Sally entered therapy, describing clear symptoms of depression – feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion and general unhappiness. She also alluded to an increased irritability with her family, feelings that triggered emotions of guilt and shame for her. She and her husband Paul have been married for 12 years and they have two young children.
Sally described feeling extremely close to Paul in those initial years of their marriage. “He understood me better than anyone else and he was there for me in every respect”. “Now” she added, “I don’t feel he understands or loves me, most of the time he irritates me, and instead of feeling supported by him, I feel he works against me. It feels as though he wants to put me down at every opportunity; that the person that I am growing to be is somehow threatening to him”
When Paul and Sally met, they were both immersed in their careers. After the birth of their second child, Paul decided to start his own business. Initially the business went well but when the recession set in, things became difficult for him and he battled to keep his business on track. The work stress impacted severely on him, as he felt the responsibility of the employment of a number of people. Sally, on the other hand, went from strength to strength in her career. As I encountered her in the therapy setting, she struck me as an intelligent, efficient woman and I could imagine her being regarded as an asset in her company. Sally’s income far exceeds that of Paul’s but she says, “It is not the money that matters, I just want him to be there for me.”
“The strong understanding guy, who I thought would look after me and walk alongside me in all aspects of life, has gone. For the most part I feel alone and wonder whether Paul even likes me.”
Sally’s knight in shining armour has lost his horse. He is not able to support her in a way that she desires, and she does not experience him as strong or understanding.
Phases in Marriage
Marriage has often been described as having different phases. The first phase of romantic love has invariably had the fairytale appeal. This phase is often followed by the phase described as “disillusionment.” Disappointment is a common theme for couples at this time.
If this phase of disillusionment is not worked through constructively and effectively, the couple will either end up divorced, or grow apart, remaining emotionally guarded and distant, and settle for co-habitation “for the sake of the children.” If the latter is adopted as the only solution to this phase of disillusionment, the marriage can drift into a prolonged period, often decades, of outwardly being functional, but inwardly being devoid of any emotional warmth. The couple manage to negotiate life at a practical level and parent reasonably well, but they remain compromised in the area of closeness.
There is a third option, the road less travelled. It entails the couple negotiating this phase of disillusionment in ways that optimise its growth potential, recognising this phase as a catalyst for change and development; both as individuals as well as growth that prompts the relationship to evolve into another phase. This next phase can be referred to as true love, or it is sometimes called mature love or “the second falling in love,” and it is characterised by a life-long adult intimacy. This is the state of relationship that most people yearn for, which will always remain a fantasy unless the initial phases of marriage are negotiated constructively.
The reality is that we cannot move from romantic love to true love without going through the dark valley of disillusionment, characterised by disappointment, conflict and generally unhappiness. This phase of disillusionment varies in length and intensity. For some couples it is experienced sporadically throughout their marriage, it never really initiating a more evolved stage. For others, it can be experienced as intense and over whelming, characterised by ongoing presence of heightened emotion.
There are some common themes that highlight the disillusionment phase for us, helping us to recognise it.
To understand the experience of individual needs in marriage, we must consider not just the more obvious superficial needs that most people can identify within themselves, but also the more complex needs that lie deeper within us. These needs are often referred to as our original “child needs”. We all leave childhood with the experience of not having had all our needs fulfilled to any full extent. This need deficit from our formative years is experienced as “hurts” or areas of sensitivity in our adult years. In our story, Sally grew up feeling that her parents were preoccupied by other things and she did not always feel noticed or understood. The fact that she felt that Paul noticed and understood her when they met, addressed an area of sensitivity for her. It felt so comforting and soothing for her, as though for the first time in her life, someone actually knew her. Consequently, when the phase of disillusionment set in, it was this area that hurt most intensely for Sally. The experience of not being understood by Paul seemed to resonate deep within her.
One of the most difficult realities to negotiate in the disillusionment phase is the reality that our unmet childhood needs cannot be fulfilled in our adult relationships.
Unrealistic expectations are one of the common threads that run through the disillusionment phase. It is true that Sally had unrealistic expectations of Paul’s ability to support and understand her, but resolving the problem is not as simple as her lowering her expectations. Sometimes it is realistic and appropriate for us to expect our spouse to work on their capacity to understand and love us. It is helpful for the marriage that Sally continues to expect Paul to be more involved with the children. It is also appropriate for her to expect him to take the time and make the effort to understand her needs and emotions. Both parties have “growth work” to do at times of differences and conflict. Sally needs to work on improving her capacity to communicate her needs and feelings. Instead of retreating and withdrawing when she was feeling hurt and alone, she needs to learn how to know and express her needs and emotions in ways that Paul can hear her. Invariably, when we are feeling let down we view the problem as being our partner’s shortcoming; that is, “if he would only change his behaviour and ways of relating to me, then I will feel happier and more content”. Sally, reflecting on herself, and growing in awareness of the link between her present disposition and her formative years, can also make a vital contribution to the change process in this disillusionment phase.
Negotiating differences is a significant aspect of growth in marriage. We have obvious gender differences, as well as personality differences. Sally is a proactive woman who is able to identify problems and address them as they emerge. This skill, together with her ability to plan and problem-solve in a structured way, has largely contributed to her success in her career. Paul on the other hand, tends to allow problems to develop and then goes about solving them in a more haphazard way.
Sally’s idea of a task around the house being tackled “properly” was different from Paul’s. At times, compromising standards at particular phases of the marriage is necessary for the sake of the relationship.
The power struggle is a significant dynamic in marriage. Nobody likes to be dominated or controlled in their relationship. It can often happen that both the husband and the wife feel dominated or controlled by the other, and are flabbergasted to learn that their partner experiences them as trying to control or dominate in the relationship. Working through the power issues in a marriage is complicated and often requires patience and understanding, both of self and the other.
The habit of conflict avoidance is one of the most common obstacles to the growth of a marriage, to the marriage evolving sequentially through the phase of marriage. We seem to have a universal aversion to discomfort and conflict in our more intimate relationships. Embarking on a conversation that we know will bring about discomfort and conflict can be described as being “counter-instinctual”. In this sense it requires an underlying commitment to the growth of one’s marriage.
Commonsense wisdom that often refers to marriage as “hard work,” is probably referring to the increased efforts that are required in the phase of disillusionment. Working through this phase of disillusionment is difficult because it is characterised by unpleasant feelings and conflictual interactions. It is in resolving their differences in this phase that a couple will move into the next stage of marriage, and allows for the possibility of a more mature love to emerge, something that we all yearn for – a meaningful and mutually satisfying relationship.