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Archive for the ‘Couples Therapy’ Category

images[2]In my personal life, as well as in my twelve years as a couples therapist, I’ve seen a great many marriages crumble and die, including quite a few that at one point appeared to be “made in heaven.”  I’ve also seen quite a few that seem to work, against all odds.   The most solid couples I have seen, stand strong on a tripod of interconnected principles: Role Agreement, Formation of a joint culture, and Realistic Expectations.

  • Role Agreement:  Each partner knows his or her role in the      marriage (responsibilities vis a vis the household, children, and      providing of income).  Each partner      has agreed upon how chores and finances will be handled between them.
  • Formation of a Joint Culture:   This is huge.  Regardless of each partner’s ethnicity      and culture of origin, there must be a joint      culture in the marriage made up in part of mutual interests or values,      for examples, a shared sense of humor, ideas about socializing, living      situation and parenting.  Before      going into any marriage, you want to agree on how big a role religion will      play in the one-day-family.  How      will we raise the children, how connected to extended family will we      be?  The joint culture can and      should include traditions that the partners bring from their families of      origin, creating a sense of two histories flowing into one.
  • Realistic Expectations:   This means both partners went into the      marriage knowing who the other is and neither partner expects the other to      change in terms of personality or lifestyle.  For example, you will never convert a      quiet homebody into a wild partier.       Also important are realistic expectations about sex.  The odds of a partner’s libido      increasing over the years are fairly slim. Partners should also have realistic      expectations of one another in terms of the balance of autonomy and togetherness      within the marriage.

Based on my professional and personal observations, if a couple is successful on these three points, the spouses will be able to function together as teammates rather than opponents; the marriage itself will be resilient as well as satisfying.

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The following is a story of a fictitious couple, Ken and Kendra, and their baby, Max.  For now, since Kendra has opted to stay home with the baby, the spouses have found themselves in traditional gender roles for the first time in their marriage.

Kendra’s life changed drastically when the baby was born—her body, her career path, all her relationships with friends and family. Ken’s life changed too—but not as much.  His work is the same; his body is the same; his schedule is the same.  Actually, what’s changed the most for Ken is Kendra herself.  She’s tired, short-tempered and so focused on Max, she barely notices her husband at all.   Ken and Kendra might sound like people you know well.  I’ve worked with many couples struggling with the same issues: loving couples who turn into adversaries when they become parents.  Marriages where empathy has eroded.

The late Jeremy Blanton, a former ballet mentor who, when teaching a pas de deux (a partnered dance for a man and woman), used to instruct both partners to take full responsibility for anything that went wrong in a lift or another dance sequence—no matter what.  Even if the guy dropped the girl, both of you had to say, “I’m sorry.”  Only then were we aloud to fix the problem.  It’s all about empathy: a leap of faith that allows you to consider the other person’s side, rather than blame him.  So often, I’ve wished I could wave a magic wand and inject empathy into a relationship where it’s missing and desperately needed.  I’m not magic, so, inspired by Mr. Blanton, I came up with the mantra: Your day was just as hard as my day.

So here’s the scenario:

It’s been a long day for Ken: meeting after meeting, inbox filling up by the minute, unrealistic expectations from management, difficult clients.  But now he’s home, ready to unwind.  As soon as the front door shuts behind him, his wife Kendra appears, covered with spit-up and dried sweet-potato puree, holding a squalling Baby Max.

“Here,” she says with an exhausted sigh.  “You take him,” surrenders the baby and vanishes before Ken’s even got his coat off.

Bouncing the baby (who’s squalling harder still, in light of Mommy‘s disappearance), Ken takes in the scene around him.  The house is a mess: board books everywhere; stained burp cloths, plush caterpillars, ducks and fish strewn all over the living room; table covered with parenting books, magazines, breast pump paraphernalia and unopened mail.  Ken sniffs the air, picking up primarily Max and all that he entails—both good and bad.  The one smell that’s conspicuously absent is that of dinner.   Annoyed, Ken turns toward the bedroom, into which his wife has disappeared.

“Look at this place, Kendra,” he says.  “What did you even do all day?”

Back in a flash, Kendra snaps:

“I’ll tell you what I didn’t do.  Spend the day at some cushy office in the city, talking to grown-ups, sitting down to eat actual food at lunch time.  You really want to know how I spent my day?”

Kendra’s furious, but she hesitates.   In fact, part of her frustration is that she can’t articulate how she spends her days.   She’s been up with Max for the past few nights, so it’s not even clear when today began.  Between nursing every few hours, trying to burp the baby, play with him, stimulate him, bathe him, get him to nap and generally interact with him in all the ways the books suggest, the hours slipped away.

Before Max was born, Kendra worked full-time in the city with hours and income similar to Ken’s.   The phrase “home with the baby” had sounded like a marvelous dream.  When friends with children warned her about the unappreciated work, the sleep deprivation, the general loss of autonomy, Kendra secretly believed she’d do a better job of handling it.  How hard could staying at home be?

Now, Kendra’s barely able to get enough distance from the baby to take a shower every day.   She’s so tired, she can’t even begin a “to do” list.  The hardest part is that she can’t make Ken understand why she’s overwhelmed.   Her resentment toward him is growing; lately their whole relationship feels like a competition to see who’s more put upon and miserable.

Now, imagine that Ken and Kendra find the time to go to couple’s therapy, where they are taught the Empathy Mantra:

Your day was just as hard as my day … your day was just as hard as my day … your day was just as hard as my day …

They’re instructed to repeat it to themselves over and over again until each has fully internalized—not only the concept that your partner’s day was just as hard as your own, but also the sense that your partner empathizes  with you and believes that your day was just as hard as his or hers.  In one little phrase you both give and receive enough validation, acceptance and appreciation to stave off a potential fight and open the door to caring connection.

With the help of the mantra, let’s press rewind on the above scenario.  In walks Ken after a hard day at the office.  There stands Kendra, dripping in spit-up and sweet potatoes.  Their eyes meet, they each take a deep breath and recite to themselves: your day was just as hard as my day.  Maybe it gives Ken the space to give Kendra a Hello kiss and say:

“Let me take the baby as soon as I get my coat off.”

Kendra has so far gotten two things out of the deal, a kiss and another set of willing arms in which to place squalling Max.   And maybe, after she goes and pees (at long last), but before she puts her feet up, she’ll make a stop at the fridge and get Ken an ice cold beer.  Because it’s much easier to care for your spouse when you feel cared for.

The mantra won’t work, however, when someone is truly failing to pull his or her own weight.  But no one slacks off out of sheer laziness; there is always some deep-seeded resentment going on.  Ask yourself: Why have I stopped helping around the house?  Why have I stopped adhering to the budget we’d agreed on?  Ten to one, there’s an un-met or perhaps unvoiced need at the root of your slacking.  I suggest you figure out what it is so you can address it with your spouse, difficult as that may seem.  For example, it’s better to say:

“I feel abandoned when you play golf all day Sunday instead of coming to Church with us,” than to undermine yourself and the relationship by “forgetting” to bring his shirts to the dry cleaners for the second week in a row.  Exacting vengeance without clearly communicating why you’re hurting and what you’d like to change is never the answer.

Now, supposing you’ve addressed your resentments and gotten your needs met, but you just don’t believe your mate’s day was as hard as your day?  Well, this may be hard to digest, but I say: pretend.  Suspend disbelief and give you partner the benefit of the doubt.  It’s useless to compete with your partner over who had the harder day, so assume it was equal and face the challenges of married life as partners and teammates rather than opponents.   I’ve seen this empathy thing—be it the mantra or the mutual apology concept—work well in marriages, on the condition that both partners fully commit to it.   It works in my own marriage; it’s worked with couples I’ve counseled.  A little empathy can go a long, long way; the more you give, the more you get.  Maybe once Ken has his beer in hand, he’ll give Kendra a foot rub.  Maybe then they’ll send out for Thai food and then, once Max actually goes to sleep … who knows?  A lot can happen in a three hour interval!

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