Quarrelsome couples have clues about what needs working on in their marriages.
Their arguments suggest what’s off in the relationship. It’s the less feisty couples that are harder to figure out. When partners settle into quiet complacency, accepting a passionless coexistence as roommates, acquiescing to this is what happiness looks like after many years of marriage, that I as their therapist am challenged.
Kathleen is 53 years old and married with two young adult children who have left the nest. Her husband, Simon, owns a small pizza restaurant. The business is their only source of income. They do just well enough to pay the bills and take occasional modest vacations.
Simon employs a manager he trusts and has a loyal team of people capable of running the pizza shop, yet he feels compelled to go in every day, seven days a week. Simon is overweight and doesn’t take care of himself. He’s got high blood pressure. Many nights he works late and when he gets home with a belly full of pizza, drinks two beers and goes straight to bed. He snores heavily, so he opts to sleep in his daughter’s vacated bedroom; he doesn’t want to disturb his wife.
Kathleen is worried about his health. With the children out of the house, her focus on Simon, his weight, and his unhealthy habits, has intensified. He feels harangued as well as embarrassed. His medical challenges include an inability to maintain an erection. They have not had sex in over two years. Kathleen works out regularly and eats well. She is healthy and physically fit.
Simon’s low self-esteem is further exacerbated by shame and guilt built up over the years as a result of the failure of his business to thrive. His dream was that the pizza shop would prosper and grow; providing them with a nice nest egg. That didn’t happen. Fluctuations in monthly sales due to market conditions, the weather, and the whims of a fickle public have eroded his sense of security. He walks around with a cloud hanging over his head.
Simon would love for Kathleen to work and contribute toward the household income. After having been out of the workforce taking care of the children for decades, Kathleen lacks both job skills and confidence. Working together in the restaurant is not an option. They tried that, and it didn’t go well.
The couple does spend some time together on weekends, parked in front of the television or eating out at a restaurant. When asked about their relationship they acknowledge that they like and respect each other and are relatively happy, but this is all their relationship has to offer. Kathleen will never leave Simon, but at the same time, she is never going to have an intimate relationship with him. She’s resigned. From the couple’s perspective, there is nowhere for the relationship to go. The marriage is stuck.
Relationships like Simon and Kathleen’s are common. Usually, the couples refer to it as liking one another and being happy but not passionate. Couples come to therapy to mourn the fading of the spark that triggered marriage in the first place.
It is ultimately up to the couple to decide how they want to live. However, if a couple has gotten to the point of sitting in my therapy office, there is no chance I’m going to accept their choosing to wallow away in a relationship where there is no love. We’re going to work on getting to the bottom of the issue and turning it around.
We start at the beginning. Why did you get married in the first place? What promises did you make to one another? What were your hopes, dreams, and expectations?
Not all dreams come true. Not all expectations are met, and not all goals come to fruition. However, because we are human, we have the ability to establish new goals for our relationships and ourselves. No matter how small or insignificant they may seem, you can set new ones and experience incremental successes toward achieving those goals. Acknowledging the small steps you are making initiates the rebuilding of passion and real happiness in the marriage.
Kathleen and Simon are doing just that. Kathleen has taken the plunge to become financially stable. She’s enrolled in a computer administration program and loves interacting with other people, being a student, and the learning environment. She plans to apply for a job soon. Simon seems happier. He knows that the financial burden will not entirely rest on him. Now it’s his turn to start making some changes to turn their marriage around.
We get just one life to live. Why spend it mourning the loss of your unrealized dreams and goals? It’s in your power to invent the life that lights you up. You and your partner have the ability to refocus and create a happy life together.