Not every marriage, of course.
There are some marriages that are crowded out by lust (for someone else), intoxicating substances (like alcohol or cocaine), rage (that’s joined by violence…), insanity, or sheer cruelty.
But my job is to sort when those behaviors are chronically toxic from temporary destabilizing. And how to confront the individual who is falling into destructive patterns to get help, in order to allow me to do my job of helping them to love better.
I refer to myself, perhaps unflatteringly, as a “rescue dog.”
These animals have a single job to do: to find those who are in precarious situations and to bring them to safety. I think of myself that way when it comes to people’s marriage.
And, like actual rescue dogs, I get depressed when I find too many dead marriages, as these rescue dogs did during 911 when all they found were corpses.
But my version of a dead marriage may not be yours. And I thrive on what I’ve coined “Last Shot Couples Therapy.”
In fact, I have some couples who feel that their marriages are dead and periodically come to me for resuscitation, because they know I do not.
Resuscitation is the process of correcting physiological disorders (such as lack of breathing or heartbeat) in an acutely unwell patient. It is an important part of intensive care medicine, trauma surgery, and emergency medicine. Well-known examples are cardiopulmonary resuscitation, where a heart is shocked into action again until it starts beating on its own.
As I said, I don’t work on corpses. But I do work on marriages in comas.
Let me talk about a few here, with the details disguised adequately to protect privacy to describe what I mean:
Hanna loves her husband, but her rage and deep disappointment in not being truly seen by him overwhelms. Hanna’s own traumatic history has, at times, made it difficult for other therapists to see a deep affection and even protective instincts Hanna has for Josh.
But I see it.
And when I saw it for the very first time, it caught me by surprise, as it came through loud and clear, through her rage. I pointed it out to Hanna, expressing my surprise in seeing it there, and she dismissed it to me, but I know she recognized it too.
Josh is a “nice guy.” But he lives on the surface, in the way that Hanna never could, or would want to, or even had the luxury of. They are from very different cultures and families-of-origin. Josh likes to live fast.
He likes to take risks. He minimizes the dangers and focuses, verbally and psychologically on the rewards. Both of them enjoy fast cars, beautiful homes, and luxury vacations, but with very different meanings for each.
Hanna does it because they keep the terror at bay. She knows the day will come when she’ll have to “pay up.” She’s prepared, smart, and capable of her own success in business…the type that Josh has enjoyed.
Josh lives this lifestyle because it means he’s “made it.” But he plays fast and loose in ways that enrage his wife. She wants to confront him with that. He wants to tell her to “chill.”
The “demon dance” plays itself out over and over again, with periods of fast-paced hysteria in between, when Josh thinks “everything is going okay with us” because Hanna looks happy, they have great sex, and she’s not raging. But he’s glossing over Hanna’s deep fear that it will all go away.
And when Josh betrays her in some seemingly insignificant way (that’s really not so insignificant to her or me…) she rages again.
I would like to teach this couple skills for these down-periods. But I first had to really not only understand each of them, but I needed to let them know I did. And over time, in short therapy spurts, understand their destructive patterns, and communicate consistently that, despite what’s happening today or tomorrow, I’m an advocate for their marriage.
If you met them socially, you might imagine this couple was a classic case of “trophy wife and wealthy man.”
But you’d be wrong.
Kimberly, while younger and truly a beautiful woman, was nobody’s “arm candy.” She was a steady, intelligent ally and advocate for Edward, a “silent partner,” helping him make important business decisions behind the scenes, that helped him grow his career to breathtaking heights.
And Edward’s weakness was his deep desire to make people happy, but particularly Kim.
And when he sold his business, after extensive discussion with Kim, their marriage began to change along with his job description.
He stayed on, but no longer had the same power. And it was killing their marriage.
Her input wasn’t welcomed anymore, because while still wise, he was no longer in the “power seat.” He had people that he now had to answer to, at least for a while. And while this transitional job still had its rewards to a man who was gradually winding down, given his age, it was killing his marriage.
Because Kimberly was at an age, like most women, of being ready to make a contribution to the world. She was no longer a young woman who worked “behind the scenes.” She wanted the thrill of business success, but no longer had her own business, and no longer had a joint business with her husband to successfully influence.
There were other betrays in the marriage. Decisions Ed made on his own that he avoided talking about until it was much, much too late. But the key heartache in this marriage is a life-stage challenge. A “ramping up/ramping down” dilemma combined with a “nice guy” complex that causes Ed to dodge conflict with Kim instead of facing into it.
And a deep hurt on Kimberly’s part that has to heal, combined with the start of her own successful business venture, to direct this tremendous talent and ability she has…so that Ed becomes the “silent partner.”
I’m an advocate for their marriage, even when both get discouraged and have no clue why I seem so hopeful. But I have smelled out the love, and I know that if they stick with it and each does their own work, their marriage will survive.
They’ve lived all across the world, doing good as peace workers. And secretly, they’ve explored the sexual underworld. One had more of an appetite for it than the other, as is often the case. And their work has allowed them to live in different continents when their marriage was frayed to the point of breaking.
But it has never broke. And hopefully, it never will.
Carl advocates for his “sexual freedom” but would be lost without his wife, even if he only sees her periodically. He blames her for “destroying the family,” even though if you heard the story, as Gemma’s family has, in selective bits and pieces, the blame belongs with him.
But Gemma knows what Carl means, on a deep emotional level, and so do I.
He expected that throughout all of the other women he’s had affairs with through the years, even affairs when he’s fallen in love with those women, that Gemma would realize that she was his “one and only…”
But Gemma could no longer do it. She simply couldn’t.
And I know that she could no longer bear the indignity that she felt watching Carl “up close and personal.” Or his half-truths that he tells himself about how he actually feels towards his new paramour.
Or that he’ll call her, or come home at such and such a time. As Joni Mitchell has written, ‘he removes her like a ring to wash his hands…’
And moved away to garner some sanity, and maybe get another life. Another lover. Some calm.
But that’s not how Carl sees it. To him, she split up the family And her “splitting up the family” was the worst betrayal. He tells her over and over again. He never wants to end their marriage. He is incensed that Gemma would even consider it. He wants to move back with her. He’s enraged that she says no.
These marriages, what used to be called “arrangements,” have existed throughout time. Gemma and Carl are one version of it. For others, it’s the love that three people share, an impossible arrangement most would say, but that is allowed to co-exist somehow in an uneasy truce.
For some, two men, one bisexual, one gay, and a woman who loves them. Others are now called “polyamorous,” what Daniel Dashnaw calls “Sexual outlaws obsessed with the rules…”
For others, like Gemma and Carl, he’s an advocate of sexual freedom, but could never bear polyamory, at least where Gemma is concerned. Gemma might be more comfortable with polyamory, but Carl could never tolerate it. Has not been able to tolerate when Gemma has fallen in love with another over their decades of marriage.
He couldn’t bear Gemma loving another man that deeply.
Gemma reaches out to me periodically. She wants to talk to me when she’s listened too long to friends and family who tell her to “move on” and divorce Carl. She wants to talk to someone who refuses to live in a “black and white” world of betrayers and betrayed. She wants to talk to someone who is an advocate for her marriage.
Running this organization, as I do, I can pick and choose that couples I see.
And when I do, at times, advocate for couples to continue to work with me, it is not for any other motive than I know their marriages can work and they’re suffering unnecessary hardship going it alone.
No, it won’t be easy for Hanna to calm herself down when her developmental trauma is triggered by Josh. It won’t be easy for Josh or Ed to face into their avoidance of conflict and the dishonesty that accompanies it.
Kimberly will struggle to forgive Ed, who has wounded her narcissistically to the core. Gemma knows that Carl does love her deeply “in his way, in his fashion” and has to sort out for herself if it’s enough.
These are complicated people with complicated emotional realities.
But they are not marriages that are “fatally flawed” in my opinion, even if they might seem that way to you or others.
They each have the raw materials to work with, despite “perpetual problems.” And while the behaviors may appear “toxic,” (and are experienced that way at times to one or both) they have a deep love that can make the marriage workable.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year in Boston and on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues her work in sex therapy.