“Jim! Jim!” Marg’s shrill voice cut through the buzz of conversation that had escalated as our dinner party guests made their way to the door. Jim stopped mid-sentence and hopped up to attend his to wife.
“It’s time to go. I told you I wanted to go by ten o’clock. I don’t know why I have to always remind you it’s time to go.” She turned to the other couples and laughed thinly. “The Smyth’s never seemed to know when it was time to go.”
Jim did not react to the slur on his family. He busied himself getting Marg her coat.
“Oh heaven’s, I don’t need my coat on a night like tonight.”
He reached out to take her arm.
“I can still walk by myself!” she snapped.
“Why can’t you be nice to him?” I felt like screaming at Marg. Didn’t she realize how horrible she sounded? She had not missed a single opportunity to put Jim down all evening. Regardless of what the topic of discussion was, it became a platform for Jim’s faults.
“I guess we’re going then” Jim said affably to his friends.
“We’re going! There’s no ‘guessing’ about it. I don’t like people who sound wishy washy about things they should be certain about.” Marg’s disgust was unconcealed as she turned to explain in more detail to the woman next to her how “Jim never states anything clearly.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. What do you say in the face of such distorted derision between a married couple?
Later that evening I couldn’t get 'Jim' and 'Marg' out of my thoughts. I’m a marriage therapist. I know, theoretically, that behavior in marriage relationships is interdependent and that there is rarely one good person and one bad person. I understand that sometimes one partner might be set up by the other to look bad but a simple good/bad split is unlikely. I recognize that there are layers and layers of history beneath the words that are spoken in long term relationships. I know all this. But my goodness, it was brutal to spend time with a couple like Jim and Marg. Marg’s unyielding critique of Jim was almost unbearable.
I recall another couple, where the husband used to suffix every sentence with “dear” but it was clear that she was not dear. It was very clear that he could have just as easily substituted “you idiot.” “You didn’t leave the iron plugged in again did you dear?” “Yes, dear, I’m ready. I’m just waiting for you dear.” The classically affectionate term ‘dear’ had become a word to cringe at, to be crushed under.
Couples who do this are unattractive. It was unpleasant to spend an evening with the “Yes, dear” friends and so we often didn’t. It was brutal to spend any time with Marg and Jim (even though we all liked Jim) so we didn't. We experienced their barbed interaction as awkward and embarrassing.
And so here are my questions for everyone who is in a relationship. How do others experience you as a couple? Are you inspiring, positive and fun? Do other people note the respect, sparkle and great connection between you and your partner? Or are social settings simply a subtle platform to attack each other?
Be honest. It is not easy to keep respect and sparkle fresh. But it is possible. And if 'spark' is so far in the past that it seems like only a foggy, pre-marital memory ... then perhaps it's time for a marriage tune up. Couples counselling is not only for couples in crisis. It is very helpful and most effective when used prior to crisis, to keep the marriage in good shape. Sort of like a gym membership. Or our annual medical check ups. We really ought to be intentional about keeping our relationships healthy as well.
If you agree, contact me. I can help.