The Soul of Therapy
Spouses Struggling with Lack of Spiritual Connection
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We are delighted to introduce a new online column, The Soul of Therapy, by Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. Dr. Anderson will explore the intersection of the psychological and spiritual in the inevitable struggles that are part of being human.
Q. I’ve been married for nine years. My husband and I are going down different spiritual paths. We want to respect each other's journeys but I am afraid we are growing apart. Spirituality is important to me and it’s hard to not share that with him. Is there some way we can grow closer spiritually without sharing a common spiritual language or practice?
A. In almost 35 years of doing therapy with couples, one study has affected my work with relationships more than any other. It is called “Marriage and the Spiritual Realm” (Journal of Family Psychology, 1999). The researchers found that there was almost no correlation between “marital adjustment” (a measure of the overall health of a marriage) and whether a couple shares the same religion. The study also measured something called “perceived sacredness”—the extent to which partners see their relationship as sacred. This variable correlates more with marital adjustment than any of the 200 other variables I have seen in the literature. In fact, by itself, perceived sacredness can explain more about marital adjustment than many other variables combined.
My hope for you is that you and your husband can talk often about what is sacred in the life you share. The starting point for me is always: Do I sense a sacredness in myself? When I take time regularly to remember that I am sacred, I more readily see that the same is true of my partner and of every human being.
Some people say, “What do you mean by sacred? It’s not a word we use.” If they have children, I ask them if their children are sacred. “Of course!” is the universal reply. Then I say, “Well, each of you is as sacred as your children and your relationship is too.”
I talk with couples about creating connection rituals that build up a simple yet deep spiritual bond. This might include a daily time together to just pause and ask, “What are you grateful for today?” My inspiration for this comes from the 14th-century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘Thank you,’ that will suffice.” I also encourage couples to consider replacing the habituated question “How was your day?” with “How is your spirit?” That questions signals that I want to know something about the joys or sorrows that are below the surface of the activities of the day. Some people find “How is your spirit?” a bit awkward at first. One woman told me her husband called her at work and said, “What time will your spirit be home for dinner?” Another possibility is “Tell me a highlight or lowlight of your day.” Creating a spiritual connection in a relationship requires language that points us to look beneath the daily routine for a deeper current of grace. The extraordinary parts of life are not outside the ordinary but just beneath the surface of it.
The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote about “the liturgy of the world.” I love that by just adding one letter to “liturgy of the Word” (which was part of my Catholic upbringing) we get to the idea that there is a liturgy going on every day 24/7. We don’t have to believe the same things as our partner to participate in the liturgy of the world with them, but we do need to show up to the relationship and cultivate gratitude and interest in how the other’s life is going beneath the surface. We can increase our awareness of the sacredness of our life with a partner by pausing to give voice to it often and, more importantly, by treating each other as sacred.
Q. Is it okay to keep a secret from my therapist? I feel like I am not ready to share certain aspects of myself. How open do I need to be for therapy to be effective?
A. Your question reminds me of my work with a woman I’d seen for several years. In one meeting she said, “You know, I haven’t yet told you everything about myself.” I said, “Oh, you’re holding out on me, huh!” We shared a laugh and then she proceeded to share something that carried a deep shame for her. The more unspeakable things are, the more likely they are to be connected to shame.
How open you are with your therapist is always your choice. Studies show that a significant percentage of people don’t tell their therapists everything, so there is no rule that you must share everything for therapy to be helpful. But I think of shame as dirt in the wound. It needs to be washed out. And a good part of how therapy helps is that when we speak about the unspeakable with someone who receives it with non-judgment and empathy, we begin cleansing the wound of shame so healing can begin.
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.
Do you enjoy the writings of Dr. Anderson? Check out his story “Spirituality And Anxiety.”