Introduction: The Work of Strengthening Bonds
At NECCF, my two colleagues and I, combined, see about 75 couples every week. We’ve each been in practice for many years -- a sum total of more than six decades -- and by now have been asked into the private lives of hundreds of married and non-married relationships.
The three of us consult with each other often -- fully protecting our clients’ identities by not sharing names or recognizable details, but more generically describing general clinical issues we face -- and offering clinical guidance and support to each other whenever we can. Even after all these years, we are still impressed by our clients’ stories of perseverance, saddened when we hear of the pain of disconnection, and moved by couples who reach out to one another and learn to heal old wounds.
So I have dozens upon dozens of real-life stories in my head. We see a lot of life in our offices.
Every couple of course has its own a distinct qualities, since it’s comprised of two singular personalities. Despite this uniqueness, it’s possible to think of the situations we see in our offices as falling into some general categories, often defined by time-of-life phases or externally-driven circumstances.
We see parents of babies and young children, whose marriages have deteriorated, when there’s no more time for or interest in sex, when the new demands of running a family are so bewildering that each parent is struggling to stay sane and centered and has no extra reserves to offer their partner.
We see long-term relationships, often after a couple has raised children, when physical or psychological illness has struck, and the couple is trying to adjust to the “new normal” of frailties, doctors’ appointments, side effects of medication, and all the realizations about limitations, and, sometimes, mortality.
We see couples who had pledged monogamy to one another, but where one member has sought emotional and/or sexual satisfaction outside the relationship, and now trust and hearts are broken, and the couple wonders whether they can ever be whole again.
We see couples who are coping with one or more adolescents at home, and are at the pinnacle of parenting misery, stunned at how hard parenting has become, and taking it out on each other as they disagree about rules governing their teens’ use of electronics and about approaches to disciplining.
Then there are those relationships we see -- and there are many, many of them -- where each member of the couple works at a job that is so consuming, there simply isn’t enough time or energy left to devote to their partner, and the couple thus drifts apart. I’ve observed over the years that clients, across all professions, are working longer hours, under higher performance pressure, and often with lower pay, than in years past. The expectation to be responsive to emails and texts from work, at all hours of the day and night, fuels anxieties, distractabilities, and then resentments within these relationships. Because for these couples time is in such short supply, and reaching out for help feels like an extra stress, by the time they come in to see us, they are often despairing.
There are many more categories of life situations we see, each with its own set of circumstances leading to couples‘ disconnection from one another. We see couples coping with either diagnosed or undiagnosed ailments that interfere with their closeness. Some of these are AD/HD; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder; OCD; addiction to alcohol, pot, or other substances; or addiction to such activities as pornography use or gambling. We also see couples struggling with step-parenting, fertility, sexuality, and chronic illness.
When a couple finds their way to our practice, we try to de-mystify their distress by working from the belief that all people carry a deep, human wish for love and connection. When connection is elusive or disrupted, very often each person's thoughts, feelings, and reactions to each other, fueled by worry and sadness over the lack of closeness, can begin to settle into repeating negative patterns that, unfortunately, can worsen their disconnection. Our job is to illuminate each person’s wishes and fears about closeness with their partner, and to help each one take in these deeper disclosures made by the other, in a compassionate way. That’s how they can strengthen their bond.
Although it’s been decades that we’ve been applying ourselves to this work, we still feel honored that our clients trust us to guide them in trying to find this type of deep connection with each other -- a connection that is the most essential, precious element we all seek and need in order to feel truly well and alive.