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Section 2
Couples Entanglement with their Partner

Question 2 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed how choosing togetherness over intimacy can lead to conflict in marriage, and lead couples to seek conjoint therapy. We specifically discussed working definitions of "togetherness" and "intimacy."

In this section, we will discuss three common types of marriages in which the couple has chosen togetherness over intimacy.  These three types of marriages are the parent-child marriage, the stormy marriage, and the "perfect" marriage.

As we discussed in the last section, togetherness can be a formula for marital disaster. Although many couples think of togetherness as "closeness," it can also be considered a form of entanglement.  I have observed that when couples use togetherness to solve their individual problems, their need for togetherness will overwhelm each partner’s individuality.

I find that there are three common types of marriages that emerge when togetherness is chosen over intimacy. Clearly, even couples focused on intimacy will fall into these patterns once in a while. I find that helping couples understand these types of togetherness marriages can facilitate the process of teaching the couple new communication strategies.

I often use a description of these three relationship patterns as a springboard to spark a discussion between couples in  therapy. I have found that many couples who have chosen togetherness over intimacy have difficulty seeing what is making their lives hard when they are "so close" or "so madly in love." As I describe these three common relationship patterns, think of a couple you are treating with conjoint therapy. Does their behavior as a couple fall into one of these patterns a majority of the time?

Entanglement: Togetherness Over Intimacy - 3 Types of Marriages

♦ 1. The Parent-Child Marriage
A first common pattern in which the couple relies on togetherness is the parent-child marriage. Lisa and Christoph had been married for seven years, and had two young children. Lisa stated that she disliked having dinner at Christoph’s parents' house every Sunday. Christoph stated, "Family is very important in our lives. We go to dinner with my folks every Sunday because we want our children to have a strong sense of family. And anyway, my parents will think something’s wrong if my wife doesn’t come with me!" I noticed that Lisa did not correct Christoph’s use of the word "we," even though she clearly did not share Christoph’s opinion.

I asked Lisa why she went along with family dinners every Sunday. Lisa replied that she went because Christoph would get mad if she did not. Clearly, Christoph played the role of the "adult" in his marriage. He emphasized this by using the word "we" in order to indicate that he spoke for both himself and for Lisa. Lisa, the "child," felt unable to act without Christoph’s permission, and invariably deferred to his wishes. Christoph’s role depended on Lisa’s dependence on him. Thus Christoph and Lisa found it difficult to experience intimacy. Intimacy would require that Christoph, the "adult," show vulnerability. Intimacy would also require that Lisa, the "child," make her own decisions based on what was best for her.

♦ Technique: "What Kind of Couple Are We?"
As a follow-up to a discussion about common marriage types that focus on togetherness rather than intimacy, I invited Christoph and Lisa to try the "what kind of couple are we?" technique. For each of the following 7 questions, I asked the couple to decide if the answer was Christoph, Lisa, or about the same.

Entanglement Assessment Questions

  1. Whose name comes first when friends refer to you as a couple? Lisa answered, "Christoph’s."
  2. Who spends more time alone or doing fun things with friends? Both agreed Christoph spent more time with friends.
  3. Whose career is the most important? Lisa stated, "Christoph’s, definitely. I gave up my old job when we got married so that I could do secretarial work for him."
  4. Who decides how you spend money? Christoph stated, "Lisa’s bad with money, so I keep track of everything. She’d be out buying a whole new wardrobe if I didn’t."
  5. Whose style is reflected in the design of your home? Lisa stated, "I used to have knickknacks, but Christoph didn’t like how unprofessional it looked. So I gave them to my friend Denny."
  6. Who do the children see as being in charge? Lisa stated, "Well, they know I make rules. But sometimes I have to tell them if they don’t behave, I’ll let Christoph deal with them."
  7. Who takes care of the household chores? Christoph stated, "Well, I keep busy at work, so Lisa does most of it. After all, I bring in money to pay for the house."

Next, I asked Christoph and Lisa to review their answers, and think about patterns their answers displayed. Christoph and Lisa agreed that their answers showed that Christoph exerted greater influence in the relationship. I found that through using this technique, Christoph and Lisa were able to begin an open discussion about the patterns in their relationship, and each partner’s feelings about the patterns. Would the "what kind of couple are we?" technique be useful for helping your Christoph and Lisa open up a discussion about patterns in their parent-child marriage?

2. The Stormy Marriage
For many years, Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Reynolds made headlines with their bitter breakups and passionate reunions. I find this to be an excellent example of the second common pattern in which the couple relies on togetherness, the stormy marriage. Brian and Kim also had a stormy marriage. Brian stated, "Last week, I came home from work, and Kim was on the phone. She saw me, but she wouldn’t hang up. I got really mad, because she was just ignoring me! I yelled that she didn’t care about me, and she yelled back that I wouldn’t let her have a life. It turned into a huge fight, and I stormed out. I rented a hotel room and planned to move out. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Kim. She’s the other half of my soul! I can’t live without her! So I bought her a dozen roses, and we took a day trip to this little bed and breakfast to make up."

Brian and Kim had fallen into a pattern of reacting, rather than responding, to each other. However, Brian and Kim were too entangled to stand on their own two feet, and made up no matter how large the argument. In making up, they agreed to suppress rather than discuss their differences. Refusing to acknowledge and accept their differences led to anxiety, which in turn led to Brian and Kim’s tendency to react rather than respond. As you have probably experienced, partners in stormy marriages tend to have grown up with unstable parents who were not emotionally dependable.

3. The "Perfect" Marriage and Entanglement:
In addition to the parent-child marriage and the stormy marriage, a third common pattern in which the couple relies on togetherness is the "perfect" marriage. Sasha and Darnell entered couples therapy after their son Allan announced he did not want to attend college. Since Allan was at the top of his class, this was distressing to Sasha and Darnell. During our first session, I asked about their home life. Darnell stated proudly, "We have the perfect marriage! We never argue, ever!" Sasha smiled and nodded in agreement. After exploring this with Sasha and Darnell, Darnell stated, "Both of our parents were always fighting. Being at home was hell for each of us. So we agreed we wouldn’t be like that, no matter what."

Clearly, neither Sasha nor Darnell had grown up with a model for successful conflict resolution. As a result, both partners had come to believe that any conflict would lead to the end of the relationship. When I discussed this idea further with Sasha and Darnell, both admitted that their marriage was full of taboo subjects, and both expressed feelings of isolation and resentment. Darnell stated, "Early on, we discovered we don’t agree about the death penalty at all. In fact, we almost got in a fight about it. So we agreed not to talk about it ever again. In fact, we avoid all political topics. It’s just too risky to bring that stuff up."

I stated, "When you cannot tell your spouse what upsets you, and have them listen to your feelings, you cannot really get to know each other. Without having the chance to talk about and accept your differences, you cannot fully experience intimacy in your marriage." Do your Sasha and Darnell believe that by not arguing they have the perfect marriage? Do they avoid discussing any feelings that could potentially cause a small disagreement? Would they benefit from hearing this section in one of your sessions?

In this section, we have discussed three common types of marriages in which the couple has chosen togetherness over intimacy.  These three types of marriages are the parent-child marriage, the stormy marriage, and the "perfect" marriage.

In the next section, we will discuss a research study into factors that influence the development of an optimized therapeutic alliance during conjoint therapy for couples dealing with marital conflict.

Dym, B., & Glenn, M. (1993) Couples: Exploring and Understanding the Cycles of Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

- Gostečnik, C., & Repic, T. (2009) Relational Marital Paradigm. American Journal of Psychotherapy63(1).

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Barry, R. A., Barden, E. P., & Dubac, C. (Apr 2019). Pulling away: Links among disengaged couple communication, relationship distress, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(3), 280-293.

Eatough, V. (2011). Intimacy, transcendence, and psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39(2), 182–185.

Feuerman, M. L. (2018). Therapeutic presence in emotionally focused couples therapy. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy21(3), 22-32.

Riekkola, J., Rutberg, S., Lilja, M., & Isaksson, G. (2019). Strategies of older couples to sustain togetherness. Journal of Aging Studies, 48, 60–66.

Soliman, T. M., Ferguson, R., Dexheimer, M. S., & Glenberg, A. M. (2015) Consequences of joint action: Entanglement with your partner. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), Aug 2015, 873-888.

What are examples of how entanglement results when togetherness is selected over intimacy? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 3
Table of Contents