A while ago, a couple came to me for marriage therapy. One of the first few things that the husband shared was that he had no intention of ever divorcing. As a matter of fact, he was sick of his wife ‘threatening’ to leave him.
At first glance, it sounded really amazing. In counseling we call this a strength; here is a guy committed to staying married.
Most of us come into marriage with this same attitude, not wanting it to fail or fall apart. We want to stay committed and married no matter what it takes.
When we started pulling off some layers in my clients’ story, the actions did not match the words at all.
While the husband was fully committed to staying married, his actions suggested the opposite. When we explored the family of origin and their interactions with each other, we uncovered a generational pattern of dysfunction, the husband described his mother as a very angry woman who demanded much from his father and his father was aloof and emotionally detached. Interestingly, he was playing the same role his father played in his marriage.
In marriage, intentions are great but only actions matter in the end. I have not come across anyone that got married with the intention to divorce. The marital or relational deterioration just seems to happen slowly.
Staying married is not good enough, there are plenty of lifeless marriages out there. Homes where partners are simply roommates that have business transactions. There are married homes where spouses dread going home or talking to the other person out of fear of what may come back at them. There are marriages where spouses spend their spare time fantasizing about life alone and free. There are also marriages where the spouses have resigned to taking care of the children and putting all of their energy into their kids. There are marriages where people stay busy in order to avoid each other, pretend to be asleep to avoid a conversation or watch television longer to avoid going to bed together.
Legally, all the aforementioned are still marriages. Partners determine to stay and say "whatever it takes" for many reasons, they stay because of the children, they stay because of economic factors, they stay because of the church, they stay because of social status, they stay out of fear of the unknown, they stay because they are ashamed. There are a host of reasons why people stay married.
Yet, while they stay, they lose themselves, their peace, their joy, their zest for life, their confidence, self esteem, hope for a better future etc.
It is with couples like this that I ask, whatever it takes? really? That is a huge sacrifice! I respect people that stay at all cost because it is very difficult to do so and the reverse is also true.
So what is the solution? Am I prescribing divorce? NO!! Absolutely not. I am prescribing change. If you are going to stay married at all cost, then you might as well start throwing the kitchen sink at it to see what sticks.
The marriage you want does not exist in the continuation of the norm. The marriage you want comes from the willingness to make changes. If you keep doing what you have been doing, you will continue to get the same results.
My suggestion is to risk emotional vulnerability! Yes I said it. The ice needs to start melting. You need to start redirecting your energy from the kids, work, sport, church etc. to make changes. You need to become less selfish and more selfless. You need to risk having that difficult conversation about the state of your marriage.
This may be very difficult but here are some steps you could try to resuscitate your marriage.
1. Change the environment. Book a hotel, a cabin or even a resort, work with your finances and stick with what you can afford. A night is ok, weekend is even better. Book it some distance from your house so that none of you can just head home. Take 1 car there so you are forced to be together. If things are really bad, doing it at home won’t work even if you do not have kids. This is why people go to see a therapist, because a therapist's office is first, a change in the environment.
2. Write what you have to say a few days before hand. When we get very emotional, our thoughts get less and less rational. We become physiologically incapable of being rational. This is very difficult for many people because this may be the first time that they are fully aware of their feelings. It can be very overwhelming. Try to take insults out of your letter or note. This is why I encourage a few days of writing and editing. It helps to put your thoughts into coherent words.
3. Be willing to listen and be aware of your defenses. Defensiveness can shut people down and communicate rejection. When you feel your heart racing, your blood pressure rising, your breathing getting faster, and your voice rising. When your thoughts starts going negative and you are saying things to yourself like “omg!, whatever, yeah right, unbelievable, you always, you never” yep, those are your defenses at play. Catch them early and catch them quickly.
4. It’s okay to take a break. Create the rule to call time out when it gets too heated. This is not supposed to be a cop out, it just gives both parties time and room to cool off.
5, Eat together, on the same plate. Yes, this sounds ridiculous but one thing I know and I have personally experienced in my marriage is that I cannot eat on the same plate with someone I am mad at. It sounds ridiculous, but don’t knock it until you have tried it. Eating is both sacred and intimate and we don’t want to share our sacred and intimate space with someone we are mad at.
6. Come up with a concrete plan. State what you will do differently to help heal the marriage and your spouse should do the same. It should be something simple and achievable. Not more than 3- 5 simple things and work hard on it. Agree to check in on each other’s progress at least once a week or bi-weekly. Do the check in at a restaurant, park, etc away from home.
7. If you cannot come up with a concrete plan to move on to a better marriage, if you are not successful with any of the above suggestions, it is time to bring in a 3rd party. Yep! we need a marriage therapist. You need a third party that is not emotionally involved and is neutral. You may want to fight step 7 because the thought of seeing a therapist bugs you. The point is, there is lot at stake here and the two of you cannot do this alone, if you could, then you would have.
8. Do nothing, become emotionally bankrupt and live in a dead or dying marriage for the rest of your life or divorce without trying to work through it. Whatever it takes. I happen to know you want more, there is something inside telling you something is not right, that you should have more. That voice is your soul’s compass, listen to it, make changes, do something!