The new resident Gawker therapist, Anonymous, is a licensed therapist who treats many different patients, but specializes in teens and couples therapy. After many years in the field, Anonymous has lots of stories and insight to share. We'll be publishing some of them here. Today: a dose of relationship reality.
If you have any questions you'd like to ask our therapist, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Therapist." We'll use the most relevant ones for publication.
Can you tell right away which couples will break up?
No. I usually tell couples that by our third session together, we should have a good idea of whether they're unequivocally committed to either mending or terminating the relationship. It is very difficult to do couples therapy if one or both participants have one foot in and the other out. We also have to determine if one or both participants can fully overcome the partner's subjective wrongdoings. They can't use those things to throw in one another's face or to serve as the foundation for residual anger down the road. This can be difficult because while most people feel they are capable of letting go, it is extremely hard to not hold a grudge. I try to remind my clients that it does not make them a bad person if they cannot forgive transgressions; it is just who they are. It's better to be honest about it.
What is considered relationship "success" in couple's therapy?
A couple's ability to stay together is as much of a crapshoot as anything. Circumstances and environments are constantly changing but people, more or less, remain who they are. In couples therapy, you'll often find short-term success paired with long-term regression. For example, one couple I saw regularly was in flux over an affair the man had with a co-worker while they were away on business. The wife thought she could bury his affair and learn to trust him again. They were beginning to piece it back together until he began working long hours and traveling again. The circumstances were similar to when he had his affair, and she began to lose trust in him. She started treating him as if he were having another affair, even though there wasn't really any evidence to substantiate her notion. She became accusatory and unpleasant, and he started to feel as if she would treat him the same regardless of his behavior. It became evident that she could not bury the past, and the relationship soon fell apart.
It should be noted, though, that success is not defined as staying together: A definitive plan to split with an examination of all involved factors can cleanse a couple of the stress causing their discord.
Can a relationship survive if there is physical abuse?
Absolutely. It may not be a textbook/fairytale relationship, but it can function. Physical abuse can be defined along the lines of a continuum and is far more prevalent than you may think. The intimidation component is far more common than the actual physical abuse itself.
You need to understand that humans are fucked up creatures. It's very difficult for anyone to change. Abuse is cyclical in nature, meaning we often repeat what we have seen or endured through perpetration or victimization later in life. A child who is witness to or the victim of consistent abuse may not take on the behavioral patterns as an adult, but he or she still knows the process like the back of their hand. We engage in dysfunctional behavior even if we are aware of its effects because it is comfortable.
I once had a female patient who grew up with an alcoholic father. Both she and her mother were regularly physically abused. In session she could articulate all of the effects and her own dislike of the abuse, but when it came to dating she chose abusive men because it was what she knew. She also felt that if a boyfriend did not become physical or enraged with her, it meant that she was not important enough to him. The abuse was so extreme that one boyfriend made her remove her panties every time she came home from work so he could examine them for stains and smells. For a lot of people, chaos is comfort.
I had a middle-aged female patient who would tell me that her husband would not hit her if dinner was waiting for him when he came home from work, or that she was to blame for all of his failed job opportunities and that she deserved to be hit. If victims are in enough fear, are tied-in enough financially, or have enough family or social pressure on them, the relationship can last a lifetime. This is not one-sided or gender-specific, either, because abuse does occur female-to-male—but with less frequency and potential for physical damage. I once saw a couple where the male had a prior conviction for aggravated assault, but his wife did not. She was the violent one in the relationship and would regularly attack him because she knew he would never hit her and that, if he did, the authorities would blame him as perpetrator and instigator due to his prior history. It changed the balance of power in the relationship and he became a man who did everything in his power to acquiesce her whether she was right or wrong.
Does a great sex life with your partner mean the relationship is more likely to survive?
Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but I would have to say no. In my professional experience, a good sex life is directly tied into emotional connectedness. In fact, I would have to say that in three-quarters of all infidelity cases that I have seen, emotional detachment served as the catalyst. I think that good sex can keep a relationship together, but can't make it function at any sort of meaningful level. I feel that intimacy—i.e. kissing, cuddling, or any proximal form of contact—is way more important than sex.
Understand the realities: First, sex slows down when you have kids, in both frequency and intensity due to the physical and communicative demands the kids place on a relationship. I saw a couple once where the guy said that as newlyweds he and his wife would have sex everyday—anal, too—and it was so intense she was trying to fit his cock and balls in her mouth simultaneously. They had kids. He logged more hours at the office due to their financial needs; she was exhausted from taking care of the kids all day; they spent less time together, and sex dropped to once a week. Often times, she would make him get himself hard because foreplay was too much effort. Combine that fatigue with the fact that she had two kids and was feeling far less confident about her figure. The busier you are, the more time you need to yourself for decompression.
Second, the old saying, "familiarity breeds contempt," tends to hold true. The more you know someone and their habits, the less sexy they become. There is an inherent seduction in the unknown; the possibility of what could be is always more fantastic then the reality. A professor of mine used to say that the best sex you'll ever have is in your head because no one person will be able to accommodate all of the fantasies and scenarios that you've conceived in your head over time.
Then what are the priorities in a good relationship?
I put a good sex life behind things like philosophical alignment in financial security, child discipline, trust, not allowing your insecurities to impose on your partner, job satisfaction, substance abuse, and most importantly, selflessness.
So are most marriages doomed to fail?
It is an archaic institution designed to expire concurrent with a woman's childbearing years, just like in the olden days. The idea of two people changing together and—more importantly— accepting each others changes over a 50-year span is delusional unless that person is undeniably your best friend in the whole world. Ever.
Needs-based relationships are doomed to fail, as are ones based on potential instead of reality. And if you hold any secrets—past or current—from your partner, your relationship is doomed to fail. A relationship based on sex is doomed to fail. Good sex alone cannot carry a relationship. It is better to work well together than to fuck well together because once you stop working well together, the fucking takes a significant hit. When time, benevolence, mystery, and positive communication decrease within a relationship, the sex is sure to follow in direct proportion.
From a reader:
I've been divorced for over five years. The relationship was doomed from the beginning; we just weren't right for each other. I'm getting married in a year, yet thoughts about my ex still pop into my mind constantly. And they're usually, "If only..." or "I wonder what...." types of scenarios. I honestly can't stand talking to my ex when I have to. And like I said, it was a pretty bad relationship. Are these constant thoughts normal?
The thoughts are somewhat normal. It's healthy to investigate things you could have done differently—even if, as you said, your previous marriage was "doomed from the start." However, five years is a long time and I would be curious about why you've been holding on to these thoughts so intently. With that in mind, I would really consider not getting remarried until you have fully put your role in your previous relationship to rest. It seems that the time your mind spends occupied with your ex could be better spent on your fiancee. Ask yourself if it's fair to your fiancee that you have these thoughts: Are you projecting some of your feelings with your ex and the dynamics of that relationship onto your fiancee? And how would you feel if the roles were reversed and your fiancee was overly occupied with an ex?
New relationships usually fail if you are still preoccupied with a previous partner. There is no rush to marry, and if you and your current partner love each other you will give each other every opportunity to work through the past and give this current relationship the best opportunity to succeed.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.