As a family therapist, I often get calls from couples in distress. Like the story of the 3 Bears, these relationships are often too hot, or too cold. They’re not usually “just right.” “Too hot” couples come to my office exhausted from too much open warfare, too much drama, too much stress. You would never mistake these couples as “friends”. They often look like they can barely stand to be in the room with one another. “Too cold” couples often keep their relationship at a rather lukewarm, room temperature. They can often sit and chat, though the conversation may not have much substance. Usually at least one partner specializes in appearing accommodating. You can take this couple anywhere and they won’t raise any eyebrows. They’ll pass inspection in polite society with flying colors. They are usually able to navigate many aspects of family life, including parenting, without too much difficulty. Sometimes they’re like a well-oiled machine.
Why would a well-oiled machine seek therapy, you might ask? It’s usually because passion has unexpectedly reared its head. Often it’s in the form of an affair, or a sexual–or textual–indiscretion. Occasionally it’s because one partner is tempted to have an affair, may be headed down that road, and, recognizing the potential consequences, calls for help. Or it may be that one partner’s midlife crisis, in full swing, leads him or her to ask, in the word of the Peggy Lee torch song, “Is that all there is?” At other times, the couple wants to address “quality of life” questions. The sex could be hotter, more frequent, more fun. The relationship feels stale or predictable.
The intimate duets of these couples are a lot like making music. Many of the same principles apply. Good music is always characterized by tension, and release. Tension, and release. This movement carries the musical story forward, creating drama, passion, and an overall feeling of well-being. Even when the music is subtle, or quiet, there must be tension in it, otherwise it’s not interesting. No one would want to listen for more than a few minutes. It’s not “going” anywhere. If we listen to the music of these “lukewarm” couples, we wouldn’t hear the tensions, so we never get the release. The music is mostly flat, the voices are not distinct, sometimes with too much harmony, not enough dissonance.
Here’s a brief sample from my office:
Mike and Sandra came to see me following a brief flirtation Mike had while on a business trip. Sandra discovered a revealing text on Mike’s phone, confronted him on it, and he came clean. While Mike stopped short of having sex with the other woman, he acknowledged that his texting/flirting qualified as a betrayal, and he was angry at himself for letting it happen. This was the first time anything like this had happened in their ten-year marriage, and Sandra was devastated. They had a five-year old daughter and the couple felt motivated to look at what happened, and try to understand it.
The couple handled the issue of “the other woman” well, and Sandra felt like Mike understood and acknowledged how harmful his behavior was to her, and to them. But as the therapy progressed, Mike began to complain about the “lack of passion” in their marriage. Translation: He wanted sex more often, and he wanted his wife to be “freer” with him. Sandra had heard this from Mike before, and she always blamed herself for “not having much of a sex drive” or for being “uptight”. But I saw it differently.
This couple talked to each other calmly and respectfully, appearing to listen intently to their partner. But despite their politeness with one another, I observed a subtle power dynamic at play. I saw that Sandra lacked confidence with her husband–not just sexually–but as a woman, as a person. In their duet, her husband, a high-powered finance guy, often left his wife with the feeling that she was letting him down. He wasn’t mean about it, or aggressive. Mike just had a subtle way of making Sandra feel inadequate. She became convinced she couldn’t please him. While his persona said, “Good guy”, Mike had a sophisticated way of one-upping his wife, which left her feeling small compared to him. In this duet, both partners accepted the myth that Sandra was “cold” sexually, and “of course” Mike would feel frustrated.
The passion in this relationship had indeed been shut down. But the passion wasn’t primarily sexual. Passion shows up in a relationship OUTSIDE the bedroom. The sex IN the bedroom is an expression of the relationship outside it. And with Mike and Sandra, Sandra had begun to feel cautious and inadequate with her husband. These were intelligent, articulate people–good people– seemingly self-aware. But this dance was quiet, subtle, and repetitive. At the point they came to see me, they had internalized the story that poor Mike had to “tolerate” Sandra’s lack of interest in sex. Neither partner realized how Sandra’s spirit–her voice, her perspective–had been inadvertently reduced in this relationship. And with that, the liveliness that come with two full, distinct, slightly unpredictable voices, fell flat. Passion stymied.
The course of therapy helped expose these hidden tensions. Mike, at first surprised by his role as Passion Slayer with his wife, took the therapy to heart and began to search for ways to help Sandra feel more alive with him. While not always easy or comfortable, this couple showed courage in working toward developing new patterns in their duet. Soon, their relationship music had more dissonance AND more harmony. Sandra stopped being so cautious with Mike. Mike openly enjoyed his wife more. This led to a bit more risk-taking, a few more fights, but they were real– good, productive fights–producing more heat in the relationship. And, according to them, this heat soon translated to the bedroom.
It’s hard for any of us to see ourselves clearly and most of us don’t really know how we operate in our intimate partnerships. This snapshot of a therapy draws the curtain back on a dance that I see often in my office. Two caring people, inhabiting an unsatisfying relationship, and not sure how they got there. Discovering these tensions and bringing them into the open often helps break through the lukewarm temperature in these relationships, leaving each person with greater freedom and a deeper appreciation for the unique voice of their partner.
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