“If you do not take a step forward, you will always be in the same place.”
Change is Scary. And Hard. And Risky.
But as the somewhat silly quote above reminds us, if you don’t change — then things stay the same.
I often meet individually with each member of a couple to hear their concerns about their marriage. And most of the time they talk about how terrified they are of making a change. As bad as things are, they’re scared and afraid of doing anything that will make things worse. And they’re right, making a change in their marriage is risky. Changing the dynamic in the way they interact with one another will be challenging. But sometimes you have to be willing to risk what you have in order to get something better. If you want a new marriage with the same spouse you are going to have to do some things differently.
I often gently remind them of what they told me early on – how they came to counseling because their marriage seems unbearable. Or that their lack of sexual intimacy is intolerable. Or how their failing relationship is making them depressed, or anxious, or miserable.
And yet they are still afraid of doing something different. Why? Because for them; a lack of sex is better than no sex and another painful rejection of their advance. Because a lack of communication is better than expressing their wants or desires and being left unheard, or even worse, told by their partner that what they need isn’t important.
And yet, what a marriage often needs is for someone to take a risk. For one partner or the other to finally ask for things to be different. I know for them it feels like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. And yes, sometimes it does get worse at first. It can create hard conversations when things are already difficult. But usually, with the help of a counselor, it makes things better. It allows both partners to get honest about their wants and needs, their fears and hurts; and after the hard work couples can emerge stronger and happier.
The thing is, most couples are fairly miserable by the time they come to see me. They are living as roommates, not lovers and friends, and they are exhausted from the fights and the slights. When they get deeply honest in session, at least one of them will tell me they are not sure they even want to continue in the marriage. But still they are afraid of making a change. They have so little to lose and so much to gain – but when a couple is that beaten down it is hard to find the courage to overcome the fear.
“…maybe sometimes it’s riskier not to take a risk. Sometimes all you’re guaranteeing is that things will stay the same.” – Danny Wallace, Yes Man
But I have seen the difference it makes when someone finally takes a risk. Husband’s who have admitted addictions or wives who have admitted affairs. Or simply, couples who finally told each other what they need or want but without blaming their partner.
I know it is easy for a therapist to say “Take a risk.” But the choice is really simple. Do you want to be miserable and stable in your current marriage or to have the relationship you envisioned when you said “I Do”? Being in a partnership that is fulfilling emotionally, physically, and spiritually will mean you have to do some things differently moving forward. But isn’t it worth the risk?
Sexual addiction can be hard to understand, especially when we’ve been hurt by it or we have emotional or moral reactions to it. Our immediate reaction to sexual addiction is often, “Let’s make it go away”. However, that might not be the first thing needed. What I am proposing is, that we need to understand it before we tell it to go away because the addiction itself, while destructive, houses many healthy things that are important not to lose (you actually risk making the addiction worse by not understanding it first).
Sexual acting out is the house but inside the house is a web of healthy emotional needs. If we demand that the house go away without taking the time to carefully and non-judgmentally identify and understand the needs from the house we’re telling both the house and the healthy needs inside to go away. When that happens the sexual acting out doesn’t go away, it just goes deeper into hiding in an attempt to keep from losing the relationship or marriage at stake. Meaning, even though it goes out of site, and that might feel like things are better, the house of sexual acting out will likely come roaring back the next time there is a major stress situation. This is why behavior modification or judging healing by how long someone has gone with out acting out does not work.
The first thing to know is that you can’t know if someone is doing better (when not using behavior as the measuring stick) without being in relationship with them. This because empathy is the biggest tool we have for knowing how someone is. Empathy (not compassion, not kindness, not sympathy, but taking another’s perspective in a non-judgmental way) is how we can know what’s going on. When we respond to a person from those perspectives a person can feel understood not for their behavior but for their hidden needs and intentions. This is the first step to healing.
From inside of a relationship you might ask yourself these kinds of evaluative questions:
How much does this person know themselves?
How strong does their self-esteem stand in the storm of a fight or conflict?
How well can they assert themselves and have ambition about things?
Do they seem to get drowned in emotion during conflict and either shut down or rage?
Do they seem to show almost zero emotion during conflict?
Have they begun to be able to remain rather balanced emotionally in conflict?
Do they seem to share more openly and trustingly than they used to?
What do these things have to do with sexual acting out? Well, the acting out is the house but the needs inside the house have to do with a person’s self. When the self is healthy and strong a person can get through the bumps of life without needing to go to sexual acting out to keep from falling apart. The sexual acting out is compensating for not getting the loving relationship early on they needed in order to develop a full healthy self (it’s kind of like skin to keep their bones and muscles from falling all over the place). It’s why the eyes of a woman or man in pornography are the most concentrated on thing. A person is looking for what they didn’t get in the first place (something normal and healthy). The sex part is exciting but it’s not what keeps a person coming back (Gottman’s research on affairs might be connection here, his research shows that most affairs are not about the sex, they are about seeking things like acceptance, appreciation, safety, comfort, etc.) it’s the hope that they can get what they’ve been needing, without having to feel the pain of shame or rejection (what they believe they’ll get if they went to a real-life person like their partner or spouse. In short, the person struggling with addiction is not a problem. They are a normal human in need. And their healing can’t come in isolation because what they’re longing for is to feel real and whole (a product that only comes from sustained empathic relationship).
If the answers to above questions are more “no” than “yes”, it’s important not to rush to the conclusion that work is not being done. This is a slow and messy work and one that is not a 1+1=2 either. Sometimes it’s a one step forward, two steps back, one step forward kind of a thing (or as a couple I work with have said, “It’s not so much stepping backwards as it is a spiraling effect”). The two biggest helps a partner/spouse/friend can offer with this is: grace and courage.
Grace – to not see their behavior as an attack or dismissal of your needs but as an invitation to what hurts in them (to be able to hold this empathic posture means you will need a lot of your own support and possibility your own therapy).
Courage – treatment that’s not behavioral based can look murky. It can be scary to trust healing is actually happening and to take on the emotional pain that can be connected to a loved one digging deep, a process which often ends up requiring connected loved ones do their own work in tandem.
Depression is a relationship killer. It destroys emotional and physical intimacy and often drives partners in separate directions — creating isolation and loneliness. It can turn previously intimate companions into distant, unkind strangers.
The numbers bear out the destruction that depression can cause. Recent studies indicate that
• 40% of couples who seek counseling for marital distress have a partner battling depression
• Divorce is 9 times more likely when one partner suffers from depression
While the specific effects of depression differ from relationship to relationship, there are distinctive patterns that tend to emerge in couples where one partner is depressed and yet, when previously attentive, warm, loving partners turn irritable, angry, and distant …their partners aren’t likely to recognize it as a sign of depression.
The depressed partner often devalues themself and their relationships. They frequently become critical, sullen, and pessimistic.
And they are commonly confused about their own feelings – one day they need their partner desperately, the next day they don’t think they ever loved their significant other, and more often than not — they don’t know how they feel. This confusion often leads to withdrawal from the relationship.
Being the spouse or partner of someone with depression is also challenging. “One of the loneliest places to be is with a depressed partner.”
There are certain stages non-depressed partners tend to go through in response to the changes in their mate. The first stage is confusion about what has altered the relationship and why their partner is so different.
That stage is followed by self-blame;
“Why can I no longer make my spouse happy?”
“What did I do that made them pull away?”
And then demoralization at the inability to improve things over time;
“I am a failure as a partner if my spouse is always so lonely and sad.”
“I try and try but I can’t make things any better.”
This can eventually lead to resentment and a desire to escape.
Which in turn feeds the vulnerability and fear of the depressed partner;
“I’m not worthy of love, not a good spouse, and your frustration with me confirms that.”
So they become more isolated and alone.
The dynamic depression creates becomes difficult to break. Both partners keep triggering vulnerabilities in the other – and driving each other further and further away.
Depression creates isolation, and few things destroy a relationship quicker than living without a connection to your partner. Thinking that you don’t matter to your spouse; feeling unloved and unwanted by your mate; knowing that you are no longer appreciated and cherished by your lover – these are some of the feelings that can be created by living in a cycle of depression.
But the good news is that depression is treatable! Relationships damaged by withdrawal and neglect can be repaired and restored. If you suspect depression is impacting your marriage – get help. Find a qualified counselor to assist you in exploring the challenges to your relationship.
If you recognize yourself in the pattern above, find a therapist to help you identify options and solutions for treating depression as well as re-engaging with one another.
Your future and your relationship are worth it!
Here at Resonate Relationship Clinic we are lucky to have not one but two neurofeedback neurotherapists. Susan Dunaway is one of those neurotherapists (our colleague Lauren King is the other). Susan has a long history of working with kids, teens and adults with a passion and skill set for bringing health and healing. You can find more out about Susan at her website: www.susandunaway.com.
Below is a link to a brief introduction to basic brain structure and how neurofeedback can help regulate the brain. Originally Susan created this as a presentation for 6th grade students at a local middle school but it was so good that we thought everyone should have the chance to see it.
Click the link below and then on the top presentation, “Brains!”.
“We never have sex anymore. I feel rejected…unloved…alone.”
“It’s like we’re roommates. We rarely make love, and when we do it’s passionless — we’re just going through the motions.”
As therapists, we hear these types of statements often – from both wives and husbands (don’t believe the stereotypes). And we know that sexual satisfaction is a significant contributor to overall relationship contentment. Simply put, when a partner is unhappy with their sex life, they are generally unhappy with the relationship.
We also know that sexual intimacy and connection can be difficult terrain for couples to navigate. Each partner brings into the relationship their beliefs and expectations about what their sex life will look like. And typically, each partner defines sexual satisfaction differently.