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Marriage And Couple Therapy


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We never can know in advance what we will have to deal with

When we get married and have a family, we never can know in advance what we will have to deal with, so we agree to do it "for better or for worse." At the altar everybody makes a bunch of pretty promises, but making promises turns out to be a lot easier than keeping them. Anything imaginable can come up in the course of raising a family and being married for a lifetime. Among the many issues that couples regularly bring to my St. Louis marital therapy practice are: discovering that your spouse was abused as a child and has "serious relationship issues," infidelity, drugs of abuse and other addictions, anger and rage, threats of divorce, unhealthy "codependent" behavior patterns, the complexities of step parenting and adoption, and finding out that the two of you just don't know how to disagree about things, communicate clearly, listen accurately, and negotiate your differences while maintaining a positive relationship.

Being married is a unique opportunity for personal growth

If you can negotiate all the differences, being married for life offers a unique opportunity for astronomical personal growth and for every possible kind of rewarding experience. This is because in marriage you have the chance to see yourself as you really are, as a whole person, with shortcomings as well as strengths. There's never any mystery about what you need to improve upon. You hear about it from everybody! Plus you're there with your best friend and your favorite people in the world. Who better to support you while you continue to grow and evolve? If you have the right tools, resources, and attitude to keep up with the inevitable work that's involved, the rewards are incalculable. It just doesn't get any better than that. In my years of doing therapy in the St. Louis area, I have seen marriages through every one of the adverse conditions mentioned above, and each relationship was stronger and more positive after the work than it ever had been before. In a very real way, problems and issues are the coal from which we make the diamonds in life-if you know how to do it.

A marriage progresses by developmental stages

We never stop growing and evolving, and neither does our marriage. A marriage progresses by developmental stages, and it is made to order for getting to know ourselves and our partner intimately, to grow (or grow up), and to mature and evolve on every level. It is an opportunity like no other. It's also the perfect-and unavoidable-chance to deal with our issues and with any emotional baggage that we brought into the relationship with us. These issues and baggage include all of our fears and unresolved personal and interpersonal conflicts from childhood and from previous relationships.

Marriage, problem ownership, and the dance of intimacy

Rather than face and overcome our issues, many of us, in an effort to stay in our comfort zone, try to deny, avoid, bury, or hide from our unresolved personal issues. In the due course of time, however, we find that we can't hide out from our own issues in a marriage. Our partner notices them. They relentlessly find us. That's not a coincidence: it's because they're our issues, and not someone else's. She's rubber, you're glue. How do we know they're our issues? Whatever gets under your skin, "pushes your buttons," ticks you off, keeps coming back to you, or just can't be ignored, is your issue. This is called "problem ownership." If you've ever had an argument with your partner, you know exactly what I'm talking about. In an argument, no one is taking ownership of a problem, no one is taking responsibility, and nothing is getting resolved. And yet you always have ownership of a problem if you're upset. You each play your complementary role in the "dance of intimacy." The dance of intimacy is the subconscious negotiation process that establishes how close and intimate you are comfortable being with each other. Though this dance is directed by your subconscious mind, you are both individually responsible for your own "stuff," for the way you do your part of the dance. It's not always easy to tell who zoomin' who, though, is it? It's your job-and your responsibility-to figure out how to dance as closely as you really want to, even if you need professional help to do it.

Why won't she change to make you happy?

Why won't he/she change to make you happy? He/she won't because people don't make difficult personal changes, clearing up unresolved fears and conflicts, to suit someone else. It's not because they don't want to, it's because it's too hard. People can only do the work of personal change if they feel motivated from within, if they feel, have, and take ownership of the problem. The motivation to do that kind of work can only come from the pain and stress of inner conflicts and from the frustration of not being able to be your best person, no matter how hard you try. This motivation provides the fuel that makes it possible to own and to face personal work and see it through. Marriage and other intimate partnerships have the power to make it obvious what your personal bad habits of mind are, but only you have the power to change them.

Courtship and the first two years of marriage

Most anybody can be on their best behavior for at least a short time. Early in life, even young children learn "company manners"-how to behave so friends will come back again, invite you over again, and still want to be friends with you. At the beginning of an intimate relationship, people are in love with each other, they are courting each other, trying to win each other over: they are on their best behavior. You're convincing the other person that it's to their advantage to be with you. We say things like "I'll love you forever, I'll never hurt you, I'll live to make you happy, I'll always feel exactly the way I feel right now, and we'll never need anything but love: we'll eat, sleep, and wear love, and love is all we will ever need" (approximately). This lovely, delusional condition can last throughout courtship and for maybe the first two years of marriage, if you're lucky. Then you need to come up with other reasons to be together besides that love is falling out of the trees like manna from heaven.

Your complementary dance of intimacy

If the relationship lasts more than two years, it means that the relationship dynamics (the patterns in the give and take of the relationship) are stable (they have become predictable), and that the emotional/psychological/intellectual fit between the two of you is an agreeable mesh (not mess). That doesn't mean it's healthy, just that it has stabilized and that it's predictable and acceptable to both of you, because you have remained together. It's your complementary-if not always complimentary-dance of intimacy. You share and agree on all of your basic and most important values. You are at the same level of emotional and psychological maturity, and your overall intelligence is equal. You are also equally comfortable with emotional and psychological intimacy or closeness, which is the central organizing principle of your relationship. This is even true when people have married, divorced, and remarried. People who have married and divorced multiple times have told me that it's virtually as if they married the same person over and over.

The power struggles that characterize the middle years of marriage

We get married in order to enjoy all the wonderful differences our spouse brings to the table, to share our individuality, and to grow and evolve into the best person we can be in the best possible relationship on earth, don't we? At least we start out with that intention. But then we spend the next ten years trying to change our partner into someone who's exactly like us. What's up with that? What's up with that is, once we find our comfort zone, we hunker down and try to get our partner to help us stay comfortable by not challenging or stressing us. They stress us and challenge us with their individuality, with the ways in which they are different from us. In order to remain in our comfort zone, we try to change various things about them, to get them to accommodate to us, while resisting their attempts to change us. This is the basis of the power struggles that characterize the middle years of marriage for most people.

Don't we want to change to please our partner?

But that wasn't the idea we started with-at least consciously it wasn't. The fact is that they're not going to change to suit us; they're not going to enable us to get comfortably numb in our comfort zone. The good news is that your comfort zone is not a natural place to be. All of the processes and flow of life itself don't work like that. Life isn't static. The one thing about life that always remains the same is that life is always changing and evolving. Nothing really ever holds still, even if it appears to. On our deepest level, we yearn to grow and evolve too, because we need to. That's why intimate relationships are perfect for us. Yet we try to stay in our comfort zone anyway, by of Force Of Habit . It is the term used to talk about the way the mind works, and as a model for describing the way Tranceformation makes deep level personal change possible. All of our bad habits are based on fear, so we're not going to give them up unless we're motivated from within. We can't. But don't we want to change to please our partner? Sure, if the relationship feels comfortable and equal, if our quid pro quos are lined up, and if we are on good terms with our partner-if security and safety aren't an issue. We willingly do things for each other under those conditions. What are quid pro quos?

Marriage is created by a contract

All of our relationships, except the ones we have with our children while they are growing up and becoming independent, are contractual-they are created by a contract that we agree to with each other. That may sound cold and calculating, but it makes all manner of civilization possible (it's called the "rule of law"), it seems natural to our human nature, and it appears to be necessary and unavoidable. The relationship we have with our children is not based on a contract that we make with them, it is based on our obligation to meet their needs, more or less without their having to reciprocate (have you noticed?). That is, we have an unconditional obligation to take care of their needs. And they know it. Not so with the rest of our relationships. The rest of our relationships are all based on some kind of "quid pro quo" (in Latin, "something for something"), in which we agree to give something of value in exchange for something else of approximately equal value. That's the definition of a contract. It's easy to see how contracts work in the world of paid employment and in renting, leasing, and buying things, but contracting is the rule in our relationships too, from our friends and our neighbors to our partner and spouse. Basically, we remain on good terms with people as long as they don't cross us. Most people stop giving to a relationship that has become unequal. This is natural and obvious. Continuing to feed into an unequal relationship is considered unhealthy, "codependent," or "enabling."

We get mad at each other for violating a marital contract we didn't even know existed

The most interesting part about the contractual nature of marital relationships is that the vast majority of people never actually verbalize their contract with each other (apart from those charming wedding vows). But they definitely notice when the terms of their-unverbalized-contract have been violated, and they let us know about it. We get mad at each other for violating a contract we didn't even know existed! A good deal of marital therapy is figuring out what everyone's expectations are, putting them out on the table, and, for the first time, actually negotiating the contract-with lots of problem ownership. Everyone takes responsibility for their own stuff. I grew up hearing that marriage is a "50/50 proposition." But it isn't. Marriage is a 100/100 proposition, where each participant is doing their own 100% of the work. Each partner takes 100% of the responsibility for how they feel, what they think, and for everything they do. Everybody is whole and complete already, whether they know it or not, and nobody completes anybody else. Each partner contributes what only they can contribute, because no one can do it for you. If you don't do your own work, it won't get done. To negotiate an adult contract, you need to be whole: you need to be able to bring your 100%. Therefore, the process of marital therapy often involves both couple and individual therapy. Everyone has to learn how to clean up their own bad habits in order to feel and act whole and complete.

The confidence that you are prepared to deal with whatever life brings

The rest of marital therapy consists of learning to assertively communicate your wants, needs, and expectations so you can negotiate your dance of intimacy and develop the tools and processes you'll need as a couple to resolve the inevitable challenges, conflicts, and problems that life provides. Satisfaction in life comes from the confidence that you are prepared to deal with whatever life brings you. With the right attitude and skills in place, your relationship will have the positive and realistic orientation and the resiliency to resolve anything that might come up.

The best relationship and partnership on earth

In therapy, all of this work is best done in couple (conjoint) meetings, so that everyone has the same information and everyone learns how to talk about and negotiate everything. You become the expert and the authority on you and your relationship, and you learn how to navigate your way to the best relationship in the world-and keep it that way. In a couple relationship that works for both of you, everybody gets the chance to be their best person in the best partnership on earth. There's absolutely nothing like it. It's an opportunity you won't find anywhere else, and the rewards are priceless.

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