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December 20th, 2016 by Marta J. Papa


Part 5: Maybe It’s Not a Marital Problem…Maybe It’s a Holiday Problem

Last week I discussed the six questions I ask my clients to reflectively/thoughtfully respond to in writing, when I feel The Holiday Marital False Alarm Syndrome may be driving their relational discord. Perhaps most importantly, I request that neither spouse reveal his/her responses to the other in advance of our shared meeting together in my office.

Not surprisingly to me, but often to each other, I discover an issue in the marriage unknown by one party. And, oftentimes, the significance of this singular issue and its negative impact upon the marriage becomes not only a revelation to the kept-in-the-dark spouse, but the revelation provides the necessary catalyst for change the relationship is sorely needing in order to survive and advance in a healthy way.

Over the years, here are some examples from my practice of harsh truths revealed by one spouse, yet not known before by the other:

One husband was an intern spending inordinately long hours at the hospital getting through residency…but had developed an addiction to prescription drugs, which he was siphoning off from his patients. No one knew.

The wife of another couple I met with had a gambling problem that would have shocked not only her husband, but her friends and family, as well. She was a capable woman, who enjoyed high regard in her professional community, but she had become gripped by an addiction to the casinos lining the river front. During late afternoons and early evenings (when she insisted she was engaged in intensive business meetings), the wife routinely spent—and lost– hundreds of dollars gambling. And, since she was in charge of the family budget, her husband had no indication of the fiscal hemorrhaging that was draining their savings account.

Yet another woman shared in her responses to my questions that she was not living her best life (this in response to question #4 of the writing assignment) because the couple remained childless. And…most troubling of all…the wife had suffered a recent miscarriage and had not informed her husband…who wanted children as much as she did. Upon learning about this, the husband was able to recognize why his wife seemed inconsolable around their young nephews and nieces, especially during the holidays. She had begun to not only avoid social interactions but had emotionally and sexually withdrawn from her husband, as well. To soothe her broken heart and escape the mental duress, the wife had found solace in vodka…in her ever-present water bottle…the easy-to-disguise-alcohol of choice for many who suffer in silence.

Other instances from my practice, which prompted marital epiphanies, come to mind, as well. For instance, the husband whose layoff was announced just before the holidays, but who had hidden the news from his spouse…so as not to ruin the holidays. Or the wife who had suffered from past sexual abuse but had kept this a secret from her husband, due to feelings of shame and confusion.

You may wonder why issues such as these are often discovered during a Holiday Marital False Alarm session with me. The answer is simple: the conflation of stress, money, family, children, and careers all mix together to form a volatile marital pattern during the holiday season. Resistance is low, emotions are strained, and tensions run high (even for those living reasonably healthy lives!). But for those who are carrying an additional weight of private turmoil, the holidays can bring into view issues thought long buried–or, at least, carefully hidden—which are negatively impacting the marriage to the ignorance of the other spouse.

Yet, it is precisely at the full disclosure point of our meeting together where couples can begin to function as a team again, for their good and the good of their families…often without the necessity of divorce proceedings.