7 Ways to Save a Marriage on the Brink of Divorce
- Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
- 2009 6 Jun
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“She told me she doesn’t love me anymore,” I read in a recent email from a man in obvious distress. “She packed up her things,” he continued, “moved into an apartment, and is threatening a divorce. After twenty years she said she was done with me. She took our kids and left. So I went and got an attorney. I need to protect myself.”
“Yikes,” I thought to myself. “Here is another lost opportunity to possibly save a marriage. Here is a man reacting to a bad situation, making it worse.”
I arranged to speak with the man the next day. Chuck is a thirty-five year old man, father of three, facing a divorce. Like most in his situation, he is panic-stricken. He didn’t see this coming and is now frightened that not only might his marriage be lost, but half his pension, half his estate, and half of everything he has worked hard for over the years. He fears not seeing his children every day, and wonders what his life will be like without his companion. His friends have told him to protect himself with legal counsel.
“She’s really angry with me, partly for good reasons,” Chuck told me. “I haven’t been the kind of husband I ought to be. I drank too much at times and have had a temper problem. I didn’t want it to come to this but I guess there’s nothing I can do about it now. She’s gone, won’t go to counseling, and is talking divorce. Is there anything at all I can do to save the marriage?”
I made it clear to Chuck that I was not an attorney, and would not offer legal advice. However, I had a few thoughts about how to do everything in his power to save his marriage. Filing for a divorce, in the face of his wife’s threats, would probably not help his cause.
In a climate where divorce is common, and marriages stand only a 50/50 chance of survival, many find themselves in an adversarial mode even before reaching divorce court. By the time one mate leaves the home, the adversarial fires are often burning very hot, often propelling the marriage into Divorce Court. The very adversarial, combative atmosphere that may have led to the separation is the one that can put the final nail in the marital coffin.
But, things don’t need to be this way. Here are seven steps I encouraged Chuck to take—none of them easy, and none guaranteed to solve all his marriage problems. All, however, could enhance the possibility of saving his marriage.
First, don’t panic. Anxiety rarely helps us think clearly. Often, when feeling anxious, we react instead of respond thoughtfully. Our best decisions occur after rest, Godly counsel, and reflection. The wisest man on Earth said, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider; God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
Second, do nothing to harm or injure your mate. While things don’t look good, sometimes the best action is no action. Stop doing the things that aggravate the situation. Cancel the appointment with the attorney. Don’t do anything that places you in an adversarial role with your mate. Stop doing those things you know irritate your mate. Stopping the hemorrhage saves many lives. Make the decision to do no harm.
Third, listen to your mate. Your wife left because of things you’ve been doing that hurt her. It is unlikely she came to this decision easily. What has your mate been trying to get across to you? What changes is she desperate for? Seek opportunities to listen to her. Even if you don’t have a formal conversation with her, I suspect there are subtle ways she makes her message known. Listen carefully. Make a list of those things she needs to set out to make the necessary changes.
Fourth, meet your mate at their point of need. Consider what your mate needs. Some of the things she may be making perfectly clear to you, such as a need for space. Some of her needs may be unspoken, and you’ll need to figure those out for yourself. Perhaps she has a need for respect. Give it to her, even in the midst of being separated. Perhaps she has a need to be valued and treasured. Give it to her, in small but significant ways.
Fifth, become the best version of yourself you can be. This tragedy is an opportunity for you to remember why your wife fell in love with you. What are the characteristics that made you irresistible twenty years ago? Reflect and resurrect those old qualities. It’s time to again become daring, adventuresome, caring and charming. These qualities won her heart once before; they may do so again.
Sixth, be patient. Even though you are separated, and fear you will never get a chance to prove you are different, that is not the case. You will have ample opportunities—perhaps in small ways—to show her you are dedicated to change. Letting her know you will wait, and are dedicated to a change process, can be powerfully attracting. Show her, over time, that you are committed to change.
Finally, commit everything to prayer. The Scripture is clear: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” (Psalms 127:1) You must seek the Lord’s guidance and follow his lead. Prayer is your pathway to peace. Prayer not only can change her heart, but yours. Then you can feel the peace of God in your heart and life.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Centerwhere he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.