Stay off the sex therapist’s couch

Conflict is inevitable. Break up is not.

Photo By David Robert

This time of year—between December holidays and Valentine’s Day—is considered National Break-Up Season. The theory goes that couples tend to get through the often stressful holidays together and then reach the resolution-filled New Years—a time for a life-and-love reassessment. If their love life isn’t particularly lovey, Valentine’s Day—an ominous, bloody red heart for some—is just the kick in the pants reluctant lovers may need to cut their losses. And we are right in the heat of it now.

In 2005, married couples became a minority for the first time, according to the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey. Another first, more women were single (51 percent of the population) than married in 2005. That’s up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans have stopped looking for love or are living without it. Women are also waiting longer to marry, living longer than men (meaning more widows), and both sexes are increasingly choosing cohabitation over marriage.

An American sex survey for ABC News found that most singles are actually monogamous. Among young (under 30) singles who are dating, 8 in 10 are dating one person exclusively. And among adults who’ve had sex in the past year, 86 percent have had only one sex partner during that time.

Married or not, many people are in committed relationships and would like to see them last in a time when it seems the odds are against them.

Our Jan. 25 cover story talked about “Divorce with love.” But what about loving with love?

New York Times best-selling authors and psychologists Dr. John C. Friel and his wife, Linda, have been specializing in intensive couples therapy for more than 25 years. In their book, The 7 Best Things (Happy) Couples Do, the Friels give this advice: (1) Be old enough to date; (2) Be sexual; (3) Be willing to divorce; (4) Know how you chose each other; (5) Let yourself be astonished; (6) Manage your fear, hurt, shame and loneliness; (7) Own your part. And, they add, let disappointment enrich you.

The Reno-based couple has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, ABC News’ 20/20, USA Today and MSNBC’s “Internight.” Recently, John sat down in his cozy Mount Rose Street office with RN&R to give a little free advice. His main message: In order for couples to survive, they have to learn to grow up.

My editor recently wrote a sort of how-to guide to divorce. I thought maybe we could address how to avoid getting to that point. Some suggestions you made in your book were “be willing to divorce” and another was “be old enough to date.”

Well, the old enough to date, my wife and I—she runs women’s groups and I run men’s therapy groups. She had a woman in her group who was on her third marriage and complaining about how hard dating is and how stupid men are. Linda looked at her, smiled kind of thoughtfully, and said, “You know, you can’t get married unless you’re old enough to date.”

I’ve often said that dating is a process of hurting and being hurt, which means you’ve got to be big enough to tolerate having your feelings hurt. And you’ve got to also be big enough to say things that are potentially hurtful, but you do it in a diplomatic way. You can’t live with somebody or be in a committed relationship and not have conflict. So being old enough to date means having enough of your own identity and own sense of self to hold on to who you are without losing yourself in the relationship. It’s also about having enough personal integrity to be able to say what’s really on your mind. …

All couples have the same fight throughout their entire relationship, and it’s the couples that get good at dealing with the fight who are good in the relationship. What that means is it’s the structure of the fight. … The quickest way for a professional to judge what the conflict is, is to ask about the specific aspects of their sex life. The structure of how they view conflict there is going to be identical to how they fight about movies, or raising kids or about anything else.

Could you explain that more?

Sure. A very typical scenario, a couple’s in bed during the middle of foreplay, and then she says, “Ouch.” Now stop. If you were directing a film or writing a script, from that point on, there are a thousand scenarios. If she says, “Ouch,” and he says, “Godammit, I can never do anything right. You criticize me all day long.” He throws the covers back and storms downstairs to sleep on the couch. That is one structure of a fight—she lodges a complaint, and he feels criticized and blows up. In the same scenario, she says, “Ouch,” and he says, “What?” and then, “That hurt. Just move your hand an eighth of an inch to the left, and I’m gonna have a big orgasm.” And he goes, “Oh, OK.” And then that’s what happens. It’s the ability of both people to tolerate the uncertainty of the possibility of hurt in a relationship—to be able to hold on to oneself enough to be able to stay connected to that person when they feel uncomfortable.

Dr. John Gottman, who’s kind of a relationship guru right now at the University of Washington … he calls it the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” for marriage. The four things that destroy a relationship are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and, I call it withdrawal, but he calls it Stonewalling. A couple years ago, he added a fifth, which was Belligerence. He’s also the one that uses the term “emotional flooding.” You can actually measure from people’s emotional reactions whether they had gone past the point where they can control themselves, where they, literally, like a carburetor, are flooded. Once we’re flooded, once you’re seeing red, you’re so angry, so scared, so ashamed that you no longer can really think straight, everything that happens after that will be destructive. So people who can calm themselves down and stay connected—those are the ones that are going to have the best relationship. … Bottom line is people always pair up—always pair up—with a partner who is equally as healthy and equally as dysfunctional as themselves. Always.

Do you mean when it works?

Always. If you’re in a romantic relationship for any length of time, the only universal I can guarantee is that those two people are equally healthy and equally dysfunctional. …

A lot of the couples I work with who are grown up in all kinds of other ways, when they come in, and they’re having problems with their sex life, they’re operating at a junior high level when it comes to their sexuality and romance. They’re operating like an adult at work, but that’s a whole different ballgame. You can have great friendships, all your employees can love you … the only relationship in your life that’s terrible is your marriage. So you’ll say, “So it must be him. It must be my husband. that’s the problem. I just need to get rid of him and get somebody else.” But it’s the third “him” that she’s been with, and it’s still the same problem. So then she realizes it’s not him. It’s that we pair up with partners that are equally healthy and dysfunctional, and we repeat patterns from our childhood until we put it out on the table and alter the template.

Is the solution to know yourself better before you get into a relationship, or is this woman condemned to forever find fault with men?

As long as she blames men in general, she’ll never find a healthy relationship because no grown up man would ever go out with her. My colleague David Schnarch talks about the purpose of conflict, especially sexual conflict, in marriage. He says, “A couple’s sexual repertoire grows through conflict rather than compromise. Sexual conflict in marriage is not just inevitable—it’s important because it makes both people grow up.” …

So all these men that are sitting around saying, “Yeah, yeah, women are just after money, women are just this and that,” what they’re announcing to me and to the world is that they’re never going to have a grown-up relationship until they change that. And when women who say, “All men are cheats. All men are after sex, all men …” when you give that kind of extreme position, no powerful, healthy, competent, emotionally open male will go near her.

In your book, you have a section on nagging, which is something no one likes but nearly everyone does occasionally. You say people do it when they feel powerless. But how can people change that—not nag and yet not feel powerless?

There’s a client in one of my therapy groups, and he’s been married to a chronic smoker, and he’s really worried about her. … I really believe it’s true that somebody who has a full-blown addiction is powerless over that addiction.

In AA, the first step is admitting that you are powerless over alcohol, and you can’t change unless you admit you’re powerless. Once you admit, the paradox is you get your power back. … With somebody you love, who’s potentially dying of smoking or alcohol, it can be really painful to do that—but otherwise, you become addicted to the addict, and you’re just as bad off. In fact, one of the Northwestern Bell telephone companies did a study in the early ‘80s about formulating a notion about codependency and found that among their employees, the ones who were married to or involved with people who are alcoholic missed more days of work, needed more medical expenses. They got sicker than the ones who were alcoholics because of all the worry. That’s when we started talking about codependency being a “disease on its own.”

Interestingly, the “cure,” the way to heal codependency is like that of an addiction—to admit you’re powerless. And you get support from other human beings, and stop trying to get all your emotional needs met in a romantic relationship, which is a real killer. If you want to kill a marriage really fast, try to get all your emotional needs met in one person.

What about on a much different scale of nagging, where people feel, “You’re not being considerate. Pick up your freakin’ towel. You leave it on the floor every day.” That kind of thing?

There are things that I do that really irritate the hell out of [Linda], and some of them she’s let go, and other ones she’s fought until she’s won. You both have to be willing to figure out which ones you’re going to fight to the death and which ones you’re going to let go of. If you let go of all of them, you’ll wind up hating your partner and losing yourself. If you don’t let go of any of them, you’ll kill the relationship. So there’s no clear-cut rule book for how to do that stuff. …

You have to decide first of all if it’s worth it to risk the marriage. That’s why you have to be willing to get divorced to have a good relationship. If there’s nothing that would cause you to put yourself first instead of a marriage, then the marriage isn’t working. In other words, if your husband was breaking all of your teeth with his fist, and you didn’t draw a line in the sand and eventually say, “I love you, but you need to get help, and I’m not going to stay here,” and you move out until you become safe—if you’re not willing to do that, then the marriage isn’t working to begin with. … The only way a woman or man who’s being beaten up is going to stop getting into one relationship after another where they’re just being treated like crap is to grow up.

How does one “grow up"?

Well, that’s part of what therapy is. It’s part of working at taking responsibility for your own part.

Do world events or the time of year seem to affect couple’s relationships?

I think the more stressed people are, the more it pushes on the couples’ ability to deal with problems. If you had two people who are pretty full emotionally, who are pretty grown up, then they’re not going to be as swayed by external stressors as somebody who’s running low on fuel. Couples that aren’t as grown up are going to have a harder time.

But I think couples are under a lot more stress now than they were—both tend to be working, they both get overextended and don’t know how to put a boundary on their time, especially if they have kids. The most common sexual dysfunction marriages have—and it’s true for the last quarter century—is lack of desire. It’s because people are burned out, but that’s only part of it. The deeper meaning is that people are afraid of conflict. In order to have a good sex life and to stay connected to somebody, you’ve got to be willing to engage in conflict.

I was going to use this example when you asked about nagging. We had a wonderful couple where, he grew up in a family where it was all little jabs and barbs, and they’re what we call emotional paper cuts. They hurt, and to live with that constantly, it hurts, and it gets in the way of a relationship.

Like sarcasm?

Yeah. So it’s not really a way to connect. It’s a way to avoid connecting. So after three therapists in probably 10 years, she was at the end of her rope. She’d tried everything … so finally, Linda said to her, “Try this. Next time he says one of those things, just say ‘Ouch.'” And that would work with one person and not with a thousand, but it worked, and he stopped. She got it across to him nonverbally that it was hurting her. …

I had a guy whose wife ambushed him and humiliated him in front of their friends when they were out together. Just constant, personal things, little comments about sexual performance and being a man, really degrading stuff. He talked to her. He was direct. He did all these things, and it didn’t change. It was a habit. So he got up, called a cab, called her on his cell phone, and told her, “I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I’m not going to be mad when you get home. But I’m never going to go to a restaurant with you again if you do this.” So sometimes, there’re ways to draw lines in the sand way, way, way before divorce, that it’ll scare you enough to feel like what you’re doing could end the relationship.

The key is, if people aren’t willing to say, “I love you, and I want to stay in this relationship, but I can’t stand this,” that’s in the healthy range. It’s only raging if you cross into contempt: “You’re always this. You’re always that. You’re disgusting.” To say “I’m really angry at you” is very different from “I hate you to the core.”

How long have you been married?

Twenty-five years. I was married for 8 years before—I got married at the age of 20 to another child of an alcoholic family. … And Linda was married to a child of an alcoholic family. Our kids are grown, and we have five grandchildren.

What do you think are the hardest things you learned about making a relationship work?

There’s always two parts of anxiety always in play. One is the fear of losing yourself. The other is fear of losing the relationship. The more each person can tolerate that anxiety without flooding, the better the relationship.

Linda and I are about as different as night and day, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But it also creates conflict. … So what we’ve learned over the years is how to hold on to our own sense of self and still engage in conflict without crossing the line into cruelty or whatever you want to call it and to really continue to value what the other person brings to the relationship.

I’ll walk by her office, and she’s at her desk sometimes, and I’ll look for a split second, and I have the same reaction I had when I first met her. We haven’t lost any of that. You hear people say, “Well, we have three kids under the age of 10, so we don’t have much of a sex life. You know how that goes.” And I’ll go, “Not really.” It doesn’t go away. It only goes away in marriages where people are afraid to have a relationship.