Peter and Melinda were divorced in 2000. Because they had two children together, and had to co-parent, they were in contact on a daily basis. Their relationship dynamic transformed from a somewhat contentious snippy interchange to one in which they were actually great friends.
From a place of friendship, the couple was actually able to go back in time and review past hurts and dashed expectations. They were able to heal many of the wounds they had each inflicted on the other, but most importantly, they were able to find a way to resolve their present day problems quickly.
Why hadn't they been able to do that in their first marriage together?
In general, couples have a much higher expectations of how their spouse should be there for them than friends do. So, it wasn't until they lowered their expectations and could stop feeling the disappointment that they could then hear what the other was asking for.
Ironically, each felt extremely misunderstood by the other: Melinda felt unacknowledged in her emotional needs and Peter felt his physical needs were completely disregarded.
Once Peter understood that he needed to listen to Melinda, he made a concerted effort to sit down with her and let her say what she needed to; likewise, when Melinda realized that Peter wouldn't be as drawn to her if she wasn't more affectionate with him (making love was not always what Peter was asking for), she made physical closeness a higher priority.
As a result of understanding the source of their problems, and the conflict resolution formula that had previously eluded them, they decided to get remarried in 2007 and they have been together happily since that time.
This couple represents many, if not most, straight couples. If I didn't know better, I might think the Universe was playing a cruel prank on us by wiring men and women so differently. Each gender is not only physically distinct from the other, but our brains and the way in which we resolve problems differ as well.
When straight couples have a fight or experience a rift in their relationship, women want to talk things out and perhaps make love later (when they feel more connected); men want to connect by making love and (maybe) talking later.
One husband told me recently that he thinks that the problems he and his wife were having would all be solved by going away for a long, sex-filled weekend. His wife saw this idea as nothing more than a superficial quick-fix.
When women are stressed out, talking literally soothes them because the calming (and bonding) hormone called oxytocin is released in the female brain. When men are stressed, testosterone is released and getting physical is the needed outlet.
So, how do most men and women reconcile when they come to this place?
Sadly, in far too many cases, they don't.
Rather than find a way to reconnect, couples often go about their lives and don't do either -- they don't speak or have sex.
Instead, husband and wife come together around the daily chores of taking care of the kids, taking care of the home, making and eating meals, paying bills and sleeping side by side. The disagreement takes a back burner or the discord continues silently.
The relationship doesn't necessarily end because of the lack of reconnection -- at least not immediately. Over time, however, there can be somewhat of a cumulative effect. Spouses may wake up one day filled with incredible resentment over something that happened 15 years ago that never got resolved. Or, the last kid goes off to college and husband and wife have nothing to say and barely even know each other.
As a therapist who has witnessed hundreds of couples on the brink of divorce and going through divorce, I can honestly say that I believe if/when married couples can understand this dynamic and find a way to bridge gaps that appear, we would see healthier marriages. We might even see fewer divorces.
Have Sex or Talk?
The advice I give couples around the issue of how to reconnect is that I believe men need to learn how to talk (and listen) first, make love later. Here's why:
When a couple discusses the problem first, a man may feel annoyed or challenged to hear what his wife is saying, but it calls on him to improve his listening skills as well as delayed gratification.
When a woman has sex with her husband when she's upset with or mistrusting of him, she often feels more extreme emotions such as disgust and may view her spouse as a perpetrator. This actually adds a layer of disconnect that can be even more harmful than the original argument was to the relationship.
Obviously, if a woman has no intention of having sex with her husband any time soon, but leads him on, this can be destructive. Or, if a man gets so riled up by talking that it's counterproductive, this won't work either.
Both partners have needs and legitimate ways of reconnecting and both should be honored, however, the order in which they are honored can be critical in determining whether a couple truly reconnects or not.
Couples who cannot talk on their own due to heightened emotions or "too much water under the bridge," often do better when they have a neutral third party present such as a therapist, mediator or clergy member.
Although it can be scary to review past hurts, finding the place where the train went off the track in the relationship can make all the difference in the world in reconnecting husband and wife.