I’m sometimes asked, “What brings people to couple’s therapy?”
Certainly, the most common complaint is around conflict. Some couples struggle with ongoing arguments, heated tempers, or issues of betrayal that need to be resolved for the relationship to thrive.
But there is another kind of couple I regularly see in my practice.
These are couples in stable and collaborative relationships that simply have no spark.
Sometimes these couples have been together since they were very young, and have changed as they’ve matured, had children, and evolved as individuals. Sometimes these couples had a lot of spark when they first got together but have drifted apart.
In both cases, these couples tend to have marriages or relationships that support the life they have created together. Their children are generally well cared for, their finances are good, and they often have successful careers. These marriages look “great on paper” but may not be enough to sustain long-term happiness.
These couples will often ask me how to know whether their relationship is “good enough” for them to stay together, and whether they should consider separation.
This is a not a simple question as each couple is unique, and their choices depend on their own ideas about their relationship and themselves.
Here are a few questions that I ask couples in therapy to help us begin this conversation. I’ve provided anonymous examples of the kinds of stories I hear in my practice. None of these marriages are lost causes, but there is evidence that the marriage needs some support. In each case, I would encourage these couples to seek therapy.
1. When you think about the next 20 years, do you feel trapped?
Aaron and Brenda have been married for 15 years. From the beginning, Brenda has always run the household- organizing the children, paying the bills, and keeping the house in order. Aaron was very grateful to Brenda for handling everything, especially when he was in medical school and starting his practice. These days, however, Aaron has begun to feel stifled.
“Brenda is very controlling. When I’m late, she’s mad; when I’m early, she’s annoyed; when I try to do things with the kids on a whim, she’s frustrated. But as long as I do exactly what she wants me to do, she’s lovely: organized, beautiful, and easy to get along with. But I don’t know if I can walk on this tightrope for another 20 years.”
Aaron and Brenda are benefiting from couples therapy. Aaron is learning to communicate more effectively and Brenda is learning how to listen. Over time, we will discover whether they can begin to look forward to another 20 years together (at least!).
2. Do you enjoy each other’s company? Or are you “compatible” but not particularly “friendly”?
Being friends and enjoying each other’s company is a cornerstone of a happy relationship. It’s not enough, but it is very helpful.
Liam and Marianne are a great team. Their house runs like a well-oiled machine; Marianne stays home and keeps the house running, while Liam has a challenging career. Both partners know their roles and are happy to play them. Despite creating a harmonious household, they do very few things together. When they spend time together, they feel like there is nothing to discuss. Liam doesn’t value Marianne’s perspective on his work, and Liam isn’t interested in the details of her daily life.
There was a time when both Liam and Marianne were interested in each other. They would ask about each other’s days, question each other’s ideas, and support their hopes and dreams. But it has been a long time since they felt like they had much in common. These days, both partners feel lonely, but they don’t feel lonely for each other. They’ve lost their connection.
Marianne and Liam are no longer friends. Neither enjoys the other’s company, yet both feel “lucky” to be in the relationship. These are the things that we discuss in our sessions. In therapy, we are opening up an honest conversation about whether the connection can be revitalized and how.
3. Are you enjoying your sex life?
John and Stephanie have been married for about eight years. In the beginning, both partners were satisfied with their sex life. As time went on, however, John began to feel increasingly neglected in the bedroom. Increasingly, Stephanie felt less and less interested in connecting with John sexually. Months would go on without sex, which was a problem for John, but Stephanie barely noticed.
After months of chasing Stephanie, John grew bored and angry with their sex life. Out of desperation, he began seeking intimacy elsewhere. It was when Stephanie discovered John’s affair that they came to therapy. Stephenie felt betrayed and confused- their marriage and family life were perfect; why would John look elsewhere?
After apologizing and acknowledging that an affair is not the answer to a sexless relationship, John has taken a stand: If Stephanie doesn’t get more interested in sex, this marriage is not enough for him.
Stephanie and John are doing the right thing by coming to therapy. In therapy, we can discover whether a compatible sexual relationship is possible and learn how to rekindle the romance.
4. Do you see your partner as your equal?
Darien has always taken care of Marco. Marco is beautiful, artistic, and somewhat disorganized, but Darien has always liked how much he looked up to him. The problems arose when Darien began to struggle in his career. He realized that if he wanted someone to talk to and get some support himself, he had to look elsewhere.
Darien says, “He’s not my intellectual equal, but we have a nice family together. He is a good parent and a great host for entertaining, but he’s not the person I come to if I’m looking for good ideas and intellectual stimulation. Maybe that’s enough? I’m not sure anymore.”
Darien’s right; maybe it is. The problem is that Darien has begun to wonder if maybe it’s not. Some couples love lively intellectual conversations; for others, home life is a simple place where love and friendship reign supreme. Darien and Marco need to discover what they need from their marriage. This is the kind of exploration we can do in therapy.
Couples therapy can help you move beyond a “good enough” relationship
When couples come to therapy asking whether their marriage or relationship is “good enough.” I know they are asking the wrong questions. Instead of hoping that their relationship meets a threshold, they could instead be seeking ways to increase their happiness, connection, and spark. In therapy, we will do just that. Learn more about my couples therapy and marriage counseling services here.