A Devitalized Couple | Prepare-Enrich

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NOTE: Couples in The Relationship Dynamics Series are composites of multiple people. Names and personal details have been changed to protect their identities.

You’ve heard the saying, Desperate times call for desperate measures? That’s true in your relationship, too. Some couples have adjusted so well to their dysfunctional pattern that it takes an earthquake to wake them up.

No, they don’t suddenly get better at communication.

In their desperate attempts to cope and survive, they simply do more of what they’ve already been doing. What wakes them up isn’t the earthquake itself. It’s the fact that their relational skills cannot bear the load of added stress, and the whole family begins to fall apart.

Let me introduce you to Carl and Denise. When I met them, they disagreed about almost everything. They were disconnected from one another and had a lot of trouble communicating. Consequently, most of their conflicts had been left unresolved for several decades. Their PREPARE/ENRICH Inventory results classified them as a Devitalized Couple. The life had been sucked out of their marriage.

But this didn’t happen overnight.

Both Carl and Denise scored low on assertiveness and self-confidence, and high on avoidance and partner dominance. Their interpersonal pattern was the exact opposite of a healthy couple’s.

  • Neither partner felt like they could talk about their own thoughts and feelings or ask for what they wanted in the relationship.
  • Neither was sure they could accomplish what they wanted in life.
  • Each tended to avoid talking directly about the issues, especially Denise.
  • Finally, both of them felt dominated and controlled by the other, which kept them in self-protection mode.

So how did this happen?

As I often do with distressed couples, I met with them individually to explore their relationship history. Carl had been strong Christian and a successful businessman. His chief complaint was his wife’s lack of submission to his leadership.

He told me his wife had intentionally and consistently undermined his work, and had been even more defiant and destructive since the earthquake leveled their home. She challenged him on everything he said or did.

At this point, he’d been the rock for the whole family for as long as he could without her support. He had tried talking to her numerous times about his need for her help to restore their house, but nothing changed. Even the smallest issues went unresolved.

Their whole family and most of their friends were affected by their disconnection and started to pull away. Talking didn’t help, and he didn’t know what else to do. He was at his wit’s end and desperate for direction.

Denise’s Point of View

Denise told me a very different story. She first met Carl at her church’s youth group when they were in high school. He was extremely attentive, but she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. In fact, she sometimes ignored him altogether in favor of hanging out with her girlfriends. But a few years later, they started dating and soon married.

Denise described her husband as intense and highly focused on any topic he brought up. Unlike most of the guys she knew, he talked a lot. And she sometimes felt overwhelmed by all his words, so she trained herself to tune him out.

As a result, she didn’t always stick around long enough – mentally, emotionally, or sometimes physically – to find out the bottom line of what he was trying to communicate. In her experience, issues were typically resolved by her giving in to whatever her husband wanted to do.

She said she was close to her family, had lots of friends, and enjoyed spending time with them. According to her, everyone was frustrated with her husband and confused by his behavior. Taken at face value, her story didn’t line up with her husband’s.

So what was it like to sit with them together during a coaching session?

The disconnection was palpable. I could feel Carl’s desperation as he struggled to be heard. His emotional delivery was often demeaning and accusatory. So I intervened frequently, offering alternate phrases that would convey his concerns without attacking his wife. He struggled to wrap his head around the differences between his words and mine, and their respective impact on Denise. But he liked the response he got from her.

When Denise engaged with her husband – by that I mean she made eye contact and touched him – he instantly and visibly relaxed. But she had a hard time staying there. She had been avoiding him for so long that she didn’t know how to enjoy him.

They had a lot of work to do, individually and as a couple.

Before they could make progress, they would have to move beyond self-protection. It’s not easy to convince an anxious person that life is not what it seems. Especially when they’ve be collecting evidence to support their theories for nearly 40 years.

Can a Devitalized Couple become Vitalized?

Yes, it’s just far more difficult if they’ve never been in a vitalized relationship. They don’t know what that looks and feels like to be connected and contented together. Nevertheless, God is in the business of transformation and can do anything, even the impossible. However, each person is responsible for their own choices. Both have their own options: to stay in self-protection mode or take a risk and move toward an upgrade.

Sometimes that means individual therapy.

If that’s the direction you choose, I highly recommend your therapist has an opportunity to meet with your mate at least once. Better yet, find a therapist who is willing to work with both of you. That’s been my approach. Although I no longer provide psychotherapy, couples I coach still have three appointments each week: his, hers, and theirs.

Next time I’ll tell you about other useful components of the PREPARE/ENRICH Inventory, as well as what’s included in the Couple Report.