If you and your spouse seem to be speeding through life on parallel tracks that never meet, you're not alone. Couples seem to be doing almost everything apart these days -- from dining and hobbies to friendships and having fun.
The trend, first documented last year in a major long-term study of marriage, is drawing attention to the need to shore up emotional ties between spouses. "For marriage to work, we have to realize how important a secure attachment is," says Diane Sollee of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, sponsor of a conference of more than 2,000 marriage researchers and trainers this week in San Francisco. The growing separateness of couples' lives, and techniques to keep it from driving them apart, will be hot topics at the conference.In one of the most comprehensive studies of marriage, Penn State sociology professor Paul Amato and others compared two separate random samples of more than 2,000 married people each in 1980 and in 2000. They found that the likelihood of couples spending lots of time together visiting friends, pursuing recreational activities, dining or shopping together, or teaming up on projects around the house, fell 28%. Spouses also are less likely to get along well with their partners' friends. "People may be bowling alone these days," the study says, referring to a bestselling book about the breakdown of social ties, "but married couples are also eating alone."
The separateness has become so prevalent that researchers are altering the traditional structure of marriage-education programs. These seminars, which have gotten a boost in recent years from federal funding, teach couples communication and problem-solving skills and have always required both partners to be present. But the University of Denver's Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, founders of PREP, one of the biggest marriage-education programs, are testing a new seminar that allows spouses to attend solo; they'll release research at the San Francisco conference showing the new approach can be helpful. "Sometimes," Dr. Stanley says, because of conflicting work schedules and other factors, "you can only get one of the two people" to take part.For some couples, leading separate lives isn't a problem. Dave Hookham, a Houston engineer, says he and his wife, do fine vacationing separately sometimes and having different friends. For other couples, though, it's troubling. Advertising consultant Bryan Chaffe, Seattle, says he and his wife were content following separate paths when both were in graduate school and working full-time. But over 11 years of marriage, their habit of having separate lives and hobbies has caused strain, he says.One therapeutic remedy, "emotionally focused therapy," is gaining favor. The method rests on British psychiatrist John Bowlby's research on the emotional bonding, or attachment, that is essential to normal development in infants. The technique guides couples to recognize they're emotionally attached to their partners in much the same way a child is to a parent, and to learn to be more responsive, open and forgiving. For example, a couple fighting often over, say, one partner's long work hours, would be guided to look beneath the anger to what they may be feeling at a deeper level -- often a fear of losing each other or being cut off emotionally.
Psychologist Sue Johnson, a speaker at the conference, who developed the technique in the mid-1980s and has written several books about it, says more than 1,100 therapists have been trained in the method. Published studies show it can help couples resolve old hurts.
One couple I interviewed says emotionally focused therapy pulled them from the brink of divorce. By the time they entered therapy 2½ years ago, they'd led separate lives for more than 20 years, with the husband immersed in work, the wife in raising their five children. With separate hobbies and friendships, "we were like ships passing in the night," the husband says.
Even at their worst, though, both still sensed "a thread" of connection between them. In therapy, they gradually tore down barriers to openly talk about emotions and learned to express their need for each other in more intimate, loving ways. Although they still hit rough spots, the husband says, "we have the tools now to do whatever it takes" to stay together.