Amy and Ross seated themselves as far apart as they could on my office sofa. They were polite and cordial with me, but the tension between them was palpable.
They were a well-dressed, early forties couple. Both looked a bit fatigued and a bit worn out.
During the intake portion of our meeting, Amy described her job situation for me. She worked full time as a medical researcher. She told me how she liked her job, but mentioned that her supervisor, a doctor, was a bit disorganized and not as familiar with what was involved with tracking and processing data.
“I don’t think he appreciates the challenges involved with keeping things orderly – that frustrates me.”
Ross worked as a financial planner and advisor, also full time. He said that he liked his work.
The couple explained that they had two children, a boy, Adrian, age 7; and a girl, Molly, age 3. They described a busy life, always being ‘on the go.’
I asked them what brought them in for marriage counseling.
Ross began. “Well, for one thing I am getting tired of sleeping alone in the den. We barely have time for each other, and when we do, Amy assigns me house projects while she sits at her computer completing work she didn’t get done during the day.”
I asked Ross why he was sleeping in the den.
“Our Adrian won’t stay in his bed and crawls into ours every single night. He has been doing this for years. It disrupts my sleep. It also means no sex has happened for a long time. I finally gave up and moved to the basement two weeks ago, so I could sleep.”
Amy chimed in:
“It’s true, we’ve tried everything to get Adrian to sleep in his own bed. We’ve consulted with both a child psychiatrist and a child psychologist to get some help. They have given us some suggestions, and we are trying out what they said, but Ross is impatient, like he is with everything, and it isn’t working yet. And, to be honest, I haven’t felt much like having sex when we barely say a kind word to each other.”
“Tell me more please. Do you two argue or have conflict?” I asked.
Amy answered first. “Well, we don’t get violent or anything like that, but I feel like Ross criticizes me a lot about things, like needing some extra time to finish my work stuff. He also blames me about Adrian’s sleep problem. I am trying my best with that and everything else about keeping our home going. Sometimes we yell at one another in front of the kids, and I hate that.”
Amy became tearful at this moment and looked away.
“Ross, do you see that Amy is sad right now? What do you think is going on for her? I asked.
“Look, I know the Adrian problem is a big stress, it is for me too. But she’s not the only one who feels criticized. She’s not the only one who has work pressures. She doesn’t have time for me and I’m not so thrilled about that either.”
“It looks like you’re sad Amy, and Ross you seem angry. Is this accurate? Is this what happens at home when you have conflict?”
Ross: “For sure this is what happens. We can’t seem to get past these things and I’m getting tired of it.”
“Amy, your comment?”
“Well I think we’re all tired of the situation. Sometimes I wonder if Ross cares about how I feel.”
Ross responded. “Of course I care about how you feel. I just miss our time together.”
I continued exploring various aspects of the couples’ relationship. Areas like how they divide household and parenting duties; social life with friends and family; how they recreate and have fun; whether they have family outings.
I got the impression that they were a couple divided. Two very busy people who experienced too little sharing and too much disappointment.
At the end of the meeting, I asked the couple if they were receptive to a couple of homework suggestions from me. They agreed.
“Based on what you’ve been so generous to share with me about your couple life, I would like to recommend three homework tasks: the first is based mostly on what John Gottman, the renowned marriage researcher says about successful couples. Loosely paraphrased, he says that couples that ‘know’ each other are generally happier.
Therefore, may I ask that you have what I call a ‘daily de-briefing ritual’ where you find a few minutes, preferably each evening, to check in with one another, talk about your days, say something about how you are feeling, essentially to stay current with each other?
Second, it would be grand if you could carve out time for a couple of dates or couple outings per month. One spouse should plan the first date, then the second spouse plans the second date and so on. Who would be willing to sponsor the first date?”
Ross jumped in and volunteered.
“Thanks Ross. So Amy, you realize you will be up for planning the next one?”
Amy was fine with that.
“My third recommendation is that you sit down with Adrian, and tell him that you two have come to a meeting with a ‘doctor’ or a counselor to talk about Mommy and Daddy arguing and how to fix it. Please tell him that it was a very good meeting, that you are going to go back for a few more times, and that you both are sure that everything is going to be much better.
Can you do that?”
Amy asked, “Are you sure it’s OK to be so open about our marriage problems?”
I replied, “He doesn’t need to know any specifics at all, just that you are doing repair work and that things are going to get better.”
The couple agreed to try the three tasks. I asked them to return in four weeks so they could have the time to get at least two dates in.
In the second meeting, the couple sat much closer together on the sofa. They seemed much lighter together, and had been chatting as they walked into my office.
I asked them how the tasks went.
Ross answered first.
“Well, we haven’t been talking in the evenings as much as you asked, but we are doing it some nights. I like it when it happens. Amy is a bit more available, and I don’t mind her doing office work as much now, as long as we catch up with each other from time to time.”
“Amy, what do you say?”
“Yes, I agree with Ross. We did much better with the dating homework. He took me to a Blues music place, which I really enjoyed. Then I took him bowling, which we haven’t done for years. It was a lot of fun!”
“Did you deliver the message to Adrian?”
Amy replied, “Yes, the evening after we saw you. We both can’t believe it, but three days later, he didn’t even try to come into our bed. He’s been sleeping in his own bed every night since then.”
Ross chimed in, “And I’ve moved back to the bedroom. I think we have our bed back finally.”
“Well done, you two! I am guessing that Adrian can now retire from his job as guardian of the couple. Do you agree?”
Both nodded. “I think we have more to do here, but yes, he can retire now.”