Relationship column: Psychological marriage and psychological divorce
June 14, 2013
Dear Neil: I'm married, but I'm not in an intimate relationship, and I'm not happily married, either. We lead almost entirely separate lives and we sleep in separate bedrooms. I am not at all confident that she loves me; she certainly doesn't act like she likes or loves me. We are married in name, but not in spirit. Is there anything I can do to change this problem? We are evangelical Christians and we don't believe in divorce.
— Unhappy in Florida
Dear Unhappy: In every marriage there are actually three separate marriages: The marriage of the church (married in the eyes of God), the marriage of the state (your marriage certificate, which makes it legal in the eyes of the law) and the psychological marriage. For many people, the three marriages are not aligned. Some people psychologically marry way before they actually get legally married, and other people may psychologically divorce even though they remain married in the eyes of the church and the law.
Of the three marriages, you determine which one is the most significant and valuable to you. People who remain married because they think that their marriage has been blessed by God tend to stay together — whether they love each other (and enjoy each other's company) or not. People who stay together because their marriage has been sanctioned by the law are, on the whole, less committed to remain together when the going gets really tough. People who are psychologically married will fight with everything they've got to preserve the relationship and to avoid a divorce. They tend to feel more intense and more passionate toward each other than either of the others.
If all three of these marriages are aligned and connected, you are likely to be a very stable couple. But what happens when they're not aligned? What happens, for instance, when one person acts as if they've psychologically divorced the other, but they in fact remain married, which is what you've described.
So let me state the obvious: If one person psychologically divorces the other, the most important and most vital marriage is essentially over, even if you stay together. That means you might stay bonded in the eyes of God and the law, but your relationship ceases to be close and compelling, and the two of you will grow more distant, less affectionate, less intimate.
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If you are psychologically married, but you're not confident your spouse is, make a serious attempt at addressing what has happened. Ask her what distanced her from you, and what she would need in order to consider coming back to you. Ask her: "Are you getting your needs met in this relationship? If not, what would you like different?" and "What could I do — or stop doing — that would make this relationship considerately better for you than it is now?" You have to be willing to listen to her answers without anger, defensiveness or any retaliatory comebacks. Your goal is to understand what she is feeling and what she would like different, not to defend yourself or justify your actions.
Are her requests things that you might be willing to do? If so, you increase the chances that the two of you will be able to rekindle the relationship. If she has no serious requests of substance or significance, your relationship may have crossed the line where it is unlikely to be resuscitated no matter what you do.
See if you can assist your relationship in warming up, by also doing such things as inviting her out on a date, holding hands, hugging, saying "I love you," leaving her sweet messages and being kind and considerate of her. If none of this works, are you prepared to spend the rest of your life married but psychologically divorced?
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond to individual queries.