“I haven’t loved you in a very long time and I think I need out of this relationship.” This is what Robin told me after dinner on November 2, 1988. We had been married five years, had a one-year old son, and I had thought she was happy enough with our marriage. Boy, was I wrong. We were both willing to work on the marriage and we came to call our weekly marital therapy sessions “Thrashing”, as in, “Do we have Thrashing at 4:00 this Wednesday?” Ten months later we went through an eight-month separation. Those were painful days as we traded our son back and forth each day and dealt with the hurt, loneliness, and frustration of trying to rebuild a badly damaged relationship. We each had a lot of growing up to do (individual therapy contributed to keeping us in the poor house those two years) and we each needed to learn to show up to the relationship willing to give but also willing to speak our true selves to each other. I learned that I had patterned my approach to intimacy on my parents’ marriage: a weekly date to catch up surrounded by workaholism and surface communication. I learned that Robin (and I) needed a much deeper level of involvement in each other’s lives. Robin learned that she was strong enough to handle conflict and she was happier when she stood up for what she needed. Two months ago we launched our third son off to college and we are greatly enjoying the pleasures of an empty nest. We truly are best friends.
Sociologist Linda Waite studied couples and assessed their level of marital satisfaction over time. She found that the most-unhappy couples experienced the most-dramatic turnaround to a satisfying marriage. 77% of the couples who rated their marriages as “very unhappy” then rated their marriage as “quite happy” or “very happy” just five years later! What explains such a phenomenon? Stated simply, marriage works. Marriage works because human beings thrive in securely-attached relationships. When a person experiences that he or she has a companion, a partner, a comrade-in-arms in the battle of life, that person will sleep better, eat better, be more motivated to face the tough challenges in life (instead of using addictions to avoid the challenges), be more successful financially, and enjoy greater physical and emotional health.
But to enjoy those benefits of a committed partnership one must practice a kind of relating that we couples therapists call “secure functioning.” This is psychobabble for respectful, caring, honest, open communication. Communication that builds “secure functioning” goes after what is “good for you and good for me.” It values the relationship ahead my favorite TV show, ahead of what my mom or boss needs, ahead of my own selfish whims. Secure functioning requires three key things: get clear on who I am and what I need, be willing to express my true self to you, and listen to and show I care about you. You may be in a painful place in your partnership. But if you hang in there and keep growing in your ability to show caring to your partner, the relationship is very likely to become a happy one.
By: Tom Olschner