The Forgotten (But Essential) Foundation of a Powerful Marriage

As a marital therapist, I’ve watched beautifully-communicated and perfectly organized divorces, and I’ve watched the gutsiest and sloppiest marital healing. Great communication can only take us so far in marriage. The truth is, to take our marriages to the next level, we must be willing to go to the bottom level…

Marital conflict has a basement

Photo Credit: howzey (Creative Commons)

When I settle into my office chair for a first marital therapy session, the script is usually pretty predictable.

Me: “What brings you to therapy now?”

(Brave and Terrified and Angry) Couple: “Communication.”

Most couples—in therapy and out—struggle with communication and believe if they can become first-class communicators, their marriages will finally be satisfying. For decades, researchers held the same assumption, believing improved problem-solving skills would result in more marital happiness. Scientists now know this: good communication does help.

A little.

That is, for some reason, only a fraction of couples report more marital happiness as the direct result of improved communication. Even worse, most of those couples become chronically dissatisfied again within a year.

I think dynamic, rebellious marriages begin by shattering a false hope: while communication is important, it is not the foundation of our marital homes.

Marriage as a House

If your marriage were a house, communication would be the front door, important for providing entry to the living quarters—those areas of life we spend most of our time inhabiting and discussing such as finances and jobs and parenting and leisure interests. But communication is ultimately not the key to the structural integrity of the marital “home.”

Because every home has a foundation beneath the living quarters.

In the suburbs of Chicago, for reasons of geological necessity, most homes have a basement. And they are a huge headache. They flood easily and can become a haven for mold and allergens. So, many homeowners in Chicago will leave their basements untouched and forgotten—full of old junk and lots of cobwebs.

I think our marriages work the same way.

Our marriages all have another door: the door to the cellar. And if you press your ear to it, you’ll hear activity down there. It’s the restless stirring of two trapped and hurting children.

The Basement of Our Marriages

When we stand at the wedding altar, we are not simply one adult being wedded to another. We are also two children seeking, finally, an adult who will meet our need for connection and belonging.

I suppose that might sound like a bunch of Freudian baloney. But after practicing marital therapy for more than a decade, I am certain that until we enter into this truth of our interior lives, the foundation of our marriages will be cracked and rotting and no amount of good communication will be able to repair them.

As partners, we must descend into the basement of our histories—into our stories riddled with disappointment and inattentiveness and loneliness and shame and rejection—before we can fully understand why we are fighting and what we are fighting for.

Because our fights in the living room are almost always about what’s going on in the basement:

She’s fighting about finances, but really she is voicing a desperate plea for someone who will finally see her and treat her as someone entitled to the dignity of shared influence and control.

Or he is demanding more expressions of gratitude for his career sacrifices, but really he is running away from a childhood in which he was never good enough, and he wants someone to look him in the eye and finally say, “You can rest now, you are completely sufficient and acceptable to us.”

Or she is fighting about another Christmas morning spent at his parents’ house, but really she is asking for the most important person in her life to make her the most important person in his life, because she never felt that way as a kid, when mom and dad made their marital conflict the first priority in her childhood home.

And the list goes on and on. We try to use our communication skills to neatly solve the often-discussed problems of marriage such as how to spend our time and our money. Meanwhile, we are children seeking the satisfaction of much more primitive needs. So, we reach compromises about in-laws and money, but we remain deeply hurt and lonely and we wonder why.

The answer?

We need to enter into the cellars of our marital homes together, freeing the voiceless children we find there. 

Opening the Cellar Door

Unlike the front door of our marital homes, the door to the cellar is not good communication.

The door to the cellar is feeling.

Feeling the fullness of our disappointments and regrets. This kind of feeling is often not neat and orderly. It comes out all sputtering and choking and wet-cheeked. It’s excavated in fits and starts. It doesn’t take turns or engage in reflective listening. It comes out like childbirth—it’s a mess and it happens by any means necessary.

Often, a marriage is stagnant and dying because the communication is perfect, yet neither spouse is willing to feel their pain together. 

We must stop talking to one another, and we must begin feeling with each other.

If we can do this together—if we can feel it together, and free the children in the cellar, and grieve our stories as one—our marriages will finally give birth to the kind of connection and the sense of belonging for which we are so deeply longing. We will discover that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a wet cheek is worth a million. We will become lifelong partners who can communicate clearly and feel deeply—the dynamic duo of marital strength.

And, really, that’s the forgotten and unspoken secret of marriage and life, isn’t it? Weakness becomes strength, darkness reveals the light, grief gives way to peace, shame is transformed into worthiness, sorrow is made into joy, and messiness is glorious.

May 2013 be the year you join hands with your partner, descend into the darkness of your marital cellars, and surprisingly, joyfully, find there the light of grace and the glow of authentic connection.

Questions: On the Facebook page, many of you identified pride and ego as the biggest barrier to successful communication. How do you think pride interferes with this process of feeling together? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page  


Dear Reader, First of all, thank you! Your response to my vulnerable plea for help last week was so encouraging and affirming. It’s a reminder to me that if we can only risk putting ourselves out there with the right people, we will find ourselves embraced and valued.

Second, if you are coming across the blog for the first time, my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is now available. There are two ways to get a copy. First, new blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook.

Finally, a little heads-up about the next post. This coming Tuesday my post will be a follow-up to this post and will be entitled, “The 5 Things We’re All Fighting for in Marriage.” As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift.

Sincerely, Kelly

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • LA

    Sounds exactly right – FEEL together, descend into the cellar together. But HOW? Step one, step 2, etc.

  • Harriet

    Beautiful.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Harriet!

  • AlphaKing

    Your imagery is dead on, “the basement”, the dungeon, the Cave. Expose it, share it, and learn to live with it. I have wanted to do that in my second marriage, with a special woman. But it’s damn hard to open that door, as it is meant to keep all of that nastiness contained so as not to choke out the Light. But opening it isn’t as hard as it is to keep it closed.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your exactly right! The emotional effort and energy we put into keeping the basement door closed can result in a kind of psychic exhaustion that looks a lot like depression. I want to post about that soon.

  • Shiz Crazyfeet Wachira

    How do we feel together???

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shiz, you’re asking the same question as LA below. I don’t have a specific answer to that, as we’ll all be different. But I think I can say I’ve learned this in my psychotherapy work: feelings are designed to be felt! In other words, if we are having trouble feeling them, we don’t try harder to feel them, we begin to learn about the barriers we have put in place to prevent ourselves from feeling them. Blame, certainty, substances, perfectionism, etc. More on this in coming weeks. Ultimately, though, if it feels impossible, this is where a good couples therapist can help to guide a couple to their feelings.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Once again you have managed to make me stop and really think. I am certain that this is why I look so forward to your postings each week. I just want to say what you have written is so very true.

    I was raised in a family where my father taught us girls to be tough and strong and keep our emotions in check. Working in Corporate America, he did his job to make sure I could be successful and not be emotional about things. I think to a certain extent that toughness and strength is what people see. I am not saying I am not those things it is just that deep down I am still a scared kid like everyone else. But that strength can be misunderstood if you never let down that wall to your spouse for them to see the insecure kid inside. For many years in my marriage the wall was up and I can say looking back, I was angry and disappointed. Because of that I could easily tell you all the many ways my husband was lacking and just not doing what I thought he should do. I am not proud of that. I am actually very sorry for the way I treated him and the expectations I put on him.

    But then, something happened that changed the course of our life together and the dynamic of our marriage. I sat in a doctor’s office and was told that they thought I had ovarian cancer and I needed surgery. Cancer is bad no matter what but for me it was even harder since I have watched people who meant a great deal to me be swallowed up by the disease and slowly become less and less like themselves, and then they died. So this was by far one of my greatest fears. At the time my kids were young and we did not want to tell them anything until right before the surgery because we did not want them to worry or be afraid. It was in those weeks while I was waiting for surgery that I would be the tough strong woman by day, keeping it together in front of the kids. But at night in the privacy of my room I would struggle with all the things no one should think about. Looking back I know it would have been easier if I had let my husband into my pain sooner but I was tough, I was in control and hey I was taught to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had my faith and I was leaning on God. Then one day a dear friend said to me why are you doing this alone? God gave you a partner to share this pain and uncertainty. So I let down the wall and it was hard to not be in control and to not have answers and to have all this fear of the future. But imagine my surprise when my husband not only was there for me physically by wrapping me in his arms at night but emotionally when the fear got the best of me. He told me to hang tight and he would navigate us through this storm. One thing I know is that once the wall comes down you have the desire to put it back up. You think you need that to somehow protect yourself. But my husband would not let that happen. He wanted to be there in the messy, frustrating uncertainty of our future. When I look back on the earlier times in my marriage I am sad because I know how unfair I was to my husband. I spent more time looking for all the things he did wrong to miss all the many blessings of the things he did right.

    So no I will not say that this is now the magical cure of all our issues and we lived
    happily ever after. But the one thing I know is that the depth of our marriage grew.
    Unfortunately, that was not the only time the doctors thought I had ovarian cancer. We went through this struggle 3 times in 5 yrs. And each time he was there to take care of me and to be the strength I needed to get through the recovery. I was blessed to not have cancer. Many people in the world are not so lucky. I would just encourage people to let down the walls and to not wait for a major health scare to reach out and let the one you love know you really need them. You see when you are so strong it really can make them think you don’t need them at all. Then you can get mad because you know you need them but they are not there for you like you want them to be. When you let your spouse feel your pain, frustration and fear you open up your marriage to grow deeper and more meaningful each year.

    Kelly, I really loved this and appreciate your insight as always. In answer to your question, yes pride gets in the way because we don’t want to appear weak. We don’t want to be needy or acknowledge we need our spouse and we also want to be there for them too. It is hard for people to believe, but the truth is once you do care enough to share your feelings you gain so much more than you could ever imagine.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m with OneDayatAtime, Jennifer, your response is like a beautiful addendum to the post. My “Letter to Masculinity” post was intended to call into question that very attitude that was instilled into you. It can do so much harm and you showed incredible courage in letting down those walls. Your husband and you are lucky to have each other!

  • OneDayatAtime

    Wow! What a powerful message and Jennifer’s reply was another message in itself. I have been married 33 years and separated going on 10 now. People that know us as a couple are just amazed with our separation. Referring to the cellar is a great image to maybe a better part of our difficulties. I have said this for years and my spouse doesn’t want to go there and sharing this with him might help understand more of what is going on. I was sexual molested as a small child, he suffered the lost of his father to cancer at a young age and then the lost of a finance 1 month before the wedding. Yes there is a lot of baggage in that cellar. Now we have raised 4 bio-children that are fairly stable and well adjusted, I hope. I am a grandmother and my daughter now realizes that her mom has broken the cycle of dysfunctional that is my past. Referring to Shiz’s comment on feelings, well that is the work that I started 10 years ago, and it is plain hard work. You wouldn’t think so until you start on that journey. I walked away from my extended family at the age of 15 and made it on my own and thought that I had all that under control. Oh boy how wrong I was and it is a continuing process. When we was in marriage counseling the counselors told me that I had to help my spouse work on his feelings. My 1st thought was what the hay, I have enough to work on my own. Let him work on his own! Boy how wrong I was again! This marriage stuff is plain hard work and like they said “not for whinnies.” As much as I didn’t want to take on helping my spouse come to “feel” I am the best person to do so. I know him the best and marriage is fairly intimate and through my own continuing work on feeling have come to realize just how much I have not been considering his feelings as much as he has been unable to consider mine. So a very good post Dr. Kelly and still pluggin away. With a lot of knee pray and “One day at time” attitude I make it through the days. Look forward to your next posts. Ps. I did share your book with him “The Marriage Manifesto” and he is reading it. So happy to have come across your blog, but suspect God’s Hand in that. Hugs!!!

    • Jennifer Newell

      I could not agree with you more, “Marriage is not for whinnies”. It is the most difficult wonderful relationship you will ever have. Having a One day at a time attitude will help you to manage your expectations. For me that was the hardest part. I had expectations and I was quick to point out all the failings of my husband. The interesting part is he rarely did the same, only after I pushed a little too much. I think I continue to learn each day about marriage and partnership. I pray that your husband might find something in The Marriage Manifesto that would enable you both to talk about your feelings and build a bridge to connect over some of the issues in the basement. I believe God’s hand is in your finding the blog and in the thought provoking words Kelly puts to paper.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m happy you found us, too! Thank you for sharing part of your story here. Blessings to you as you engage this “plain hard work” of life and love!

  • Sara

    Wow. So very true. Someone posted this on facebook today and I feel like I was meant to read it. To me, it seems very clear how the painful events of my childhood have impacted my marriage, but sometimes I start to think that I’m just focusing too much on the past and that I just need to “get over it.” Thank you so much for this post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Sara, So glad you found the blog! You’re not alone in thinking you are dwelling too much on the past. I often have to remind people that working through the past isn’t about tearing people down or holding grudges or being self-indulgent. It’s about becoming wise regarding the various forces that have shaped us and learning how to reduce their influence on us over time. Like I said, so glad you’re here, and don’t ever hesitate to share your thoughts!

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  • Era

    Im very greatful to have found your blog. It made me better understand not only my partner buy also myself. Thank you kelly..

    • drkellyflanagan

      Era, I’m glad you found us, too. I hope the posts continue to resonate with you and please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and reactions!