They are a couple of young Washington professionals -- pursuing high-powered careers, in their mid-30s, fond of travel and French food. They work togeher, and, for all practical purposes, live together, commuting between his house and her apartment.
It happened, as it often does when two people are close, that one day they had a major disagreement. It was the sort of fundamental difference that can send unmarried couples their separate ways, but this one handled it differently: They went to a marriage counselor.
The ironies of the situation are not lost on this couple, nor on the counselor, Dr. Michael Kerr, director of training at the Georgetown Family Center. They picked him after hearing of four other unwed couples he had helped.
Kerr works out of a nondescript building at the junction of Macarthur Boulevard and Foxhall Road, a warren of conference rooms where circles and squares identify the ladies and men's rooms. The soft-spoken, wry psyschologist, who could have been the prototype for Bob Newhart's Dr. Hartley, has a succinct answer for why the unmarrieds are seeking his help:
"They have trouble getting along, like married people."
While Kerr says the bulk of his work is still with married couples, it's not surprising that he would be called upon for help by live-in couples. According to Census Bureau figures, the number of unmarried couples living together has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
Kerr categorizes most married couples' grievances in three categories:
1. A problem in their marriage where "their emotional energy is focused on each other."
2. A power struggle in which the loser is "not functioning well," turning to alcohol, depression, or other problems.
3. A problem with the children.
There's a vast majority of situations, he says, where the conflict is "over sex, living arrangements, 'You're not doing your fair share around here.'"
Take away the third situation, Kerr says, and the unmarrieds' problems are pretty much the same as their married counterparts'. But another element, equally frustrating, is added for the live-ins: One partner wants to get married and the other does not. That's what brought the pair of young professionals to Kerr's door, as it had others before them.
She wants to get married; he doesn't.
"She was going through an anxiety attack," said the male half. "She has to make a decision about her future . . . about the possibility of have a child." He wishes to keep the status quo.
"The real issue is his fear of making a permanent commitment and taking responsibility for decisions," she said.
He has some specific reservations -- his parents' marriage, he said, "is not a happy one -- it's a drag." And he comes from an Asian family, she from an Irish-American one, raising the hurdle of international marriage.
"There's the issue of a child," he said. "Do I want to have a racially mixed child?"
She, on the other hand, has already gone through a very bad marriage, and emerged with her optimism intact. "I'd like to have five lifetimes."
Each hoped Kerr could help change the other's mind. But Kerr offers no pat solutions.
"The main thing (in counseling)," he says, "is that for people to change, they neen to work on changing themselves in relation to the people emotionally significant to them.
"When they're trying to change the other person, I try to convince them to give up on that. Among people who aren't married, there is the sense of having an 'out.' In some ways it makes it a little easier."
But among the unmarrieds who come to his office, the sense of commitment is still strong, strong enough to keep them from taking the "out."
"People get into a bind. They're reacting back and forth to each other, and they wind up in a position where they're polarized. The problem is not the problem itself, it is the anxiety about the problem."
One way to help, says Kerr, is through a sense of humor. "You get people to back off and learn to laugh, and people are much more cooperative."
Another, more fundamental approach -- and in fact the lynchpin of Kerr's therapy -- is to get each partner to explore the relationships within his or her own family, parents, siblins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Kerr encourages couples to talk with relatives to gain a better understanding.
"We're getting them to look at their families in terms of a number of generations. You are the product of all these generations, and you put this problem in perspective."
Sometimes the problem is too much togetherness. One couple Kerr pulls from his files had been involved with each other four years. He's a lawyer, she's a stockbroker. First, he wanted to get married and she balked.
"She was afraid of getting caught up with his family," Kerr says. She felt too close to his problems. "She felt she was losing her sense of self, and to recover, she would have to have to get some distance, to move out or get involved with someone else."
The man, however, "found the relationship very assuring. He monitored her for signs."
Kerr looks up from the file and smiles, "It's your basic human stuff."
He resumes. "She was exquisitely sensitive." She sought distance from him, then decided she wanted to marry him after all. But he had changed his mind.
"She's got her own needs for closeness and involvement, and when she comes toward him with this, he's overwhelmed and withdrawn. She feels rejected."
Eventually the couple split up and married different partners, different personalities. but, with a touch of romaticism, the counselor adds that they could reunite, 20 years from now, and easily find themselves still in love.
"Too much togetherness can leave one feeling stifled and smothered," Kerr says, "not enough leaves them isolated and along. People are trying to strike up some sort of balance."
Many couples, he says, "are avoiding marriage to a certain extent because they want to avoid the kind of entangelement that might stifle them, but they don't want the isolation that follows breaking up."
Current social and economic trends also feed the fears.
"Society is going through anxiety -- this will have more of an impact on people; it will influence their decisions about marriage and kids. There's not that sureness and confidence that things can work out."
The confidence that marriage can work out failed to jell for the couple at the beginning of this story. They talked out their views with Kerr in $50-an-hour sessions, spaced biweekly. After four sessions, they had reached an impasse: They would not marry, but would stay together.
The counseling had provided no immediate solution, but the air had been cleared. "We have so much in common," she says. "I could be his clone."
Their seeking help is part of their commitment. And that commitment remains.