Starving our relationships

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

Sometimes couples come into my office playing a blame game. “He leaves his underwear on the floor.” “She’s too wrapped up with the kids.” “He never wants sex.” Often they even blame themselves: “I can’t express my feelings and that’s why she cheated.” “I’m too needy.” Their focus is on individual shortcomings, on personal sin, although they rarely use that phrase. I try to offer a broader perspective.

Couple problems are just that, I tell them: couple problems. “In here, the relationship” — I slice the air between them with one hand, as though delineating an invisible presence sitting there on the loveseat — “is the patient.” After that we often end up talking about how busy they are. Two partners are working three jobs, one just to pay for health insurance. A mother has quit her job because child care is too costly or her job too inflexible, and her husband spends long hours away at the office to make up for the lost income. Survivors of multiple layoffs, working late nights in companies where employee morale has plummeted, come home stressed out and short-tempered. Under so much pressure, it’s easy for couples to back-burner their relationship. Without realizing it, partners lose touch with each other, neglecting the time for fun and intimacy and even the spicy disagreements that keep a marriage lively and strong. Continuing the metaphor, I tell them, “The patient is starving to death.”

Therapy isn’t usually about moments of dramatic recognition, but people’s eyes widen when they hear those words, and then they nod and we are ready to get to work.

Recently, on a trip to Ireland, I found a sculpture that instantly reminded me of the starving patient: Rowan Gillespie’s “Famine,” in Dublin. A dramatic installation on Custom House Quay beside the Liffey, this group of bronze figures – life-sized but stooped and achingly thin – appear to be taking halting steps toward emigration ships. Hollow-eyed, some carrying bundles, one a weary child, the figures stand together; yet in their misery each one looks withdrawn, utterly alone.

I have a picture of the bronze statues in my office now, and it’s not only their desperate starvation that draws me to them. It’s the story they tell. Most of us learned in school that a potato blight caused the Irish famine. But the Irish will inform you that even during the worst years of the Great Hunger, wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners were exporting oats, barley, butter and livestock overseas. Various charitable organizations, most notably the Society of Friends, spoke out against the government’s laissez faire policies, setting up soup kitchens, offering American grains, teaching the farmers to replant their fields, and supporting fishermen, and yet in only six years a million people died while another million left the country. The Great Hunger is one of history’s chilling examples of structural sin, the injustice built into a society’s underpinnings that, though often invisible to its victims, inflicts suffering on a mass scale.

That’s why the picture of the famine memorial seems so appropriate in my office. Here in an affluent area of a wealthy nation I sit and listen to people whose struggles to cover the cost of health insurance, child care, and retirement too often deplete the time and energy they need to relate to those they love. This is life, they tell themselves, and try to make the best of it.

They are trapped in an ethic of individualism that leaves them alone and exhausted. Working so hard at getting through the day, they scarcely have time to consider the possibility that many of their most intimate problems are directly linked to public policy. In a country where health care is not a guaranteed human right, where parental leave and vacation time are shorter than in other industrial societies, where child care is inadequate and expensive, and where the gap between rich and poor is bigger than it’s been since the Gilded Age, ordinary people are suffering at their kitchen tables and in their beds.

Many of us in front-line ministries can do our best, like the Quakers in the Irish famine, to offer comfort and nurture, one person at a time. But it’s time to talk more about structural sin. Until our national policies prioritize the support of families and individuals, our relationships will too often be starving to death.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at

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