by Dr. Rodger Goddard & Dr. Patricia Neary-Ludmer

When relationships go from hopelessly devoted to just plain hopeless, it may be time to talk to a professional. Psychologists Dr. Rodger Goddard and Dr. Patricia Neary-Ludmer look at the ins and outs of Couples Therapy. 

Goddard: Marriage and long-term, committed relationships pose intense challenges. They are strained by drinking, infidelity, parenting differences, stress, overwork, house-chore inequality, unresolved fights, emotional wounds from one’s childhood, anger, abuse, financial stress, instigation from in-laws, drug use, grudges and many other problems. The divorce rate in the U.S. is extremely high—estimates range between 45 and 55 percent. If you were to factor in break-ups in other committed relationships, there would be no telling how high that number might climb.

Neary-Ludmer: In isolation—in other words, just the one-on-one aspect of a relationship—couples generally communicate and connect fairly well. Otherwise they would go their separate ways. However, once they commit to each other the challenge begins. I believe most couples know how to communicate. If there is a problem, it’s likely due to the external pressures of life.

Goddard: Good communication skills are definitely essential. Couples should strive to be each other’s best friend. They need to be able to talk things out, articulate their inner feelings, and share their stress, emotions and thoughts with each other. Too often the hyperactivity of modern life, work and responsibilities do not leave time for enjoying each other’s company. Laundry needs to be washed, dinners served, children chauffeured, floors cleaned, shopping done, homework finished and hundreds of other chores carried out before affection, intimacy, friendship and romance can take place.

Neary-Ludmer: A common error couples make is focusing on building a beautiful marriage and family life without securing and feeding the foundation. They characteristically will sacrifice themselves to make sure their children’s needs and wants are being met, often at the expense of their own relationship. They forget about the importance of balance. A child needs to have parents that are happy and healthy. Otherwise the family structure will begin to crumble.

Goddard: I call it BC and AD. BC (Before Children) a couple focuses on each other. AD (After Da Kids) presents new challenges. The connection between couples now becomes a triangle pointed downward with a focus on the children. The connection between the couple can suffer. A new and revitalized couple connection needs to be reestablished and strengthened.

Neary-Ludmer: In our practices we see challenges to marriage that are very difficult and often require clinical intervention. They include coping with infertility, raising children with special needs, various types of addictions, the loss of a child, mental illness, and caring for elderly or sick parents. All of these put incredible stress on a relationship. For instance, untreated substance abuse or mental illness can be very detrimental to a marriage and family. Often it leads to lies, disappointment, betrayals and financial ruin. It causes the healthy spouse—and the family—untold pain and suffering. If the impaired spouse is unwilling to address the problem it often leads to divorce.

Goddard: Couples therapy is often extremely useful. Infidelity is an issue that often necessitates couples therapy. I enjoy doing couples therapy because it can be very easy to get a couple to remember what they love about each other, and how to treat each other special. Couples therapy is extremely helpful because it can provide a referee who lays down the rules of the game. A good therapist calls fouls and levels the playing field into one that supports both parties. Job number one is establishing guidelines for good communication. Sports and life necessitate effective game rules (e.g., no hitting below the belt, no clips, bring-downs, take-downs, or offensive fouls). It is critical for couples to focus on the specific things that they want from each other in the present and future, and not on all those horrific things that the other person did to them five, ten and 15 years ago. Too often couples get into endless nobody-wins power struggles.

Neary-Ludmer: Arguing and shutting down creates a disconnect; communication breaks off and the relationship suffers. Reestablishing that connection opens communication back up. And that happens by showing compassion and love. I believe that time is key. Make time to connect, just as you might schedule a music or tutoring lesson for your child. And protect that time. I encourage “date night”—not to focus on problems, but rather to laugh and talk and rekindle. Words are not necessary. Go to the gym together, garden together. Communication will follow.

Goddard: Among the most common important relationship problems I find is that couples often hold onto resentments, grudges and irritations with an iron grip. Another is the frustration that people feel when their viewpoint or emotions are not recognized or affirmed. It seems incredibly easy for two grown-up people to figure out who should take out the garbage on what day. And yet they do not, because… “He just doesn’t understand all the things I do around here” or “She just doesn’t understand that I need to unwind when I get home” or “He doesn’t show me decent respect when he speaks to me” or “Everything is a criticism from her” or “He is never available” …and on and on. Of course, these things need to be resolved. But a critical ingredient involves the other person feeling that their emotions, thoughts or desires are being understood. It is almost a primary motivation of ours to feel understood. When this need is not satisfied, bad things tend to follow.

Neary-Ludmer: Building a life together in today’s times requires hard work and discipline. It becomes quite the challenge to find time and energy for each other. And that work should really begin before committing to a long-term partnership. Ask yourself if you are being realistic about your relationship and being in love. Are you addicted to, or searching for, those early-on “honeymoon” feelings. Remember that falling in love is generally based on excitement, sexual energy and a desire to become one— to fill our loneliness and secure a future. Ask yourself, “Is this love? Is this really sustainable?”

Goddard: For a marriage to work, couples need to be able to “fight clean.” All too often when conflict arises, a spouse is likely to fight dirty—criticize, blame, shame and name everything the other person ever did wrong. When arguing, try to first “feed back” what you think the other person feels and wants. Change from being defensive— trying to overpower the other person, getting on the witness stand and arguing your point—to listening better, accepting the other person’s viewpoint and admitting imperfections. Let the other person feel they have a right to their emotions and what they want.

Neary-Ludmer: Almost every long-term relationship goes off the tracks at one time or another. If you’ve been doing the work all along, it’s much easier to get things back on track. Some of the guidelines I think are helpful include: • Be comfortable in your relationship…but do not take your spouse for granted. • Voice concerns…don’t build resentments. • Focus on the positives of your spouse…substitute critical thoughts with positive attributes. Remember that nobody is perfect, and the grass always seems greener on the other side. • Try to preserve trust… surviving lies and infidelity is very difficult. • Avoid trying to control…search rather for satisfying solutions that are mutual. • Allow yourself to be vulnerable…wearing emotional armor keeps out hurt, but also keeps out love and connection!  

Editor’s Note: Dr. Rodger Goddard is Chief Psychologist at Trinitas and Director of the hospital’s wellness program, which provides companies, agencies and schools with on-site programs to improve health and productivity. Dr. Patricia Neary-Ludmer is the Director of the Family Resource Center in Cranford, an affiliate of the Trinitas Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry.