News & Politics

Making Love Last

Two therapists talk about why some couples stay happy and others call it quits.

Mary Donahue and Emily Brown have counseled thousands of couples over the years. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

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: Money.

Brown: Control.

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.

Have you seen other effects of the recession?

Donahue: People overextended in housing. I’ve had a number of couples who say, “We just bought this huge house.” In some cases, I think the house was too much stress, so they created another reason for why they can’t stay together.

Some couples have to stay together because they can’t sell the house. They’re both saying, “If we separate, neither one of us is going to be able to afford much. We’re better off staying together.”

How important is sex?

Donahue: It’s important, but I don’t think it’s key. As people age, that physical connection could be hand-holding or kissing. Or even having a cup of coffee together in the morning. One should strive to keep sex in the marriage, but from what I see, it’s not as important as people used to think.

The stereotypical affair used to be the man and his secretary. How has that changed?

Brown: That may still be going on, but now there are more people in on the act. Infidelity is one of my specialties, and I think women have caught up with men. Some research suggests women might have even gotten ahead of men.

One of the things I ask couples is: How did the two of you create enough space in the marriage for there to be an affair?

How does that most often happen?

Brown: There are different types of affairs and different motivations. There’s conflict avoidance—they don’t like to talk about hard stuff, issues don’t get addressed. They let problems pile up. And intimacy avoidance, where getting close is too scary—you see a lot of anger with those couples.

Then there’s what I call the “split-self affair,” where there is a long-term affair. It usually starts as a friendship, but it’s an emotional friendship and the affairing spouse feels something they’ve never felt before. It wakes up their emotional self, which is why those affairs last so long and are so intense.

There is also sexual addiction and the “exit affair,” where somebody’s already decided to leave the marriage and just uses the affair to slide out the door.

And I think there’s a sixth type. People who are extremely successful, who have pretty much gotten whatever they’ve wanted, one success after another—they think they can do anything they want because it’s always worked. I’m thinking of John Edwards and John Ensign and Eliot Spitzer.

Donahue: Opportunity is a big factor. We have a society in which travel is part of many work situations. You’re away from wherever it is you’re anchored, and it makes it easy to say, “Oh, what the hell? It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just casual.” People think it doesn’t matter.

We’ve read some of Mark Sanford’s love letters and he did seem to have an emotional connection with the other woman.

Brown: You don’t know about the quality of the connection. It certainly was intense for him, but was it really an intimate connection? I don’t know. Again, I think he’s one of these guys where success has come his way and he’s just kept using opportunities.

What do you make of Tiger Woods?

Brown: I feel bad for him. He has such a drive to be perfect in golf, to be a great golf champion, and he is. But I think all his life he’s been so focused on that part of himself that he’s underdeveloped emotionally.

How do couples such as Bill and Hillary Clinton stay together?

Donahue: There’s no way to know, but I think it’s an arrangement they went into with their eyes open when they first got together. I think they’ve made that arrangement work for them.

What about Silda and Eliot Spitzer?

Donahue: We don’t know as much about the Spitzers—they weren’t in the limelight in the same way the Clintons were. Before the infidelity, what was the connection between the couple? And does she believe that there was enough there before the indiscretion to work at getting back to a better place?

Brown: There have been some comparisons between Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford, but Sanford knew for months before the news broke. She had some time to get her act together.

What are the success rates for couples after an affair?

Donahue: Whether you’re able to repair the relationship has to do with the readiness of the person on the other side. If you have somebody who is never going to let go of the incident and is going to punish their spouse forever, then there is no point in trying to work on the marriage. It won’t happen.

Brown: It varies with the type of affair. With conflict-avoidance affairs, there’s a high rate of success. They usually occur earlier in the marriage, and a lot of those couples work things out.

People think if there’s an affair there’s got to be a divorce, and that’s not the case. A lot of people have a better marriage after an affair. They can recover if both are willing to do some work.

Which types of affairs are harder to recover from?

Donahue: If there’s a long-standing affair and the person has had a whole other life, that’s much harder to get past. It’s like a separate marriage.

What are other signs a marriage isn’t fixable?

Donahue: You have to have the commitment of both parties for any kind of change.

Brown: Sometimes divorce is one of the best decisions that can be made. The decision to divorce usually is one-sided. Somebody wants out. Often the person initiating the divorce has done some growing and in the process decides the marriage is not really viable anymore.

How should you tell the kids you’re splitting up?

Brown: You need to do it together, and if you can’t do it together well, you should hire a therapist to help you stay on track. You might say, “You’ve probably noticed we’ve been pretty short with each other or staying away from each other”—whatever you think the kids might have noticed. “We’ve been having a hard time making things work, and we’ve come to a decision that we’re going to separate.”

Do you see many couples who never should have gotten married in the first place?

Donahue: Absolutely.

What are some of the signs?

Donahue: People who get married quickly, with not much knowledge of the other person, and just say, “I’m madly in love and that’s it.” It’s only when you live together over a period of time that you begin to see that, wait a minute, this isn’t what I thought it was.

Brown: Or the rebound after a divorce, the too-quick marriage where they can’t stand to be alone and they find somebody and get married quickly. They haven’t had time to do the work of dealing with the end of the marriage.

Donahue: I also think it can depend on where they are developmentally when they meet—like if one is at school becoming a doctor and the other person is the supportive person. When that balance changes, it can be another factor in dissolution. Doctors and nurses come to mind.

Brown: That’s so true. I’m thinking of all these examples.

Of doctors and nurses?

Donahue: Yes, because of the way they come together. People who go through medical school are striving toward a goal. They develop close relationships with the people around them, who are often nurses. Then when they get out of residency and are in a research job or private practice, they’re in a different place. They’re not looking at life the same way.

What about lawyers?

Donahue: Lawyers are 80- or 100- or 120-hour-a-week workers in this area. So it’s the issue of availability.

Are there any other types of relationships that often run into trouble?

Donahue: Long-distance relationships—people who see each other sporadically, think they’re in love, make the commitment, but then they actually live together and it’s a bad move.

Is that happening more because of the Internet?

Donahue: The Internet is huge. People hide behind the image they project via the Internet, which is not the person. You get hooked on the imagery, not the reality.

Technology introduces speed and immediacy. Today’s generation expects everything instantaneously. There’s no time for reflection.

Brown: Also, there is much less face-to-face time where you can have a conversation.

Donahue: It’s a safer thing dealing with the Internet or the BlackBerry—someone who is once removed.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking about getting married?

Brown: Slow down. Get to know each other. And talk about the difficult stuff that you don’t want to talk about. Talk about it gently, carefully, but get it out there.

Donahue: You have to learn to disagree. It’s okay to disagree. Disagreeing is part of life.