Married Couples Don’t Drift Apart…They Drift Together—That’s the Problem.
By Jerry Wise, MA, MS, CLC
I often talk with couples who come for help. All too often they express this idea—“it feels like we have just drifted apart.” They complain they don’t do things together anymore, they don’t talk anymore, and they have little in common. They argue and are easily irritated by their spouse. They remember when they felt close and ‘in love’. They discuss how they used to talk all the time and even listen to each other! Now much of what they feel is disappointment, hurt, and distance. They feel powerless, because they have no idea how to get what they used to have back in their marriage. The theme of the session revolves around this issue: How do we experience “closeness” again?
The bad news is--they have come to feel this way. The good news is—they think how they feel and what they think IS the
way their relationship IS. The good news is--it isn’t!
The trouble with married couples and committed relationships is NOT that they drift APART; it is they drift too close TOGETHER—it only feels like they are apart or distant. Family systems wisdom states over-closeness is experienced in two ways, enmeshment and distance. Both are the result of over-closeness.
Let me explain. John and Sherry came to my office seeking help with their marriage. They sat turned away from each other. One sat on the love seat one sat in the chair. They seemed to avoid touching each other as though it would hurt if they did. They told a story of being married for 14 years and now things were painfully different. They seemed sad and worn out and voiced concerns they had become “roommates with kids.” They had forgotten what it was like to be close and intimate with each other. John had given up asking for sex and physical intimacy. Sherry had given up feeling valued and
special to John. They each complained, “We have just drifted apart.” I must admit on the surface it does seem like their life is plagued by distance between them.
John & Sherry: The Angry/Needy Couple
In fact John and Sherry are not experiencing a relationship with too much distance, but one with too much closeness. Over-closeness is typically what couples experience after the early period of the honey moon stage is over, especially after kids arrive. After the honey moon years and after the shine of a new relationship has worn off, our deep unmet childhood needs and unresolved family-of-origin issues start to cause disappointments, hurts, grudges, frustration, and anger in our relationships. These unresolved issues push us further and further together as a couple creating an over-close relationship. We become so enmeshed we become highly sensitive to almost everything in our spouse. We also find we have a difficult time forgiving and letting go of events and
patterns of behavior of our spouse. We are trying to resolve these issues unconsciously through our marriage. We have globed onto our spouse in hopes that they will treat us in ways which will not ignite these sleeping issues and we want/need our spouse to fulfill our intimacy needs, so we keep pressing with this unseen over-closeness to achieve these goals only to find ourselves left out in the cold and feeling distant from the person we should be the closest too.
This highly charged enmeshment (over-closeness) created over the years by unresolved needs, unresolved emotional triangles within our family of origin, unresolved expectations, and unresolved events which have happened between us and our spouse. All of this results from an over closeness in which we were set up for long ago. Our over closeness is like a ticking time bomb that begins to explode when the newness is gone from our relationship. We learned this years ago, but suffer the results now in our marriage.
Again, this over closeness is felt as distance, but in reality is based on enmeshment. Our dreams of an oceanic ‘oneness’ in our relationship we now see will not be fulfilled. So what are we left with? An over closeness with all of the pain, and no way to maneuver to enliven our marriage because we have no working room to do it.
It is difficult to get more closeness out of enmeshment. But couples try and try and try. They try spending more time together (not a bad idea on the surface), they feel a little better getting to spend time with their spouse without the kids and try to rekindle the “old love” they once had. But if they spend more than 15-30 minutes together they begin to realize it is very difficult to relate well or lovingly without getting into their over closeness issues. So what are these over closeness issues? What do they look like? Here are some examples. John has tons of unresolved anger with his father and when his son act like his father he gets very reactive putting lots of stress and pressure in the marriage. He want his
wife to control their ADD son so he does not have to deal with this unresolved anger that wells up when he feels disrespected by his son or wife. John resents his wife for having more free time than he has, since he is a workaholic and works too late and does not know how to put boundaries on his job. He feels the house should be spotless and his wife ready for sex and meeting his needs when he gets home. She “fails” often; this creates lots of tension within their relationship.
Sherry grew up in a home where she experienced a father who was cold, critical, angry, and always expressed disappointment in her. She has always craved for acceptance and affirmation and now since the newness has worn off her marriage, she is still waiting for this to happen. Now she expects that to come from her husband, John. They fight about expectations often and argue about parenting issues and have lost much of their sense of self in the relationship. Both are stuck in expectations that the marriage
will “resolve” these unresolved issues. Their issues have pushed them so close together they can no longer even see the person they are married to. Often we devolve into simply being a whipping boy/girl for the unresolved issues of our spouse and visa versa. Then we say, “We have just become so distant.” No. No. It is not that we are distant we have become over-close—it just feels like distance.
Mark and Melissa:
The Over-functioning/Under-functioning Couple