I know that therapy is progressing well when I hear clients say, “I’ve never thought of it that way before.” Indeed, exploring different perspectives is one of the goals and benefits of therapeutic intervention. When couples come in, each is generally hoping the other will recognize the error of their ways and change. Sometimes, however, therapy catalyzes changes that neither anticipated. Such was the case with Matthew and Shirley.
This couple presented with serious sexual issues. They had known each other since high school, dated through their university years, and married shortly after each had established their careers. This should, they believed, have guaranteed security and happiness. They had added two children, reasonably spaced, and carried a manageable mortgage. They had followed all the rules, yet they were miserable. They had not had sex for months, and their intimacy had dwindled to occasional cuddles on the couch.
Shirley bore the scars of an original family plagued by a parent addicted to alcohol. Matt’s family was less chaotic, but distant nonetheless. The cocoon they built around their nuclear family buffeted the impact of the outside world, but failed to protect them from the boredom that infects relationships not carefully tended. Each wished for an end to their stalemate, but neither knew how to accomplish this goal.
During therapy, the legacy of Shirley’s original family stalled their progress. Unable to trust her own father, she now distrusted the father of her children. She saw the flaw in this, but was unable or unwilling to overcome it. She was intractably resistant to facing her demons and, despite my encouragement for her to attend a few ACoA meetings, she did not want to be “one of those pathetic people”. Matt deflated when Shirley decided she did not want to attend any more counselling sessions either. She decided she just wanted to be left alone; therapy was far too much work for her. She got a prescription for SSRI anti-depressants from her family doctor and retreated into a world bound by her domestic duties. She and Matt became ever more sexually estranged.
After a hiatus of some months, Matthew called for another appointment. He had done an experiment: he did not initiate sex to see how long it would be before Shirley would. Not only did Shirley not approach Matt, she failed even to mention the change. Matt painfully watched his dreams collapse.
Matt came in looking for options. I suggested he must discuss this impasse with his wife and listen carefully to her responses. Shirley admitted that she was quite content living in a celibate marriage and suggested that if Matt wanted sex, he should have it with others. She had some conditions: complete discretion and privacy. She did not want to experience any embarrassment from his affairs nor did she want them to affect her family.
This was not the outcome Matthew wanted, but he had learned over the months of therapy that Shirley did not share his goal of marital intimacy. Though she abdicated her role as sex partner, she did not want to disrupt her family.
Shirley’s disclosure set in motion Matt’s re-assessment of their marriage. He set about to accommodate the choices that would preserve their relationship with as little disruption as possible, but also began putting in place outlets that provided him with social interaction. Because of his unique situation (happily married but non-sexual with his wife) most single women were uninterested in him. He explored polyamory brunches and found folks who understood and honoured his commitment to his family. The last time I saw Matthew, he was happily dating a woman who understood that Matt was not going to leave his wife any more than she would forsake her own intimate network. Without Matthew’s amorous intentions pressuring her, Shirley became happier and more relaxed. Everybody won with this unique and creative solution to a stalemated problem.
Might this couple have resolved their issues differently? Of course! Shirley could have sorted out her own issues and worked together with Matthew to re-ignite their mutual desire. Matthew could have cheated. They may have decided to separate, as most would do under these circumstances. None of these options worked for this couple, however. They absolutely did not want to disrupt their family, and, aside from their sexual incompatibility, got along famously. Bolstered by books and supportive websites addressing alternative household arrangements, Matthew managed to preserve his marriage and family while exercising his freedom to find love and companionship.
Quite often, we just do not know where therapy will lead. So many variables comprise the mix that each situation must be explored individually. The point is that solutions can be found that minimize heartache and disappointment. Matthew and Shirley represent an uncommon resolution, but theirs works for them. Their family now intact and each of them individually happier, who’s to say this was not the best of the possible answers?