The Pitfalls of Parallel Marriage

“The Pitfalls of Parallel Marriage,” Ensign, Mar. 2000, 22

The Pitfalls of Parallel Marriage

If they’re not careful, couples sometimes end up living separate lives in the same home. Here are some proven ways to avoid this trap.

Megan and Matt* sat tentatively on two of the upholstered chairs in my office. They had moved the chairs close enough to hold hands tenderly as the conversation began. Their surprise, and perhaps embarrassment, at finding themselves in marriage counseling seemed evident not only from the subdued manner in which they spoke but also in the way they looked at each other.

Theirs had been almost a storybook wedding. Matt was a returned missionary, and Megan was the faithful sweetheart who waited. They had maintained their worthiness during their engagement and enjoyed the blessing of a temple sealing on their wedding day 11 years earlier. What had gone wrong?

They had done all they had been taught to do growing up. They had believed and followed the counsel that “the most important things that any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever does in this world are: 1. To marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority; and 2. To keep the covenant made in connection with this holy and perfect order of matrimony” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 118). Yet here they were, disappointed in the current state of their relationship and sitting in front of a stranger trying to figure out what had happened to their dreams.

Matt and Megan, and others like them, describe their relationship as confusing and contradictory. They don’t fight and quarrel, don’t criticize and demean, don’t ignore one another. They sincerely love each other and care about one another’s welfare. Yet they are bored and dissatisfied with the relationship. They don’t seem to have the fun they had in the early years of their marriage or when they were courting.

This type of devitalized relationship has been labeled a “parallel marriage.” Just as parallel lines lie in the same plane but never touch, Matt and Megan live in the same home but without closeness. They often sense proximity but seldom togetherness. It is as though they are walking down a railroad track each going in the same direction but on separate rails. They discuss their children and their finances, but they seldom discuss their feelings about each other or about their marriage.

The Malnourished Marriage

It has been suggested that more marriages die of neglect than of sin. Neglect of each other and of the marriage relationship seems to be the primary problem in cases like Matt and Megan’s. President Spencer W. Kimball accurately described this condition when he said: “There are many people who do not find divorce attorneys and who do not end their marriages, but who have permitted their marriages to grow stale and weak and cheap. There are spouses who … are in the low state of mere joint occupancy of the home. … These people will do well to reevaluate, to renew their courting, to express their affection, to acknowledge kindnesses, and to increase their consideration so their marriage can again become beautiful, sweet, and growing” (Marriage and Divorce [1976], 22).

This condition often builds up subtly and slowly. It can be particularly perilous in two-career marriages when both partners focus a major share of their effort and activity on advancement and achievements outside the home. Most parallel couples cannot remember exactly when the distancing process began. How, then, can they recognize it in their marriage?

One clue is the language used when talking about the home and family—my (not our) children, my house, my money. Individuals in a parallel relationship may use personal references, not joint ones. The constant use of these pronouns emphasizes the two individuals’ separateness. Another clue may be separate activities. He has his activities with friends, she has hers with friends, but seldom or never do they find their enjoyment and satisfaction together.

My experience teaches me that most couples sense their relationship drifting apart. When they can recognize the problem of parallelism, there is hope. The earlier they recognize it, the better is their chance for a full recovery. There are a number of things they can do to mend the marriage and recapture their joys of earlier times.

Attitude Adjustment

In a sacrament meeting I once attended, a young speaker told the congregation that we would find something of great value attached to the bottom of the benches on which we were sitting. The message taped under the bench that day has served me well for more than 20 years in my personal life and counseling work: “So often we seek a change in our condition when what we really need is a change in our attitude.”

Separation and divorce should not be solutions for parallel marriages. If couples do not learn how to deal with relationship problems early, before these become severe, their inaction will almost certainly damage their future marital relationship. What is needed to avoid the problem of parallel marriage is a change of attitude from complacency and selfishness to excitement and service. We can make it happen, but we must believe it is within our power to reconfigure and redefine our relationship. Here are a number of helpful techniques.

Move toward “we,” “us,” and “ours.” Many couples experience almost immediate results when they return to doing things as a team. This can be encouraged by referring to the home, the children, and even the problems in a way that reflects joint responsibility. Start by using the words we, us, and ours in describing them. This strategy will encourage more closeness mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Rediscover the magic. I asked Matt and Megan to describe what it was that first attracted them to each other and what they did during their courtship that resulted in mutual feelings of love. Both were able to do so easily. Once they had described that early relationship and compared it to what they were doing—actually not doing—in the present, it became apparent why their marriage had become parallel. Megan had absorbed herself so much in motherhood and taking care of the home that little time was left for development of their relationship. Matt, almost obsessed with the desire to progress in his career, invested untold hours in his efforts to succeed. Their opportunities for spiritual, emotional, and physical intimacy were limited. They could see the need to rediscover the magic and to explore again the strategies that worked for them earlier in their relationship.

Do what works. I thought Megan and Matt were going to laugh when I told them the secret of a happy and healthy marriage: “Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.” Could anything be more plain than this? Do not let the simplicity of this strategy make you doubt it. If you are feeling that your marriage is heading for a parallel state, stop and rediscover the techniques you used in times past when you were initially building your relationship. With few exceptions, they will still work.

Speak the language of love. Another old and reliable technique for keeping love alive in marriage is to tell your spouse, at least once a day, how much you love and appreciate him or her. But say it in the language your spouse understands best. Some of us like words, some appreciate actions, and some respond best to touch. Discover and use your spouse’s love language.

Touch to say hello and good-bye. Touching when one is leaving home or returning can be a very effective way to bring parallel tracks together. The partner who is leaving for a period of time—not just to put out the cat—can seek out the spouse and lovingly say good-bye with a hug or a kiss. The spouse who is returning can seek out the partner and use this same technique to say, “I missed you and I’m glad I can be with you again.” You will feel the benefit of these simple behaviors almost immediately.

Look for the good. Don’t be a faultfinder, be a “good” finder. Negativism and criticism create distance between two people; being positive and complimentary creates closeness. Our focus needs to be on what is good in our relationship rather than what is bothering us, and we can help ourselves keep this focus by giving our spouses at least one sincere compliment a day. We have been commanded to “cease to find fault one with another” (D&C 88:124). When we do this, not only will our spouses be happier, but we will find that we are too.

Avoid the discouraging word. Most of us enjoy being around someone who builds us up and makes us feel good. Using words of encouragement, love, respect, courtesy, appreciation, admiration, and gratitude as we talk with one another will motivate us to spend more time together.

Smell the roses. Wise couples find a few minutes each day to ponder the blessings of their marriage—its potential for eternity, how much they appreciate each other, and so forth. There is a double benefit in this if we not only think these thoughts but also express them to our mates in word and deed.

Experience the wonder of the weekly date. Not only does the much-recommended weekly date allow husband and wife to spend time in enjoyable activities together, it also sends the message that the relationship is important. One couple I worked with found an easy way to plan dates. Each submitted a list of 10 activities he or she would enjoy with the partner. They cut their two papers into 20 small suggestion slips and put these in a bowl. Then each Sunday, during the weekly marriage council meeting they had established, they would draw one slip from the bowl and pursue that activity as their date for the week.

Render “due benevolence.” It is important to treat each other with “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3), as recommended by the Apostle Paul. Benevolence would include such behaviors as respect, courtesy, kindness, and generosity. What a wonderful blessing a marriage can be when we treat each other with love.

Building Here for Eternity

The thought-provoking words of Doctrine and Covenants 130:2—“that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there”—suggest that we ought to work carefully here and now to develop our mortal relationships into the kind that will bring us joy in postmortal life. We cannot assume that this development will automatically become easier when we are through with mortality. Amulek cautioned that this life is the time to prepare for the next phase of eternity (see Alma 34:32).

Fortunately, no one needs to settle for a mediocre marriage. The Book of Mormon also teaches us: “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). A large measure of that joy comes through marriage when we learn as husband and wife to walk side by side, not simply on parallel paths but together in love.

Five Good Ideas and One Bonus Tip

Here are a few more ideas and one added tip to help you build closeness with your spouse.

  1. Make the effort to find out more about your spouse’s job or home activities. Show an interest in learning about your spouse’s daily responsibilities—both the enjoyable and the burdensome aspects.

  2. Explore new ways to help. Husbands, if your wife is primarily responsible for care of the home—and statistics show that this is commonly true even when both spouses work—find out what you can do to help with the load and clear the way for the two of you to spend more time together. (Don’t tell her how to do her work better; let her teach you.) Wives, if your husband isn’t the kind to speak up about the pressure he’s under at work, can you find a way to lend your listening ear and let him know you’re concerned?

  3. Think about how your spouse’s talents and strengths might be used in service to others. Encourage this, and take part yourself so that you are serving together.

  4. Make time to talk about things other than children or family finances. Do you really know how your spouse feels about your relationship? about plans to reform local government or build the new school? about plans for retirement?

  5. Study the scriptures together. What does it truly mean to have a contrite spirit? Who is our neighbor, one who may be figuratively stripped and wounded, and how can we help him or her?

And now for that tip: You don’t need to rely on a list like this from someone else to help you reach out to your companion. You probably know your spouse better than anyone else in this world, particularly the interests and activities he or she feels are most important and enjoyable. Come up with your own list of joint activities, even if only in your mind. When you each look for opportunities to support the other’s growth and enjoyment, both of you will be happier, and you will find ways to grow closer.

  • Names have been changed.

  • Charles B. Beckert, a marriage and family therapist, is a Sunday School teacher in the North Ogden Fifth Ward, North Ogden Utah Stake.

Illustrated by Cary Henrie