“Welcome your spouse with open arms when they don’t see things the way you do.”
Carl and Nartasha settle themselves onto the loveseat in my office. His six foot eight inch frame overwhelms the piece of furniture while she has to perch her petite frame on the edge in order for her feet to touch the floor.
Carl pulls at his sleeves and Natarsha tugs at her dress while they scan the room with wide eyes.
There’s a bead of sweat above her upper lip. She unconsciously clutches her necklace locket.
Carl’s shirt is sticking to his back and chest. He repeatedly turns his ring on his finger.
It’s their first time to see a counselor.
Natarsha is wearing a purple dress. Her high heels and nail polish match the hues of her dress. She has three earrings in each ear, three rings on one hand and four on the other.
Carl’s jeans are ragged on the hem and have faint grass stains on the knees. His tennis shoes have scuff marks and the soles are smooth. His Atlanta Braves t-shirt has stains of an indistinct origin on the front and a small hole on one shoulder.
It appears Carl spent less than two minutes fixing his hair, while Natarsha clearly visits a salon regularly.
They sit as far from each other as the small loveseat will allow. The set of his jaw and the fire in her eyes let me know they are engaged in a bitter war.
I take in all this nonverbal information in a manner of seconds and realize that my first task of making this couple feel at ease will not be an easy one.
Before I can begin, Natarsha fires the first salvo. “You have got to do something about Carl! He is making me crazy! Just look at him! Here we’ve come to a professional’s office and he looks like he just came in from the playground.”
Her fiery gaze pins Carl to the love seat.
Carl slowly closes his eyes. Though he doesn’t say a word, the muscles in his jaw flex repeatedly.
Extending her voice a notch higher and a couple of notches louder, Natarsha’s words come like a juggernaut. “See what I mean?! That’s what he does. Clams up and shuts down. How can I do anything with that?”
Opening his eyes, Carl looks at me and says, “Ask her how long it took her to get ready for this appointment and how long it took me. Look up synonyms for spontaneous and you’ll see a picture of her.” He emphasizes by jerking his head toward Natarsha.
Natarsha snorts and crosses her legs.
Carl is warming to this and keeps his momentum going. “We used to have fun together. She’d go to games with me or come watch me play pick-up games with the guys.
“Now she’d rather be decorating our house for the two hundredth time than spend time with me.”
This touches a raw nerve with Natarsha. “Don’t get me started about the house! You never help with anything, unless it is to look for the t.v. remote so you can watch another ballgame.
“I’ve been asking you to fix the storm door for over a year. All I get is broken promises.”
With a tone of sarcasm, she adds, “I guess I need to ask my dad to fix it.”
Like walking onto a floor filled with broken glass, I carefully step into the middle of this contentious tete-a-tete mess. “Why don’t you all tell me how you got to this place in your relationship?”
They relax just a bit, perhaps relieved that a referee has broken them up, and tell me their history.
There is some validity to the adage “opposites attract.” We humans are drawn to people who have traits we are lacking. It was this element that made Adam so drawn to Eve. Eve complemented Adam, not complimented. Tom Cruise’s line in Jerry McGuire, “You complete me!” was Adam’s reaction to Eve.
This is exactly what happened in the case of Natarsha and Carl. She never meets a stranger and loves going to parties. Carl feels most comfortable when in small groups. His only “social” activity is playing ball with his friends.
He has never been with someone who has the boundless energy Natarsha has. She has never known anyone as calm and easy going as Carl.
Natarsha was strongly attracted to Carl’s rugged masculinity. Carl’s eyes would light up at Natarsha’s sexiness when she got dressed for a night out.
Carl was amazed at the beauty of Natarsha’s apartment, telling her it was like something out of a magazine. Natarsha found Carl’s “man cave,” with its sports posters, gun rack and mounted deer heads on the walls, the cute and quaint.
At least that’s how they used to view each other.
Six years into their marriage they find themselves in my office on the verge of separating because they can’t stand each other. The traits that initially attracted them to each other are the very traits that are making them crazy. What they used to think was cute and endearing has become irritating and annoying.
Most married couples come to a therapist hoping he will change their spouse because all their efforts to change them have failed. Their exasperation is a result of trying and failing so many times over the years.
The more they fail at getting their spouse to change a specific behavior, the more they focus on that specific behavior and how infuriating it is. It’s as if they keep pecking at a small chip in a windshield, hoping it will fix it, until ragged cracks are running in all directions, making it impossible to see.
The challenge for Carl and Natarsha is to take a step back from their confrontational approach.
Remembering how they felt about these things that are now a source of friction will re-energize their relationship.
More than likely, their spouse hasn’t changed. That is, they still have the same traits they had when they met. It is time to look in the mirror and decide who has changed.
If they ask themselves why they are now so bothered by these behaviors, it could offer insight that would cure their critical spirit.
Carl needs to ask himself how Natarsha completes him. And, in the same vein, Natarsha needs to identify what traits Carl has that she needs.
Following these suggestions will assist them in taking joy in each other once again.
They can actually become excited about their differences.
In spite of how wonderful any of us may think we are, if we were married to someone who was exactly like us, we would most likely be very miserable.
So, embrace the differences!