Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
It is impossible to go through life without not only experiencing pain, but creating it as well. Since the beginning of time, we have been inflicting pain on our mates. "You only hurt the ones you love," are more then lyrics to a song—they are integral parts of life.
In a recent Marriage Intensive Garth and Cynthia worked to restore their marriage. As they dealt with the trouble they knew was on the surface, they uncovered pain they didn't know was there from long ago.
"I was amazed to find out how much I still harbored bitterness toward Garth for the affair he had ten years ago," Cynthia said sadly. "I thought it was all gone, but when he began talking about the anger he sensed I held toward him, there it was flooding back at me."
As Garth watched quietly, I asked her about her pain.
"In some ways it hurts just as much as the day I discovered his affair. I don't know if I'll ever understand how he could do something like that to me. But," she continued slowly, "I know that I hurt him just as much by shutting him out of my life."
Garth's eyes lit up as she spoke.
"I know she holds back from me," he said. "I can tell she's still hurt. I've told her how sorry I am, but I know she hasn't really forgiven me."
"That's not true," Cynthia said defensively. "I have forgiven you. It's just that I'm not ever going to let myself be hurt like that again."
Garth shrugged and laughed nervously.
"See what I mean?" he said looking at me. "Don't tell me she's really forgiven me. She keeps me at arm's length, and she knows it."
Yes, there it was. Hidden pain, created long ago, still impacting their marriage today. I applauded Garth and Cynthia for participating in what I call depth marriage counseling. Willing to go beyond the superficial repairs most settle for, they wanted more healing which would require more work. They wanted real connection. They wanted complete forgiveness and intimacy and are willing to work to get it. But, they also realized this meant revisiting old wounds, and sharing truths and feelings that will be uncomfortable.
Listening to Cynthia, she admitted she had been holding onto bitterness, sadness and anger for years. It was only sitting in counseling, listening to Garth share how he had felt distanced by his wife for years, did she dig deep for feelings of betrayal and hurt.
"I feel layers of hurt," Cynthia said slowly. "I feel guilty for still feeling sad, but I don't know how to get over it. His unfaithfulness marred our marriage, and I can never get that innocence back."
As Cynthia spoke, she discovered even more pain. Like layers on an onion, the more she explored, the more she discovered. This layering process—years of pain covered by years of life—is something we all know. I shared with them what I thought needed to happen to restore their marriage. Here are some ideas for couples who have created wounds in their marriage.
First, explore and acknowledge your feelings. While this may sound trite, we must be willing to peel back the layers of pain, searching for feelings of betrayal, hurt and bitterness. If we have had significant wounds, we can be sure there are deep, often hidden feelings below the surface. Go on a search for them.
Second, these feelings are often expressed in indirect form. We must be a bit of a sleuth, watching for cues and clues that will reveal hidden wounds. We may express sadness by withdrawing from our mate, avoiding intimacy. We may express anger and bitterness with sarcasm. We may make biting comments, insensitive to the impact they have on our mate. Again, explore the possibility of our wounds being expressed indirectly.
Third, seek information from our mate. Our mate is often our clearest guide to buried wounds. Ask them if they sense any roots of bitterness, anger or resentment. Ask for their feedback on how they believe we have dealt with wounds created long ago. Going even further, ask them if they harbor any hurt from wounds created long ago.
Fourth, pray for God's guidance. The Holy Spirit is our greatest counselor, and will guide us into truth. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." (John 16:13) Pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal areas of bitterness and resentment. Pray that the Spirit will reveal issues that need healing.
Fifth, explore the possibility of depth counseling. Seek a counselor willing to help you uncover layers of defenses you have built up in order to avoid experiencing pain. Utilize ongoing marriage counseling to help you and your mate talk about the pain you created years ago, seeking healthy ways of talking about it, assisting each other to heal more fully.
Finally, remember healing is often a process. Healing is rarely once and for all. As the years go by you may need to talk about old wounds again and again. You may need to forgive your mate again, or sit with them as they cry over losses experienced long ago. Time, life experience and maturity cause us to see events through new eyes. Healthy couples stay open to the possibility of talking about old wounds again and again, nurturing each other, with God's grace, back to health.
I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me about depth marriage counseling, or for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to assist you in your marriage.
August 24, 2009
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where 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.
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