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An ongoing series of informational entries

'Till Death Do Us Part: Long-Term Relationships That Don't Make Sense

October 21, 2012

We've all seen couples who'd be better off going their separate ways, even when there's no physical or sexual abuse involved. You avert your eyes when they snipe in public, or shake your head at the strange dynamic they've evolved over time, where, for example, one partner is demeaning or insulting, while the other submissively internalizes the put-downs; one "travels" extensively for "business," or frequently "works late," while the other sits at home raising the kids and deflecting neighbors' curiosity; or both live seemingly separate lives, which intersect only when necessary. There are many variations on the theme, with either the male or female in the non-violent abusive role, and his or her partner using maladaptive coping techniques to get by, such as passive acceptance, chronic squabbling, retaliation, using the kids to take sides, turning a blind eye, etc. What you don't see, though, is either of the parties making a move to end the relationship. Why?

I'd like to answer this question using one of my favorite excerpts from Desperate Housewives, a series detailing the shenanigans of several housewives and their families. The excerpt in question is from season 3 and centers around Bree Van de Camp, a perfectionistic woman with a need for orderliness in her life that borders on the obsessive-compulsive. Bree's world is neatly divided into wrong and right, values she tries, with variable success, to instill into her 2 children, Andrew and Danielle. The adolescent Andrew feels his mother resents him for being gay, blames her for his father's death, and tries various ways to get back at her. Eventually, Andrew's acting out becomes so intolerable, that at the end of season 2, Bree feel compelled to throw him out. In season 3, Andrew is reunited with the family due to the intervention of Bree's new husband, Orson. Orson and Andrew agree not to share with Bree the fact that in addition to being homeless during his absence, he also solicited sex for money. When the family attend Danielle's class history fair, Andrew recognizes Dr. Howard Keck, a parent, as one of his former clients. The story eventually gets back to Bree who is horrified and becomes convinced it is her duty to let his wife, Vera, know about her husband's predilections. Bree tells Vera the news over home-made cookies, and then the following interchange ensues:

Bree: "I know how painful this must be for you. It isn't easy for me either, considering Andrew's role in it."

Vera: "And why have you told me this?"

Bree: "Because I thought you'd want to know."

Vera: "Why?"

Bree: "So you could do something."

Vera: "Do you think I'm an idiot? …I've always assumed Howard had…a friend tucked away somewhere. I didn't…care to know. But thank you for painting so vivid…a picture of my husband's activities."

Bree: "I'm sorry. I just felt that if it were me, I-"

Vera: "You'd want to know."

Bree: "Yes, absolutely."

Vera: "Then I owe you an apology because I've been sitting on a little secret about your family…

Danielle is sleeping with her history teacher. "

In Bree's black/white conception of the universe, she must tell Vera Keck the truth, because it's the only right thing to do. However, not only does Vera Keck know her husband has his little secrets, she's perfectly happy to ignore them. In her anger at Bree for obliging her (albeit with the best of intentions), to face her humiliation, Vera venomously returns the favor by hurting her neighbor with information she feels Bree would also "want to know."

Poor Bree meant well, but her absolute perspective made her miss an important detail − Vera has no trouble living in a relationship that makes no sense. Again, we're back to our original question, why? Because Vera enjoys the prestige of being a "doctor's wife," particularly a doctor who is a respected member of the community. The younger Vera may have fought against the knowledge of her husband's infidelities, but at a certain point, Vera allowed herself to bask in the perks of her position, and turn a blind eye to its less savory elements. As for the good doctor himself, while he may indeed be a devoted husband, father, and respected community member, if word gets out that he also pays men for sex, he's ruined both personally and professionally. So his community façade isn't just convenient, it's crucial − and it is his wife who helps keep it in place. In other words, the Kecks achieve what's known as secondary gain from an ultimately unfulfilling relationship − unconscious external motivation for maintaining a fundamentally negative situation, be it psychological, environmental, or physical. And while their relationship doesn't make sense to Bree, the Kecks conspire to get what they want out of it, so it endures, despite the lies, to each other as well as to the world.

So why do some non-violent long-term relationships − marital or otherwise − endure even though they're ultimately unsatisfying? Because in some sense, the union fulfills other needs each partner may have, and it provides a sanctuary for leaving the security of the known, for the perils of the unknown. The relationship is not "right" from Bree's perspective, and may become terribly destructive, both to the individuals involved and their families − indeed, the damage may continue to impact the relationship dynamic modeled to children for years to come. Yet the relationship may still endure, because the secondary gain yielded becomes all-important to the parties involved. The lies and willful blindness become more extreme, the machinations supporting the structure of the relationship more unwieldy. Eventually, it may implode when any one straw finally breaks the camel's back. At that point, each partner will be forced to face his or her fears, pick up the pieces, and start again, something each may have wanted to do a long time ago, but was just too afraid - or daunted - to try.

Excerpt from Desperate Housewives:

American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (4th ed.). DC: APA.


yudit maros

10/21/2012 08:31:52 am

kedves Rivkah, elolvastam a cikkedet, es erdekesnek talaltam a temat is, es a kifejteset is. Sikerult ugy elemezned ezt a kerdest, hogy miert maradnak egyutt boldogtalan emberek, hogy nem iteled el azokat, akiknek nincs mas lehetoseguk, mint szimbiotikus kapcsolatban elni.Jo munka!

Rivkah Kaufman

10/21/2012 08:41:43 am

Kedves Yudit, nagyon köszönöm a comment - az első magyar nyelvű! Örülök, hogy tetszett a cikk.

Chris B

10/21/2012 09:40:39 am

There's so many other disfinctional marriages that stay together for apparent reason. Sometimes fear of what might happen if one leaves without support both financial (How will the person get insurance to pay for medication or a way to transport themselves around.) and emotional (though there is no emotional support in the marriage there is a real fear of being alone.). There are really so many reasons that couples wrongly stay together.

Rivkah Kaufman

10/22/2012 02:52:26 am

Hi Chris - yes, I agree that they are many reasons why couples stay together, even if they're not happy. The fear of remaining without support, financial or emotional, and of being alone, would be some other very important reasons. Tks for bringing this to my attention.

Jennifer Z

10/22/2012 12:59:14 am

Hi, Rivkah--you alluded to this, but I think a lot of it has to do with human beings' love of the familiar. We like to stick with what we know, even when it's not healthy.

Rivkah Kaufman

10/22/2012 02:50:14 am

Hi Jennifer - I agree with you, and yes, I did allude to it in my article. Please note also that I am not judging people who don't make a move to change a relationship of this kind - change is hard and unknown, and even when it's not healthy, as you said, it's familiar.

Dr. Karen E. Engebretsen-Stopczynski

10/23/2012 11:20:30 pm

Hello Rivkah,

Yes, there are many reasons that couples stay together, especially those who believe ..."until death do us part." But of course, it is unlikely that these individuals would darken a therapist's door. When family-of-origin values run deep, "reality" of how bad things are outweighed by the urge or even contemplation to leave a bad situation. Sadly, I have seen too many Domestic Violence cases like this. Even death of a loved one (in a DV situation) was able to shake their core belief system about relationships.

Rivkah Kaufman

10/24/2012 12:23:49 pm

That is a very accurate and sobering observation, Dr. Engebretsen-Stopczynski - the weight of tradition and family obligation/values runs very deep, and this is a cross cultural reality. Thanks so much for sharing this.

Josephine Ferraro, LCSW

10/25/2012 03:41:02 am

Thanks for this blog post. As many of us have, I've seen many people in non-DV, unhappy LTRs where people are too afraid to leave. Unfortunately, fear can keep people stuck. In some cases, where the two people have grown to dislike each other intensely, their intense dislike is often what bonds them, as strange as that might sound. Thanks again.

Rivkah Kaufman

10/27/2012 12:25:07 pm

Hi Josephine, and thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I think you're right - fear keeps people stuck, and dislike/resentment can morph into the ties that bind. I'm thinking about situations where one half of a couple harangues the other on a daily basis, but cannot survive without him/her.

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