"If you don't start offending your wife, I don't think you're going to have a marriage." I heard these words come out of my mouth at a recent session with a couple in my office. I imagined that they were thinking, "This family therapist is crazy." But I was pretty sure I was right.
Let me explain: Marriage, or any duet or intimate partnership needs plenty of caring, lots of tolerance and acceptance and enough humor to take the edge off. But a pattern of too much politeness or caution in one or both partners kills the spark, and pretty soon the marriage is limping along, barely alive, or, sometimes, so turbulent that it can break apart.
A recent couples' session illustrates this dynamic:
Beth and Larry, a mid-30's couple with two young daughters, came to see me on the verge of divorce. At least, Beth is on the verge of divorcing her mild-mannered husband. From the first visit, Beth was" large and in-charge." This attractive woman, who runs a child-developement center, indicated that she felt let down by Larry in every way. He was no longer affectionate with her, he "argued" with her over what she considered "petty things", and Beth had begun making plans to, as she put it, "work on becoming effective co-parents"-i.e., she was giving up on the marriage. This was her second marriage, by the way.
Beth fell for Larry shortly after she left a really turbulent relationship with her bi-polar-ish first husband. Beth felt responsible for him, and said she "hung on" much longer than she should have. Devastated and emotionally drained following her break-up, this handsome, capable and calm Larry felt like just the ticket. They dated for several years, during which time they each pursued professional degrees. Beth remembered that they fought rather intensely during periods of separation from each other, but had long months where they enjoyed a close and loving connection.
In the sessions, the most striking quality of this couple is Larry's reticence with Beth. He's a really smart guy, thoughtful, a well-regarded environmental specialist, but he seems dumb with his wife. While she threatens to give him the boot, he looks unruffled. But he's clearly hurt, and at our initial meeting he acknowledged "not being able to sleep" because of worry that Beth would leave.
At our last session, I wondered about Larry's quiet demeanor. This followed my umpteenth observation that Larry appears to be a caring, engaged guy who loves his family and wants to make things better. That's worth a lot. When I asked Larry what keeps him so polite with Beth, he responded, "I'm afraid of offending her. She easily gets offended." On a roll now, he described how he had been sleeping on the couch for a couple of years-!-because his wife was committed to "co-sleeping" with the kids. He didn't like the idea, he wanted his bed-and his wife-back, but, according to him, she became "offended" when he tried to bring this up. Wow!
This was the problem with these well-meaning people in a nutshell. When Beth gets upset, or fights Larry on an idea, he withdraws. I'm not sure if he's protecting himself or her, but my guess is that it's a bit of both. And even though Beth says she wants a relationship of "equals" with two strong voices, she has a subtle way of appearing to be the "expert." She says she wants an "equal", but a real equal partnership will challenge her status as exclusive expert, especially on the kids. I'm not sure she's ready for that.
But she'll need to be ready if she wants a good marriage, with Larry or anybody else. For his part, Larry's a low- conflict guy, but in my brief experience with them, I think he's got plenty of healthy fight in him. And in fact, what he'll be fighting for is the marriage, and his place in it. When Beth says she "doesn't know what Larry needs" she's reflecting the emptiness that comes from his emotional withdrawal. And he won't be able to stop withdrawing until he's willing to "offend" Beth. This is the test of a lifetime for both of them. I don't know yet if they'll pass.