As a couples therapist, as well as a divorce mediator, I’ve had the experience of working both “sides of the fence”: with couples struggling to stay together after years of disconnection and chronic conflict, and with those headed to court, having given up on their marriage for any number of reasons. What’s most challenging is trying to turn the tide of mutual contempt, the profound disconnector of relationships. What I call “relational fatigue” is couples no longer seeing, hearing or understanding each other — they’re distracted, disheartened, disengaged, and shut down. I often wonder what makes so many couples stay in an unhappy marriage, believing it won’t get any better, because trying harder is just too much work. Although both partners deserve to be happy, living a fulfilling relationship, their dysfunctional dance becomes predictable, all too familiar, seemingly serving some purpose.

Couples with chronic conflict are locked in a dynamic of defensive/offensiveness, protecting their core unhealed past trauma. Their power struggles manifest much the same as parent-child or sibling power struggles. Each partner feels betrayed, emotionally abandoned, not heard or supported. Being right or winning becomes the focus, because to “give in” would be accepting “I’m not good enough, not whole or lovable.” The emotional stakes are high, thus each has to win, rendering the other powerless, ultimately the “loser.” As the years go by, each partner becomes more resentful and angry, with their unconscious expectations not being realized.

An essential ingredient in any marriage is healthy self-esteem, with each partner holding oneself in warm regard, accepting all of one’s flaws. A positive sense of self comes from the inside out, with confidence that no one is better or worse than anyone else. This will influence how partners interact — if you have knee-jerk reactions to each other, the work is about moving to a mature, thoughtful, functional adult response. Stop and think first, remembering that this person with whom you have chronic conflict is someone you love, or at very least, someone with whom you wish to connect. Unfortunately, no one is taught effective, healthy relationship skills, not the least of which is conflict mediation. I’d like to see this skill-building included in schools’ curriculum, starting at the elementary level, right on through college — it would certainly make a world of difference.

Years of increasing discontent call for “repair,” although ignored within a collusion of silence, like a dripping faucet ultimately creating an unseen, damaging leak. Angry withdrawal begets more angry withdrawal. In the dance of relational contempt, are there any corrective dance steps bringing needed balance? Just as a furnace needs a regulating dial to ensure it won’t overheat, relationships need a way to monitor healthy regulation when the “temperature” increases. Marriage has been transformed in many ways, not the least of which is recognizing same-sex marriages — women’s expectations have expanded. They want a partner actively involved in all aspects of work-life balance, someone who shares domestic chores, as well as financial support, while raising their children together. Given our patriarchal culture, many men are not ready for or accepting of the transformation in women’s expectations and shifting roles.

When couples have empathy, balance and trust in their relationship, authentic connection is possible. To realize that goal, it makes sense to do the relational work before sealing a lifelong commitment. Rather than waiting until the slow “leak” creates irreparable damage, it serves couples far better to commit to individual evaluation, weighing each partner’s ability to communicate, relate, and heal each other. Family-of-origin history, taking a close look at multi-generational trauma, will help defuse emotional triggers which can so easily undermine an intimate relationship. A dysfunctional family system is a skewed system, with established behavioral and emotional patterns that will play out throughout an entire lifetime. Without closely examining how we were raised, what we learned when significant needs weren’t met in childhood, those injuries will keep emerging, creating relationship impasses.

I encourage couples to attend to their respective childhood wounds before they make a lifelong commitment. With a secure attachment bond, couples have a better chance of successfully achieving intimacy and trust, rather than waiting until their marriage is breaking down. It’s even possible for us to reduce the number of divorces! Just as investing in one’s financial future for security, relationships require as much, if not more, investment. For couples shaping a future together, first ask yourselves what you want in a relationship; what qualities you want to see in your partner/spouse; what needs do you expect to be met; whether you have an emotionally safe space in your relationship; whether you can be completely vulnerable with your partner, without risking blame or judgment; if you can successfully navigate conflict while maintaining relational integrity; and examine how you experience the deepest level of connection. Doing the healing and relational work on the front end has the potential for claiming optimal, long-term marital satisfaction.

“Show me the meaning of being lonely
Is this the feeling
I need to walk with
Tell me why I can’t be there where you are
There’s something missing in my heart.”

— The Backstreet Boys