaps Life). In that moment there is always an opportunity for the light to get in. The hard work they made for themselves was based on ignoring the 80:20 rule.
Some years back, I bumped into them at New Farm Park. They were together, and took the time to speak clearly of a stronger head and heart connection. On the same page at last it seemed.
Significantly, they were neither looking for things nor for the other to make them happy. I asked them what had made the difference. They said that ‘most important was they were both willing’. That I had given them a safe place to put all their cards on the table, and there they discoverred their hands were not empty. They said a big one was their ‘stubborn refusal to accept defeat’. ‘And something else’, they said, ‘call it luck’. ‘Grace?’ I asked, ‘Faith?’. ‘Nah – just dumb luck,’ they chimed together and laughed.