More Than Roommates

Posted on May 19, 2012


Conflict in marriage is usually painful.  It is difficult to find oneself continually in battle with the one person with whom one should be the closest.  In working with married couples, I generally find that it is not the conflict, per se, that results in the pain.  Rather it is the disconnection.  Loneliness, isolation, a feeling of not being valued, or not being good enough in the eyes of one’s spouse can be devastating.  On the plus side, the presence of conflict often is an indication of two partners fighting for connection.  The battle may not be resulting in the connection one seeks and the method of seeking connection may not be effective, nevertheless it is a sign that one or both partners are still protesting the sense of disconnection.

There are a few ways in which couples can overcome the conflict in their relationship.  Some couples learn to recognize the negative cycles of conflict that take over their relationship.  Together they learn to recognize the negative cycle as a common enemy to be overcome.  As the conflict deescalates, the relationship becomes emotionally safer.  Partners learn to express their need for comfort and support in ways that enable their spouses to recognize the need and respond.  In other couples, partners call a truce without reestablishing connection.  Hot topics are avoided.  The hope for connection is abandoned in an effort to secure a peace.  This is the more painful alternative (and at the very least is thoroughly unsatisfying).  It is a Faustian bargain in which the soul of the marriage is exchanged for an end to the conflict.  Both partners can be left feeling isolated.  For human beings, isolation is inherently traumatizing.

In a recent conversation, a woman told me with an air of sadness that she and her husband of 30 years were little more than roommates.  They were not fighting, but they also were not experiencing any sense of connection.  The unspoken questions are, “Can a couple regain connection after years of disconnection?” and “How do they do that?”  The short answer to the first question (I am pleased to report) is “yes.”  The answer to the second question is more complex.  A good beginning is for both partners to come to the realization that the present disconnection is not satisfying.  The goal in the marriage relationship is secure connection, not just peace.  Knowing that your partner is there for you, that your partner will be there for comfort and support when life is difficult is priceless.  It is worth fighting for.  Needs for attachment and closeness which have long been denied need to be acknowledged.  First, one must acknowledge these needs to oneself, then to one’s partner.

For a number of reasons, many couples find it helpful to get help from a therapist.  First, opening one’s heart to another person and expressing the need for connection feels so risky.  It can be really scary to be vulnerable with a partner with whom you do not feel connected.  Second, your partner may not know how to respond.  I often hear from a husband, “I don’t know what to do when my wife says…”  Sometimes this is how the couple became disconnected.  One partner essentially said, “I don’t understand the rules.  It feels awful to always get it wrong.  The best I can do is refuse to engage.”  Third, when one partner attempts to reengage, there is a risk of the old negative patterns of interaction to try to gain control of the relationship again.  If both partners are willing to try to begin again, a therapist can help the partners work through these issues and find a new sense of connection.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).