Feeling Alone Together: Disconnected Marriages
Ryan C. Wynder, M.S., Lawrence M. Scheier, Ph.D.
Sam T. was a 32 year-old mechanical engineer who had been feeling increasingly depressed and lonely. Although quite busy at work and reporting tremendous connection to his community, Sam appeared disconnected from people with a tremendous gaping hole in his emotional life. Mary Lou was a 30 year-old housewife who had been working as a dental technician. She spent a great deal of her time occupied reading books and developing home improvement hobbies. Mary Lou discussed issues very thoughtfully with carefully measured words, albeit she rarely expressed any deep felt emotions.
Over the course of a ten year marriage Sam and Mary Lou had three children spaced evenly every two years. Both expressed enormous joy and pleasure with regard to parenting and stated the Church provided common ground for their childrearing activities. For Mary Lou, however, the stress of childrearing fueled deep feelings of insecurity and abandonment. She was left home with the three young children and felt an absence of support from Sam who provided and felt an absence of support from Sam who provided minimal effort helping out with house chores, school activities, and sports participation for the children. Sam, on the other hand, felt stress from having to meet the demands of supporting his family, maintaining excellence at work, and balancing his commitment to the community, church, and friends. At times, both Sam and Mary Lou openly discussed feelings of spiritual emptiness.
When I met Sam and Mary Lou they had both resisted coming to therapy for the better part of two years. When asked, Sam described his feelings as "something you have to deal with as part of every marriage." He couldn't out his finger on the timeline when things "began to go sour with Mary Lou, " but acknowledged their marriage was extremely fulfilling before they had kids. Sam's main concerns rested with poor communication at home, lack of support and understanding for his job situation, and the missing ingredient of marital passion. Although somewhat more reluctant to discuss her motivations for seeking counseling, Mary Lou presented with an overriding sense of despair and hopelessness in solving their marital problems. In one session, Mary Lou even stated, "I'm not sure who I am anymore." After a few sessions, Mary Lou gained confidence and was more willing to discuss he feelings of depression, loss of intimacy with Sam, and problems managing the household. Within a few sessions, we all felt a stronger foothold on some of the pressing concerns and the sessions seemed more focused, intense, and productive.
Over the course of time, Sam and Mary Lou drifted apart rather than cementing their relationship and finding a way to come closer together in spirit and kind. This is not uncommon in marriages where a variety of stressors and emotional factors press upon the marriage and there is little or no attention given to the source or nature of the disconnect that fosters feelings of aloneness. Oftentimes, couples fail to pursue alternative coping strategies that can help remedy their individual concerns as well as forge solutions to their marital problems. The marriage requires a steady stream of sustenance that reflects the confluence of both individuals' hopes, dreams, and aspirations. When any one of the partners loses touch with their own life force and then loses touch with that of their spouse, the marriage becomes an obstacle to regaining selfhood. This critical point is the straw that breaks the marriage's back and lessens the importance of communication, which is perceived as difficult. People feel hopeless and mired in the belief they will never regain the romantic spark that fueled their sense of commitment and belonging. In this regard, marital therapy illuminates the path of reconnection, offering a means to rediscover the strengths that provide a foundation to the relationship. Part of the process of counseling is to build a sense of community in marriage, constructed on a much smaller scale than the outward community, but nonetheless, still relying on unconditional support. Even when couples focus on weaker elements of their marriage, these too can be converted into strengths. While the greater part of Sam and Mary Lou's struggle seems embedded in their choosing what to say to each other, the real work unfolds as a process of rediscovery, helping each one of them recognize their value to each other. This value is both instrumental, which takes place as support around the home, as well as spiritual connectedness that unfold through love and mutual respect. In essence, Sam and Mary Lou were two people walking the same direction in life but on two separate paths.