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.
Your wife has left. She told you she's not sure how she feels about you. She loves you but is not "in love with you." Your mind is racing as you struggle to make sense of the whole mess.
"How could this possibly happen?"
"We're Christians, and Christians should never separate or divorce."
"I haven't done anything that bad."
As the days turn into weeks, you move gradually through some of the recognized stages of denial—this truly is happening; begging her to stay (bargaining) hasn't worked; outbursts of anger and attempts to control her have failed; you slip into depression and perhaps even a bit of acceptance.
Still, you have one lingering, nagging thought:
"How can I show her that I've changed?"
This is a question I'm asked all too frequently as women leave marriages at astounding rates. Equipped with increased earning power, training and self-confidence, there are many women who choose not to tolerate dysfunctional marriages, and men scratching their heads at what they can do to show their wives they finally—albeit slowly—"get it."
Once strong and possibly dominant men, they now feel insecure and vulnerable in the face of rejection. Frantic attempts to make their wives stay are often met with a gritty resolve by their spouse not to remain in a troubled marriage. Acts of desperation by men give way to anger, sadness and panic.
That's when I get the phone calls.
"Dr. David. You've got to help me get my wife back. You've got to talk to her to tell her I really am different and that our marriage can be saved. You have to make her see that I'm not the man I used to be. You have to make her see what a mistake she's making. You have to make her see..." And so it goes.
Although I hate to see these men in pain, my response often takes them by surprise.
"Are you really different from when they left?" I ask.
"Absolutely," they reply.
"Really?" I say with suspicion. "They left you four weeks ago, after years of misery, and you're an entirely different person suddenly?"
"Yes," they persist. "I can see the mistakes I made."
"I'll bet you can," I say reassuringly. "But, are you really different?"
Finally they pause to consider the weight of what they're saying. We talk about the many issues leading to their wife leaving, the years of hurt and suffering their wife has experienced, and the likelihood that as much as they want to change, that change has not yet happened.
What follows is the next layer of discouragement. I explain that they cannot possibly convince their wife they have changed until several things have happened. If you find yourself in similar circumstances, consider the following challenge:
First, calm down. Good decisions are rarely made out of a wild brain. While you may feel panic, take necessary steps to get needed support. Begin to take on the attitude that this will be a marathon, not a sprint. You must step back, size up the situation and develop a long term strategy.
Second, get into counseling. To win this race you will need an experienced coach—someone who can help you make immediate decisions as well as help with new issues that crop up down the road. Find a trusted counselor/ psychologist who knows about managing the crises of separation.
Third, you must let go of trying to make your mate see anything. Efforts to convince your mate you have changed are controlling and manipulating and almost certainly will be met with resistance, irritation and suspicion. Your mate is pushing away because they need relief from your old behavior.
Fourth, focus on your issues that led up to the separation. This is not the time to try to win your mate back with words. It's time to focus on the behavior that led to the separation, changing the issues that have aggravated your mate. Get into counseling and address the character issues that have become wearisome to your mate. Pay attention.
Fifth, meet your mate at their point of need. This is a time to minister to your mate indirectly. While you are bleeding and miss your mate, stop the selfishness of trying to get them to do what you want. Consider what they need—if it's space, give it to them. If it's reassurance you are working on your issues, let them know you are in counseling to address those issues.
Sixth, relax in the knowledge that your mate will see the changes AS THEY ARE MADE. As you tune into your mate's needs, and meet them, as well as address the issues leading up to the separation, your mate will notice the changes. They will notice the changes by what you don't do, as much as what you do. They will notice you giving them the space they request. They will note your involvement in your personal counseling. They will see and sense changes gradually taking place in your character.
Finally, let go and let God. You can only do so much, and then the battle belongs to the Lord. God causes everything to work together for good, even times of intense disappointment. (Romans 8: 28) Stop trying to control everything and watch to see what God will do. Ask God how He wants to use this struggle to strengthen and grow your character, as well as your marriage. Times of intense pain are always times of incredible change.
Have you been separated? What helped? What hurt? What counsel would you give those recently separated? Please feel free to contact me for advice on Marriage Intensives at The Marriage Recovery Center.
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and When Pleasing Others is Hurting You. 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. You can also find Dr. Hawkins on Facebook and Twitter.
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