Reed received her Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy from Texas Woman’s University and has been practicing in Dallas for nearly 25 years. She counsels as many as 25 couples per week.
I can’t save a marriage. Only the couple can do that. My job is to help people create the marriage they want. Sometimes that means showing them how to save their relationship, sometimes it means equipping them for the next one. What I tell couples is, You can do the work in this relationship or you can get divorced, remarry, and take the same patterns with you, making your chances of another divorce even greater. If a couple I’m seeing is already at the point of divorce, then I want them to leave the marriage with as much information as possible about how they got there, so that they don’t replicate that marriage.
Most couples come in and start by saying they have a communication problem. But the issue is not communication. It’s often much deeper than that. It has to do with how they’re doing conflict, how they’re getting their needs met, and how they’re expressing those needs to each other.
There are ways to bring complaints to your spouse. A really common issue, for example, is household chores. Typically a couple has agreed upon who’s going to do what, and let’s say one of them doesn’t accomplish their designated chore. Well, one way to handle that is for the partner to criticize them. “You’re so irresponsible, you never follow through,” blah, blah, blah. But a way to change that behavior is for the person who is upset to ask, “I’m wondering why you didn’t take out the trash. Help me understand that,” which is a more productive way of raising the issue.
Often, one person wants to have sex more than the other. Well, we know that sexual problems are generally not just about sex: One partner is angry about something, one partner is working harder than the other and too tired. You end up with one person thinking about sex all the time because they want it and the other thinking about sex all the time because they don’t want it and feel pressured. Obviously they need a compromise, so I’ll teach a couple how to have the conversation differently. There are ways to ask for sex, and then there are ways to ask for sex that create resentment.
The right way to ask for sex is to not ask for sex. Make it about intimacy: “I want closeness with you. I want to be with you.” That’s more readily received by the person who’s thinking they’re just being used. It’s much more appealing when the invitation is about spending quality time together: “Let’s have a conversation. Let’s share a meal. And if we have sex, that’s great, but it isn’t a requirement.”
To those who step outside a marriage and have an affair, I always say that they’re wholly responsible for how they chose to act out their dissatisfaction with their relationship. But more often than not, there is also something in the marriage that may have contributed to that choice—and that’s a pretty hard sell with the offended party. They’re grieving and in pain; they want to blame the person who has had the affair. But if we’re really going to do reparative therapy, both people have to take responsibility for how they got to that point.
I think the difference between people who are able to maintain a marriage and those who end up divorced is their drive to save it. Couples who have a desire to heal their relationship will figure out how to do exactly that. Those who don’t are the ones who want to stay angry, who don’t want to forgive, or who are afraid that they’re going to be cheated on again.
People sometimes complain that the therapy is not working. I had a client last night who I’d met with twice, and she said she actually felt worse than when we started. She was frustrated. I don’t take that personally—it’s normal, because initially therapy kicks up more issues than we’re able to resolve in the first two or three sessions. Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. Sometimes things have to get painful enough for us to want to change.
When I first began practicing, in the late eighties, the research said that couples who lived together before their wedding day had a less-than-average shot at a successful marriage. That data has since flipped: Now the research shows that people who live together have an equal or better chance of a successful marriage. For a lot of couples, getting married is now a status symbol. They live together. They have children. And they marry later on, when they can afford to have a wedding.
I don’t think you have to live together before marriage, but as I tell my premarital counseling clients, it’s important that you know each other very, very well. Meet each other’s families, see each other in a variety of work and social contexts, log the time together. And if you want the best chance of creating a successful marriage, date for several weeks or months without getting sexual—because once you add sex, it’s more difficult to get out if things go bad. People are much more reluctant to end a relationship if there’s sex. That said, I’ll never tell a couple that they shouldn’t get married. That’s not my decision to make.
I am myself divorced. I’ll laughingly tell people that I got a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy unconsciously to save my own marriage. At the time, I didn’t realize it was happening simultaneously, but I think it was. Now I look back and see that a lot of what I learned probably helped the marriage last as long as it did. But on the other side of it, what I learned about myself, marriage, and divorce has helped me be a more effective therapist. I don’t think a divorced therapist is someone you shouldn’t see. It all depends on how they’ve dealt with it. In my current marriage, I’m stubborn about working things out. I bring everything I know, everything I’ve learned, to bear on the relationship.
Marriages are absolutely hard work. When a couple comes to me, the first thing we address is the need to be intentional with each other. We have a myth in this culture that if you fall in love and get married, life is going to be happy ever after. And what that myth belies is that the best marriages require constant attention.