Every week I receive dozens of emails from individuals frustrated with their circumstances: the woman who feels abused by her husband; the man who feels overwhelmed by his wife’s emotional control; the couple who cannot seem to interrupt their cycles of fighting.

In each situation, the writer feels a sense of powerlessness, as if watching a tragic scenario play out in front of them. Bright, well-read and often educated, they share how they pray, try different tactics, read countless books, and yet the same scene plays again and again. How can we understand this painful process?

Consider George, who came to see me a few days ago. Married for twenty-years with four lovely children, he is bereft that his wife left him suddenly, taking their two children with her. She is staying with a relative and won’t talk to him.

“I didn’t see it coming,” George told me.

“Not a single clue or symptom?” I questioned.

“Well, maybe a word here or there,” he said slowly. “But, leaving me? No. She never told me she was that unhappy. She complained about things here and there, but never hinted she would leave.”

Having talked to hundreds of women who have left their husbands, I wondered if there was more to the story. I wondered if his wife had actually been more vocal and had finally reached the end of her rope. Had she finally decided to take drastic measures---an intervention—to gain her husband’s attention?

We spent several hours talking about his marriage, his intense grief and fear, and steps he might now take to ‘win his wife back.’ The more he shared about his marriage, the more it became clear that his wife had been unhappy, and that he and she had enabled their relationship to stay the same. He was able to note several occasions when he could have made changes, gone to counseling, and effect change. He recalled a number of times when he dismissed her, ignoring her cries for help and change.

However, it appeared that his wife was also guilty of collusion—a process whereby a couple continues their troubled relationship while ignoring the problems that are breaking the relationship apart. Both had slipped into a process of codependently enabling their marriage to disintegrate, without taking significant action to interrupt (intervention) their destructive dance.

“Tell me why you didn’t go to counseling when she asked you to go?”

“Well, I just didn’t think the problems were that big that we couldn’t solve them ourselves,” George said. “I’ve always been the kind of guy who could solve his own problems. You know, self-made man!”

“I can relate,” I said. “It can be tremendously humbling to have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, especially when it comes to marriage.”

“Yes,” he said. “The more we talk the more I can see what my wife must be feeling. I just want her back.”

“The problem now, George, is that it has taken tremendous courage for your wife to leave. I’m not saying it was the right or wrong thing to do. But, she undoubtedly has felt desperate to take such actions. It is quite possible that she won’t readily come back. You both have enabled a destructive process to continue and she finally developed the courage to shake things up.”

“Well, she certainly did that,” George said, his anger bursting to the surface. “She didn’t need to leave me.” Clearly threatened, he was raw with worry and fear.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, attempting to help him see the larger picture. “I don’t know what she needed to do to break the patterns that have apparently kept her so unhappy.”

I spent the remainder of that session and the next helping George process his incredible loss, but also work through his denial. We explored issues of enabling and intervention, and what they both meant to him.

First, enabling is anything we do, or don’t do, that allows and encourages a certain behavior or process to continue. This often takes the form of coping or accommodating for another’s behavior. We may consciously choose to ignore a wrong and dysfunctional action, or may slip into it unconsciously. Perhaps we are afraid to confront an issue head-on, and chose to ignore it.

Second, enabling an action or process only serves to strengthen it. When we allow someone to get away with having a temper tantrum, for example, this only serves to reinforce the behavior. When we continuously overlook emotional abuse or excessive alcohol or drug use, the behavior is sure to continue.

Third, an intervention is any action we take that disrupts or confronts another behavior. Speaking out against a behavior is a mild form of intervention. Voicing how we feel about something is the beginning steps of intervention. Setting a firm boundary with reasonable consequences is a firmer step taken against a certain behavior. Refusing to tolerate something is the ultimate form of intervention.

Fourth, an intervention can be an act of love. While we are often afraid to ‘take a stand’ against something, doing so against hurtful behavior in essence says to the person, “I love you too much to stand by and tolerate your behavior.” An Intervention, such as what happened to George, may initially not feel loving, but can be the impetus to bring about change.

Scripture tells us that discipline, or intervention, is in God’s loving heart and that “He disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). God loves us too much to ignore sinful behavior.

Finally, an intervention often brings about change. Someone has said ‘There can be no breakthrough without a breakdown.’ We repeatedly see in Scripture that something drastic needed to happen before a change of heart occurs. So it is with us. We often need to fall on our faces before we realize that what we’ve been doing is not working.  

While George is in a very frightening place, he is attentive to what his wife wants and has been trying to say to him. He is seeking Godly counsel and is in immediate contact with his pastor. He is listening for the first time and positive change can occur.

mrcShare your feedback or send a confidential note to me at drdavid@marriagerecoverycenter.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com and YourRelationshipDoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage. Please feel free to request a free, twenty-minute consultation.

Publication date: February 19, 2013