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A couple’s therapist on what works — and what doesn’t — in a committed relationship

From the A Valentines Day deployment; Horrible Tattoos; Dating while asexual: Stories of love and romance from the mouths of Frederick residents series
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Dr. Robert Mannis, a clinical psychologist in Frederick, shared his thoughts on what it takes to repair a relationship, and when it’s time to let go.

I’ve done well over 50,000 clinical hours in my professional career. And in my experience, there are three essential pieces of incompatibility in any given relationship. There’s the sexual, the financial, and child-rearing practices. If you think about it, those are the three essential interactions that a couple has in their relationship. I wouldn’t say those are the exclusive reasons any given couple comes in to see me, but the vast majority of the time, it is one or a combination of the three.

Whether or not a couple can make it has a lot to do with the effective means of communication that they can establish. That means a respect for the other person’s truth. As opposed to trying to convince their partner of their truth. See, I flip it. You may not agree with it, but if you respect your partner, you should respect that they are offering you their truth. Just as your truth is what you are offering them. You see, I can’t change either of you. What I have to do is teach you how to listen respectfully to what the other person is saying. And to make the changes yourselves, apropos of what the other person is asking for.

Dick and Robin Brown, 62 and 57, of Frederick, are miraculously married more than 30 years after Dick stood Robin up — on Valentine’s Day — for a woman who would later become his first wife. 

Of course, that’s reciprocal. It’s not a one-way street. In other words, both people get to talk about their truth. Both people get to listen in a way that will facilitate change on their part. Often people want to come in and elicit my support to change the other partner. I don’t buy into that. I won’t do that. There’s no right and no wrong, as far as partnership goes.

One great step forward is realizing that you cannot change your partner. Another great step is realizing that you have a responsibility to change. Whether you want to change or not is another question, but you have that responsibility according to what you’ve learned from your partner about their truth. It warms the cockles of my heart when I hear one partner say to the other, ‘I understand and I respect that this is your truth. However, it is not mine.’ Because right there, you have the respect for the other person and a peace with their point of view, even though it doesn’t correspond with yours. That’s the point I want to help people get to.

Sometimes, you do see couples who are totally unable to reach that point. For instance, when someone is unaware of their projected bias as to the other person. ‘I know you’re stealing money,’ despite the fact that they’ve seen all the financial records. ‘I know you’re having an affair,’ even if there’s absolutely no proof. It’s that kind of stuff where there’s no getting around it. The fancy word is ‘parataxic distortion.’ You can’t reason with it. You can’t argue with it. It can stem from any number of things. Insecurity, past relationship history, drugs and alcohol. Sometimes they have a good reason for thinking that. Maybe there’s a history of it, but it isn’t the case now.

One of the things I do when a couple comes in is ask, ‘Are you committed to the restoration of your marriage?’ I’ll work with ‘sort of,’’’kind of,’ and ‘absolutely.’ But if you are involved with somebody else, or if you are anything less than transparent, I don’t want to work with you. I just say, ‘Look, if you’re having an affair or you’re hiding money, or you’re doing untoward stuff to your children, we don’t have enough to work with.’ If we can’t have total transparency, right from the start, I don’t want to work with you.

I used to think a marriage, or a relationship, was planted on four legs of a chair. The four legs are love, sex, trust, and respect. You take one of those away, and you’ve got a rickety chair. You take two of those away, and you’re working overtime to stay upright. You take three away and you might as well take the fourth, too. But I’ve changed my opinion. I’ve found that if you take respect away, none of those other ingredients matter.

It took me a long time — 20 years — to finally come to understand that the most important leg is respect. You can’t repair a relationship if both partners don’t respect each other. If trust is lacking — well, we can work on that. If a sense of love is lacking, we can work on that. If your sex has become old and stale and unfun, we can work on that. But I don’t think I can install or facilitate the installation of respect if it has been lost. And you can feel it. There is an inherent disdain. There is an inherent indifference. There is an inherent dystonia. That means a lack of congruence between the two people.

As for Valentine’s Day — it’s important in the sense that it offers a return to the renewal of that starting point where the relationship began and built from. I think if you embrace Valentine’s Day, there are two aspects to it that I would offer. One is summon a humility for the gratitude that you are in a relationship, presumably, with somebody who loves you. Be grateful. The other is to take an evening off. Go do something you enjoy. Spend time with each other without the interruption of the media or the kids or anything else, and see if you can’t establish a touchstone for love and correspondence.

Kate Masters is the features and food reporter for The Frederick News-Post. She can be reached at kmasters@newspost.com.

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