DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

Most of my columns focus on particular areas that arise in specific marriages. These are individuals who are dealing with frustration, disappointment, anger, etc. regarding one or more area in their marriage that needs serious work. These are targeted situation that require targeted fixes.

Additionally, there are couples where one or both parties feels chronically unhappy. They can’t point to any specific issue that is responsible for their lack of joy and satisfaction. These couples don’t usually divorce since it’s hard to disrupt a family over issues that are hard to point a finger at, yet are unbearable. And so, they trudge along, year after year, feeling like something is missing from their lives, but managing….in some cases better than others.

These couples don’t usually seek out therapy as regularly as couples dealing with specific issues. They are not aware of any specific thing that needs fixing and so they just carry on. But in reality, it’s often important to look under the hood. By doing so, one might discover that there is in fact something specific going on that could benefit from some sort of intervention.

Mark and Vivien were such a couple. Sadly, there was a lack of joy in their home. No one was blatantly attacking, sabotaging, or dismissing the other. But the quality of their lives was lackluster. No excitement, no highs, no meaning, no happiness. Thankfully, Mark suspected that there had to be more to life than what they were experiencing and pushed Vivien to agree to check things out with me.

He Said

Mark is a thirty-three-year-old, modern Orthodox, middle management executive in a large company. He comes from a family with a similar orientation and there are no dramatic childhood experiences that he’s aware of that could have impacted his life. They were average people in many ways. And even though while growing up his family could not afford extravagant vacations or anything too fancy, he has wonderful memories of enjoying yom tovim together with extended family members, occasional trips to Florida, and fond memories of his siblings. He was happy. Not exuberant, but certainly happy enough.

“Probably from as early as I can remember during my marriage to Vivien,” Mark said. “I never felt that she was happy. I used to obsess over what I was doing wrong to create this situation. I knew we didn’t have an abundance of material wealth like other people, but I tried my hardest to be a good, responsible husband and provider. I loved her the best I could. Vivien always came first in my life. I’ve always been attentive and devoted. And yet, I always felt as though I was doing something wrong. She was perpetually unhappy.

“We have two wonderful children. Our daughter is nine and our son is six. So far, they have been wonderful children and very easy to raise. They are full of sunshine and I worry that, over time, the mood in our home will spill onto them and they will lose their natural gift of joy. When I walk into our home, I feel a presence in the air that is not uplifting. How can they not eventually feel that as well and start absorbing it?

“You’re probably wondering whether I’ve discussed with Vivien my feelings concerning this lack of joy. The answer is yes. I constantly ask her what I can do to improve our marriage—to make her happier. She always tells me that I’m a wonderful husband and she has no complaints. This leaves me wondering whether she’s just omitting the truth to spare my feelings, that there are ways in which I have disappointed her or hurt her feelings, areas which I need to improve on. I would love to know. I can handle hearing complaints. I just want to make Vivien happy so we can have a happier marriage and our children can enjoy a happy home.

“I thought maybe sitting with a therapist would give Vivien the safety she needs to finally clue me in to what’s really going on. Not only am I ready for a change but I desperately need a change.”

She Said

Vivien, thirty-four-years-old, comes from a more right-wing family. At our first meeting, she was reluctant to give me information regarding her family of origin and the nature of her childhood. I didn’t sense there was anything remarkable going on in her childhood, either good or bad, but I also didn’t get the feeling that she had wonderful memories to share. Vivien worked in a pre-school and sounded pretty neutral regarding her experiences there.

When I asked her how she felt about what Mark shared, she stood by her story. “Mark is a good husband and I don’t know why he’s constantly asking me what he’s doing wrong. When I tell him that I have no complaints, I truly mean it. I wish he would just believe me and stop worrying so much.”

In response, I asked her the following questions. “Vivien, it sounds as though Mark feels something is missing in your marriage or maybe just your homelife in general. How do you feel about that? How would you rate your marriage? And are you satisfied with the way things are?”

She said, “If you’re asking me whether I think we’re the happiest family in the world, I would say that we aren’t. But if you’re asking me whether I think there is something sinister or terrible going on between me and Mark, I would say you’re barking up the wrong tree. We are two regular people who work hard, raise our family, and try to keep up with the bills doing the best job we can. What more can people hope for? Who said life was supposed to be easy or fun? I don’t believe in fairy tales…never did.”

“What about occasional joy?” I asked. “Is that something you ever experience or would like to experience? Something special to look forward to? A break from the daily grind?”

Vivien looked at me as if I was asking her whether she ever encountered aliens, and she responded with a flat “No.”

My Thoughts

It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that something wasn’t right here. Agreed, life doesn’t always feel like a bowl of cherries. Most days are unremarkable, but surely there has to be some joy, some passion, some excitement, some laughter to make life worth living.

I felt my next move had to be targeted toward convincing Vivien to see me privately so I could establish what contributed to her total acceptance of “chronic unhappiness.” It took a bit of encouragement, but she ultimately agreed to come in and see how she felt about it as time went on.

Several thoughts came to mind. Sometimes there is a physical component to a person’s behavior and general disposition. I was curious as to whether Vivien had gotten a thorough physical recently and whether there were any underlying health issues that could have been contributing to her general malaise.

I was also anxious to get a picture about what her childhood home situation looked like in order to establish whether there were some damaging experiences that led to her downtrodden attitude toward life. What was her messaging growing up? Was she programmed to believe that happiness was unattainable and only a fool’s dream?

Finally, there was the clinical piece of establishing whether or not she was and perhaps had always been suffering from depression, which could be helped through medication and talk therapy.

There were many avenues to explore together and thankfully, Vivien slowly put her trust in me and allowed me to journey with her through these various possibilities in order to create a realistic understanding of who she was and open up a pathway for her to envision who she could possibly be. It begins with a vision of which she had heretofore never possessed.

There were times during our work together when Vivien was ready to bolt. Things were getting too real and difficult for her to deal with. But she ultimately stayed the course and together we explored possibilities, tackled challenges, and worked toward repairing what was broken inside of her. Ultimately, Vivien discovered some necessary tools that enabled her to bring joy into her own life, which, of course, also landed on Mark and the children as well.


Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. She works with individuals, couples and families.  Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, mindbiz44@aol.com.


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