Climbing Mt. Everest

You know, I have been a therapist for many years (sometimes longer than I care to remember!). But it never ceases to amaze me. Let me give you two examples of patients I have seen recently.

Judy and John met ten years ago, were in their mid-20s, and they soon hit it off after being introduced by a mutual friend. They started dating and within a few weeks their relationship blossomed into the physical expressions of affection. Both were extremely content and happy and they thought they had found the person with whom they wanted to spend the rest of their lives. Within six months they agreed to move in together and their pleasant association continued unabated. Within two years they had become a married couple with the approval of both their families. About a year later they decided to start a family and Judy became pregnant very promptly (on second try). In the period leading up to the pregnancy, they have noticed that, while they remained friendly, sexual interest in each other started to diminish. They enjoyed spending time together and they had some joint interests but the physical aspect of the relationship was nowhere near as vibrant and energetic as it was in the first twelve months of their relationship.

With the arrival of their first baby, their sex life took an even steeper turn downhill. They were very pleased with being parents. Blessed with a healthy young son, they became doting mommy and daddy. More and more of their affectional needs got pushed into the background but neither of them paid too much attention to it because they felt that this is just how things were meant to be. Occasional flair-ups of some sexual frustration, especially on John’s part, occurred, but they tended not to talk, or deal with it in a meaningful way. About two years later they had their second child which wasn’t entirely planned. However, neither were unhappy about this turn of events. As you can imagine their sexual life took an even steeper turn downhill after the family’s newest arrival. This state of affairs continued for some six years and no improvement in sex life occurred, nor did they attempt to seek any professional assistance.

About one year ago, Judy began to urge John to start considering doing something about his ‘premature ejaculation’. John had been concerned that his ejaculation was too fast for the past four or five years but again thought since no one complained about it, it was not a major issue. By the time I saw this couple they confided that not only was their desire low, and John probably had premature ejaculation, which left Judy very frustrated, but on top of everything else, Judy hardly ever had an orgasm, certainly not in intercourse. History also revealed that Judy had considerable sexual experience prior to meeting John, yet she generally underplayed the importance of her having an orgasmic release experience. She generally saw men as pushing and wanting sex rapidly anytime, almost anywhere. She just accepted this is how men were. On meeting John she was taken by his more gentle, easy-going manner and by the fact that he made no demands on her sexually. “He seemed like a gentleman,” she said. When asked if they feared the marriage was in danger, both answered “yes.”

Sarah and Sam, another couple recently seen, had been married some seven years. They came from different cultural and religious backgrounds with Sam being Caucasian, and Sarah from Asian background. On meeting, both of them were quite taken with each other and found a common language and soon felt ‘in love’. Even though Sarah’s willingness to be open to sexual interaction was considerably less than what Sam had been used to from previous girlfriends, he hoped that with time this situation might improve, and both of them pursued the idea of getting married. Their life together was not without frustration because while they got along reasonably well, with time, cultural differences quite frequently made themselves apparent in what they each expected from the relationship and from what the other partner should provide and deliver to make it work. However, this did not stop this couple from having a child, and they both rejoiced in the arrival of a healthy baby boy. Sarah became totally absorbed with taking care of the little baby to the point where she stopped work and devoted her full-time attention, 24/7, to being a mother. And she was and is very good at it. Sam appreciates this quality in Sarah but felt further and further their relationship as lovers slipping into the distance. Their arguments tended to increase as Sarah experienced more and more fatigue taking care of a newborn infant that is naturally accompanied by severe bouts of sleepiness or sleep deprivation even, and being confined to one’s home for much of the time. Eventually, Sarah rejected any interest in being physically involved with Sam. Sam’s resentment grew and he started to turn more and more inwards into solitary activities with television watching or playing on his computer. This of course distanced the couple even further and by the time I saw them this marriage also was in serious difficulty. Both of them felt estranged from each other, and coolness and indeed anger started to darken most of their interaction.

What is evident in the stories of these two couples and what became clear to them as we discussed their initial interview after intensive history taking was that neither couple was realistically prepared for what it entails to be a new parent, but also what is involved in making a marriage work. This is not surprising.

The sad reality is that most people have next to no preparation or training for coping with the reality of a close, ongoing living together relationship or marriage. When people become parents a whole new set of responses and expectations can enormously change the dynamics of the couple’s relationship, even for a couple who were functioning well together before. It is a sad commentary that for such an important task there is so little preparation available in our society.

(Sam and Sarah did attend a pre-marital course through their church, which they found quite redundant and not really addressing their needs.)

As I like to put it when you get together with a person in marriage, you’re agreeing in a sense to climb Mt. Everest together. Clearly, such a task takes preparation starting with a realistic assessment of your abilities and an immense commitment to support each other not matter what. Not to know what to expect, or perhaps worse, having unrealistic expectations, is like going through a forest without a compass, or travelling in unfamiliar country without a roadmap.

The most important step that can be taken to prepare for such an endeavour is to learn how to listen carefully and how to communicate accurately what you’re feeling. This is not as easy as it sounds. You need to learn to listen, as I sayk with the third ear, which means listening between the lines. Constantly asking yourself, “what is my partner feeling?” You need to pay attention also to the so-called meta-communication, that is, the tone of voice, rhythm of speech, choice of words, etc. These often reveal far more about your partner’s intentions than actual words spoken. This again is not an easy task, but the good news is that the skills needed can be learned.

The same applies to parenting. Here is an enormous responsibility for which most of us have had almost no training. Indeed, most people end up parenting their children either the way they were parented themselves, which frequently had left something to be desired, unfortunately. Or they end up parenting their children the exact opposite way, trying to avoid the same mistakes their parents made with them. Neither of these approaches is necessarily the best. There are other options but we need to recognize that it takes some education or training.

In conclusion, one needs to accept the fact that most of us are illiterate when it comes to keeping a relationship’s spark alive. And most of us can use some help in becoming better at parenting. Once again, help is available, either in the form of self-help books, provided they are recommended by respected reviewers, or from professional educators or therapists who again have established reputations in your community. Taking care of these matters is probably the best preventive step any person can do in preparation for probably life’s most glorious achievement: a satisfying marriage, and contented parenthood.

– Dr. Frank G. Sommers