Maclean's Interview: Mark O'Connell

Kate Fillion talks to therapist/author Mark O'Connell about 'marriage benefits,' fighting, and why not to rekindle passion

Q: You’re a marriage therapist and a clinical instructor at Harvard, so you must have a good idea how many people are actually happily married.

A: Statistically, about half of all marriages are going to end in divorce. Of the half that remain, very few are actually happy, lively and satisfying. Couples all too often achieve a state of safe complacency where there’s a great deal of distance and stagnation.

Q: Your book is called The Marriage Benefit. If we’re all miserable, what is the benefit?

A: We grow and change and find meaning, not in a world of infinite possibility — and this relates to the whole matter of monogamy — we find meaning because there are limitations. If we actually had unlimited possibility and control, nothing would ever mean anything. Some of us, as we go through life and endure hardships, close off; we have short-term ways of managing that are designed to make us feel better but not to grow. Other people are willing to feel some of the discomfort from their mistakes, and that’s the bedrock of what it takes to grow. If we’re open and honest with ourselves, and are willing to take risks and think a little more about who we are than who they should be, sustained intimacy can be an incredible crucible for growth. Ultimately, marriage can be a forum for learning through a kind of creative constraint, an exploration of your own self in no small part because of the kinds of choices you have to make to stay together.

Q: What’s so rewarding 25 years into a marriage?

A: I don’t know that memories and experiences mean as much if they’re not shared. Beyond that, some of the rewards have to do with the fact that your spouse mirrors for you, in a very realistic way, where you are in your life. It’s a very common thing that [married] men look for younger women, and to generalize, the simplest thing men are doing is trading in mirrors. By trading in that mirror, you get to fool yourself.

Q: What’s the downside? That sounds pretty appealing.

A: Ultimately, happiness grows not from trying directly to be happy, but from trying to live your life really well, and then happiness comes as a by-product. Based on my experience, solutions designed to secure a certain degree of happiness by way of a trade-in or a quick fix don’t have the same kind of staying power as the satisfaction and happiness that comes from living well and more honestly. I know men who’ve left their wives for younger women, and five years down the road — often, not always — they feel very empty and alone.

Q: It’s culturally permissible for women to complain about their husbands. Do men sit around moaning about their wives?

A: The characteristic framework women use to carp about their husbands tends to be, a) why don’t you grow up? And b) why aren’t you more emotionally available? My experience is that men bitch and moan too, but about different things. For example, after children come into a marriage, men whine about the emotional and sexual distance of their wives, about women not putting them first, the way they used to. I think men feel the emotional absence of women much more than is generally acknowledged. One thing that bugs me about this idea that men are basically emotional Neanderthals who need to be retrained is that guys can hide behind it: “Look, that’s just who I am, I’m not emotional, so, whatever. I’ll just turn on the TV rather than talk.”

Q: Why do couples usually seek therapy?

A: They want or need something they’re not getting, and both men and women feel that. Quite often, what they’re not getting results from this almost inevitable odd piece of coded software of long-term attachment: part of attraction involves finding people with whom you’re going to be related in places that are the most vulnerable and difficult for you. Early on, that’s part of what feels so good. But as time goes by, perhaps you’ve found someone you thought was really solid and they turn out to be stodgy, or you found somebody you thought was full of life, and they turn out to be flighty. You find your way to the places that have embedded difficulties you don’t see in the beginning. And by and large, rather than try to find a way to talk about them and put one’s own vulnerabilities on the table, people do what they do naturally in the face of their own pain: they find ways to close off, either withdrawing, or caricaturing their partners by devaluing or idealizing them. So over time, a sense of distance, stagnation and loneliness evolves. That private pain people walk around with, how lonely they feel in a marriage, more than anything is what brings people into my office.

Q: Don’t you think quite a few marriages simply aren’t worth saving, the people are fundamentally incompatible?

Q: Is that one reason that people who leave a marriage often find a very similar partner to the one they just left?

A: Yes. By and large, people make the decision to leave too easily. More often than not, why they want to leave has less to do with what they think the reasons are — how they’re disappointed in the other person — and more to do with the way the relationship causes them to be in touch with parts of themselves they’re not able or willing to deal with. If you leave to get away from something you haven’t dealt with, you may find it again because you haven’t looked at the underlying causes you were struggling with in the first place.

Q: You suggest that people need to ask themselves, “Why stay married?” But don’t we already do that?

A: I think most people ask that question in a more rhetorical sense, like, “What the hell? Should I or shouldn’t I? What’s the point, anyway?” rather than asking in a really open-minded way, “Why am I making this choice?” There’s no doubt that it’s conventional and safe to remain married, but you need to ask, “What is it about you that I want to be married to? What is it about me that you want to be married to?” I’m talking about the degree to which you are willing to know somebody else for who they are and not expect them to be different, willing to wrestle with the way we see everybody through our own lens, so all of our relatedness is organized around an assumption about how they should be.

Q: Can you single-handedly improve your marriage?

A: Say your husband is not so great about talking about himself in an open and honest way. You could go after him all the time, which works to a point but isn’t that powerful. But another thing you could do would be to say, “Look, I don’t really want this, but you have to understand that if you can’t find a way to have these kinds of conversations with me, this isn’t a threat, it’s just a fact: I’m not going to give up that need, and I’m going to find this elsewhere. I’m not talking about an affair, necessarily, maybe just that I’ll look more to my friends.”

Q: I think many men would greet that announcement with relief.

A: If the bedrock truth is that a man really isn’t that interested in having an emotional connection with the woman he’s married to, that’s problematic. I think it’s, if not a deal-breaker in terms of divorce, a deal-breaker in terms of having anything intimate. But in my experience, often the positions men take are not as absolute as they’re made out to be. They’re either interactive — there’s anger, hostility or something else going on under the surface that leads to being closed off — or there’s a way that men need more and don’t know it, or want more and don’t know how to go about getting it.

Q: Can couples actually do all this without a referee, which is what a marriage counsellor really is?

A: I don’t want to convey the notion that people have to be in therapy to make any progress. But there is something incredibly powerful about having a third person in the room. I’ve often thought I could put a blow-up doll of myself in a chair and it would change to some degree the conversation a couple has, simply by virtue of the fact that they’re aware of another person, and that draws them out of some of the deeper places where these conversations tend to get entrenched. One of the problems in marriages is that there’s something inherently regressive about all purely dyadic relationships — I actually think this is a problem with [one-on-one] therapy, too. When you’re intimate with somebody over a long period of time, you tend to move away from some of the more adult, reasonable parts of yourself, into deeper, sometimes more childlike, sometimes more injured parts, and the interactions tend to become [based] more exclusively in those places. A third person causes you to think, “Okay wait, how is this sounding? How am I being?”

Q: But is that second-guessing as authentic as the screaming at each other like banshees that goes on in a fair number of marriages?

A: The fact that something is more raw doesn’t mean it’s more real. A lot of the screaming is a result of the frustration that comes from feeling hurt, or injured, or misunderstood, but it’s not necessarily a direct reflection of those deeper parts of each person that are interacting with each other. For example, if a man is screaming at his spouse about being misunderstood, the screaming is a result of frustration; the deeper, more vulnerable part of himself is lonely, and wanting to be known, and screaming is not a very effective way to talk about that. We tend to think of problems between people as bad things — and sometimes they are, irresolvable problems are difficult to contend with — but often, repeating problems reflect ways in which each person’s old script has come together with their partner’s. These interactive problems are little portals into who we are. If we look at them as opportunities to learn more about ourselves, it’s a way to think about the risks we can take to make marriages more worthwhile.

Q: You advise not trying to rekindle the passion felt early on in the relationship. Why?

A: The first problem is that a conscious effort simply won’t work. It’s like a corner-of-the-eye phenomenon: we react more quickly to something in our peripheral vision than to something in our direct vision. I think when you’re trying to recapture something in the past, it’s like when you actively try to remember a dream. You can’t do it. But all of a sudden, you’re going through your day, something happens and it reminds you of the dream, and it comes back. That’s how your brain clicks into those old places. The second problem is that trying to rekindle passion involves a misunderstanding of what’s really valuable and enduring about love and attachment. In those early 18 months of a relationship, lots of interesting studies show that the parts of the brain associated with addiction and obsessive/compulsive disorder light up in scans, the pleasure centres of the brain are infused with neurotransmitters. That early state of passion and addiction to feeling so good is completely in keeping with what our culture says we should have: we should feel great all the time! So we think romantic passion is paradigmatic of what it means to really love somebody.

Q: But it’s biologically programmed to change?

A: Yes. If you look at people’s brains a little downstream from those early days, there’s still a lot going on, just in different centres, the ones that have to do more with attachment and enduring memory. [These later phases] can be incredibly valuable, creative and gratifying, but we don’t tend to think of them as extensions of what it means to love somebody. Instead, we think of them as necessary compromises we have to put up with after the passion wears off.

Q: How big a problem is sex for the couples who come see you?

A: It’s rare that people lead with that, but it’s very common that after we talk for a while, it’s on the table as a central issue. But I think what’s going on sexually reflects larger conflicts and difficulties in a relationship.

Q: You say one way to have a better marriage is “real sex.” What do you mean?

A: I think the culture is increasingly pornographic. We’re inundated with very explicit images of a kind of sexuality that is emotionally disconnected; it’s all about stick figures and positions, rather than real emotionality and vulnerability. At the end of the day, sex is an incredibly important part of connecting and also negotiating the passing of time. The fact that you can continue to make love with somebody as you get older is a great antidote to feeling that you’re becoming obsolete. But if your view of sexuality is that it should always be along the lines of the images we see in popular culture, you don’t have access to that antidote. My anecdotal experience is that a lot of adults are not only consuming porn but find it quite addictive, and it affects the marriage. In addition to airbrushed images of bodily perfection, there’s also a quality of dissociative numbness that goes along with watching pornography for a long period of time. It overstimulates in a repetitive way that causes people to be numbed to their feelings, to their sense of curiosity and excitement, and all the things about sex that make us feel more alive. That’s under-recognized.

A: I’d be hard-pressed to put a number on it, but I’ve never met somebody who’s having sex three or four times a year where there wasn’t something amiss.

Q: Isn’t it simply the case that people get fat, or go bald, and just aren’t physically attractive to their partners anymore?

A: Yeah. That’s a part of life. But I also think it’s impossible to separate that from our culture of expectation about what people are supposed to look like. If your assumption is that everyone is supposed to look like George Clooney, your husband is not going to be as attractive as if you have a more personal set of ideas about what people are supposed to look like as they get older. Another thing women in particular talk about is not feeling sexual, in part because they feel they’ve grown so far afield from the image of what attractiveness is that it’s hard to feel desirable. And for women who don’t feel desirable, it’s often hard to feel desire.

Q: You talk about the need for radical acceptance, replacing grievance with gratitude. How on earth do you do that?

A: Not easily. The underpinning is letting go of the belief that you’re entitled to a certain kind of life. People say, “I deserve love,” and “I deserve happiness.” I understand the feeling, but frankly, none of us deserves anything. We have to be more realistic about the world: everything can change in an instant. My own dad died when I was five, and as a result, I’ve carried with me the knowledge that there are no givens. The people you love will vanish, eventually or suddenly. So much of our sense of grievance comes from not accepting that truth, from an inability to tolerate the vulnerability that comes from recognizing how little control we have.

Q: You write, “Find your resentments.” Isn’t one of the problems, though, that couples are too in touch with their resentments?

A: I’m talking about finding your resentments and really asking yourself what they’re about. Resentment is, among other things, a way of not feeling regret or loss or sadness or limitation, and also a way of not longing or wanting. The position, “I’m pissed off at you that you don’t give me this,” is, oddly enough, quite often a way of not being in touch with what you want. You go right to the frustration rather than sitting in the vulnerability of needing and wanting. Try two different phrases: “You’re such a jerk, you never talk to me” versus “I really feel lonely sometimes that I don’t get to talk to you.” It’s the same communication, but when I say the former, there’s a way that I’ve walled myself off from the vulnerability of wanting something I might not be able to get. Whereas asking for what you want feels riskier and more vulnerable.

Q: Are there any categorical deal-breakers that mean a marriage is not worth saving?

A: If I had to come up with one, absolute deal-breaker, it’s a partner’s complete unwillingness to wrestle with things. Without the willingness to struggle, why stay married?

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