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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

My client is in the horns of an uncomfortable dilemma.

Here’s the scenario:

He and his wife are both in law, and both want out. Resources exist to permit one to escape. The other must remain behind to pay loans.

Who makes it to freedom? Who gets left behind?

Arriving at that decision can wreak hell on a marriage.

A successful partnership requires an alliance, which depends upon shared goals. If the primary shared goal was being wealthy, powerful lawyers, and that goal cartwheels in flames into the tarmac at three hundred feet per second… the alliance fractures. Sometimes the alliance transforms into opposition.

You do law. No, YOU do law.

That kind of opposition.

My client met his wife at a first-tier law school. They were in the same class, and their shared dream was simple – they would graduate at the top of their class, join powerful, big-name law firms, and make a lot of money. They would have a nice house, maybe a couple of kids, fabulous vacations – and a kitchen with granite counter-tops and an AGA stove.

This was a simple, bourgeois dream – stability, money, family. Naturally, they were intellectuals, so they’d have a subscription to the local symphony – but their dream was about making it, in predictable, concrete terms.

Then reality hit.

They hated their firms. He got laid off, which came as a relief. She went in-house, and to her surprise, hated it even more than the firm. She ended up quitting.

They relocated to another city, where he found a job at a smaller firm. He hates it less, but still basically hates it. She’s still out of work, dragging her feet. He’s paying both their loans every month – and resenting it.

She says she can’t do law anymore – it would crush her soul. She needs to go to grad school and study art or she’ll go crazy.

He wants to go to grad school and study history – or he’ll go crazy.

They both think the other should stay and do law to pay the bills.

Remember the old shared goal? Charred embers. There are new goals – and they’re no longer mutual.

When he’s not slaving at the firm, they’re fighting. That’s driving them both nuts.

(more…)

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This week’s question was a bit long, but it raised interesting issues, so I’ll print it in full:

My boyfriend and I have decided to have a wedding. We’re not getting married in the legal sense, and in fact I share many of your views on civil marriage and lifelong commitment, but we like the idea of a party with our friends to celebrate our union with one another as it is right now and will remain for the foreseeable future, and we’ve been together long enough that we don’t think people will take issue. I spent part of this morning working on some words I could say that, for me, define my commitment.

When I was six years old, my dad left my mom. I asked each of them, at different points, why that happened, and their answers have always resonated with me. My mom said that my dad had told her that he decided at one point early in their relationship that he wasn’t going to bring up a problem unless it ranked a 9 or a 10, and then one day he looked around and there were piles of 7’s and 8’s. He told me that my mom had all kinds of expectations that she never communicated, but would then get disappointed and upset when they weren’t fulfilled. When I was brainstorming my vows this morning, here’s what I came up with:

I promise to be with you as long as we both so choose.

I promise to talk to you when there is a problem, even a little one, but to do so with love.

I promise to be honest with you about my expectations.

I promise to learn how to be a better partner to you every day.

I only got that far before I looked at it and realized what I had done. What a slap in the face. Right there in the middle, my parents voices were still telling me what not to do in a relationship. In my mind, these are the two reasons relationships fail, so I have to do the opposite. My question is whether this is really a bad thing. It’s not like the promises I’m making, to communicate clearly with a partner, are so strange or egregious, and I’ve known for a long time that some of my habits in relationships were governed by those words I heard as a child. Still, it makes me want to reconsider what it is that makes a meaningful commitment between two people, and define it as what it is, rather than what it’s not. How worried should I be?

Maggie

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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Most of the Western world seems to have had a good laugh this week at an unidentified Arab ambassador to Dubai.

This gentleman rushed to annul his marriage contract and cancel his wedding after he finally got a look at his bride-to-be’s face and realized she was cross-eyed and had a beard.  She’d worn a niqab, a heavy veil, during their courtship, so he’d never actually laid eyes on her until moments before they tied the knot.

It’s a great story, and it does seem pretty silly to marry a woman when you haven’t even seen her face.

But before we laugh too hard at another culture’s ridiculous, sentimental notions, maybe we should take a look at some of our own.

Like marriage.

The People’s Therapist is well aware that he sounds like a grinch when he writes about this subject, but here goes.

Marriage makes no sense.  It is a lot of sentimental clap-trap.

And I’m sorry, gay folks, but you’re out of your minds if you think this tired old convention is going to make you any happier than it’s made the heteros.

A couple is happy because it’s happy.  Getting married, if it has any effect at all, usually only helps to break you up.

Before you start drafting that angry comment, consider the reality of a wedding.  You stand with your partner, your best friend, someone with whom you share a very personal, private relationship – in front of a roomful of family, friends and near-strangers. What do you do in front of all those people?  Promise you will stay together forever.

No one can promise that.

A relationship takes place in the moment.  You probably have a shared dream – someplace you want to go together, and that’s great.  But no one knows if that dream will last, or if you’ll get there.  That’s why it’s a dream.

Relationships are like movie film – lots of tiny boxes with a little piece of shared experience captured in each one.  When you take all those little moments of shared experience and line them up, it tells a story that seems inevitable.  But it never was inevitable, and there’s no way to know what’s coming next.

The worst part is that couples often become hyper-focused on the wedding itself.  These affairs can be enormous undertakings nowadays, which grow into monsters that gobble your life.  The wedding -essentially a big party for your relatives – can become the shared dream.

That means, when the wedding’s over…there’s nothing left to chase.  Some couples find themselves staring at one another, blinking in the sunlight, wondering what to do next.  And that thing to do next might not be something they want to do together.

Maybe the ultimate reason I’m so down on marriage is that I’m a therapist, and I’ve seen divorce, up close and personal. And yes – gay divorce, too.

It’s awful.

I don’t know if it’s the rotten state of divorce laws – they date back to the Victorian era, when a woman was essentially a piece of property – or just the broken dream itself, but people can lose their minds during divorces.  I’ve seen couples sue one another until they’re both bankrupt, and then keep suing.  The lawyers are happy to take their money until there’s none left, at which point they walk away and leave the unhappy partners to battle it out on their own.

It’s ugly.

But most marriages end that way.  In divorce.  In the US, 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.

Wow.

I’m sorry. I might be the Grinch. But I didn’t invent that reality.  It just is.

Instead of bemoaning the death of family – or whatever you want to call it – how about we face the fact that you can’t judge the quality of a relationship based upon its longevity.  You might spend a marvelous three years with someone and decide that it’s time to move on. Or you might stay together for sixty years and be totally miserable.

It’s not about staying together with the same person forever.  It’s about finding something that works in the moment – the here and now – and enjoying it.  Wake up each and every day as though it were the first day all over again, and decide then and there if it’s  where you still want to be.  If it is – great.  It is isn’t – also great.

Why does that seem so awful?

Because there’s a child inside you who longs for stability.  All children crave stability – it’s what they thrive upon.  And marriage regresses us into that child.

An adult doesn’t need a relationship or a ceremony to provide him stability.  He carries it within himself.  He can leave one relationship, be by himself, or enter another relationship.  It doesn’t matter that much.  He’ll do just fine.

An adult doesn’t need a parent – he contains his own parent.  His partner can be his friend, his ally, his playmate, his companion – his equal.

An adult is a whole person, not a half person.  And if the other whole person leaves to try something different, he remains a whole person.

I suspect there ought to be some sort of legal protection for couples who have children.  Perhaps civil union is the answer for those legal issues.

But traditional marriage is a silly, out-dated custom.

When you pull up the veil, and see what’s really there, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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The People’s Therapist was working out at the gym on the elliptical trainer the other day when he realized he’d come to the end of an issue of The New York Review of Books – his customary cardiovascular/literary fare.  In desperation, I reached for whatever other reading material happened to be lying around, and discovered a deliciously tacky gossip mag.

Flipping open at random, I found myself confronted with a headline about Prince William, the future king of England.  Apparently, he’s got a new girlfriend – Kate Middleton – and the rumors are that she’s “just like his mother, Princess Diana.”

What caught my psychotherapeutically-inclined interest was how commonly this trope – marrying someone like your parent – emerges in popular culture.  It’s so unremarkable that we take it for granted.

But it raises an interesting question:  Why does it seem like people really do choose partners who are just like their parents?

The answer relates to how you adapt, as a child, to your early environment.

One of the patients I saw this week, for example, grew up with a father who was extremely narcissistic.

When I use this term, I don’t mean it in the sense of merely being egotistical, but in the Freudian sense of being unable – like Narcissus in the Greek myth – to see past his own reflection and realize that others have separate needs and concerns.

The whole world, for this woman’s father, was about him.  He sucked up all the attention and ignored everyone else’s needs.  His wife – my patient’s mother – fell into a caretaker role, appeasing and placating him.  When dad had one of his rages, mother and daughter ran around doing whatever it took to calm him down.  Their own needs were ignored.

My patient evolved behaviors to handle living in an environment with a narcissist – mostly running around doing everything for him and always letting him have his way.  When she grew up into an adult, she went out into the world expecting to find another narcissist for a partner.  That would feel familiar, and almost comfortable, since it was what she was used to – it matched the skills she’d adapted as a child.  She knew everything there was to know about handling a narcissist – dating anyone else would bring fresh challenges she wasn’t sure she could handle.

Sure enough, later in life, my patient found herself dating guys just like her dad – high-maintenance guys who demanded all her attention but never seemed to notice her needs.

It’s as though my client – and perhaps Prince William and everyone else – adapted to an environment the way an animal evolves.  If you live in a pond, you evolve web feet.  Once you have web feet, you expect to live in water, because you aren’t much good anywhere else.

But humans aren’t ducks, and the strategies you adopt to survive in your childhood environment don’t have to become permanent physical characteristics.

Children have little choice but to adapt to their environment.  They don’t control much of anything – they need to adapt to survive.

But adults can choose the environment in which they wish to live, and they can shed an old adaptation if it becomes self-sabotaging.

My client didn’t have web feet, and she didn’t have to live in a pond.  She could change, and choose a new environment that better suited her adult needs.

That meant she could stop dating men like her father, and ask herself who she really wanted in her life.  It also meant she could learn new adaptations to address this new sort of person.

For someone used to placating and pleasing a narcissistic tyrant, it was an adjustment to meet someone calm and relaxed and caring – someone who expected a balanced give and take in a relationship.  My patient had to remember not to do everything for her new boyfriend, and to enforce her own boundaries as well as respecting his.

It was all rather new, and a bit scary – like a duck acquiring new feet and learning to live on land.  But she caught on fast.

Prince William, for his part, might choose to marry someone like Princess Diana, or he might not.  His mother may well have been a lovely, giving person and the perfect model for a mate.

The key is that the prince be aware of his unconscious adaptations and ask himself what he, as an adult, truly desires in a partner. He’ll never find what he needs marching blindly into an old pattern simply because it feels familiar.

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