Psychiatrist Clifford Sager Offers a New Kind of 'Contract' That May Help Save Marriages

Approximately one out of two marriages ends in divorce. Psychiatrist Clifford Sager, 63, a pioneer in the field of couples therapy, believes many of these can be saved. Drawing on multiple disciplines, including psychoanalysis, behavior therapy and general systems theory, he suggests how in Intimate Partners: Hidden Patterns in Love Relationships (McGraw Hill, $8.95), written for the layman with Bern ice Hunt.

The son of a hat-and-cap manufacturer, Dr. Sager grew up in New York. “I was an emotionally disturbed kid and I stuttered, “he recalls. “From the age of 9 to 13 I underwent child therapy with a psychoanalyst, probably one of the first children in the country to do so. My doctor was such a marvelous guy I knew I wanted to be a psychiatrist by the time I was 12.” Sager graduated from Penn State in 1937 and NYU Medical School in 1941. First widowed and then divorced, he married his third wife, Anne, 51, a photographer, last year. Together they have eight children, aged 19 to 35 (four are his, four are hers from two previous marriages), seven of whom attended their East Hampton beachfront wedding in September 1978.

In addition to his private practice, Sager is clinical professor of psychiatry at New York’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and director of family psychiatry on the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. He is a former president of the Eastern Association of Sex Therapists and continues to co-edit the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy with Helen S. Kaplan. Sager explained his eclectic approach to repairing damaged marriages with Kristin McMurran of PEOPLE.

Why do so many marriages fail?

One major reason is that we expect too much from our mates. We want love, but sometimes we expect them to fulfill our needs more than any partner is capable of doing.

What is too much to expect?

A partner cannot promise, “I will love you forever,” nor promise never to change. Mates can’t promise that one will die first, that children will not change their relationship.

Is the feminist movement a factor?

Yes. In the past a woman’s definition of self was based upon whom she married, what her husband’s position was, how well she kept her house, reared her children. Women’s lib has given women a better sense of themselves. They work, they golf, sometimes they admit that children are a pain in the ass. Women have greater economic independence. It’s very difficult for some men to understand and go along with this.

What are other reasons marriages fail?

The loss of passion can lead to a breakup. When people fall madly in love, there is a great sexual attraction. The feeling is like the high of heroin. That kind of intensity rarely lasts more than three years, if that long. But when the rush goes people say, “Well, this marriage is no damn good.” They cannot face the idea that the magic and joy they felt in the beginning may not last forever.

What should they do when this happens?

Don’t panic. This is a natural phenomenon. Accept the fact that the relationship will be different, but it can be richer and fuller. People have to know the limitations of any relationship. They have to like and respect the other person as he or she really is.

What complaints do you hear from unhappy couples?

The most common is lack of communication, which is really lack of intimacy. Many couples fight about money, in-laws, children and even who takes out the garbage, when those are not the real issues. Often the fights have to do with unconscious feelings, needs, wishes. If these aren’t allowed to surface, couples are dealing with hundreds of brushfires rather than the source that ignites them.

Are all these expectations unconscious?

No. There are three levels. First, there are openly expressed expectations. Most people want a mate who will be loyal, loving and exclusive. Secondly, there are thoughts and wishes that are conscious but not expressed, usually out of fear. For example, one mate may love classical music but the other doesn’t want to say, “That stuff makes me go to sleep,” for fear of being thought inferior.

And the third level?

It’s beyond awareness, where people are not really sure what they want. Everybody has certain psychological and biological needs and urges that determine behavior. A husband may think he likes to be in charge, but if he has to make a decision about a social engagement, he wants his wife to do it. He doesn’t even realize he has this dependency. Of course he gets annoyed if it doesn’t turn out the way he thinks he’d like.

What should couples do?

First, it is important for each partner to figure out privately what he or she expects to give and to get in return. It often helps for them to write these things down. I call this a covenant, but it isn’t the usual marriage contract or business agreement. Each partner enters a relationship with a set of conscious and unconscious needs and wishes which they expect the other partner to fulfill. They often assume there is mutual agreement when there is not.

What inner needs should you explore in your personal covenant?

You should ask yourself: Am I independent or dependent, active or passive? Power is an important area. Can I share it or do I want it all? It’s very common to abdicate power and then resent it. Dick asks Jane to take the car in for a tune-up. While there she authorizes repairs. When she tells Dick, he explodes and rants about her stupidity. Dick wants Jane to share the power, but he is afraid she will use it to dominate him.

What’s another inner need?

Intimacy. How much closeness do I really want? I’ve seen couples who complain that they can’t communicate. Joe will say, “I’d like Mary to talk to me about things that are important to her.” But every time Mary opens her mouth Joe interrupts. This man has no awareness that when his wife talks to him it makes him uncomfortable. What he means by intimacy is that he selects the things they talk about. Other questions: Do I fear abandonment? What makes me anxious? How do I cope with it? How do I feel about myself as a man or a woman? Do I like my mate’s attitudes toward sex?

In your book you talk about a sexual covenant. What is it?

Since sex is both basic and complex, it calls for special attention. All partnerships have areas of conflict and areas of agreement, and sex can fall into either category. Many couples have different sexual expectations. What is normal is what’s comfortable for the two people. Frequency may be a problem. If one person feels dissatisfied, he or she should discuss it.

What advice do you have?

Partners have to be very open about their sexual needs. But that’s hard if you feel you will be put down as crazy or kinky. It’s nice to be able to talk about your fantasies with your mate. It doesn’t mean you have to carry them out.

What should partners do after they’ve worked out their private covenants?

Then you work out a couple covenant between the two of you. That doesn’t mean you give up your individual covenant or that you both agree on everything. Every good relationship has compromises. Sweeten the deal—make a trade-off. Say I’ll do this for you if you’ll do this for me. You should go through all the points on both lists. If one of you thinks an item is significant, then the other must not dismiss it. And try not to fight. Each person should have three minutes without being interrupted. Don’t use words like always or never (i.e., “You’re always late,” “You never talk to me”); that can trigger an argument. Don’t bring in another authority (“Your brother also thinks you’re an s.o.b.”).

What should you look for?

As you proceed you will notice patterns emerging. Try to explain how you feel. Listen to your mate’s point of view. As you work through your joint covenant, you will find a lot of places where you agree. Just by listening you can make some progress. If a real impasse occurs, a couple should seek therapy.

Have you discovered typical behavior patterns?

Yes, although an individual does not necessarily behave one way with everyone. A common type is the romantic—jealous, passionate and sentimental. He expects his partner to be a soul-mate, and it can be stifling. Then there is the parental partner who relates to a mate as if he or she were a child. Some are benign and loving, others are punitive and authoritarian. An equal partner, however, realizes he cannot give everything. He has a sense of his own worth. Equal partners are more active than passive and not competitive.

What is your own behavioral profile?

My wife, Anne, and I are equal-equal partners, with a romantic flavor to it. We both need space and time to ourselves. We try to bring things out in the open when either of us has strong feelings about something. We’re pretty good about letting each other know what we want, whether it’s in our living style or our sexual relationship.

How did you and Anne make your covenant?

We spent many hours over an entire month talking through our lists, and each of us brought out latent things we were not aware of and clarified our misconceptions. I sensed that she was a little uncomfortable at first, but she has been psychoanalyzed and is very much in touch with her feelings.

What were some of your trade-offs?

Neither one is the boss of the other. We both have a need for privacy. When I’m working, I resent being interrupted. She is the same. When she is in her darkroom, I wouldn’t bother her unless the apartment was on fire. We also have an understanding that although my kids like her and vice versa, they need some time with me alone.

What advice do you have about marriage?

I urge people to live together before they decide to marry. Anne and I lived together for two years. Don’t rush things. If you’ve been divorced, wait a full year before remarrying. When you are dating a person you love, every date is exciting. You want to have sex every time you see them. But after you can be in the same bed night after night, that need becomes less intense. Other things begin to change. You see people not only at their best but at their worst.

What about having children?

People must think seriously about it. It’s an 18-to-20-year responsibility. You must give your time, energy, love, money. You won’t be able to go off skiing every weekend. What are the expenses? Will you need more space? Will Mary quit working? But if you decide on children, having the husband present at the birth is marvelous. He may feel excluded as the mother gives the child attention and love, and this can help.

Is divorce too easy?

People should spend as much time contemplating divorce as they do deciding to get married, but the option to get out should be easy. It is pointless to live in a dead marriage. Nor should people stay together solely for the children. It can be damaging for a child to be reared in a cold, unloving atmosphere.

Is there such a thing as a perfect relationship?

It exists only in fantasy. It is unrealistic to believe any couple can be free of differences. But I think there are great numbers of happily married couples. By listening to each other and giving pleasure and making compromises, couples can enjoy a very satisfying relationship based on openness, sharing, support, trust and intimacy—which is the highest order of love.

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