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Marriage Therapy: Going the Distance

Written by: Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Marriage Therapy is never easy because it doesn”t happen until something has gone wrong in what presumably is, or at least was, the most important relationship in our life. Some instances of marriage therapy that I facilitated were brief and relatively painless. There was one couple who came for only five sessions of Imago Therapy. During a third-session discussion of childhood caregivers, each of them saw suddenly and clearly the misunderstandings that they held with respect to their partner”s behaviors. Their mutual relief was almost palpable: “Oh… Is that why he does that!!!!!” They left therapy after two more sessions with the understanding that, should further issues arise, we are always available to help them. I have not seen them since; but I did get a Hanukkah card saying that all goes well.

Other marital issues are less easily resolved. In cases where there are serious complications, there may be no easy or clear-cut solutions. We can go through the “method” (whichever one we are using) until the cows come home; but anger is not gone until it is gone, and trust is not regained until it is regained. Period.

Here is the story of the longest marriage therapy in the history of my career. It went on for almost a year; and there were midwinter days when the atmosphere in my office felt as cold as the weather outside and when the three of us did not think the therapy or the marriage would survive until spring.

Mark and Moira H. (* not their real names) were close friends as well as lovers at the time that they married. Eleven years and two little boys later, their relationship and their family was in danger. Moira was working hard to overcome an addiction to narcotics. Mark found himself unable to trust the wife who had disappointed him again and again. For two years, he had tried desperately to control his wife”s addiction to drugs. They moved to Atlanta from Birmingham to be far from the dealers and friends who enabled her. He tried everything, and then he gave up. He said repeatedly in session, “I tried and tried, and now I”m done.”.

Moira, in becoming sober, faced challenges of her own, including Mark”s suspected interest in another woman. Although shaken, she showed as much determination to regain her husband”s trust as to remain sober. She said to me, “Put us on your calendar every week for the next year. We are coming here until this works.”

Sessions were painful, requiring brutal emotional honesty about the most intense and wrenching feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that people can face. Moira refused to give up no matter what. Mark was honest enough to express his anger and sense of betrayal again and again. He would not pretend to forgive. One evening, Mark grew angry because he felt pressured to “get over it”. He said, “I am not saying another word this session”, and he did not. He sat stony-faced while Moira cried at remaining unforgiven. I tried to explain addiction to him, that it was an illness and not a moral flaw; but he did not, would not, pretend to understand something that was incomprehensible to him. The weeks became months. A gray February seemed to last several years. And then…

Something happened. Moira was crying in her bedroom, feeling unwell, and Mark hugged her. In my office alone the next week, she was tearful with relief. Then one day there was laughter. There was a vacation with other couples that turned out well when Mark made his allegiance to his wife clear to their friends. And then, strengthened, they re-became the couple they once had been.

In one of our last sessions, Mark hit upon an essential truth: when anger is correctly processed, it dies a natural death. Otherwise, it simply goes underground to become latent and toxic hostility. After months of working on his own anger, he told me, “The other day, while we were in session, I just thought, “This is silly. Let”s move on””. Mark”s patient work in therapy had outlasted his anger.

What did it take for Mark and Moira to heal their marriage? I believe that it took courage, patience, hard work, unflinching emotional honesty, and love. So much love. For me, their therapist, it was a long and hard lesson in process. But it was worth it. Relationship is always worth it. Marriage is always worth it. If you have relationship or marital issues and wonder if it is worth the trouble to resolve them, I can”t tell you what to do. But if you are like me, if you think it is worth it, why not give it your all? Why not go the distance?

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