Preserving your relationship – and your sanity

Two-career couples. Gay marriage. Shifting roles for men and women.

“We’re in a time of huge transition,” says Bronxville psychotherapist Mary Giuffra. “Many of the external structures and social institutions are gone or seem to be shifting. The one constant is change.”

And that can offer quite a challenge to those in a romantic relationship.

“People think, ‘Another person – he’ll be my center,’” she says. “If I marry the right person, we’ll live happily ever after. That’s lovely, but the adult has to see that no one can be there for you every moment except you.”

Rather than shrink from that realization, she suggests you consider “How does this offer me an opportunity to grow, to do for others what others didn’t necessarily do for me?”

Though it may sound counterintuitive, the key to a successful relationship lies in the centeredness of the individuals involved, says Giuffra, who immediately engages you with her warmth and easy conversational style. Over coffee, crumb cake – and good old-fashioned girl talk – at Slave to the Grind in Bronxville, she distinguishes between shame, which makes you feel bad about who you are and guilt, which makes you feel bad about violating a value.

“You have to say to yourself, ‘What do I feel guilty about? Whose value is it anyway?’”

Often, we cling to values that belong to another time or another person (such as a parent), instead of “getting to love what it means to be human, getting to love our imperfections.’”

With 40 years of experience as a New York state-licensed marriage and family therapist and a board-certified clinical specialist in psychiatric mental health, Giuffra has seen her share of guilt, particularly among working mothers who worry that they’re not doing enough for their children. When it comes to two-career families, she’s not only talked the talk in her practice and on her blog; she’s walked the walk. Her own mother was a nurse. An aunt was a midwife and both grandmothers worked.

“I didn’t know men or women’s roles,” she remembers. “My father helped with the cooking and bathing the kids.”

Giuffra found her independent-mindedness early: “If (my mother) had been there all the time, there would’ve been more of her but less of me.”

When her own time came, Giuffra followed her mother into nursing, where she became fascinated by family dynamics. But she was also at home with her children for five years. When they went to school, so did she, earning a doctorate at New York University. She has been a tenured faculty member there and at the College of Mount St. Vincent, where she was the founding director of the bachelor’s and master’s nursing program. She also trains therapists in Canada and Hong Kong and throughout the United States. (After the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Giuffra coordinated a trauma response there.)

The two-career approach can prepare kids for the 21st century, she says but adds that “there are different strokes for different folks. There’s no right or wrong way. If you think it’s best to be with your children, then that’s fabulous.”

In a sense, Giuffra says, gay couples may have it easier than straight ones even though they’ve had to surmount societal prejudices and legal challenges. “They don’t have the predictable roles” that men and women have been raised with and that have been eroding.

Neither may couples who are well educated and marry later. Studies show they tend to stay married longer.

Our conversation turns to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who met as flat-mates at the University of St. Andrews in 2003, marrying in 2011 – a marked contrast to Prince William’s mother – Diana, princess of Wales – who was barely out of her teens when she married Prince Charles. “(The duke and duchess) have ownership of their own values,” Giuffra says.

But whether you are a gay or straight couple or your courtship is long or short, expect one thing to be true:  Nothing stays the same.

“Whatever happens today,” Giuffra says, “enjoy it. It will be different tomorrow.”

For a free copy of Mary Giuffra’s 17-page “10 Secrets of a Successful Two Career Relationship,” visit And for more, visit

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1 Comment

  1. says: Carol Lindsey

    Dr. Giuffra is both insightful and articulate in her appraisal of individuals and of their relationships. What a pleasure to know that she is available to assist all couples in need of grounded and sound wisdom.

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