Over the past 35 years, I have treated nearly 1,000 couples (married and non-married) of every age group, socioeconomic background, religion and sexual orientation who have entrusted me to help them try to resolve their various problems. In my last article, “Ask Beatty: A Unique Approach to Effective Marriage Counseling,” I described in detail my three-step methodology. To recap, I do an in-depth couples evaluation, frequently lasting several hours, followed by detailed individual evaluations. Only then am I in a position to determine whether the couple is ready to focus on couple’s issues or whether one or both individuals need to first deal with his or her unfinished business or skeletons in the closet.
When the couple is ready to meet together, we will be able to focus on the “we” issues that need to be acknowledged, addressed and resolved — knowing of course, that we can’t change history. First, I ask each person to create an agenda and prioritize the issues that need to be addressed. The couple then begins to tackle the issues one by one as they begin to learn the crucial art of emotional communication and problem-solving.
Couples are taught how to discuss problems and make compromises and trade-offs. They learn that the win/lose model is a disaster for relationships and begin to see the importance of reaching win/win resolutions. I teach them how to say it, if to say it, where to say it, when to say it and how to communicate the most difficult and painful issues in a respectful way. Roleplay is used extensively. This helps the couple practice an art form that few of us have ever learned. I’m very directive and active throughout the entire process and will not tolerate any abusive or disrespectful behavior of any kind. As many of my patients are in the entertainment field, they understand the necessity and importance of doing as many takes as possible, until they get it right!
There have been a small percentage of couples who I have treated who decided to divorce. In making this decision they are now at least aware of what went wrong. Each person is clear about what he/she did or didn’t do that contributed to the problems and subsequent end of their marriage. Most are then able to divorce without the rage and wrath that so frequently comes with the demise of a relationship. Despite the disappointment and pain of ending a marriage, the majority are at peace in knowing that they at least tried to solve their difficulties honestly and with integrity.
Divorcing well is so important, especially when there are children involved. Our children have more than enough adjustments to make when the original family structure changes, including the challenges of coping with the new reality of different and separate houses, frequently different schools, lifestyles and visitation schedules. We should do everything possible to never put them in a position where they also have to deal with two parents who are at war with one another.
CASE STUDY: MEET THE JOHNSONS
The names and some of the details have been changed to protect the confidentiality and anonymity of my patients.
Joe, 45, and Jane, 40, have been married for five years. This is a second marriage for both. The Johnsons were referred to me by Joe’s urologist for marriage counseling because of Joe’s lack of interest in sex. When I spoke to Joe’s doctor in order to rule out any medical problems, he told me that Joe’s testosterone level was normal and that he could find no medical reason for Joe’s lack of sexual desire. The couple had not had sex in over two years and Jane was becoming more and more despondent. Up to this point, Joe would simply not discuss this issue with his wife, claiming that his work as an A-list actor depleted him of all sexual energy.
When I met Joe and Jane for the first time together, Joe acknowledged his lack of desire, but felt that the marriage was a happy one, despite their sexless relationship. Jane, on the other hand, was devastated and was convinced that Joe no longer found her attractive and that he might be having an extramarital affair. When I met with Jane alone, it was was clear to me that her her symptoms of depression were clearly understandable under the circumstances and that other than the sexual issue, Jane seemed like a very happy woman who loved her life and her husband.
MY EYE-OPENING MEETING WITH JOE ALONE
When I met with Joe alone, he expressed concerns about the confidentiality of our individual session. I assured him that I was legally and ethically bound to honor his privacy. He proceeded to tell me that he was gay and that he did not want his wife or his fans to ever know this. Although Joe was not sexually permissive, he did on occasion see a man whom he had known for many years. He also told me that he loved his wife and did not want a divorce.
However, he made it very clear that he had no desire to have a sexual relationship with her. Other than an occasional evening where he would have too many glasses of wine, Joe seemed basically contented with his life and had no desire or need to come out.
It was crucial that I had seen Joe alone. If I had not, I would never have known about his sexual orientation. I would have spent time trying to help the couple improve their sex life. I would have encouraged them to make dates for sex and, if they were comfortable, experiment with sex toys and pornography. This, of course, would have been a complete waste of time, money and energy for everyone. Knowing what I knew, I needed to help Jane accept the fact that her husband loves her dearly, is not having an affair, does not want a divorce, but no longer has any interest in sex. She would then have to decide whether she would continue to live in a sexless marriage.
THE JOHNSONS TOGETHER FOR THE LAST TIME
Joe, Jane and I met together for one session after the initial joint visit. Joe was kind but firm. He told her that he loved her, found her very attractive physically and intellectually and hoped to spend the rest of his life with her. He also told her that the problem was his and that he would understand if she wanted a divorce.
I never heard from Jane or Joe again. A few years later I bumped into Jane at an event. She whispered in my ear that she had divorced Joe and was engaged to a wonderful man. She smiled broadly as she confided, “And by the way, our sex life is great!”
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, columnist, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of The Ask Beatty Show on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in New York City and East Hampton.