Tis the season of love…and marriage…and, for more than 40 percent of Americans, ultimately divorce. But that does not have to be the result for couples struggling to keep the love alive.
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Charles Wolfson, Ph.D., who has spent 30 years in a private practice in Westborough, Mass., working with couples going through rough patches. While they don’t all pull through, he has found that, for most people, fixing a bad marriage is an attainable goal.
Q: So, this being February, we thought we would talk about love and how to stay together over the years. Over the past 30 years, what changes have you seen in how couples relate? Are there new issues that have come up over the past several decades or does it generally boil down to the same things?
A: This is an area where things, at their core, don’t really change that much. Maybe in how it plays out there are changes. Obviously, there were no cell phones 30 years ago, for example. But the core thing is: are people connecting with each other in healthy ways?
I often say to clients “one of the big problems is that you are married to someone who is different from you.” It is how you handle those differences that counts.
Q: How should couples be handing the differences?
A: It tends to boil down to communication. Generally, the way people converse normally doesn’t work well when the conversation is about a difficult issue. What comes naturally when you hear something you disagree with is to immediately disagree. When you do that, when you immediately reply, you almost always start an argument. People who come to therapy tend to be either arguing a lot or they have stopped trying to talk about important issues.
I teach people that you need to listen the most when you least feel like it, when you are hearing things you disagree with or that you don’t want to hear. A lot of my work involves getting people to really listen to each other and I find that to be extremely powerful. It opens up a depth of connection that was never there before.
Q: How has the outside world changed things for married couples?
A: Our modern lives are not all that healthy for relationships. We pay a real price for mobility and affluence. People live in isolated nuclear families often without support from extended family members and that puts more pressure on a relationship. A simple example of that is whether a couple has someone they feel comfortable leaving their young kids with overnight so they can have a romantic weekend away together. It even comes up just with people being able to make it in to couples therapy sessions.
Q: Would you say issues have changed as far as people being less inclined to get married?
A: Well, statistically we know people are getting married less. But the people who are coming for couples therapy are usually in a committed relationship – so they are taking it seriously. Marriage is no guarantee of a good relationship and not being married is not necessarily indicative of a bad relationship. Still, it is harder to dissolve a marriage so people are perhaps more likely to try to keep it together. It has a more serious connotation.
Q: Do you see anything different in the relationships of same-sex couples?
A: Not at all. There are the same issues whether they are lesbian couples, gay couples, married or not married – we all face the same issues and the issues are how do you mesh the lives of two people in a way that is mutually satisfying and mutually enriching?
Q: You talk about the people who come to you are not listening or talking to each other. But do you think this could be generalized outside of the therapist’s office also?
A: Yes, I would say that. I think the vast majority of people are not as happy as they might otherwise be in their relationship. Even in healthy relationships, it is not natural to really listen to someone when you disagree with them. I think this is the problem in the political sphere: two sides not listening to each other.
Q: Does our obsession with social media or technology change things?
A: There are at least a couple of things this has influenced. One is that people are so absorbed with their screens that they are not relating to the people around them.
The other place where it plays out is that it makes it easier for people to stray and to get caught. Being online makes it easier to act impulsively.
But, with or without technology, cheating is usually happening because the connection is so weak between the couple. Even very good people can find themselves cheating. We have to recognize that even though I am extremely opposed to it. I always wish people would come to therapy when they are tempted to get involved with someone else. That should be a sign to run to a therapist as quickly as possible. Because once you have the affair, that becomes such a huge issue of trust that it takes a long time to deal with that before you can get to the core issues that led to the affair in the first place.
But I do have to say that crises like that can often lead eventually to a much stronger couples relationship.
Q: Do you offer sex therapy?
A: I do have some training in it but people don’t tend to present with sexual problems in functioning in my practice. When people are not connecting sexually it is usually a reflection of the fact that they are not connecting emotionally. It is usually in the context of the couple issue rather than being a pure problem of its own, at least in my practice.
Q: What do you see in the future of couples therapy? New trends, styles of treatment?
A: I think there is simply becoming more awareness that couples therapy exists. People are more likely to seek it out rather than just flounder or to go for divorce.
I often will say to people, “When your tooth aches, you go to the dentist and if your marriage aches, go to a couples therapist.”
Q: Any advice for therapists from your 30-plus years of working with couples?
A: Really listen well and don’t abuse your power and authority as a therapist. I have had too many cases where people say they went to another therapist and within the first few sessions they were telling them they ought to get divorced.
Listen to people and don’t abuse your power and be humble. And really the “being humble” part, I have learned over the years: don’t be a know it all because you don’t know it all.
By Catherine Robertson Souter