Hacking into your relationship status

Riding the elevator to work with a building-mate the other day, our chit-chat turned to a conversation about the Ashley Madison data release. For the uninitiated, Ashley Madison is a dating website that matchmakes married people looking for an affair, connecting them with each other or with singles wanting an affair with a married. It has most recently been in the news because its database has been hacked, and the threatened release of the names and details of its customers has now started to roll out.

Our conversation left me with two thoughts. One, I need to work on my elevator chit-chat game. Two, marriage counselling is a very different animal than I had thought it would be.

My building mate joked that the Ashley Madison data release would be “good for business,” reminding me of my own assumptions about what would inspire a couple to seek marriage counselling.

As a therapist in training, I thought the couples I’d be working with would be seeking help in the aftermath of a psychic ‘bomb’ hitting their relationship: violence, the revelation of an affair, a worsening addiction or mental health concern, or something equally catastrophic.

While that is sometimes the catalyst for couples seeking help, much more often the relationships I encounter are plagued by a more low-grade and chronic form of disconnect, a feeling that the closeness and interest in each other and in the relationship that they once had is now diminished.

In my experience, couples often fail to adequately notice the disconnect, until the day they realize it has resulted in a deep chasm of space between them, one that by the time it is seen can seem too big to bridge.

Unless you’re married to a sociopath, finding your spouse’s name in the Ashley Madison registry won’t be the first and only sign you get that your relationship is floundering.

Your first sign will be a measure of malaise seeping into the relationship. You’ll find yourself feeling impatient and intolerant of the quirks you once found charming in your partner, or catch yourself daydreaming about a different life with a different (less disappointing) partner.

You’ll notice that your conversations have decreased in both quantity and quality. You’ll have fewer discussions about your hopes, interests, fears, shared vision of the future, and more mundane ‘chore-talk’ about who will make dinner, what time the kids are being picked up, who will pay which bill when… You will laugh less and fight more, and those fights will become nastier and take longer to recover from.

Criticism, swearing, name-calling, and attacks on each other’s character will start to enter your disagreements, and your self-talk during and after a fight will focus on the righteousness of your own point of view while assigning bad intentions to your partner’s words and actions.

Research suggests that couples have been unhappy in their relationship for an average of 6 years before seeking help, and often approach marriage counselling as a last resort when conflict in the relationship has them on the brink of separation.

We also know that relationship counselling is most effective with early intervention, and that the most useful approaches to couples therapy have less to do with conflict resolution, and more to do with rebuilding a sense of connection and mutual warm attachment.

So before you search online to see whether your partner’s name is on the Ashley Madison list, search inside and ask yourself how your relationship is doing. If you’re not content with the answer, think about what you can do to rebuild the feeling of connectedness and engagement between the two of you.

Relationship counselling doesn’t have to be the hail Mary pass you throw when the clock’s winding down in the game. It can be a maintenance check-up, a place to reflect on the state of your union and apply any course-correction you decide you need.

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