Monday, October 28, 2019
Often the starting point for my clinical work with struggling couples is their desire to remain together. Other times, it is with couples where one or both of them are not sure if they want to stay together. Or, the clinical work begins with couples that have made the decision to move their relationships toward divorce. In any of these scenarios, I am interested to assess what marriage cycle the presenting couple is in. And how their “previous marriages” evolved. Even if they were to each other.
Based on my years of practice, in most long-term relationships spouses generally marry each other 3 times. The 1st marriage usually occurs pre-children (“pre-children”). The 2nd one during the years of co-parenting and work (“children and work”), and their last marriage once their children are leaving/have left the home and retirement looms (“post-children”). Many of us mark our 1st marriage with a formal celebration of some kind. It is the other 2 that quietly occur without any conscious awareness of any remarriage taking place. It is in the adjusting to this next marriage that problems sometimes occur. In my post-graduate training I was taught to identify challenges within “developmental milestones.” This meant pinpointing events that forced a family to change the way they related to one another. Many of these events are normative, like the birth of a child, or the adding of another one. Other times they are unexpected and traumatic like a death or a fire. For couples, I consider the transition from “1 marriage to the next” to be a developmental milestone. A couple has to re-adjust to a changing relationship between them. It is this unaware experience that can breed resentments.
The pre-children marriage typically occurs in relative youth. A couple is more emotionally and sexually agile because they carry less responsibilities. Even if they don’t realize it there is more time! There are fewer distractions and they are able to focus more fully on one other. In contrast, the children and work marriage is a different and distinct marriage. A couple must now manage the multiple stressors of juggling a marital relationship alongside a co-parenting relationship. A couple cannot focus on each other the way they used to. Men can feel ignored and women can feel stressed by being everything to everyone. The post-children marriage is in part a return to the original marriage. A couple must now figure out how to re-focus on each other without the distractions of their busy family and work lives. They must now figure out if they still like each other and if they still want to be together in retirement and for the duration of their lives.
It is not uncommon for me to hear couples discussing anger and hurt from their current post-children marriage that occurred years ago in their pre-children marriage. A husband, for example, realizing that he had been “grieving” a time when he felt noticed by his spouse. Or that same time when a wife felt like her husband wanted only her. Marital transformation regardless of the starting point in my work occurs when a couple becomes more conscious about their various marital life cycles. And its impact on who they were, and who they are, both individually and as a couple.