Therapists Mary Donahue and Emily Brown have seen big changes in the married lives of Washingtonians over the last 40 years.
People now become sexually active earlier and get married later. More women have demanding careers and earn enough to support themselves. Gender roles are no longer so clearly defined.
“Marriage is not a goal for women the way it used to be,” says Brown, who practices in Arlington and had never met Donahue before we brought them together for a conversation. “Women are working, and if they choose to get married, it’s usually because they want to have children.”
Having kids has changed, too, Brown and Donahue say. Instead of sending children outside to play, parents shuttle them to supervised activities. Add the long hours that many professionals log in the office and many relationships feel a strain.
“There are so many pressures in so many different directions, and that creates ongoing stress,” says Donahue, whose practice is in Bethesda. But she also sees changes for the good: “People today are more concerned with having mutual goals than ever before. When I first married, my husband and I never discussed what we wanted for ourselves as we moved forward.”
All of these changes have shown up in therapy sessions Donahue and Brown have had with thousands of couples and individuals over the last four decades—some seeking to rediscover the spark that brought them together, others in need of support when it’s time to split.
Donahue has a PhD in psychology from St. John’s University and is coauthor, with Alexandra Armstrong, of On Your Own: A Widow’s Passage to Emotional & Financial Well-Being.
Brown has a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan and is the author of two books—Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity and Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment.
Donahue and Brown talked about how an economic slowdown can affect a marriage, the reasons people cheat, and what to make of Tiger Woods.
What are the keys to a long-lasting relationship?
Donahue: In today’s world, if a couple is going to make it, they better make themselves a priority. I don’t care if it’s a date night or a weekend once a year—they need to do something that says, “We are a unit, and we have time for each other.”
You also have to make a commitment to communicate in the course of daily life—to talk about the little stresses that could lead to bigger stress if not addressed. And you have to work at it. The whole concept of working on a relationship is really important.
What do couples fight about most?
Donahue: Extended family. And who has what responsibilities in the house.
Are there points in a marriage when couples are especially vulnerable to conflict?
Donahue: You have to have goals. You need to put yourself in a position where you can look forward to something together—a shared “bucket list” of things you want to do.
When you get bogged down by responsibilities—family or work or extended family—you sometimes lose that. You just sort of bump along, and then all of a sudden you wake up and say: “Is this all life has to offer?”
When couples get to that point, what are the chances of repairing the relationship?
Brown: What they do about it is the issue. Are they going to get some therapy? Are they going to talk to their spouse about feeling that something’s not right?
Donahue: A problem in the marriage can lead to a better marriage. Because if they come to work with a therapist, they’re learning new communication techniques and they get a better understanding of what led them to that point.
What are some of the techniques they could learn?
Donahue: I sometimes make my clients write down their feelings and then exchange whatever it is they’ve put on the piece of paper. Sometimes it’s easier for people to do that and then talk about it. If you don’t see it written, you hear what you anticipate the other person is going to say from years of being with them.
Brown: A lot of people think that being angry at their spouse and yelling at them is expressing how they feel. I help them learn how to pay attention to what they’re feeling and how to voice their feelings—not to voice their anger but the emotion under the anger in a constructive way.
Donahue: It’s the idea of making “I” statements—“I’m feeling . . .” instead of “You did . . . .” I don’t let people ascribe motivation to the other person.
What are the most common problems you see among couples?
Brown: Not saying how they really feel or what they’re thinking—often because they’re afraid of the spouse’s reaction. The more they hold back, the more they lose the emotional connection with their spouse.
Donahue: I see more problems with money, particularly here because the cost of living is high. And stress related to jobs and traffic. In Washington, you’ve got people working extraordinarily long hours.
Brown: And now so many of them have lost their jobs and don’t know what to do. They feel emotionally like the rug’s been pulled out from under them. If they have any insecurity from the past, it rises up.
How does that affect their relationship?
Brown: They won’t be spontaneous with the spouse, or they will pull back. Then the spouse may try to pull them out of it, try to be cheery, and that’s not going to work. What they really need to do is be able to talk about how scary or hurtful it is.
Donahue: Going into couples therapy at that point would be a good thing. But if you lose your job and health insurance, you may not be able to afford it.
Is couples therapy typically covered by health insurance?
Brown: Family therapy is usually covered.