“I don’t know why I’m writing you. I suppose I just felt a need to write someone…. It’s been eight years since my divorce, but I’m still not certain I made the right choice. We were married for eleven years when we decided to end it. We had been growing apart for several years, and the only common commitment we had was to the children…. One day we started talking about our unhappy marriage. We both agreed we weren’t happy…. I think that conversation got us both thinking about divorce…. It wasn’t long before the idea ‘to end it’ grew into a serious consideration…. I started consulting friends and family to get their opinions. Most supported my thinking…. Before I knew it, attorneys were involved, and we were caught in a process that seemed impossible to reverse…. It’s now been nearly eight years since my divorce and way down deep I still have some regrets and doubts….”
Over the years, I’ve received numerous messages like this one from both men and women. These respondents shared mixed feelings about their divorces. Some messages were more emotional than others. Almost all described a similar scenario unfolding: “We weren’t happy…. Friends and relatives supported our decision…. The idea grew and gained momentum that couldn’t be reversed…. It’s been “X” number of years, and I still have regrets.”
If you’re currently in an unhappy marriage, and you can relate to some of these statements, let me say that it’s not impossible to reverse course and reclaim the love, intimacy and happiness that you’ve lost along the way. Even though it may seem impossible, it’s not. You actually have two choices; divorce or resolve to try and save the marriage. I’ve seen a number of couples reverse course successfully. Here are some strategies that helped.
1. Trust in God
God can help you reclaim the love and intimacy that compelled you to marry. Proverbs states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). Elsewhere, Jesus teaches, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Mt. 17:20). Trust in God and do your part; your chances of surviving the marital challenges you’re currently encountering increase exponentially when you ask God to be your guide.
2. God + Time + Cooperation Heals Wounds
Be patient. If you are committed to change the ways you have contributed to your marital discord and you don’t give into the temptation to “end it,” in time difficult issues, problems and challenges look different. Remember that you’ve gotten where you presently find yourselves over the course of some time, and it will take time to reverse this process. Just as wounds heal with time—with God’s help, and your commitment to try and change, time can heal your wounded marriage. So remember: God + Time + Cooperation heals wounds.
3. Agree to Place a Moratorium on Divorce-Talk
In your efforts to save your marriage, you will undoubtedly have certain setbacks. In the beginning of trying to invigorate your marriage you will sometimes feel like you are taking one step forward and two steps back. One of the most useful strategies that couples can adopt during this fragile time is to place a moratorium on divorce-talk. All too often in the heat of an argument, couples who’ve agreed to try and save their marriage slip back into their bad habit of threatening divorce. In your efforts to turn things around, ask God to help you avoid the “D” word. You’ll likely not be able to do this yourselves. You’ll need God’s help.
4. Begin to Acknowledge Your Mistakes
When couples find themselves caught in divorce-talk, both spouses are apt to believe that the failing marriage is largely their spouse’s doing. In some cases, that’s true. However, in most cases, that’s simply not true. In most troubled marriages, both partners share responsibility for the condition of their marriage, though the level of responsibility may not always be equal. That being the case, rather than focusing your attention on your partner’s shortcomings, you would do well to examine how you’ve contributed to your present marital problems. Then, take responsibility for your role in the condition of your marriage.
Setting aside some private time and prayerfully developing a list of the things you’ve said and done, as well as things you’ve failed to say and do, is a good step toward gaining a balanced perspective of your marital woes. Asking yourself and God how your words and actions have poisoned your marriage is important if you hope to turn things around. Though this exercise will not be easy, if you’re prayerfully and painfully honest with yourself, you’ll be surprised what you discover. Honest self-examination is vital for God-pleasing repentance and healing.
Remember that pointing fingers of blame toward the other and refusing to admit your personal shortcomings will cause you to continue spiraling down the slippery slope that leads to marital meltdown and divorce. So, stop blaming each other. When you’re tempted to do so, remember this: “Judge not that you be not judged…. First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:1, 5).
5. Emphasize the Positive
It’s probably been a while since you complimented your spouse for anything or shared positive thoughts with your spouse about your marriage. That’s not good, and it needs to change. Negativity like anger, resentment, guilt, and shame are very toxic to relationships. Researchers who study interpersonal relationships have concluded that for every negative interaction that occurs between two people, five positive interactions must occur to neutralize the negative effects from the one negative interaction. This means that you’ll need to work overtime infusing your relationship with encouraging, positive comments while removing the abrasive, negative comments and behaviors that have been slowly poisoning your marriage. Emphasize the positive again. If you used to do it, you can do it again; but even if you never did, it is time that you start.
6. Don’t Just Think About Yourself
Our society generally promotes a “me-first” attitude. Through “cultural osmosis”, most of us learn to think about our needs first. This type of attitude just isn’t good for a marriage. Only thinking about yourself throws things off balance. A “me-first” attitude tends to cause us to forget about the needs of our spouse, children, and family as a unit.
When spouses are having problems, they are apt to think about their own needs almost exclusively. In the face of the disappointments, confusion, pain and frustrations they’re experiencing, it’s understandable that conflicted spouses focus on their personal needs and dismiss their partner’s needs. However this is a skewed, destructive approach that invariably leads to further fracturing of the marital bond. If “me-first” attitudes are characteristic of the way you’ve been operating, with God’s help, you’ll need to work overtime at thinking more about your spouse and his or her needs, and less about your own.
7. What About God’s Will?
Within the painfully complex mix of thoughts and feelings that lead Christians to consider divorce, God’s will is often absent. If this statement resonates with you, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:
To what extent do you believe divorce is God’s will?
How do Holy Scripture and the Church support your decision to seek a divorce?
God isn’t interested in keeping you in a loveless relationship. He wants the best for you. God will not prevent you from finding peace and joy. He is profoundly interested in your well-being. Invite Him into your life at this difficult time and seek His will. Scripture teaches, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33).
God will help you answer the hard questions related to divorce. If you’re in a destructive relationship that isn’t good for you or anyone else, His will won’t prevent you from ending such a marriage. On the other hand, if you’re in a marriage that’s lost its zest and can be invigorated, His will can help you recognize the value of your present relationship.
8. Consult Your Pastor
Depending on how seriously conflicted you are, many clergy have counseling skills that can prove helpful. Along with spiritual counseling, they can listen to your confession and administer other healing sacraments that are indispensable to your mutual efforts to revitalize your marriage and increase marital satisfaction. In cases where complicating factors are present that are outside of a cleric’s expertise, such as clinical depression, violence or some other mental health issue, it may be best if you also consult a marriage-friendly therapist.
9. Find a Competent Marriage Friendly Therapist
Finding a marriage friendly therapist may be challenging. Many psychotherapists who market themselves as marriage and couples’ therapists are more likely to focus on each partner’s individual needs and personal happiness to the detriment of the marriage union. Additionally, some therapists may disrespect or not understand a couple’s religious orientation. For these reasons, spend some quality time searching for a marriage friendly therapist who has experience working with religious populations. These therapists work with complex emotional and psychological issues of individuals, while also helping couples attend to their marriage’s needs. The following are a few suggestions to help you find a marriage friendly therapist.
Approach your pastor for a referral. He may know of a marriage friendly therapist whom he knows and respects. In most cases, these types of referrals lead to some helpful collaboration between your priest and your therapist.
If your priest does not have a referral, you might consider one or both of the following web sites: www.aamft.org or www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com. Both sites have therapist locators that will help you identify a marriage friendly therapist in your area. After you identify possible therapists visit their web sites and read their profiles which will help you discern if they are indeed marriage friendly therapists.
Look for therapists who specialize in couples’ problems, have worked successfully with religious populations and have a pro-marriage orientation. What is a therapist with a “pro-marriage orientation”? This is a therapist who makes the marriage the identified patient and focuses on the needs of the marriage as a unit while not ignoring the individual needs of each spouse. A pro-marriage therapist will promote marital well-being, with the underlying assumption that marital well-being enhances personal well-being.
In your search to find a marriage friendly therapist, the following questions may be helpful. These questions can be posed either on the telephone during an intake or in person at a paid consultation. If the therapist doesn’t adequately address these questions it is best to continue your search. Ideally, fifty percent of the therapist’s caseload whom you retain should be filled with couples.
°What percentage of your work is with couples?
°What percentage of couples with whom you’ve worked would say they experienced a “positive” outcome?
°Do you work with religious populations? Do you feel you can be respectful to my religious perspective?
°What approach do you take in therapy, more proactive or observant?
°Do you consider yourself a systems therapist or one whose emphasis is exclusively on each individual partner?
If you are both comfortable with the therapist’s responses to your questions and you have reason to believe that he or she will have a more proactive approach to therapy, make an initial appointment.
If you are both committed to receiving counsel, after six to eight sessions, you should begin to notice some signs of positive change or a new sense of hope for the relationship. If not, consider looking for another therapist. Generally, couples’ therapeutic work lasts between six and eight months. I realize this can be an expensive undertaking. However, the expense incurred pales in comparison to the financial, emotional, psychological, spiritual and familial costs of a divorce.
10. If Your Spouse Refuses to Cooperate
I’ve met many spouses who’ve said, “My husband doesn’t think we have a problem, so he refuses to come to therapy,” or “My wife thinks it’s my problem, and that I need therapy.” Often, the spouse who offers these observations is also the one who’s striving to save his or her marriage. This person has usually pleaded relentlessly for his or her spouse to enter therapy to no avail, and matters continue to worsen. This spouse is usually worn-out from advocating for the marriage and may be experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. If you can relate to these last statements, the following strategies may prove helpful.
Stop pursuing your partner. The more you pursue, the more he or she will continue to distance him/herself from you. It may be hard for you to embrace this, but your efforts are simply making matters worse.
Start taking care of yourself. Get a physical and seek medical help for the anxiety and depression.
Start exercising. Physical exercise is a great stress release. It fills our bloodstream with endorphins and feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
Pray, read Holy Scripture, and receive the sacraments regularly. In your prayers and Bible study, ask God to help you find peace and discernment.
Cultivate your friendships. Consider doing something you’ve wanted to do for a long time but have been too preoccupied to start because of your marital problems. In short, take all the energy you’ve been expending on trying to promote marital satisfaction and channel it into the direction of personal well-being.
These suggestions can potentially reduce the tension between you and your spouse and provide both of you with some needed breathing room. They can also increase your ability to think more clearly and make better decisions. Incorporating these changes may also get your partner’s attention, and prompting him or her take a second look at you and your marriage. Alternatively, you will be in a better position to move on with your life if your partner is resolved to divorcing and the marriage comes to an end,
When Marriages Die
Even the most admirable of efforts to reclaim your marriage can lead to divorce if one spouse is determined to end the marriage. In this case, there is little you can do, other than accept the inevitable and move on.
The divorce process is not easy, especially if you desperately want the marriage to succeed. I’ve worked with numerous people who were unable to let go of their marriages, even after the divorce. In one particular circumstance, a spouse was willing to overlook repeated promiscuous behavior, emotional abuse, and even occasional physical abuse. Despite urgings from her closest relatives and friends and even her in-laws to end the marriage, she continued to endure the abuses, convinced it was God’s will. Eventually she accepted the reality of her marriage ending and moved on. She is now in a much healthier place. However, it took time, prayer and therapy to help her grasp reality and see things clearly.
There is a mourning period that many divorced spouses experience when a marriage does not survive—even for a spouse who believes it is best to part ways. Loss of what once was a friendship and saying good-bye to another person whom you once shared life with intimately, is a death of sorts that can bring about intense grief. Know that forgiveness, comfort and healing are available to all who seek it in Christ.
When you married, you and your spouse began co-authoring a book together. Most of the recent chapters may have been filled with conflict, sadness, heartache, strife, frustration, and uncertainty. Prior to reading this article, you may have even been thinking that divorce is your only solution. But as I’ve tried to help you discern, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the last chapter of your story together. For some it will be, but you’ll never know if this is true of your relationship until you try to invigorate and reclaim the marriage you once had. Admittedly this won’t be easy, but in many cases it is possible. The returns are much more than most imagined when they first started this process of recovery.
With God’s help, thousands of couples have turned their marriages around and are grateful they didn’t give up on them prematurely. Perhaps you can also. You won’t know unless you try, “for with God all things are possible.”(Matt 19:26).
Fr. Charles Joannides