A happy, life-long marriage to one you love and who loves you is desired by many in our culture.
In the US, by the age of 50, approximately 90% of people will have been married. Even in the face of high divorce rates in the US, our hearts and minds bend oward seeking a love for life, t and often those who experience divorce go on to find another partner for love and marriage. Even in the context of high divorce rates, infidelity, and marriage breakdowns, our hearts still yearn for the sweetness of that most intimate relationship.
In the current era, marriages are under a new set of pressures as COVID-19 continues to spread. Couples are spending more time together under one roof, intermingling work and home activities, sharing childcare, education, homecare and pet care duties, and not having the same access to previous stress-relievers such as social time with friends or vacations. While marriage is already an act of optimism given divorce rates, in the modern era of COVID, it is that much more ambitious!
To consider how to help our marriages, I would like to invite you first to consider the enormous
pressure we place on ourselves in the space of the modern marriage. Esther Perel, relationship
therapist, speaker and author, points out that our need for security, permanence and safety
shows up in our expectations of marriage, while at the same time we also demand and expect
adventure, novelty and excitement. Seemingly opposite desires within the same marriage –
how can we satisfy all of this in one relationship? Perel also points out that marriage has
traditionally served as a means of creating stability, social status, and an opportunity to have
children and grow a family. Yet in the modern era we also expect that our partners will be our
best friends, our confidantes, and our lovers. And our lifespans are longer than ever!
Not only do we place tremendous pressure on our marriages for love, belonging, adventure and
great sex, we also expect deep understanding, deep acceptance and inner child healing from
our marriages. Family therapist Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems Theory,
argues that we have been sold a bill of goods about ideal marriage. “We’ve been told that the
love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we
find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixir-like, filling our empty spaces and healing
our pain” (Schwartz, 2008, p. 11). We yearn for our partners to be the solace to the pain that
exists inside of us, pain that developed through the course of our lives as a result of a lifetime of
To these existing towering expectations for our marriages, add
the usual array of life challenges, including having and raising
children. Research shows that marital satisfaction declines
with the arrival of children, given the additional
responsibilities and demands on the parents. As well, there
are the pressures of career development and growth, spiritual
development and growth, home purchase and maintenance,
and the pursuit of material wealth. No wonder we are finding
marriage tough! That’s a lot of pressure on one “I do!”
So how can we offer ourselves and our partners some much-
needed relief? How can we lighten the load of expectation
each of us carried into marriage and make our union more
likely to last?
Work on Yourself First / Reparent Yourself
The common thread through these examples of pressures on marriage is the notion that the
Other Person is going to be the solution to My Problems. Can you imagine why we have
difficulties? One of the tasks of adulthood is to thoroughly, compassionately, and lovingly take
up the work of reparenting ourselves. All of us, whether we came from neglectful homes or
resourced homes, from abusive parents or loving parents, from attentive parents or distracted
parents, all of us experienced wounding in our childhood that causes us pain. Our work as
adults is to honestly identify that wounding, relieve our parents of any further obligation to fix
it, and own the path to healing by reparenting ourselves. This work can be completed in the
safety of a therapy office or independently through means of self-help and learning. Regardless
of how you go about this healing work, know that it is your work to do. Relying on our partners
to heal us of this deep wounding, or continuously stretch to accommodate ways in which we
are not healing, makes the work of marriage that much more difficult.
Be the Partner You Want
Another way in which we fill our marriage with pressure is to show up with
criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. These are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that John and Julie Gottman, researchers relationship experts, teach about and write about in their books on relationship. Each of these four behaviors communicates animosity to our partners and the Gottman research shows they correlate with
relationship breakdown. As a short set of definitions:
Criticism blames the partner, arguing that unwanted experiences are a result of the partner’s failings, poor choices, or character flaws.
Defensiveness protects the self, suggesting that our own behaviors or character are
above reproach. Criticism and Defensiveness often go hand-in-hand, resulting in
escalating arguments rather than mutual solutions.
Contempt treats the partner with disrespect, mocking them, or calling them names.
Stonewalling is withdrawing, whether through silence, a cold shoulder, or physical
retreat. Disengaging from the relationship protects the self and avoids conflict and
So what can we choose instead? There are several recommendations by the Gottmans and this
link gives more details. In short, one action to consider is entering into your emotional world,
recognizing ways in which you are hurt or in pain, and bringing that vulnerability forward to
your partner. Rather than criticize his tendency to be late, you could share the worry you
experience when you don’t know his whereabouts. Rather than nag at his tendency to leave his
clothing around the house, you could be introspective about what a tidy house means to you
and offer him insights about your needs.
Writer and editor Molly Tolsky offered this light-hearted solution recently: “Pro-tip for couples
suddenly working from home together. Get yourselves an imaginary coworker to blame things
on. In our apartment, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty water cups all over the place and we really
don’t know what to do about her.” Find ways to laugh! Rather than seeing your spouse or loved
one as the enemy, see him or her as your partner, the two of you united in common pursuit of
all of your shared goals. Find ways to prioritize humor, create fun, and laugh together.
Seek Professional Help
Following these practices will help, but if you find yourself still struggling, or simply needing
support, consider seeking help from a professional therapist. Often, getting care from a
qualified professional can help motivate us to take better care of ourselves. Please feel free to
contact me if I can help you get connected to someone who will be a good fit for you.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
New York: Three Rivers Press.
Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Reconciling the erotic + the domestic. New York:
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford.
Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For: Bringing Courageous Love to
Intimate Relationships. Oak Park IL: Trailhead Publications.
Mental Health Counselor
Brenda is a mental health counselor who combines Counseling Psychology experience, Human Resources business experience, personal cancer recovery, and life experience of the last 25 years to care for clients. Brenda owns Thrive Counseling Services LLC, a Kirkland-based counseling practice focused on trauma care. Brenda also serves with Cancer Lifeline, a support organization for cancer survivors and their families.
Brenda’s primary counseling modality is Lifespan Integration, which is gentle, body-based therapeutic method that heals without re-traumatizing. Using a person-centered approach, Brenda also offers support with anxiety, depression, grief, and loss.
Brenda believes the therapeutic relationship and therapeutic modalities can produce healing, transformation, learning, and growth. Brenda’s hope for her clients, as for all of us, is to consider, practice, and adopt new ways of being and living that are healing and revitalizing.
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