clock menu more-arrow no yes

9 things I've learned about marriage from being a couples therapist

Everyone longs to be "gotten," a little self control goes a long way, and more.

Before becoming a therapist, I wrote advice columns for the lovelorn. I told people what to do — and what not to do. Leave the partner who is committed to commitment-phobia. Make sure the two of you have similar long-term goals. Don't stay with anyone who is abusive. And so on.

I stand by these pronouncements — particularly the last! However, the last eight years spent counseling hundreds of singles and couples (as well as enduring personal relationship ups and downs) have shown me the fallacy of spouting one-stop-shopping absolutes. Human beings are infinitely perverse and layered creatures. There are few answers that can satisfy all.

But I have learned these nine universal relationship truths. (All names of clients have been changed.)

1) Don't expect another person to cure your sense of loneliness

Many people experience a void, an existential sense of loneliness. The desperation to not feel alone in the world can drive some unattached people into dysfunctional relationships. Being with the wrong person, though, is worse than being alone.

Even those in good relationships are not immune from suffering a pit-in-the-stomach dread when their spouse is absent. Sarah told me during a session, "As soon as Dave leaves the house I find myself feeling like the only person in the world. It's so unbearable I have to throw myself into some activity so I don't just count the hours until he comes home."

Not surprisingly, Dave finds the weight of Sarah's need suffocating. "When I come home she's all over me to talk, kiss, listen to the minutiae of her day...I love her but it's a lot of pressure to constantly have to provide entertainment."

Loneliness is embedded into our psyches. We're born alone; we die alone. Sounds bleak but it's real. We need to embrace those feelings, to sit with the discomfort and ask, "What are these feelings of emptiness trying to teach me?" rather than running to a relationship to fill the void. Once we are comfortable in our own heads, we can truly embrace the joys a relationship can add to our existence.

2) It's always a mistake to change too much to please a partner

Tears in her voice, Karen said, "Brad is constantly telling me, ‘You have the potential to be my true soul mate.'" There was a list of things she could do to achieve this status, ranging from exchanging the sweatpants she wore around their apartment for hip-hugging attire, to not nagging him about taking out the trash.

Although Karen wished she could just be comfortable in her own home, she wanted to please her spouse.  She bought a onesie and threw out the trash containing her discarded sweatpants. Brad's response: "That's great, but I'm not crazy about that onesie. Sorry."

Single or married, it is essential to learn not to explode when someone does something upsetting

I asked Brad how he would feel if nothing he did was enough to satisfy Karen. He paused, and then answered, "I would feel terrible, like I wasn't good enough the way I was, and never would be."

"So why do you think you keep telling Karen there are things she needs to do differently to become your soul mate?"

The answer: "I guess I play games because down deep I'm afraid she doesn't consider me good enough for her. I know one day she'll leave me."

When someone is secure, there's no desire to make a partner jump through hoops. And anyone with good self esteem will refuse to jump through hoops for a partner, if doing so will feel demeaning.

3) Too many people underestimate their own self-worth

Growing up, we are taught the alphabet, how to do fractions, and to dress in layers when it's cold outside. Alas, it is not part of Common Core to ensure students learn to value their own company. Until you can look in the mirror, say and mean, "Hello gorgeous, you are a damn fine human being," you are at risk of being overly dependent on other people for validation.

Brad from the example above needs to do work on himself so that he doesn't feel compelled to play sadistic games with Karen to make her prove her love. If he continues giving in to these negative impulses, their future together is in doubt.

Which leads us to:

4) Most arguments can be saved with some impulse control

In session, Paula admitted that when she's angry she hisses, "I'm going to leave you," to elicit maximum pain for Ted.  It's an empty threat. She admitted, "I regret the words as soon they're out of my mouth, but I just can't stop myself.'"

Single or married, it is essential to learn not to explode when someone says or does something upsetting. A helpful tip: when hurtful words start bubbling up, take a three-second sanity pause. During this medicinal deep breath, ask yourself what might happen if you deliver this low blow. In Paula's case, Ted could tire of living with the fear of being kicked out of his home and respond to her threat, "Okay, have your lawyer call mine."

If necessary, in the throes of an outburst you can say to the party you're about to unload on: "I need to leave the room until I get control of myself."

(Shutterstock)

5) Happy couples keep evolving — together and separately

Marriage shouldn't mean the couple's lives together are set. Oh, they're set in terms of who each loves, honors, and hopefully lusts for. But it's essential to retain a questing nature, to keep exposing oneself to provocative books, philosophies, people, and ideas.

Healthy evolving means a couple is each other's safe harbor — comfortable being naked together physically, emotionally, and spiritually — yet not emotionally dependent.

Healthy couples are secure enough in the relationship to have disagreements, knowing their connection can withstand conflict. They take risks as a couple — having uncomfortable conversations, trying new sex positions, engaging in activities that get the adrenalin pumping.

Evolving also means not feeling threatened when a partner is offered an amazing new job — even if it involves killer hours — or when he or she spends a weekend with a close (platonic) friend.

The experiences a couple has together further solders their bond, and the ones they have apart keep them vital and interesting to their mate.

6) Happy couples are on the same page about their expectations for marriage

It is vital that you look at what your concept of a lifetime relationship should be — and equally vital to share your thoughts and wishes with that pertinent somebody. If one partner wants monogamy and the other believes in a  "mostly monogamous" relationship, can this be reconciled? The same laser focus needs to shine on other potentially clashing major tenets: children, religious practices, time spent together versus time spent alone or with friends, gender roles, and so on.

The most common phrase I hear from patients is, "I just don't feel my spouse gets me anymore"

Ellen and Ted came to couples counseling prior to getting engaged. Neither wanted a child but Ellen felt guilty because "as a woman, shouldn't I want to be a mother? My married friends already have babies."

During our discussions, the couple came to accept that only the two people involved had the right to make decisions about what their marriage should look like. And those decisions should be looked at — and if necessary, revised — on a regular basis.

7) Everyone longs to be "gotten"

Perhaps the most common phrase I hear from patients is, "I just don't feel (fill in blank) gets me anymore." After repeated rejections (or perceived rejections), both partners shut down:  "If he won't talk to me about anything real, I won't talk to him!"

This is a lose-lose position. Spouses might not agree with everything the other says or believes. But if a couple doesn't honor each other's right to feel differently about certain issues, the fragile bud that is the soul of a relationship withers a little more.

I have couples do a mirroring exercise: Each of them take turns saying, "I need you to understand this about me." When one is speaking, the listener cannot interject. When the speaker is finished the listener recaps, "So it sounds like you feel this, this and this."  The speaker says, 'Well, I feel A but not B or C. This is what I said."  The couple goes back and forth until each person feels heard.

Creating an environment in which both people feel safe enough to reveal who they are without fear of ridicule or disdain is an essential ingredient to love.

8) Strong relationships depend on self-sacrifice

Many people evaluate how well their marriage is going by how giving they perceive their partner to be. Jane says, "Oh, Jim brings me flowers once a week. He must really love me."

If Jim misses a week or two, will Jane stop feeling loved? Perhaps he's simply preoccupied, worried, feeling broke, or wishing someone (guess who?) would bring him a thoughtful gift once in a while.

Thoughtful gestures should not be performed tit for tat: "He hasn't done anything special for me in days, so I'm going to stop bringing him coffee in bed."

When one is attuned to what makes a loved one happy, and gives with no expectation of return, the relationship opens up in magical ways.

Hafiz wrote: "Even after all this time, the Sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky."

(Shutterstock)

9) The easiest way to ruin a relationship: insisting on your own way

Ask yourself, "Would I rather win every argument or be in a happy relationship?"

The answer, of course, is obvious. Still, that habit of shooting for a TKO is hard to break. That's because it didn't originate with the current relationship. Likely both partners grew up in some fashion not feeling heard, important, or listened to. If you must pound your chest and loudly proclaim, "I am 100 percent correct, so cave," odds are good you don't believe in yourself. Otherwise, being occasionally wrong wouldn't stop you from feeling like a cool, lovable, smart person.

The best fix for this trap: Remember the mirroring exercise described in number 7? Take turns listening to one another's reasoning. Developing empathy for why a partner feels the way he or she does goes a long way toward melting self-righteousness.

Practice taking a few calming breaths and spitting out, "Whoops, I blew this one!" Did the earth combust? Excellent. When your partner apologizes, practice saying, "Thanks for admitting you made a mistake. That takes a big person and I love you for it."

Then close the subject and move on with the rest of your lives together.

All of these relationship truths are interwoven. For instance, the more emotional work you do on yourself, the less you have to lean on a partner for dear life...or to play dysfunctional games. And the more you can treat a partner like a gift you unwrap every day versus a toy whose sole purpose is to make you happy, the more likely it is you can have a best friend and lover for life.

A question I frequently ask couples is: "What do you gain by holding on to grudges?" It's an instant emotional weight reducer to let go of resentment over past hurts. Releasing the immense amount of negative energy necessary to keep anger alive allows for a glorious spaciousness to open in a partnership.

Sherry Amatenstein is a couples therapist in New York City, as well as the author of three books on relationships.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed the Hafiz quotation. We regret the error.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

First Person

The ghosts of our motel

First Person

The helplessness of being an Afghanistan War vet

First Person

My nemesis, the piano

View all stories in First Person

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.