Restoring the Bond in Distressed Marriages

John and Kate Plus Eight

You might have been one of the 10.6 million people who watched the John & Kate Plus Eight episode where America’s favorite fraternal twin and sextuplet family, the Gosselins, announced that after 10 years of marriage they were separating and filing for divorce. After welcoming America into the lives of their abundant family for five seasons, John and Kate bring to light the fact that all marriages are susceptible to trouble and adversity. It is a difficult reminder to see that more than ever couples are experiencing distress in marital relationships.

Distressed Marriages 

You do not need to have eight children to experience turmoil in intimate relationships. Marriages can often be distressed by major problems, like coping with eight children on national television, but more often it is the everyday issues in marriage that have a propensity to be hurtful and disruptive to the relationship.

As a therapist, the first difficulty couples want to discuss during the initial counseling session is usually a big one (infidelity, sexual difficulties, problems raising children). Rarely is this presenting problem the heaviest burden the couple is carrying in their relationship. Though partners often start with discussing major issues, during the course of treatment we often uncover together that the distress of everyday (lack of feeling loved, heard, appreciated, desired) is the place they feel the most angst. These issues of attachment are commonly the cancer causing the distress in the relationship.

Make no mistake; the marital relationship can be the most rewarding and beautiful bond that a man and woman experience in life. Sadly, this same partnership can be the most challenging and perplexing relationship one will ever face. Why is it that oftentimes we are wounded the most by our spouse? How can we begin to restore the damage and bring reconciliation to the relationship?

Hearing and Validating Emotions

Like all therapists, I hear common themes come up with patients in distressed marriages. One memory I have during a marital counseling session is of a couple arguing over a regularly disputed issue, housework. The wife stated that she was upset that when she returned home from work, her husband (whose vocation let him work from home to care for their young child during daytime) did not do any cleaning or cooking, thus leaving her to deal with a messy home and dinner preparation after a hard day at the office.

Upon further disclosure and discussion, she revealed that it wasn’t really the messy house or unmade dinner that angered her, but rather that she didn’t feel cared for when her husband neglected the housework. A beautiful and powerful moment took place between the two when she was able to admit her vulnerable feelings and her husband was able to listen and respond that he did in fact care and want to do things differently to show his love and respect.

He heard her complaint concerning housework numerous times in the past. But as he listened to the emotions that were behind his wife’s criticism, he was able to identify with her and validate her feelings rather than defend himself and focus on her grievance. Learning to communicate emotions is both vulnerable and risky, because if those feelings are not heard or rejected, we feel wounded. It is much safer to criticize one’s spouse about the dishes, but much more daunting and brave to speak about not feeling loved.

As we become mired in our way of relating to each other it becomes difficult to judge a situation dispassionately and thus respond in a loving, non-defensive manner. It requires both spouses working together to communicate feelings, support emotions and embrace a truly open dialogue. Generally it takes much time and practice, but when partners can begin to speak honestly and openly about their emotions and have those feelings validated by their spouse, it can lead to much hope and healing in the marriage.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

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