I receive more comments about my article, “What does it take to sustain passion?”, than any other article that I have written. Most of the comments that I receive are from people who tell me that my article accurately describes the sense of emotional distance and disconnection that they feel in their marriage. People relate to my description of how couples lose touch with each other and how such losing touch can lead to sexual issues between the spouses. Over time, such emotional disconnection becomes more and more destructive and leads to broader deterioration of the emotional ties between the couple.
Marriage is most difficult when partners have lost respect and empathy for each other. Couples experiencing that kind of pain come into therapy desperately wanting help and often pessimistic about whether or not they will ever again have a healthy sense of intimate connection with each other. Such fears maintain distance between the partners. Neither of them wants to be hurt more than they already are. This fear of being further hurt results in continued defensiveness, which perpetuates the pain and distance that separates the couple.
Healing and growth in marriage requires a “leap of faith” that things can be different, that we and our partners can learn how to respond differently to stressful, painful situations. This kind of growth is called “Differentiation”, something that have I written about before in previous articles. Those articles are also posted on my website.
Couples who define a “vision” for their marriage are better able to make this necessary leap of faith. A vision for marriage is like a business plan for corporations- it defines a philosophy and goals and establishes parameters by which performance can be measured. A couple’s vision for their marriage helps them identify both their strengths and the specific areas in their relationship that need work.
Defining a vision for one’s marriage involves each partner thinking and communicating about their core values, what they want for themselves and each other, and how these values and wants are incorporated into the different facets of the marriage. This kind of exercise is something that is often done as part of pre-marital counseling or programs like “Engaged Encounter”, but is rarely done in an ongoing way after marriage.
It is beneficial for couples to regularly review their vision for their marriage. Doing so helps couples ensure that their marital vision is evolving and responsive to the challenges that life and marriage bring. When couples think and talk about how the realities of their marriage compare with their vision for their marriage, they will be more aware of the areas of the marriage that need work and better able to focus their constructive efforts towards improvement, thus moving closer to the ideals of their marital vision.
And when it comes to working on improving a marriage, neither partner can expect the other person to work harder, or more diligently, than they themselves are willing to work. It never works in marriage if partners expect to play by a "different set of rules" than they hold the other person to. The most successful marriages happen between partners who feel they are in it together and that they are sharing the inevitable and necessary sacrifices of marriage in a manner that both partners experience as "fair".
One of the best descriptions that I have seen of the work of marriage comes from an article entitled “Happily Ever After” published in the November 12,1995 edition of “The Family Therapy Networker”. The authors Judith Wallerstein and Susan Blakeslee define what they regard as “The nine tasks of a close relationship”.
I have found it useful to give this list to my clients and to ask them how this compares to what they want for their relationship. With the possible exception of having children, I have yet to have any client tell me that these things are not important to them. As my clients develop their vision for their marriage, they are better able to develop a plan for positive change. I hope that this list will be useful to you as you think about what you want in your marriage and how to make the most of it.