“I’m just terrified that things are going to fall apart as soon as we leave counseling,” Kate said fearfully. She sat near enough where I could see her wringing her delicate hands lightly. She was really anxious.

Her boyfriend, Dirk, a boyish looking man of about forty, sat stone cold and silent. If he had any reaction he wasn’t showing it.

“What do you mean?” I asked Kate. “What are you so afraid of?”

“I’m afraid that things will just fall apart once we leave The Marriage Recovery Center,” where they had come to do some pre-marital work.

Dirk and Kate are part of a growing number of people who have been married before and seek ways to avoid mistakes made previously. They were doing many things right, such as keeping their relationship platonic, and yet were very anxious of repeating problems encountered in a previous marriage.

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you,” I said smiling. “Things don’t fall apart—we do. You don’t have to worry about something drastic happening to your relationship. It’s both of you that have to critically look at what you do that creates a powerful connection—and do those things. Equally important is being aware of the behaviors you do that creates disconnection—and don’t do those things. We’ll help you discover which ones you do and how to manage them effectively.”

I could see Kate relax, though Dirk still kept his feelings hidden, a problem that turned out had brought problems to their relationship already.

“I want to hear more about what you just said,” Dirk said next, matter-of-factly, showing he had been listening intently. “I’m not sure I agree with you. In our relationship it seems like things fall apart even if we’re doing everything right.”

“Yes,” I said. “It may seem that way. It may seem like problems appear out of thin air, but I can assure you that under our watchful eye we’ll see what you are doing right and what you’re doing wrong. If you give us permission, we’ll be happy to gently point them out to you.”

“Sure,” he said quickly. “That’s why we’re here. We don’t want to sit with a therapist who just affirms everything we’re doing, or asks a lot of questions but then doesn’t give much helpful feedback.”

My colleague, Teri spoke up.

“I’m glad to hear you’re willing to receive critical feedback. A lot of people say they want critical feedback, but then when we point it out to them they resist us and become resentful.”

Kate shot a knowing look over at Dirk.

“What are you thinking?” I asked Kate.

After a moment of initial hesitation she spoke up.

“I find Dirk to be defensive when I point things out to him,” she said. “So, I’m a little surprised to hear him say he wants critical feedback. I sure hope that is the case.”

“I really do,” Dirk said. “I’m very interested in knowing if it is as clear as you say it is Dr. Hawkins. If it really is us messing things up, which I suspect might be true, I want to know.”

“Think about it,” I said. “How can ‘things’ fall apart? What things? How can a relationship fall apart on its own? It really is about us. We either make things better by our behavior, or we make them worse. So, let’s get busy making them better.”

With that we set out working with Dirk and Kate, and very quickly we began to notice the patterns that had caused so much disruption in their connection. We noticed stonewalling behavior, fear leading to withdrawal, sarcastic sniping which indicated buried resentment. They had much to work on. Here are some helpful suggestions we gave them and give to you.

First, things don’t fall apart, we do. By taking personal responsibility for our relationship we are empowered to change the relationship for the better. We are the ones who can make our relationship dynamically exciting or dramatically painful.

Second, it is our failures and triumphs that make the difference. Our failures, of course, will have a deleterious impact. Our failures, uncorrected, can be disastrous. However, corrected and improved upon, failures can turn into victories. Complaints made in a healthy way can be opportunities for positive change.

Third, take note of the patterns. Once we see the patterns, and manage them effectively, we can be victorious. As we catch ourselves, and our mate, acting in ways that create disconnection, we then have power to change them. As we take note of the patterns that create connection, we can repeat them, again and again, rebuilding trust and connection.

Fourth, be serious about eliminating relationship-sabotaging behaviors. Like a cancer in the relationship, bad behavior harms your relationship. These behaviors must be confronted and held accountable for change. Boundaries must be set against them, with agreed upon consequences. Accountability is often the missing link for positive change.

Not only must we eliminate self-sabotaging patterns, but we must also eliminate self-sabotaging thinking patterns that leads to destructive behavior—such as black and white thinking, victim stance, stubbornness and pride, blaming and shaming—and this is done through confrontation and then the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2).

Finally, celebrate behaviors creating connection. Catch each other doing it right. Notice your mate trying. Catch them making an effort and applaud them for their efforts. Make that phone call to thank them again for the little things they do that show they are trying. Encouragement goes a long way to creating positive patterns.  

Share 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: April 22, 2013