Gail Carson-Webb, Psy.D.


The Invisible Spouse

Some of the most frequent calls I receive are calls from the Invisible Spouse, who is also one of my most frequently seen clients.  The Invisible Spouse comes in many guises:  he or she may be a reserved, low profile person, but may also be a high profile individual, handling a great deal of responsibility, living very much in the public eye.  The Invisible Spouse has a problem with visibility, so to speak, largely because he or she feels unseen and misunderstood by the one person whose attention is most desired:  the marital partner. 

The Invisible Spouse has usually been carrying worry and stress about the state of the love relationship for a long time.  That individual is unhappy, feels a need for change, and can no longer deny the distress about it anymore.  Often, he or she will ask the marital partner to engage in counseling.  To the dismay of the Invisible Spouse, the request is usually met with a refusal.  The refusal may be based on any number of issues:  perhaps the refusing partner feels the relationship is not really in much trouble and the appeal to therapy is just a dramatic request that will go away on its own.  Sometimes the refusing partner cares deeply about the relationship (and the other person) but fails utterly to understand or take seriously how unhappy the other person is, in spite of the Invisible Spouse's attempts to communicate that unhappiness.  Perhaps there is worry about the time commitment or the financial commitment required to make therapy possible.  Sometimes the refusing partner expresses the idea that there are indeed serious problems in the relationship, all of which are the Invisible Spouse's fault, thus there is no need for couples' counseling because the only person who has problems or "needs fixing" is the Invisible Spouse.  Sometimes the person refusing therapy doesn't want to participate for fear of what will be uncovered, or asked for, in sessions.

Invisible Spouses are as uniquely individual as all people are, but they do tend to have at least some, and occasionally, all, of the following characteristics:  

  • They are usually very focused on what their spouses feel or need in a way that does not feel reciprocal (they do not feel their spouses exhibit the same type or level of concern about them, thought they may recognize some caring behaviors of the spouse)
  • They tend to worry a great deal about the impact, particularly upon their spouses, of making changes in their lives
  • They focus so much on their significant others' feelings and reactions that they often fail to pay adequate attention to their own
  • They are prone to have "cyclical" contact with their feelings about the marriage and themselves:  they will become very unhappy for a time and then submerge the unhappiness by trying to please others or engaging in distracting behaviors (being too busy to be upset, working too many hours, over-committing themselves, eating too much, exercising excessively, shopping, etc.)
  • They tend to carry an excessive amount of responsibility and guilt for their marriage which again is usually not experienced as reciprocal; the spouse shows no such similar level of these feelings
  • They avoid making changes that they need to make for fear of the spouse's disapproval
  • Within the marital relationship, they are often easily shamed and guilted, as well as easily manipulated (not necessarily in all relationships, but within the marriage)
  • They keep hoping that their spouses will "get it" and change, or show the level of caring that they yearn for, and hope that change will happen without having to "rock the boat" too much
While individual therapy is not the same as marital therapy, individual therapy is usually the Invisible Spouse's best option for change.  As the Invisible Spouse begins to address his or her own needs, focusing on what he or she can control instead of on what he or she can't, insight, personal strength, and self-regard typically improve.  Additionally, the partner of the Invisible Spouse, though not in therapy, typically responds to the Invisible Spouse's changes in ways that clarify the state and the potential of the marriage to the Invisible Spouse.  When a partner is not willing to participate in efforts to change, waiting for that partner to change or to understand the Invisible Spouse usually only prolongs the difficulty, whereas working on oneself can with time increase one's sense of personal efficacy and well-being.