Dear Dr. David,

I am a sixty year old man who has been married to a woman for ten years. It is our second marriage. We are both miserable, and cannot seem to change patterns of relating in spite of being in counseling at least three times. She constantly criticizes me, and I find myself biting back at her. Each time we go for counseling things improve for a short time, but then my wife finds something wrong with the counselor and we drop out, with things returning to our old ways of relating. I know that I should want to fix things, but find I have no interest in my wife anymore. She has so many hoops I must jump through for any sexual involvement, and I’ve decided I’m just not interested in trying to meet all her demands. I feel like giving up, and in fact she and I are talking about going our separate ways. We don’t believe in divorce, but don’t know what else to do. What do you think should be done if a couple reaches a point where they have very little interest in one another?

--Tired of Trying

Dear Tired,

There is a cliché that says, "Do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you’ve always got." You two have some patterns of interacting that inevitably lead to misery. They can be changed. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is called insanity.

Now, to be fair, I’m not accusing you of being insane or ignorant. You have sought counseling a number of times, apparently with some gains made each time. But, as you note, you quit counseling and then slip back into old ways of interacting. I liken that to going to the doctor, taking half the prescription and then being frustrated when the symptoms return.

I am amazed at the power of habit, and find myself, and those I counsel, easily slipping back into old ruts. While we hate these ruts, we are sadly attached to them at the same time. Perhaps this fits your situation. You enter counseling and the prospect of change, your wife sabotages the process. If we critically inspected our lives, I think we would find many areas where we say we want change, but aren’t willing to pay the price for it.

The first thing you and your wife need to decide is whether or not you are really interested in change. Yes, of course you say you are, but admit that you find reasons to bail out on the change process. You complain about how things are, but are not taking advantage of every opportunity to change dysfunctional patterns. You make "half measures," instead of full out actions for change. In situations like yours I invite couples to participate in "intensives" where, in lengthy counseling sessions, they really work to change old habits. A little change is rarely enough to change thorny relational patterns.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells the crowd that they do not have what they need because they do not ask. "For everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7: 8) This is a profound statement. He expects us to ask for what we want, petitioning Him again and again. To the blind man who had waited for the stirring of the Pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years, he asks, "Do you really want to be healed?" (John 5: 6) He expects us to do our part. Change begins with a clear definition of what we want, and moves forward based on the sincerity of our requests, taking responsibility for our part. "Each one should carry his own load," the Apostle Paul states. (Galatians 6: 5)

You ask if there is any hope when they lack motivation to work on their marriage. My answer may surprise you. Yes, of course, there is hope. If you are willing to look closely at your relationship, determining trouble areas and work on them, while enhancing positive areas, you can make tremendous progress. I assist couples in becoming mindful of how they sabotage good feelings, while increasing and practicing those behaviors that bring change and positive feelings.