Do You Want A Better Relationship?

It May Not Be Over. Technologies For A Better Relationship.

Posted Mar 29, 2012

Now, let's see what divorce can teach us about healthy relationships. Let's look at technologies of establishing and enjoying love, despite all the issues that inevitably come up.


Here's what I mean.

Past Series: If you explore The Intelligent Divorce site, you'll find a series on Raising Healthy Kids in a Divorce, one on The Malignant Divorce, a number of meditations on Spirituality and the Holidays, Divorce in Popular Culture, Political Issues and a recent series called The Narcissistic Ex.

New Series: Today we're starting a new series focusing on what can be learned about Improving Marriages & other Relationsihps from the Study of Divorce.  

Since no one thinks in a vacuum, I'd like to acknowledge a few of the many people who have contributed to my thinking, some alive and some gone. I encourage you to look closely at their contributions.

Erik Fromm (1900-1980): This great psychoanalyst of the last century understood modernity's ills before we even had a clue. His great works include The Art of Loving (1956), Escape from Freedom (1941) and Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950). His insights into authoritarianism, which he experienced in Post War Europe helps us to understand the regressive power of oppressive religions and marriages. His insights about the power of reason and love to heal broken hearts and challenge radicalized religion, remain one of the greatest contributions to societal healing that I've ever encountered. I am indebted to Fromm's ability to point out how the illnesses of our times affect us deeply, despite being outside of our awareness.

Murray Bowen (1913-1990): I had the good fortune to train at Georgetown University Hospital, where Murray Bowen set up his Family Therapy Center. Bowen is the creator and founder of Family Systems Theory- the notion that individuals in a family are influenced by many factors, including conflicts and paradigms that go back many generations. His book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (1978) is a classic. He introduced the idea of differentiation and family cutoffs, which good clinicians use today without being aware of their origin. My favorite Bowen idea is The Undifferentiated Ego Mass; a term no one uses any more, but intuitively describes the powerful enmeshment of some families (think about the adult son who is a "failure to launch" or the wife who can't choose between her mother and her husband.). I use these ideas every day in my private practice.

James Hollis: Jim became a Jungian scholar after a career as an academic. His insightful and well written books and seminars on male psychology, marriage, midlife and life's purpose elevates the discussion of psychological pain to the study of meaning, or lack thereof. Take a look at Under Saturn's Shadow (1994), From Misery to Meaning in Midlife (1993) or The Eden Project (1998). Presently, Jim is a full time Jungian Analyst practicing in Houston. In a modern world that only wants fast answers and faster result, James Hollis is a breath of fresh air. If you'd like a taste of his work, you may be interested in a recent interview with James Hollis on

We are meaning driven creatures, and a person ignores this truth to his or her own peril.

Mary Jo Barrett: I have had the privilege of learning from Mary Jo, and endorse her unique approach to family trauma. (She is a world authority on the treatment of incest and less severe family trauma.) Mary Jo posits that many families are embedded with a variety of traumas, that flare up now and again; and these repeated negative experiences define what's safe and unsafe in a family. (Think about how you tiptoe around some people in your family or extended family.) Marriage and divorce are made more understandable by the way trauma, both small and large, course through a family. Mary Jo makes the most awful coldness, anger, fear, and even abuse, seem manageable. (She is a saint, really.) It would be interesting to have Mary Jo and her team work with couples on the brink of divorce; I can't think of someone more capable of restoring a sense of pragmatic hope.

John Gottman: This contemporary scientist and thinker introduced an incredibly useful technology to the study of couples. Gottman looked at the micro expressions that support or undermine all intimate relationships. And, because of this research, he expertly helps couples repair disordered and destructive relationship patterns. For those who are interested, he and his wife Julie Gottman, are founders of an Institute in their name, where they offer seminars and trainings. Gottman has authored a number of books including, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (1995) and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (1998). Most especially, I'm indebted to his notion of The Four Horseman.

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Contempt

These are the behaviors that can kill a marriage—the most pernicious of all being Stonewalling. If you want to better understand how resentment gets instilled and poisons love, think about how it only takes one person to shut down all communication.

Stonewalling is that destructive.

Harville Hendrix: Imago Therapy has had a highly successful run since Harville Hendrix introduced the program many years ago. His classic, Getting the Love You Want (2001), was one of the first attempts to create programs for marriages needed repair, or those in big trouble. Hendrix takes some of his ideas from Sigmund Freud and others, but repackages them for a modern ear. I love the way he understands Freud's notion of the repetition compulsion, which is the deeply held tendency to marry someone who reminds you of traumas in your past (like with a mother or father). The mind, unconsciously, wants to repair the old hurt and chooses someone to supply the same wound again (I married my mother!). This project often happens for both the husband and the wife setting the stage for hurt and disappointment when the spouse naturally fails to comply by repairing your old wounds. (Most people only get wounded again; see Mary Jo Barrett.) Hendrix offers hope through consciousness: once you understand what you are doing to each other, there's a chance to abandon that project for a more constructive and loving one. Imago Therapy is still quite popular. Hendrix deserves credit for a job well done.

Unknown Author, Song of Songs (circa 900 B.C.): The Biblical book, Song of Songs, is a world treasure, because it speaks to the ancient value of romantic longing, sexual attraction and the sacredness of finding your mate. Whenever I hear about the occasional religious leader minimizing the role of sexual attraction or emotional longing in marriage, I think about our source—The Bible. The author of Song of Songs (some attribute the book to King Solomon) and the redactors who permitted this wondrous text into our cannon, were no prudes. The Almighty gave us sex, attraction and the longing of a man for a woman, and vice versa. It's a Holy gift. The issue at stake is how we use it. A truly good marriage mirrors the story of this book. Song of Songs gives me an ideal that is both spiritual and earthy. We are fortunate to have the ancients pass this down to us.

The Great Relationship Project: Both good relationships and breaking up are deeply important to all of us. For those who are experiencing a breakup, learning about what you're going through will make it a bit saner. And learning what went wrong, may help set you up for a better chance for love in the future.

But, intact relationships are no strangers to unhappiness and hurt. And, keeping a vital relationship with all of life's pressures is a great challenge: ergo - a lot of couples are in trouble.

Let's see if we can help turn this ship around.

There is real hope out there, and the thinkers listed above have much to teach. But you don't have to go far to get what you need; here at Psychology Today or on Greatist, you can find other writers like Heidi Reeder, Marsha Lucas, Craig Malkin, Guy Winch, Susan Heitler, Matthew Shanahan and Douglas LaBier, who can help you look at what you're going through with compassion and insight.

Thanks for visiting our site, and be in touch with us.

Your comments are really valued, and help a lot.

Mark R. Banschick, MD