Several decades ago, I was assigned to provide marriage counseling. I had some sound training for marriage counseling, so, thankfully, all went well. This early experience opened the door for realizing the complexities of marital and couple problems. In the course of further education, training, supervision, case discussions, and more practice, my appreciation for couple work grew immensely.
The intimacy that couples share incorporates spiritual, neurological, developmental, emotional, psychological, and physical factors. The spiritual aspect of a relationship spells out a sense of ‘sacredness’. Marriage has long been accepted as a Holy Union between a man and woman. In our American Culture, the greatest influence of spirituality has been through Christianity, when marriage is understood as a sacrament. Perhaps the greatest challenge to marriage has been the loss of sacredness. This has been especially true as our society has become more focused on individual gratification and secularization.
Subsequently, marriages have become somewhat ‘disposable’. Formally or informally, if a couple holds their relationship in spiritual sacredness, then the union is larger than either companion. This generates a leaning toward resilience and growth.
Relationships are bound by rules. Some of these rules are verbalized, non-verbalized, explicit, and implicit. Couples have difficulty when rules are broken. ‘Feelings get hurt’, resentments develop, a conflict pattern can emerge, and one or both spouses can “fall out of love”. Our wedding vows are the formal anointing of rules, or guidelines, for each spouse to fulfill. Other rules are more loosely stated, but may have tremendous impact on the course of the relationship. Most broken rules can be resolved; however, there are severe problems that may emerge in a marriage that may prove irreparable. In general, communication, respect, forgiveness, and emotional management are great allies to resolve broken rules.
Chemical changes play a role in the ebb and flow of couple intimacy. After about the first three years of a relationship, the intense neuro-chemical reactions, that are part of the biological union, wane. This period of adjustment is challenging for many couples, as the relationship must shift with changes in mood and energy level. This time of change is most important, as it can establish behaviors that ‘insult’ the marriage (break rules), create disengagement, loneliness, and even foster contempt. Without adjustment, the relationship can fail from the fourth through sixth years, often times assumed as the prelude to the “seven year itch”. Flexibility and dedication between spouses can be a great guidepost for positive adjustment.
Life change represents a need for adjustment. Change may be a significant external or internal event, or combination of both, that leads to the distancing of intimacy. Change may be gradual or acute. Time has very little influence, as alteration in thinking in response to change, is the larger factor. External change may be job loss, family illness, geographical relocation, or trauma. Internal change may be physical, psychological, emotional, and behavioral. Sometimes, even the adjustment of having children can stretch relationships dynamics. Healthy, consistent, and respectful problem solving between couples makes the relationship more adaptive to change.
The presence of psychiatric disorders may be a tremendous intrusion on relationship intimacy. The symptoms of alcoholism, drug use, anxiety, depression, trauma, compulsions, emotional fluctuations, and poor impulse control are profound. Disorders have a predictable path and outcome. They never disappear. Professional intervention is needed to unite a couple through symptom recovery.
Developmental factors play a great role in marital behaviors. Expectations, beliefs, learned patterns, intimacy needs, religion, and cultural dynamics can be the strength of a relationship. If any of these factors are imbalanced, then the relationship may suffer.
The role of therapy is to help couples repair the damage caused from internal or external problems. It is imperative that a couple recognize that relationships are predicated on honored words, and that in “sickness and in health”, a couple remains pledged to work through problems. The seasoned therapist, or in some cases, co-therapists, assist couples to solve marital challenges and sustain the gift of ‘sacredness’.