Marriage Counseling

Marriage Intimacy Map

It’s clear—more than half of us are not only bad at marriage, we’re lousy at divorce. We’re still doing it in record numbers, but we don’t seem to be learning a thing from the experience: 60 percent of second marriages fail as well. After we face the failure, dry the tears, and explain it all to the kids, we still don’t know how to make relationships work.

So if we don’t learn from our failures, is it possible to learn from others’ successes? With this in mind, a number of researchers began a long-term look at marriage to discover what makes the good ones work. They examined every facet of marital interaction, videotaped every revealing nuance of communication, measured physiologic activity from pulse rate to electrical conductance of skin. Their findings provide nothing short of a blueprint for successful marriage.

Charting The Relationship Path

Twenty years as a marital therapist made it clear to Liberty Kovacs, Ph.D., that relationships unfold through time—a concept curiously absent in most views of marriage. But it was the lack of any guidelines for helping couples in distressmarriagecounselingthat set her off in search of a framework for assessing their problems. Using her own empirical research, she developed a system to chart the marital relationship as it progresses (and always comes close to undoing) to accommodate two people who are themselves evolving as individuals.

Drawing theoretical bravado from group dynamics as well as psychodynamics, theories of adult development, and family systems, Kovacs contends that marriages evolve through six distinct stages toward intimacy and mutuality. Each of these passages poses specific challenges to individual and couple development. Yet while the progress may thus be predictable, says Kovacs, head of the Center for Marriage and Family Therapy in Sacramento, California, it is definitely not smooth.

The length of a marriage is no guide as to what sort of issues a couple may be stumbling over; some may stay stuck on a single issue for decades. And the development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion from one stage to the next; rather it is cyclic. “When a couple is hit with stress at any point, they may go back to an earlier stage,” she says. All, however, face power struggles in the middle stages, and even the best don’t see the dawn of mutuality—that easy flow of support and intimacy—before 10 to 15 years.

The most important indicators of individual stages are emotional themes and interaction patterns. In the first stage for example—the mooning, spooning, Juneing phase—the marital partners see each other as perfect and identical. This is necessary for developing a sense of belonging and trust in each other’s commitment to an evolving relationship. Yet as renewed career goals or signs of external interests emerge—as they must—the other partner may view it as betrayal. The task is then to start down the rocky road of accepting differentness as enhancing the relationship.

Similarly, in the second stage, couples experience individual change as disappointment, anxiety, and self-doubt: a “What’s wrong with me?” attitude. Together, their task is to draw a distinct boundary between themselves as a unit and the rest of the world that impinges on it. It takes a strong sense of couplehood to face what happens next.

Over the next three stages, as partners’ interests diverge and develop independently, earlier efforts at accommodation now fall by the boards. Typically, each tries to control the other—a classic power struggle with all the accusation they can muster. Not only do they not agree on anything, they feel that they have lost any connection with each other. This may scare them, but they are more afraid to let down their defenses lest they be controlled by the other. What’s needed is not just the ability to recognize differences but finding new ways of negotiating them—ways of expressing themselves without crushing the other. What more often happens is that she rails while he stomps out of the house.

These scenes may be reenacted for years, even decades, as both play out patterns of behavior absorbed from parents. Likewise, it takes a great deal of time to find strategies to break through such entrenched patterns. Help takes many forms: finding ways of direct self-expression and labeling of feelings—statements that begin “I feel” rather than “He/she always does…”—and reviewing the family of origin to assess what attitudes and behaviors to keep, what to pitch. Sarah Raskey, couples therapist, says resisting the temptation to speak and act on frustration is key which takes self awareness, emotion regulation, and the ability to focus on your partners strengths.

By stage four, one or the other may be feeling the impulse to run away from the relationship. “I want time for myself” and “I need some space,” are laments that delineate the discontent. Kovacs feels that separations at this point are good if they allow the partners to “figure out who I am and what I want.”

But one spouse may already be searching for other partners or actively engaging in an affair. Kovacs calls that a diversion from the real issue—finding and completing one’s self. Another relationship only switches the focus to someone else’s needs.

If couples survive the struggles for nurturance, for power, for self, they then enter stage five—the promised land of reaching towards intimacy. “At this point, couples have a full identity to share,” and by stage six realize they can separate and reconnect without losing that identity. Raskey says that few get to this stage which she attributes less to a cultural deterioration of commitment and more so to people trying to force a relationship authenticity that wasn’t there to begin with.

Kovacs firmly believes that marriage is essential for growth and individuation—the elaborating of a distinct self. “First we grow in relation to our parents, then our peers, and then another adult. Only stable, enduring relationships allow individual growth to take place. We need to develop enough trust in a partner for the hidden parts of ourselves to surface. It takes years into a relationship.”