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Keeping Up Appearances - 10/17/2008

On the surface, Ted and Pat and their two children were an all-American family.  If you asked either of them about their marriage, they would have said it was above average.  They argued very little, enjoyed traveling together and shared mutual goals and interests.  

Why, then, am I including them in one of my articles, which usually deal with emotional problems and dysfunctional people?  My answer is, they fit that group, as well.  In Ted’s and Pat’s case, it was difficult to believe they had a problem.  Even they weren’t aware of it.  At least, not until their eldest daughter left for college.  Following her absence, events that, heretofore, would have been dealt with easily now seemed major in nature.  They laughed less and their sexual desires all but disappeared.  Eventually, they  realized they were dissatisfied with their life together.

As a result,  they sought out therapy.  During their first session, they spoke about a recent conflict.  They were supposed to go to the theater, but Ted was late getting home.  He said he was tired but, rather than lose the tickets, they decided to go to the theater and come straight home.  When they arrived at 8 p.m., they discovered that the play had started thirty minutes earlier.  The usher indicated the theater had sent out notices, but, apparently, they hadn’t received theirs.  In Ted’s mind, Pat had overlooked it.  He was furious and proceeded to tell her how incompetent she was.  A fact he reiterated throughout the 45 minutes they spent  watching the play on a monitor.  The incident paled over time, but a second argument brought it out again.  They had arranged to take their children to the Christmas rendition of The Nutcracker.  They primed the kids about the performance and raced to the theater, only to discover that their tickets were for a Sunday matinee, not Saturday.  Once again, Ted lambasted Pat for her incompetence.   The usher, sensitive to Ted’s upset, suggested they wait to see if anyone cancelled.  As luck would have it, four seats became available which were far better than those they had originally purchased.  You might have thought Ted would have been elated.  He wasn’t.  Instead, he thought, “Damn it, now I won’t be able to hold on to my anger.”  It was then that he first realized how angry he was.  

It might surprise you to know that Pat was a very successful career woman.  It was there she obtained her primary  feelings of adequacy and  sense of self-worth.  Consequently, it was there, and with her children, that she invested her emotional energy.  Ted was equally involved with his career, participated in martial arts two to three times a week and occasionally played bass in a small band.  At the time they saw me, two of Ted’s divorced buddies were living in their home, forcing his children to give up their rooms and bunk together.  When you add up these facts, it becomes apparent that Pat and Ted only went through the motions of having a relationship.  Too many distractions filled their time and depleted  their energy.  Further, their daughter’s absence wasn’t the cause of their problem, but it probably acted as a catalytic agent, which brought  the problem to the surface, in that it provided them increased opportunities for closeness. But, sadly, the opportunity went for naught.

Ted escaped, while Pat played the victim.  Each of them, through different behaviors, contributed to the distance between them.  But it wasn’t a conscious act.  When I asked them, “What caused your dissatisfaction with the relationship?”, they were unable to explain it.  What they finally concluded was that their relationship had never been a truly loving one.  There were good times, mostly kindled by special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.  But, on a daily basis, their life was one busy series of responsibilities and obligations after another.   This realization helped them to see that each of them  participated equally in creating the situation they were experiencing.  

That insight also helped them to see that it’s never too late to learn to love your partner.  However, those revelations didn’t bring about a magical transformation resulting in bliss and harmony. Instead, they began  to question why their busy routine and  lack of intimacy was acceptable for almost twenty years?  It caused them to review the baggage each of them brought to their marriage and to examine the relationships their parents had.  Because it’s parents who provide the role model for the marriages you later create in life.   These insights brought to light subtle but painful hurts which experienced in childhood, which they had swept under the carpet and all but forgotten.  Their hurts, though out of sight, were never out of mind.  Like mold growing underneath the sheetrock in a home, they grew without revealing themselves and  contributed significantly to how close and how much emotional vulnerability they could tolerate.  

You see, intimate, loving relationships don’t come about magically, they evolve out of trust and openness and an ability to reveal your darkest emotions to your partner.  Sharing you with another individual who listens and understands your fears, but won’t use them against you, aids you to care and to let your guard down.  In Pat’s and Ted’s case, they were willing to do the work required to see themselves and to  allow their partner to see what they discovered.  All of which came about as a result of their realization that marital problems are created by two people working together to construct and maintain a dysfunctional relationship and that, conversely, marital success is determined by how well each partner addresses their individual  problems.  The goal being that two well-adjusted people come together and establish a new, mutually beneficial relationship.  Believe me,  it’s possible once you recognize that  sick people have sick relationships, hurting people have hurtful relationships, but healthy people have healthy marriages.  That’s the key to a successful marriage.  Get healthy in your own right.  Take control of you.  Stand up, despite your fears.  Ask for what you want and set limits.  In the process, you’ll become a healthy individual who will attract and only accept another healthy individual for a partner.

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