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COUPLES: Can This Marriage Be Saved?


Marriage education was introduced as a “preventive maintenance” approach to sustaining love and strengthening families in this 1982 Washington Post article.

Marriage education was introduced as a "preventive maintenance" approach to sustaining love and strengthening families in this 1982 Washington Post article.

“Two things are crucial in life: fulfilling work and fulfilling love. Most people develop skills in one area and try to use them in the other, but skills needed in a career are quite different from the skills needed to sustain love.”

by Pat McNees
Guest Columnist

(This story was first published in the Style Section of the Washington Post, 11/29/82. Copyright © Pat McNees. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.)

“Almost every couple who comes to see me, once fell in love,” says Lori Eisenberg Gordon, director of the Family Relations Institute in Falls Church.

“But the capacity to sustain a loving relationship means developing skills in intimacy that we often haven’t had the opportunity to learn.

“Many of the couples who come to me unhappy about their marriage feel disappointed — if not outright betrayed — that what they expected to find in the relationship either hasn’t happened or has been taken away. In other words, that their contract (expressed or unexpressed) has changed.”

Gordon, one of the leading family therapists in the area, who has been counseling couples for 19 years, sees contemporary marital problems as primarily the result of changing social expectations.

“At one time, marriages were maintained out of practical necessity — couples needed each other for survival — and because people placed great value on commitment. Happiness was not the issue.

“Now that women are no longer so economically dependent on marriage, and divorce is so common an option, the emphasis in marriage is much more on companionship and the pleasure two people take in each other. Skills in sustaining a loving relationship are far more important than they once were.

Lori Gordon PAIRS
Lori Gordon with her companion, Morri (2011).

“According to Freud,” notes Gordon, “only two things are crucial in life: fulfilling work and fulfilling love. Most people develop skills in one area and try to use them in the other, but skills needed in a career are quite different from the skills needed to sustain love.

“In a career, competition, control, the capacity to be guarded and concerned self-interest are important. But the skills that are needed in a marriage are honesty, emotional openness, a sense of yourself and the ability to communicate that self to your partner, to be able to discuss issues with both partners’ points of view in mind, to ‘fight fair,’ to validate your own and the other’s sense of worth–and also to be physically close.

“By this I don’t mean just sex,” says Gordon, 53, “but the ability to lie together in loving, reassuring closeness, to satisfy that physical need for ‘bonding’ that humans need from infancy on. This is something we go into in the workshops Dan Casriel [a New York psychiatrist] offers here periodically.”

Gordon, who has been involved in divorce mediation and conducts “PAIRS” seminars believed to be unique in the field, sees three levels of expectation in a “marriage contract”:

  1. Verbalized expectations, which couples actually discuss.
  2. Unverbalized expectations, which couples are aware of but don’t communicate — “until they discover that they’re not being met, and almost feel as if the contract has been broken,” even though that part of the contract has never been discussed.
  3. Expectations unknown even to themselves, which tend to emerge later in a relationship.

That hidden level, says Gordon, is related to a person’s fears of repeating parts of one’s history that were unpleasant or even traumatic, although they may have been ignored or suppressed.

“At some point in your life, someone important in your life runs up a debit balance with you, and then the scene changes, and you go through life’s revolving door, and you hand the bill to whoever is there. You say, ‘Make up to me for what so-and-so didn’t give me.’

“This can be poisonous in a relationship because the other person doesn’t know what you feel is owed to you and they don’t feel they owe you anything. They resent the expectation, although in any case the expectation is not something you are even consciously aware of.”

marriage education
Helping couples piece together the marriage puzzle.

Gordon presents these examples of hidden agendas:

“Let’s say a young man grows up with an invalid mother who is often sick and therefore unavailable to meet his needs. Later in life when he marries, when his wife becomes ill or fatigued he sometimes finds himself reacting with anger and blame–at the very time she most needs his help.

“Or take the woman who as a child is ‘triangled’ between her parents: As her father’s favorite, she becomes the object of her mother’s criticism. All her efforts to help or please are unappreciated, and she becomes estranged from her mother. Later on, in marriage, her husband fails to acknowledge or appreciate her efforts, and she sees him as the enemy she came to feel her mother was.

“Each of these partners will feel betrayed,” says Gordon. “How they choose to act out their disappointments and fears in the relationship will become their major problem.

“Unfortunately, in a state of pain people tend to feel threatened, and when they feel threatened, they tend to turn to defensive communication styles, which not only do not resolve the original problem, but create a whole new problem in themselves–in effect, the style becomes the problem see “Defensive Styles” box .”

When couples try to second-guess each other and rely on mind-reading to communicate, they get into trouble, and find themselves in what Gordon refers to as “marital knots and double binds.” Some typical examples:

  • “If you loved me, you would know . . . what I think, feel, want, and you would give it to me. Since you don’t, you obviously don’t care, so why should I care for you, or what you think, feel, say, want or do. So when you tell me what you want, I will be withholding.”
  • “If I tell you what I want and you do what I want, it doesn’t count because I had to tell you. If I don’t tell you what I want, you don’t do what I want. If you do what I want, but not the way that I wanted you to, it still doesn’t count. I feel unloved.”
  • “If you are in pain, I should be able to fix it. I don’t know how to fix it, so I feel inadequate. I am angry at you for making me feel inadequate, so I withdraw from you, blame you, when you are in pain.” This attitude, Gordon says, is most common among men.

But what does a couple do if they sense they are sending out double messages, are lacking in compassion, or are reacting to painful events from their past? Can they change?

“For couples who are very motivated, many things can change,” says Gordon.

“If one partner is motivated and the other isn’t, a few things can change but one partner is likely to leave. If both people are unreflective and unwilling to assume responsibility for their part of the couple’s problems, there’s little hope for change — the couple will continue to act out the problem, or just live with it. Sometimes a mature partner will maintain a parent-child relationship with the immature partner in the interest of maintaining the marriage.

“This doesn’t make for a happy marriage, but then, many marriages are unhappy. However, the partner who allows an unhappy situation to persist is just as responsible for it as the other partner.”

It’s relatively simple, claims Gordon, to resolve problems that develop early in a marriage. “It’s a lot harder when there are years of misunderstanding and bitterness.”

Too many couples, she says, wait until it’s too late, “until one of them has fallen in love with someone else, and is unmotivated to work on the relationship because they don’t want to give up the pleasure of their new love.

“The essence of preventive maintenance is:  Don’t wait.”

Copyright © Pat McNees. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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