Christian Living


Marriage 911 03/29/16

Healing Your Troubled Marriage

Mature couple

I had to visit the doctor recently. Having suffered from a lingering cough and cold, I decided it was time to visit my doctor.

After a short wait in the waiting room, I was ushered back to the consulting room for the customary weigh-in, blood pressure check, and pulse monitor.

Shortly later, I was met with a friendly, reassuring smile.

"What brings you in today?" my doctor said.

I explained about my cough and runny nose. After a few preliminary questions and review of symptoms, he gave a gentle response.

"You're one of a hundred people I've seen recently for a challenging bug that's going around. You're going to have to do what you've already been doing—drink a lot of liquids, rest and wait this thing out. Don't exert yourself too much and you'll be fine".

"Great," I said". That's it?"

"That's it," he said". If you're not better in three or four days, come back in and we'll take another look."

"Good enough," I said.

I wish it were that simple with the couples I see at The Marriage Recovery Center. While the issues aren't as simple as the "common cold", thankfully there are answers to the thorniest marital issues. There are things you must do and some you must not, in order to set yourself on the path to healing.

"I can't believe how sad I feel," Dana said, a tall woman with a warm face. She looked sadly at her husband of 30 years. James, a man with a full beard and piercing blue eyes, stared blankly back at her.

"I still feel sad and hurt over what happened," Dana said, referring to an affair he had approximately six month earlier. "I can't believe you would ever do something like that to me."

"I don't know what to tell you," he said. "I've told you continually, I'm sorry for the hurt I've caused you. But, nothing I ever say seems to be enough."

"Listen to how you just said that," Dana said abruptly. "You expect me to feel better when you talk to me like that? I'm sorry that I'm not over it, James. I know you think you'd handle things so much better than I do".

"Oh, for Pete's sake," James said, obviously becoming angrier.

"You OK?" I asked.

"Sure," he said sarcastically. "I just love trying my hardest, just to have her kick me in the gut. This counseling just gives her more ammunition to use against me. I've about had it with everything".

"That's why I don't share my feelings with him," Dana said, turning away from James. "When I do he spouts some sarcastic comment, or else he just walks away".

James continued looking away, grimacing. He had disconnected minutes ago and was no longer listening to anything she said.

I sat quietly for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened. It was a scene I had witnessed over and over before during my professional career. Couples trying to make contact with each other, only to have their conversation escalate, gain tension and blow apart, leaving both feeling profoundly discouraged. I had noticed the very moment things blew.

Every disconnection happens in a moment, sending a potentially healthy conversation spiraling into a battle. In the process, not only do old wounds continue to fester, but new ones are added to the pile.

In this case, Dana struggled not only with her sadness and hurt from Jame's affair, but also felt abandonment from his failure to connect to her feelings. She felt hopeless about ever having a place where she would be understood and cared about. Yet, James was also wounded. He had tried to connect to Dana. He truly wanted to be available to her and was sorry for his affair. But, in their troubled encounter, neither received what they needed.

This, in short, is what happens over and over in troubled marriages—each person hurting in their own ways and then hurting their mate. A profound disconnection occurs, leaving each feeling even more alone and wounded.

Fortunately, most couples who are struggling follow predictable patterns—much like symptoms of the common cold—and the treatment is equally straightforward.

Here are some guidelines for couples caught in a vicious cycle of pain and disconnection:

1. Empathy

Yes, I know I write a lot about this, but it's true that empathy is the cornerstone of any healthy conversation, especially if there is any voltage in it. In Dana's case, she needs James to empathize with her lingering pain. Dana must also empathize with James' dilemma. He's trying the best he can, and must be encouraged to keep trying. She needs to understand the challenges of what it is like to "sit with" her pain.

2. Validation

Here we share the validity of the other's situation, giving them full permission to feel the way they do. Not only acknowledging their right to feel the way they do, we affirm our contribution to our mate's pain. We share, perhaps again and again, that we are aware of the immensity and magnitude of our mate's ongoing struggle.

In the above case, James must validate that he has hurt Dana. He must own the large and small aspects of her pain and his part in it. He must make changes in his life to assure Dana that she will be fully protected from such egregious behavior in the future. He must be patient as she heals. As I've said in previous articles, he must "stand in the heat". (At a different time, she can also validate the challenges of standing in the heat.)

3. Acceptance of responsibility

Here the wounding partner must take full responsibility for what they have done, without minimizing, excusing, or denying it in any way. The wounding partner acknowledges the larger ramifications of their actions—the ever-widening circle of consequences stemming from their actions. Here James must recognize the loss of trust that is now encircling their marriage. He must acknowledge and "sit with" her sadness, grief and anger. At another time, Dana can acknowledge the impact her anger has on him, and own the ways she makes it challenging for him to "lean in".

4. Apologize

There is little as soothing to the soul as a heartfelt apology. Sitting with the wounded partner, the wounding partner shares how sorry they are for what they've done. They can "see" the impact of their behavior on their mate, and feel sorrow for it.

5. Change of behavior

The ultimate culmination of feelings of empathy, validation, acceptance of responsibility and a timely apology is a commitment to change. Problems inherent in the marriage that led up to any failings must be dealt with and remedied. Problems within the character of the wounding person must be firmly addressed, offering reassurance to the wounded partner that problems have been squarely addressed and there is a commitment to change.  Scripture tells us that "Godly sorrow brings repentance"—turning away from the sinful behavior (2 Corinthians 7:10).

You can see how each of these "steps" builds upon one another and are each critical to healing. One step without the others is useless, as in the case of an apology without real change, or empathy without owning responsibility. I challenge you to take any troubling behavior in your marriage and apply these five steps to the healing process and see the healing change that occurs.

In my book Never Fight Again, Guaranteed!, I explain how healthy marriages are built, in large part, on mutual respect and the assurance that fighting will be minimized. If you have further thoughts on this topic, we would love to hear from you. Share your thoughts below or send me confidential email.

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