Couples Therapy, to Marry or Not to Marry, and the Myth of Perfect Compatibility
There is no such thing as perfect, but are you and your partner “masters” or “disasters”?
In my work with couples in therapy one of the key concerns of couples seeking help is: Should we get married? The couples vary in nature from short-term relationships, to long-term, to relationships involving children. Couples may be experiencing relational bumps and recurring conflicts and are wondering if they should continue to invest time and energy in each other toward a life-long commitment–or just call it quits.
Often, the way this is expressed is in terms of “compatibility,” as in, “We need your help to determine if we are compatible long-term. I mean, are we RIGHT for each other?” Sometimes my clients grew up with divorced parents and don’t want to go down the same road. They would rather not try at marriage than try and then fail. So the question in their mind becomes: how do we ensure success?
But what comes to mind when you think of “compatibility” as a predictor of marriage success? Most people think of compatibility in marriage as a function of specific characteristics, such as both partners liking the same music, sports, or leisure activities, or having a similar sense of humor, or having similar career aspirations, or feeling the same way about having children or parenting. These are all valuable aspects to a relationship but certainly NOT indicative of success long-term.
Let me explain it this way: Think of a good friendship that you had in the past and that has since ended. Maybe you experienced a fight, a jealousy-based competition, or an emotional injury that violated your trust in each other. It is rare that a good friendship would end due to, say, your taking up yoga and your good friend choosing running instead; or your good friend moving to a new city and you being irreconcilably hurt by that. The point is that conflicts don’t matter so much as how we MANAGE them. The conflict is not that your good friend chose running—rather, it might be that she did not respect your choice of yoga. The conflict is not that your good friend moved; it might be that he did not demonstrate a desire or commitment to stay connected.
It is the same for couples. Often a couple comes to me with doubt surrounding characteristics or CIRCUMSTANCES, e.g., “My partner likes to eat out five days a week and I like to cook at home.” It is not eating in or out that predicts marriage success—it is how a couple MANAGES the conflict. Examples of effective management (and please note that there are many options based upon the specific couple) would be:
- The partner who wants to eat out does so one or two nights fewer and the partner who wants to stay in does so one or two nights fewer. This demonstrates flexibility and respect.
- The partners recognize their differences and consider the option of the “I want to eat out” partner doing so on his/her own sometimes, and the “I want to stay home” partner doing so on his/her own as well. Who says all dinners have to be with each other? This demonstrates respect for differences and allowance of space.
- The “I want to eat out” partner picks a quieter place when they eat out, and the “I want to stay home” partner entertains a few friends for dinner at times when they stay home. This demonstrates willingness to connect and respect differences.
Other examples might include:
- We both work and have a child together. I’m tired by Saturday and he gets up before dawn to go play golf with his buddies. I never get any time to sleep in or do my own thing.
- We’ve been dating for 3 years – he wants to get married and I don’t because I don’t think he’s as ambitious as I am when it comes to education, career, and financial stability.
- I want to spend all my free time with her and often she wants to go out with her girlfriends.
In these cases, the options to explore include a focus on managing the circumstance, behavior, or characteristic, not on changing it.
Fear of Divorce as a Deterrent to Marriage
It is especially true that children of divorced parents or high conflict marriages may have witnessed or heard growing up trash talk directed at the other parent, e.g., “If your father weren’t late all the time we wouldn’t be so angry leaving the house,” or “Your mom spends all our money on clothes and things that don’t matter—who taught her to be so materialistic?!” A child hearing this (and often, an adult reflecting back on it) will mistakenly look to avoid DIFFERENCES in characteristics with their partner, mistakenly attributing being late verses punctual, or being indulgent verses a spendthrift—characteristics all—to a failed relationship.
The truth is that the relationship fails because the players are unable to MANAGE it. It is much easier to blame your partner’s character flaws for a failed or miserable marriage than to admit or acknowledge or even perceive the failure of both partners to manage conflict. Managing conflict requires respect, humility, love and compromise. Acknowledging an inability or unwillingness to offer those elements up in a relationship is difficult. For divorced parents, it can be impossible and the children are subsequently shown an untrue version of events leading to divorce.
So these couples come to me wondering if they will fight and divorce and are focused more on characteristics than on conflict management.
Management of Conflict Versus Elimination of Conflict: Masters vs. Disasters
As Dr. John Gottman’s marriage research shows, couples whose marriages last are not in any way free of problems—most if not all will find themselves dealing with addiction, illness, death, and/or conflicted interests over a lifetime of marriage. Their success and happiness in the marriage is defined by the way these circumstances are addressed.
In successful marriages, most problematic issues are not solved, but managed. Gottman’s research revealed that both the “masters” (successful couples) and “disasters” in marriage both faced chronic problems. The difference was that masters tended to find a way to deal with them to keep them in check, while disasters tended to constantly fight and feel gridlocked around what to do.
There is a book, article, pamphlet or leaflet spelling out for any couple what “the experts” say leads to long-term success in terms of characteristics—some might say time alone, some say time together; some say similar interests, some say different interests; some say complementary birth order (e.g., youngest with oldest)—you get the idea. But the best predictor of success in terms of accuracy (like that supported by the research of Dr. John Gottman) doesn’t attempt to classify compatible characteristics or life circumstances. That’s because there is not an optimal mix. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT COMPATIBILITY.
The optimal mix comes from clear and present knowledge of YOUR needs in a long-term relationship, clear and present knowledge of your partner’s needs in a long-term relationship, and understanding to what extent your and your partner’s needs can be fulfilled by one another. It is also important to recognize that no one person can meet ALL of our needs; hence it’s important to identify which needs may be best met through investing time in your family and friendships verses your partner.
Please note that any conflict which may constitute domestic violence (e.g., emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse) should be handled differently than described within this blog–with the goal of creating a safety plan and exploring alternative options.
Couples Therapy: Identifying the Noise, Listening to the Signals
In therapy I help couples identify what their emotional needs are and how much of those needs they are expecting their partner to fulfill; their partner may not know what those basic emotional needs are, how to access them, or how to respond to them. To aid in that process, we use a technique called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), developed by Dr. Susan M. Johnson. Johnson describes EFT this way:
“Emotionally focused couple therapy (EFT) is a short-term, systematic, and tested intervention to reduce distress in adult love relationships and create more secure attachment bonds one to another. The word emotion comes from the Latin word “to move”. EFT uses the power of emotion to “move” partners and evoke new responses in recurring key interactions that make up a couple’s relationship “dance”. When we speak of being emotionally “moved” we are usually talking of being touched, stirred up, compelled to respond to a powerful cue that evokes action in us. Emotion pulls for and organizes key responses in close relationships.”
In therapy I help couples differentiate the signal from noise. Your signal is your truth. Noise comes from expectations and habits stemming from your family of origin, friends, media, that may have nothing to do with your true expectations and desired relationship habits. Did your family of origin have a formal dinner every night and you feel this is a necessary component of a future with your partner? But upon further digging you realize you don’t have that expectation or desire in your own relationship, and in requiring it of your partner you are looking for someone or something that is in fact not right and not REAL for you.
Many don’t have clarity around their own needs (we can uncover them in the process of therapy) which in turn makes it difficult for our partners to then meet them. As well, we often find that individuals at the subconscious level trying to achieve what they perceive to be a sense of “normal” that is really borne as a young child trying to make sense of the chaos they may have experienced in their upbringing —every family has a little dysfunction–and then using those same coping behaviors now as an adult and recognizing they are no longer serving them or their relationship.
The answers are inside you and your partner. Once we get beyond the “noise” the signal will be clear. It is the ring of truth. I look forward to listening, hearing, and learning more about your partner with you.