Advice for Couples
Alum therapist offers help for strained marriages| From Alumni Books | By Susan Seligson
A couples therapist for 20 years, Peter Fraenkel (CAS’80) believes many potentially good marriages are strained by differences in what he calls life pace. Often, those differences are what attracted partners to each other in the first place—“you liked his fast pace and high energy; he loved your laid-back side.” But, Fraenkel writes in his book Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track (Palgrave Macmillan), when these misplaced timelines begin to take their toll, couples can resolve the resulting conflicts by practicing the four steps of his Relationships Rhythms Analysis: reveal your couple rhythms; revalue the rhythms that work; revise the rhythms that don’t; and rehearse new ones.
The guide’s 238 dense pages are laced throughout with literary and scholarly references, including the wisdom of the ancient Greeks. The book makes Fraenkel’s case for getting out-of-sync partnerships back on track with self-tests, charts, an abundance of anecdotes, “stresses and solutions,” relationship theory, and meditations on the nature and meaning of time and the sense that it is in increasingly short supply.
Fraenkel’s guide is laced with literary and scholarly references, including the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.
He goes after this and other myths, including the notion that “quality time” often means more time: “As long as you are focused and attentive,” he writes, “it doesn’t matter how small the segments of time you have for each other.” And he urges struggling couples instead of harboring resentment, to clarify their time priorities, cultivate “deep listening,” learn to balance work and relationships, and “create a regular rhythm of sexual and emotional intimacy.”
There’s a lot to digest in Fraenkel’s packed prescription. But if it strays from the pat how-to formula, it offers far broader context and is more thought-provoking than the usual save-your-marriage tomes. With our busy lives, we can all manage our time better and with a heightened sensitivity to loved ones, steps that are bound to improve all our relationships, endangered or not.
You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask couples therapist Peter Fraenkel about marriage. Here are some of those questions, along with Fraenkel’s responses. Learn more in his book, Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track.
QYour book makes all the sense in the world. Almost 30 years married, my husband and I are out of sync. I say it began 10 or 12 years ago, and he says 2 years. Neither of us is depressed. However, it feels as if our marriage is depressed. It has eroded and changed. I admit I feel detached from the marriage. Your exercises and protocols feel like too much work to do ourselves. There’s a fatigue I feel, a kind of “why bother.” We have trouble conversing about such things; although we continually restart the conversation, we don’t make it past square one. I’ve thought about leaving, on occasion, over the past 20 years, but rationalized staying. I waited out the bad years. Also, leaving felt like simply too much work! I really can’t conceive of a life without him in it. That said, at times I can’t bear the stress and despair, the lack of lightness and laughter, and my wanting to love something intensely. We used to be close. We structured our jobs for maximum time together. Lots of travel, no kids, both self-employed and semiretired, we spent most of each day together (until the last couple of years). The last two years have been hellish. There’s an ongoing struggle to quell feelings I developed for another. I see a therapist to deal with these feelings. We could have benefited from therapy over the decades, but he has always been against it. I do plan to have us read together your concept of PREP. These pages describe our situation perfectly. And I think I’ll have to insist on therapy as a condition for staying. Does this sound extreme? Do you have a referral in the Boston or Providence area? — M.A.W.
A The sense of one’s marriage being “depressed” (and I assume by that you mean without energy, lacking in pleasure and new initiatives, sad, lonely) can be the wake-up bell to start investing more and new energy into it. Check out Chapter 9 in my book, especially the section titled “Play Regularly.” In that chapter, I describe the need for regular couple pleasure time. For many couples, the daily routines of work and home management, without time for fun and pleasure, can grind down the sense of enjoyable, lively connection. It sounds like for many years, you and your husband traveled and did other pleasurable activities, but that in the last few years you may have stopped doing these sorts of important relationship-reinvigorating pursuits. Also, sometimes couples get into ruts regarding their activities—they do the same things all the time and that gets boring, whether it’s cooking, watching films, traveling, or bungee-cord jumping. The inherent “excitement quotient” of the activity may be high, but if it’s too familiar, it may not bring new energy to your relationship.
Research shows it’s important to engage both in familiar, reliable sources of mutual pleasure (what leisure researchers term “core” activities), as well as novel pursuits (what researchers call “balance” activities) that challenge you as a couple and that provide fresh, innovative opportunities to connect. However, from your description of your marriage, it seems there may also be some unspoken hurts and frustrations that need to be discussed, and that are blocking your ability to enjoy one another. Often, fantasies of being with someone else are a signal of feeling blocked and lonely in your connection to your spouse. I recommend the communication and problem-solving skills covered in Chapters 1 and 9. These can help couples safely and productively air, and often resolve, long-unspoken feelings around closeness, power, respect, trust, and commitment, and other issues. If you feel you need professional assistance, please contact me directly, and I can provide referrals to colleagues in the Boston and Providence areas.
Q How does a couple cope if one has Asperger’s, which may be accompanied by other issues such as anxiety? This means one person may not be able to keep his or her word to the other or fulfill normal expectations. If talking doesn’t work with these people, what is the alternative? They may know and agree to what is expected of them but can’t fulfill the expectations. — L.
A I would highly recommend seeking professional help from a couples therapist to work on creating a more satisfying and trustworthy relationship. I would not presume to be able to offer you all the advice and guidance you need without working directly with you and your partner. The communication and problem-solving skills I describe in Chapters 1 and 9 of my book may be helpful in creating more open communication and in coming to firmer mutual commitments about how you live your lives together. But do consider seeing a trained couples therapist to work out the details.
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