The 1979 Barry Manilow song “Ships” peaked at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. Manilow’s beautiful melancholy tone in this song reflects the love of a father and son, best characterized by their geographical distance and emotional pain. They try to rationalize the pain, saying things might be different if they lived closer to each other. There is hope, they say. “We are both still here, so why can things be different?” That is the question the song is asking. But they are like two ships that are passing in the night.

Many marriages are like this. Despite living in the same house, sharing the same bed, parenting the same children, loving the same grandchildren, or attending the same church, I see and sometimes counsel couples that have ceased sharing their souls with one another. The marriage is no longer a “one-flesh” relationship. The arguing, fighting, lack of intimacy, name-calling, ungratefulness, selfishness, or even lack of friendship have taken its toll. These couples have become little more than roommates. Emotionally, and sometimes physically, they are like two ships passing in the night.

Ten years ago, a nursing supervisor addressed a group of chaplains preparing to earn another unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. She was very transparent, telling us a little about her personal life by saying she and her husband divorced. She talked about what she liked about her work but confessed it took a toll on her marriage. She said that her husband used to tell her she used up all her compassion for her patients and had none left for him when she got home.

Her honesty and transparency were refreshing. While she likely carried more of the responsibility for the failure of her marriage than she should have, she knew that she had pulled back and stopped investing in the relationship. She may have used her job as an excuse to avoid addressing issues that were already present in the relationship.  Avoidance is a contributing factor in unresolved issues in relationships.  When couples stop talking or addressing problems, they become like two ships that pass in the night.

It’s not unusual for one in the marriage to be more assertive than the other. One is usually better at asking for what one wants or needs. Sometimes, one is more dominant or thinks the other tries to dominate the relationship.  It’s not unusual for one to be higher in avoidance than the other. When many of these are in play, it is a recipe for problems.  Most couples are not aware of the dynamics that are causing the relationship to unravel.  Most don’t have a plan to repair the problems.  Most know that something is wrong. Those that will admit it and find help with a therapist have a much better chance to save the relationship.

I’ve always done pre-marital counseling with those couples that I have married. I’ve wanted to help them with conflict resolution and communication skills. Every couple needs to have these skills. We also discuss their strengths and growth areas around these topics: sexuality, religion, finances, personality issues, role responsibilities, parenting, family and friends, and leisure activities ( Some couples have yet to have any serious conversation on several on these topics.

Learning to communicate about real issues is one benefit couples get from marriage counseling.  Helping couples learn how to talk about these issues and learn how to solve their problems is rewarding for me as a counselor.

As a pastoral counselor, I discovered when counseling married couples, many just stop talking about issues because they end up fighting and nothing ever gets resolved. They retreat to their side of the house, to their side of the argument, to their habitual ways, to their understanding of how things should be, or to their bad habits, and mostly blame each other for the problems.  Their hearts grow hard and they stop being nice to each other.  Then the intimacy dissipates.

It’s not always the case, but many couples with marital problems are like two ships passing in the night. Unlike the father and son in Manilow’s song, these couples are geographically together, but emotionally separated. They are still together if you look at their address, but many only remain together because of the children or because of their finances. Both are feeling pain. Love may still be there, but it’s seeping away, like air from a hole in a balloon.

The beauty of counseling is that it offers hope and solutions. One wife who came to counseling with her husband after finding out he had a porn addiction said, “I just need to know there is still some hope for this marriage.”  The marriage survived!

In addition, most couples that come to counseling are suffering from not being able to manage their stress. With work, children, debt, in-law pressures, school, health issues, and other unexpected problems, some couples buckle under the pressure. This kind of stress often kills intimacy. Stress adds another burden to the relationship. Counseling cannot eliminate stress, but clients can learn to manage stress in counseling.

When couples learn patience, the value of gratitude, understand their partner’s love language, learn to manage stress, figure out the value of daily communication, learn how to fight fair (conflict resolution), understand their strengths and growth areas as a couple, learn to manage their finances, put boundaries around their relationship, learn what their values and priorities are as a couple, celebrate their successes, revisit the reason they fell in love with each other, learn what forgiveness is and how to forgive each other, and understand how they can serve their spouse unconditionally, the love in the relationship rekindles and intimacy can return.

Rekindling intimacy and reestablishing trust take time and hard work. The couple must look at each other and ask, “We are still here. Why can’t things be different?”  Couples have to decide that things can be different.  Couples must decide that if they still love each other that things must change, because if they do not change, the relationship likely will not survive.

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