By Sonya Rhodes, PhD and Susan Schneider, authors of “The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today’s Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling”
As a therapist, I really love my work. My specialty is couples therapy, which, unlike the traditional kind, is active and goal-oriented. Over the last 40 years, I have worked with couples at all stages of the life cycle, from the starry-eyed newly engaged to long-married partners trying to heal old wounds. I have treated clients who exhibit outright aggression and abuse toward their mates, as well as gentle souls who need a kind nudge before they dare to speak their minds.
Recently a couple came to me with a situation and a denouement that clearly illustrated something I’ve come to understand in my years as a therapist. If trust is missing in a marriage, the marriage is in jeopardy. In this vignette, you will see how both the husband and the wife betrayed each other. Each partner acted selfishly and dishonestly, showing no respect for the primacy of their relationship—only for the primacy of the individual.
When Brittany and Tom arrived in my office, things at first seemed straightforward. Married for three years, they were attractive, career-oriented and successful: she was a marketing director for a cosmetics company and he worked in finance. They lived an enviable upscale life in the Big Apple. Their problem: When they first decided to marry, they had agreed not to have children; now Brittany wanted to re-open the discussion. After turning 37, she found herself unwilling to close the door on parenthood. In their first session, she spoke earnestly about her feeling that she would miss something important if she did not have children.
Tom’s response was warm and sympathetic. However, he did not share Brittany’s change of heart. To the contrary, he felt that his life was satisfying. He did not want children, he emphasized. He never had and he most likely never would. In the sessions that followed, we explored their childhoods and familial themes that had led them to this painful situation. As the middle child of three, Brittany had an older brother who was the star. She had been initially satisfied to have her husband all to herself, because it had made her feel special in a way that had not been possible in her original family.
Tom, the youngest of four siblings and the only male, was doted on by his bossy sisters. Accustomed to the spotlight, he had no desire as a married adult to compete with a child for his wife’s attention. And when he looked around at peers who had become fathers, he didn’t like what he saw: eyes glazed from lack of sleep, spitup on shirts, no time to do anything he considered fun. It seemed to Tom that having children was highly over-rated.
Having such polarized viewpoints on a matter that requires emotional and biological consensus poses a major dilemma—needless to say! How would their irreconcilable differences impact their feelings about one another? What sort of shared future could they hope to have? As time passed, I wondered how we would break the impasse.
Finally Brittany dropped a bombshell: She was pregnant! she breathlessly announced. “The miracle that I wished for has finally happened,” she said. Thereafter ensued one of the more pregnant silences I’ve ever experienced. As I looked back and forth between the two, it seemed that the deafening silence had drowned out the traffic outside my office.
With a slight smile, Tom said, “I don’t know how that happened.”
Brittany teared up. “What do you mean? “ she asked.
Another pregnant silence. “I had a vasectomy last year,” Tom said.
Shocked, Brittany turned on him. “You didn’t tell me! How dare you keep that from me?”
Tom came back with, “How dare you get pregnant with another man’s sperm and not tell me!”
At first, I found myself uncharacteristically speechless, then I intervened by telling them that trust is the foundation of a marriage, and that they had both let the other down. But neither Tom nor Brittany paid attention because they were too busy screaming at each other.
After that fateful session, I was not surprised to get an email from Brittany saying that the couple wanted to quit therapy. As I always do when a couple quits abruptly, I invited them for a final session, in which I hoped they might attain some degree of closure. I thought they would benefit from a discussion of what it means to be a couple—they clearly had no clue. However, they had both already lawyered up, and that was the last I heard from them.
The point I had tried to make is very important for every couple. Brittany and Tom betrayed each other by acting in their own self-interest as individuals, instead of viewing themselves as a couple who had vowed to share a life. Neither had understood the crucial difference between singlehood and coupledom. Instead, they stayed separate, alone while together, each hoping to impose his or her will on the other. This is a failure in coupling.
Being in a couple means thinking as a unit; when you marry, you join a marriage team. As a team member you anticipate the impact of your behavior on your teammate. Often, it comes as a shock to people that this is what marriage really means. But the choice is clear: although your daily existence and the choices you make are no longer completely your own, you also no longer have to face life without someone who supports you through all the inevitable ups and downs that come with the years.
Brittany and Tom had not made a commitment to a shared life. Lying by omission and commission was a symptom, not a cause, of their failure to bond.
Are you ready to take that giant emotional leap and team up with another person? If you are, and your partner is too, then, and only then, are you ready for a real relationship.