Building a Healthy Marriage After the Honeymoon Is Over
Written By: Mark Smith
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"The chief reason why marriage is rarely a success is that it is contracted while the partners are insane." ~Joseph Collins
Ha! That is the truth! Love is so easy and wonderful in the beginning. It is sweet, intense, magical, addictive, and yes, maybe a little insanely attached at times. The theorist that I base much of my work on is Murray Bowen, a family systems pioneer. He developed the use of a genogram or a family tree as an assessment tool. He would call the wonderfully delicious early stage in a relationship "enmeshment". During enmeshment two hearts are bonded at a very deep, primal level. Enmeshment is what all the songs on the radio are about. It is like being stoned on love. Brain chemistry actually changes during the enmeshment stage. At this point in a feedback session I would draw two intersecting circles on the board.
During the enmeshment stage of a relationship two people who otherwise do not have the relationship skills to be intimate can actually be amazingly intimate with very little sense of having to work at it. They can stay up just talking all night long. You must spend every spare second with your wonderful new lover. They are your soul mate. Your heart aches when you aren't with them. The only teensy problem with enmeshment is that it has a short shelf life. Most couples only get between 2 and 7 years of enmeshment. Some highly reactive conflictual couples get less than that. Very few couples are able to keep their enmeshment fresh for more than 7 years. You've heard of the 7 year itch? Couples frequently become disenchanted after the magic has worn off. During the addictive thrill of new love we can all skate free and easy for a while - it just never lasts.
Almost all relationships begin as enmeshment. Those that do will always eventually move to the next stage called "Emotional Cutoff", another Bowen family systems term. Emotional cutoff looks like this - Illustration #2. The magic is gone and it feels like you are living with a stranger. You have stopped talking and you have for the most part stopped making love. Unresolved conflicts have risen like an invisible wall between you. An unknown poet described this wall with great eloquence in their poem "The Wall".
Their wedding picture mocked them from the table
these two whose lives no longer touched each other.
They loved with such a heavy barricade between them
that neither battering rams of words
nor artilleries of touch could break it down.
Somewhere between the oldest child's first tooth
and youngest daughter's graduation
they lost each other.
Throughout the years each slowly unraveled
that tangled ball of string called self
and as they tugged at stubborn knots
each hid their searching from the other.
Sometimes she cried at night and begged
the whispering darkness to tell her who she was
while he lay beside her snoring like a
hibernating bear unaware of her winter.
Once after that had made love he wanted to tell her
how afraid he was of dying
but fearing to show his naked soul he spoke instead
about the beauty of her breasts.
She took a course in modern art trying to find herself.
In colors splashed upon a canvas
and complaining to other women about men
who were insensitive.
He climbed into a tomb called the office
wrapped his mind in a shroud of paper figures
and buried himself in customers.
Slowly the wall between them rose cemented
by the mortar of indifference.
One day reaching out to touch each other
they found a barrier they could not penetrate
and recoiling from the coldness of the stone
each retreated from the stranger on the other side.
For when love dies it is not in a moment of angry battle
nor when fiery bodies lose their heat.
It lies panting exhausted expiring
at the bottom of a wall it could not scale.
You do love each other with a sort of distant fondness. Your marriage has been a good one for the most part. However, as the years click by, you are keenly aware that something vital is missing - the spark, the passion, and the intensity that was there so powerfully in the beginning. As Valentine's Day rolls around, you squirm in the card aisle trying to find that cute non-intimate awkward and obligatory card - yawn. You also find yourself attracted to one of your co-workers - just an innocent flirtation, you tell yourself. You make love maybe once a month - twice on a good month, but even that isn't nearly what it used to be. You don't miss each other when you are apart; it used to kill you to not be together. You rarely hold hands; you vacation separately more and more frequently, you rarely look at each other deeply in the eyes, and your sexual fantasies are not about your spouse more often then not. You are bored. It is the extremely rare marriage that does not eventually veer into the sluggish misconnection of emotional cutoff due to all the competing pressures of kids, work, bills, TV, the Internet, stress, etc. Marriages are like houses and cars; if you don't maintain them properly and frequently, they WILL break down and fall down around you. They can be more complicated to repair then a house or a car, though.
As you might guess, it is during the Emotional Cutoff stage that we see couples in therapy. They do not want to go through the pain, hassle, expense and embarrassment of a divorce. They want to stay together and work it out for the kids. They love each other; they just aren't in love with each other in the same way that they used to be. When a marriage is cut off emotionally both parties are at great risk of having an affair. While there are several different types of affairs, by far the most prevalent is the lonely Emotionally Cutoff spouse who was didn't realize that they were even capable of cheating upon their spouse until they did it. They were not looking for an affair but they were extremely vulnerable.
The third and healthiest relationship stage is called
"Interdependence". It is mature love. Anne Taylor Fleming described Interdependence beautifully when she said "A long marriage is two people trying to dance a duet and two solos at the same time." That kind of shared individuality is very difficult to pull off. It requires two healthy assertive individuals with high self-esteem who can engage in conflict and compromise in a direct and non-reactive manner. It is quite rare. Both parties are capable of compromising without compromising themselves. If I were to draw it Interdependence would look like this - (Illustration #3). An Interdependent marriage has the legs to go the distance. While it may not have the intensity of an Enmeshed relationship, it is much sturdier. My definition of a healthy happy Interdependent spouse is someone who #1 is keenly in touch with their most important emotional needs, who #2 have a strong, firm, pleasant, non-reactive voice which they use to ask, request and otherwise beseech that their needs be met, and who #3 have trained their loving spouse to ably and willingly meet those needs. Unfortunately such couples are few and far between. I believe that affairs almost never occur in Interdependent marriages. If you were to be completely honest with yourself I think that you would agree with me when I suggest that your marriage was fairly cutoff emotionally before your spouse had their affair.
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