Living

Our marriages

We're still yearning for deeper understanding

Canadian women (and men) continue to march down the aisle, determined they will beat the breakup rate and grow old together. But the odds aren’t inconsiderable: One in three marriages will end in divorce. We asked a Toronto-area family therapist, who deals with foundering relationships in her daily practice, to talk about the pressures of modern-day marriage and the issues women raise when they find that things are not working out the way they’d hoped. She spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

What is the most common complaint women have about their relationships?
As Mars/Venus as this sounds, it’s that they’re feeling their spouse doesn’t understand them. They feel that they signed up for a partnership and they are disillusioned about how things have turned out. Somewhere along the way, the “deal” they thought they were signing up for changed.

At what stage do married women experience the most difficulties?
I see a lot of people within a year after their first child is born. This is a uniquely exhausting and stressful time, and it reveals all the cracks in a relationship. I also see couples in their mid-fifties who are trying to negotiate living with teenagers.

Do most women see a marriage counsellor because they are trying to save their marriage, or because they want to leave it?
If a woman comes in on her own to talk about her marriage, it’s usually because she really feels she’s at the end of her rope and she wants to know if she can or should save the relationship. There’s a real sense of sadness mixed with panic that the marriage may be over. For women, the prospect of coping on their own if there are kids – and hurting those kids – is a major source of anxiety. They want to know, “Is it me? Am I being unreasonable? Should I just stick it out and stay, or is this not going to work out?”

Is infidelity something women struggle with?
A woman will come to see me because she’s having an affair and she’s struggling with leaving her marriage. Or she’s had a string of affairs and she doesn’t know why. These women will ask me, “Have you ever heard of anything so terrible? A woman with two children having an affair?” And I think, “Please. You’re the fourth today.”

Women (and men) have affairs because there is something lacking in their marriage. Either they’re not getting enough attention or perhaps they’re not feeling attracted to their spouses. Their marriage has become all about working, paying the bills and getting the kids to soccer practice, and they feel real boredom or loneliness.

What amazes me is how little these affairs actually have to do with sex. They’re usually contact-driven; they’re emotional and intimacy-driven, but it’s not primarily about sexual intercourse. The people having the affair sit and hold hands and talk for hours but seldom actually sleep together.

Do many married women come to see you because they’re having sexual problems?
Sex is an issue with every couple I see. Every one. They may not bring it up, but sooner or later it’s on the table. The most common thing I see is a big mismatch in the couple’s libidos. Or there has been a complete drop-off in having sex. But women don’t usually identify this as a problem. I’ll say, “So you’re 29 and he’s 31 and the last time you had sex was four months ago, and you’re okay with that?”

Which is more difficult, a first marriage or a second?
A first marriage is usually harder. Women marrying for the second time have learned a lot of lessons, and one of them is that ending a marriage, even a bad one, is a terrible experience. They tend to say to themselves, “I’m not going through that again,” and they choose their next partner more carefully. However, if there are children, second marriages can be very difficult. We have a therapist in our office who specializes in blended families, and she is very busy.

Do children act as a glue in keeping a relationship together? Or are they a strain?
They are the ultimate test to a marriage. You would not believe how many mothers I see who have not been out of the house without their children in years. Many women will stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the kids. But then, a lot of men do, too.

How much do financial difficulties contribute to a couple’s marital discord?
People come to marriage with certain values and attitudes. If there are big differences on anything, whether it’s sex or child-rearing or money, you have the potential for conflict. If he’s tight with cash and she’s extravagant, or the other way around, it will absolutely be an area of concern in the marriage. Like anything, it will require effort and compromise to manage.