Ideally, marriage is a lasting commitment between two persons who have chosen one another to share life’s journey. It is not a self-sustaining expedition, but one that may occasionally require a reboot. Barbara Wyer, MMFT, recently sat down to discuss some bumps in the road on the way to a healthy and lasting partnership.
Q: What is the most common issue you hear when a couple comes to you for therapy?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: There’s rarely a single reason for a marriage struggling, but if I had to identify something, I would point to John Gottman’s findings at his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. Gottman identified negativity, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness as predictors of divorce. You can read more about his advice for making marriage last in his bestselling book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”
Q: How does communication become negative within a relationship?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: It can begin fairly innocuously. For example, one partner may be overwhelmed about working long hours at the job and, when his/her spouse tries to break through the fog and strike up a conversation, may offer an obligatory response. Or, one spouse may feel resentment and begin to internally blame the other for not “doing their part” around the house. Voicing those feelings out loud can exacerbate the hostility and after a while communication deteriorates to the point where the partners feel marginalized after every attempt at conversation.
Q: Does this result in more conflict within the marriage?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: Poor communication can definitely lead to more frequent and escalated periods of conflict, which compound over time. If I don’t feel my spouse is really listening to me, I start feeling more and more disconnected. Then if I feel my voice isn’t being heard I might amp up the volume or intensity of the words I choose, trying to become “bigger” in order to grab his or her attention.
Q: And that can trigger more problems…?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: Absolutely. It’s not uncommon for couples with communication issues to start living virtually separate lives. However, this can add fuel to the fire if each partner begins to view the other as an intruder in “their” space.
Q: It sounds like these issues could have a negative effect on intimacy.
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: Intimacy issues typically don’t start in the bedroom. It’s really not about the sex (or lack thereof). Connection and attachment – that feeling of being “safe” with your partner – is what must necessarily underlie a great sex life and emotional intimacy that can stand the test of time. Every day is an opportunity to renew your courtship and that is extremely hard to do when there’s little-to-no communication, non-sexual touching, or eye contact.
Q: So do you think it’s hard for couples to connect on an intimate level when they are distracted by non-relationship-oriented obligations?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: It is, most definitely. And I’m not just talking about sex. When conversations between spouses are primarily focused on day-to-day issues regarding the kids – with little to no time for personal interactions – that can be a red flag. It’s why many couples find themselves considering divorce after the children leave home and partners are faced with an empty nest and nothing to distract them from their emotional distance from each other.
Q: Speaking of children, what are your thoughts on staying together for the sake of the kids?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: There have been a number of studies regarding the impact of divorce on children – with findings suggesting that for the most part, kids are pretty resilient. In fact, research points to only a relatively low percentage of children who suffer significant long-term problems following the divorce of their parents (ex. Amato, 2001). Children seem to be affected the most in the first two years, with negative effects diminishing by the end of the second year (see Hetherington, 2002). Although high levels of discord between parents during the divorce process can negatively impact adjustment outcomes, if there was a lot of fighting between parents prior to divorce, the children may welcome news of the divorce as a relief, adjusting much better than children who are blindsided by news of the impending divorce between parents they thought were getting along.
Q: What would you say to couples that believe separation is the only answer to their problems?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: It’s important to remember why you chose your partner in the first place. I have found that many distressed couples still have feelings for one another and may even want to keep the marriage intact but wonder whether their partner is willing to put the work into it. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a highly effective form of couples therapy to re-build connection and attachment between partners.
Q: Do you think having recurrent thoughts about someone who is not your spouse is something that should be disclosed with him/her?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: Thinking about someone else all the time is probably an indicator that the marriage is experiencing some level of distress. Most people think of an affair as having sex with someone other than your spouse, but it can be just as devastating to the marriage bond if one partner is having an emotional affair. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your partner about this, then disclosing it in the context of therapy might be a safer alternative.
Q: How soon after a couple begins to notice these rifts should they seek therapy?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: These and other issues can erode a marriage quickly and lead to long-term feelings of anger and resentment. I believe it’s best to seek professional help as quickly as possible.
Q: Bottom line – Can all marriages be saved?
Barbara Wyer Marriage Counseling Franklin TN: No, but there is definitely hope for many. Marriages that started out as healthy and happy may find that couples counseling can help them recall why they chose to commit to each another in the first place.
About Barbara Wyer
Barbara Wyer is Level II EMDR-trained and utilizes EFT in her marriage and family private practice. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a person-centered form of therapy backed by over two decades of empirical research. Barbara Wyer uses EFT as a tool to help her clients reconnect and empathically re-engage with their partners.