Strengthening a Marriage

By Ernest Kovacs, MD

Marital therapy can best be understood as the attempt by a therapist to join together with a couple in a joint project to change certain patterns in the couple’s relationship. This is no easy task and requires the desire and commitment to change on the part of all participants. However, we must begin with an effort to define just what it is that makes for a good marriage. Tolstoy said that all happy marriages are happy in the same way, but that each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own particular way. What this has meant to me is that there is a fairly simple formula for a happy marriage but that unhappy marriages are fraught with complicated personal and interpersonal problems. For the marital therapist, it is essential to identify those aspects of a marriage that deviate from the underlying basics of the good marriage.

Identifying the elements of a good marriage is no easy feat. As we all know, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and a particular individual can only define happiness, for herself or himself. No one can ever define happiness for another individual. This reminds me of the joke about two psychiatrists meeting on the street, greeting one another with “So how am I today?”. It’s a joke!! No one can tell you how you are. Only you know how you are doing in life. Nonetheless, there are some basic ideas we have about good relationships from many years of clinical experience and observation.

The most essential feature of the good marriage has to do with disappointment and failure. You may ask how can this be true? Happy marriages are supposed to be happy! Yes, this is true, BUT, we all know that into every life a little rain must fall, we all must deal with disappointment and failure at various times in our lives. Even if we are living happy lives, we must be prepared for the inevitable challenges and stresses we meet along the way, and have the ability to cope with the problems as they occur. The most important characteristic of the good marriage is the desire, and the ability, to establish a strong affectionate bond to your partner and then to be able to repair that bond whenever the inevitable disruptions to that bond occur. No marriage exists without its ups and downs. It is the ability to recover from the downs, to meet the challenge, and go on in harmony, re-established in the partnership of affectionate bonding that brought the two of you together in the first place, which makes a good marriage.

This ability is no simple matter. It takes a solid sense of oneself, the capacity to put yourself in your partner’s shoes to really understand her or him, the willingness to share the power in the relationship and the commitment to communicate clearly and freely, and considerately with each other. These skills develop from the respect we have for the other person’s point of view, their perspective and their needs. We need to have a real appreciation for the differences between our partners and ourselves. This kind of respect leads to an increased sense of closeness, acceptance and empowerment. When this situation exists we have a good marriage made of two people with a deep commitment to themselves as strong individuals and a deep commitment to each other. Such people have the security within themselves, and the security in knowing that their partner values their perspective, to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

In marital therapy, the therapist will spend the initial meetings getting to know each of the partners thoroughly, including many details of how they view themselves and each other, as well as many facts relating to the families they grew up in. Many of us learn about relationships and patterns of marriage from our parents. We learn from how they related to us as individuals and from how they related to each other in their own marriages. As it turns out, both of these sources of “knowledge” have strong long-term effects on how we establish and live out our own adult relationships.

In working with a couple, the therapist tries to sort out the patterns from their past which are interfering with the healthy development of a close and meaningful relationship between the partners. Sometimes this can be a fairly simple educational process, but at other times it involves a difficult coming to terms with long-held beliefs that have proven to be ineffective and at times destructive. In this process each partner gets to learn a good deal more about themselves and each other. If handled properly and considerately, each person can learn to be more understanding and caring.

There are many factors that go into the making of an unhappy marriage, including the occurrence of a serious mental illness in one or both of the partners. In these situations, it is most important to treat the underlying mental illness as well, in order to keep the focus on the interpersonal issues that may even be aggravating or contributing to the mental illness. As you can imagine, these situations can become very complex and require the patience and willingness on everyone’s part to carefully examine all factors and develop plans for constructive change.

In the end, each partner needs to define themselves and their relationship for themselves. With this knowledge they can communicate openly and considerately with their partner in an effort to find a common ground for the relationship. If they are successful in this regard they will have succeeded in overcoming a difficult crisis in their relationship, and be stronger for it.

Dr. Kovacs completed his residency training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a Fellowship in Family Therapy and Social Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is in private practice of psychiatry with a concentrated interest in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Marital Therapy and Psychopharmacology. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Clinical Supervisor and teaches at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Division. He is Program Director of the Family Studies Unit at Bronx State Hospital Campus of Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Clinical Director, Central Islip State Hospital Campus, Stony Brook University College of Medicine. An APA Fellow, Dr. Kovacs was a member of the Board of Directors of the former Nassau Psychiatric Society, and is currently a member of the Greater Long Island Psychiatric Society’s Board of Directors. He serves on the Committee for Early Intervention for Unwed Mothers for Nassau County.

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