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In the last section, we discussed how choosing togetherness over intimacy can lead to conflict in marriage, and lead couples to seek conjoint therapy. We specifically discussed working definitions of "togetherness" and "intimacy."
In this section, we will discuss three common types of marriages in which the couple has chosen togetherness over intimacy. These three types of marriages are the parent-child marriage, the stormy marriage, and the "perfect" marriage.
As we discussed in the last section, togetherness can be a formula for marital disaster. Although many couples think of togetherness as "closeness," it can also be considered a form of entanglement. I have observed that when couples use togetherness to solve their individual problems, their need for togetherness will overwhelm each partner’s individuality.
I find that there are three common types of marriages that emerge when togetherness is chosen over intimacy. Clearly, even couples focused on intimacy will fall into these patterns once in a while. I find that helping couples understand these types of togetherness marriages can facilitate the process of teaching the couple new communication strategies.
I often use a description of these three relationship patterns as a springboard to spark a discussion between couples in therapy. I have found that many couples who have chosen togetherness over intimacy have difficulty seeing what is making their lives hard when they are "so close" or "so madly in love." As I describe these three common relationship patterns, think of a couple you are treating with conjoint therapy. Does their behavior as a couple fall into one of these patterns a majority of the time?
♦ 1. The Parent-Child Marriage
I asked Lisa why she went along with family dinners every Sunday. Lisa replied that she went because Christoph would get mad if she did not. Clearly, Christoph played the role of the "adult" in his marriage. He emphasized this by using the word "we" in order to indicate that he spoke for both himself and for Lisa. Lisa, the "child," felt unable to act without Christoph’s permission, and invariably deferred to his wishes. Christoph’s role depended on Lisa’s dependence on him. Thus Christoph and Lisa found it difficult to experience intimacy. Intimacy would require that Christoph, the "adult," show vulnerability. Intimacy would also require that Lisa, the "child," make her own decisions based on what was best for her.
♦ Technique: "What Kind of Couple Are We?"
Next, I asked Christoph and Lisa to review their answers, and think about patterns their answers displayed. Christoph and Lisa agreed that their answers showed that Christoph exerted greater influence in the relationship. I found that through using this technique, Christoph and Lisa were able to begin an open discussion about the patterns in their relationship, and each partner’s feelings about the patterns. Would the "what kind of couple are we?" technique be useful for helping your Christoph and Lisa open up a discussion about patterns in their parent-child marriage?
♦ 2. The Stormy Marriage
Brian and Kim had fallen into a pattern of reacting, rather than responding, to each other. However, Brian and Kim were too entangled to stand on their own two feet, and made up no matter how large the argument. In making up, they agreed to suppress rather than discuss their differences. Refusing to acknowledge and accept their differences led to anxiety, which in turn led to Brian and Kim’s tendency to react rather than respond. As you have probably experienced, partners in stormy marriages tend to have grown up with unstable parents who were not emotionally dependable.
♦ 3. The "Perfect" Marriage
Clearly, neither Sasha nor Darnell had grown up with a model for successful conflict resolution. As a result, both partners had come to believe that any conflict would lead to the end of the relationship. When I discussed this idea further with Sasha and Darnell, both admitted that their marriage was full of taboo subjects, and both expressed feelings of isolation and resentment. Darnell stated, "Early on, we discovered we don’t agree about the death penalty at all. In fact, we almost got in a fight about it. So we agreed not to talk about it ever again. In fact, we avoid all political topics. It’s just too risky to bring that stuff up."
I stated, "When you cannot tell your spouse what upsets you, and have them listen to your feelings, you cannot really get to know each other. Without having the chance to talk about and accept your differences, you cannot fully experience intimacy in your marriage." Do your Sasha and Darnell believe that by not arguing they have the perfect marriage? Do they avoid discussing any feelings that could potentially cause a small disagreement? Would they benefit from hearing this section in one of your sessions?
In this section, we have discussed three common types of marriages in which the couple has chosen togetherness over intimacy. These three types of marriages are the parent-child marriage, the stormy marriage, and the "perfect" marriage.
In the next section, we will discuss a research study into factors that influence the development of an optimized therapeutic alliance during conjoint therapy for couples dealing with marital conflict.
- Dym, B., & Glenn, M. (1993) Couples: Exploring and Understanding the Cycles of Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
- Gostečnik, C., & Repic, T. (2009) Relational Marital Paradigm. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 63(1).
Riekkola, J., Rutberg, S., Lilja, M., & Isaksson, G. (2019). Strategies of older couples to sustain togetherness. Journal of Aging Studies, 48, 60–66.
Soliman, T. M., Ferguson, R., Dexheimer, M. S., & Glenberg, A. M. (2015) Consequences of joint action: Entanglement with your partner. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), Aug 2015, 873-888.