Clients in couple’s therapy bring with them a story. The same story could be told 100 different ways by 100 different people, but the story a client tells, the way they tell it, and the meaning they give it is all very important information. For the therapist these stories can be like watching a movie, reality show, sit com, or reading a compelling book, provoking feelings such as anger at life’s injustices, sadness at the losses, and laughter at how ridiculous people can sometimes be.
Some of the most eye-opening things I have heard in couple’s therapy are often found in how far some spouses are willing to push another, and the requests that one spouse makes of the other. For instance, “Why did you not come home last night?” or, “I need you to text me every hour we’re apart and let me know you’re OK.” What may sound absolutely unreasonable to you and me may seem very reasonable to another.
One thing I’ve learned over the years in couple’s therapy is that when a spouse faces a behavior that could lead them straight to the marital dog house, and his or her explanation doesn’t make sense, it is because the person is leaving out important details, or just flat-out lying. When I first started out as a therapist, I’d blame myself for not being smart enough to figure out what I was missing, but now I know it’s not me, it’s them, and I am highly likely to tell them so.
Another thing I’ve learned is that occasionally I might as well be a judge with a black robe and gavel, as I must occasionally make rulings about what is reasonable in a marriage, and what is not. It is a very common scenario when one spouse really wants their partner to do something the other person really does not want to do. Where do we spouses draw the line between making a stand for what we’re comfortable with versus being a loving, supportive and accommodating spouse?
Luckily, I have a great sense of what is reasonable and what isn’t, and with that in mind, I’ll share a few rulings I have had to make during couple’s therapy:
1. Husband says to wife of many years, who has stated she is terrified of divorce and going it alone: “OK then, I want you to let me keep my girlfriend, and we will stay married and be like we always have been, and then we won’t have to get divorced, and we won’t have to change our lives.”
Ruling: Request denied. Never ask your spouse to give up their inner peace so you can have it. It is immature to bring your ideal-world fantasies into your marriage and seriously propose it to your partner, especially when you’re smart enough to know that your request would be a bitter pill for any person to swallow.
2. Husband says: “OK, OK, I have kept my master/slave needs from you all these years, but now that you know, let me be your slave! I would be the happiest man on earth if you would just let me be your slave and order me around, and then occasionally let me dress as a French maid and serve you tea while you abuse me.”
Ruling: I didn’t have to deny this one. The wife quickly said, “If you want this to be a part of our marriage, and if you continue on this path, I will not respect you and will not stay married to you, period.” I felt her response was very reasonable, and applauded her for being true to herself and stating her stance clearly and firmly.
3. Wife says: I know I have cheated on you with my work colleague, and now you want to tell my boss, my colleague’s wife, and for me to quit my job, but that’ll destroy two families instead of just one. I will behave, I promise. I will never be romantic with my friend again. Ever. Just keep this all in our family, and don’t make me leave the job I love.
Ruling: Request denied. I am a firm believer that spouses who cheat should imagine all the things that might occur as a result before they take the plunge into infidelity. Asking for mercy and forgiveness after-the-fact does not sit well with spouses who have been traumatized by betrayal. Many times, for there to be any chance of recovery, the traumatized spouse will need for the cheater to take drastic, sometimes difficult, painful and embarrassing action to win back the trust and confidence that the relationship will need moving forward. I think having to leave a beloved job where the betrayal took place is a reasonable request if a marriage is to survive. Another important point is that a request like this is quite manipulative, attempting to lay guilt on the devastated spouse should he or she be so cruel as to make them pay a heavy price for their marital crime. Don’t fall for it. Caveat: I would recommend you do call the spouse, don’t tell the boss. It could affect your spouse’s ability to get re-employed, which could hurt you/your family. If it ever happens again, though, tell whomever you choose, then leave.
4. Wife says: “You are more attached and devoted to your secretary than you are to me. Your closeness is totally inappropriate! I want her gone! It’s her or me!”
Ruling: It depends. If this is paranoia-based, meaning there are no solid facts to back up the argument, then of course the secretary should stay. But if the accusations are based in provable facts, then of course, the secretary needs to go. I have seen both situations in my practice. This is very common and occurs when spouses allow themselves to share their personal life details with their assistants and co-workers, which builds a bond of caring and closeness. Solid, professional boundaries are the best prevention.
5. Spouse says, “I have a fantasy that we will will bring other people into our bedroom and/or join a club where couples switch partners. I would like for us to try this.”
Ruling: Ugh. I see couples whose relationships are in trouble. In the history of my practice I have never seen bringing third parties into the bedroom work out in a positive way, although I am told, and have read, that it can work for some people. If it was to work, there would have to be clear rules, boundaries and communication, and my concern is not that many people are good at that.
Why do I encounter so many people who ask their partners to do what most of us would think are unreasonable things? Part of it is, when Rome is falling, one strategy might be to make a Hail Mary pass and see if against all odds, the other person catches the ball. Another part is that a certain percentage of our population are absolutely shameless, feel no guilt or remorse, and will shamelessly pursue any goal they have in mind without regard for other people’s feelings. There are many bona fide mental disorders where this is the case, but if you glob them all together, we could be looking at 20 percent of the population, or more – one in five people. Wish I had better news.
Becky Whetstone, Ph.D. is a Marriage and Family Therapist and blogger and works in private practice in Little Rock, Arkansas.