“I’m really afraid of leaving here,” Janet said on morning of the third day of their Marriage Intensive. “We haven’t even left here and already we had a fight.” 

Janet was a fifty-year old woman, married thirty years, who had come to the Marriage Recovery Center with her husband Hal. Both she and Hal were attractive, taking great care to look good on the outside, even as things were falling apart on the inside. 

“Not to worry,” I said smiling. “Two steps forward, one back.” 

“But we haven’t even left here and we’re already breaking the rules that we’ve learned here. Last night was a disaster.” 

“You’re not perfect, Janet,” I said to her. “Let’s take a close look at what happened, the mistakes you made and what needs to happen to prevent them from happening again.”

“How are you feeling about it, Hal?” I asked. 

“Not good,” he said, appearing withdrawn and angry. “Let her tell you what happened. Seems like everything we learned over the past fifteen hours has gone up in smoke.” 

“I doubt it,” Teri, my co-therapist stated. “I’ll bet there is a lot to be learned from what happened. That’s the deal—learn from the inevitable collapses.” 

Hal and Janet looked at each other, clearly feeling distressed about facing their last day in intensive counseling, and having had a set back they hadn’t emotionally anticipated. Teri and I had seen it many times before—a couple places their meager hopes on significant change, only to be disappointed by a set back. We knew the set back could be a learning experience if they had the right frame of mind, and it was now our job to help them see that perspective. We offered them the following counsel:

One, understand that growth is not a linear process. As much as we’d like to believe that we will learn something new, apply it, having steady, positive growth, this simply isn’t reasonable. Years of dysfunctional patterns can’t be unlearned in a few days. I like to say that you can’t turn a battleship around in a bathtub—you need a lot of water and a lot of time. It takes slow, steady work to create lasting change. 

Two, expect adversity. Brace yourself for the setbacks that are likely to occur. These set backs are not failures, but rather symptoms indicating the old patterns have more strength and power than you originally thought. If you expect the set backs, you’ll be less likely to slip into a negative mood or to catastrophize these challenges, keeping them in perspective.

Three, these set backs are informative and helpful. Not only are these set backs not serious problems, but like symptoms in our bodies, tell us where we still need to pay closer attention. Scripture tells us to embrace problems and even to consider it joyful when we face these problems as they are opportunities for growth (James 1:2). These problems can be helpful. 

Fourth, look at the set backs critically but with compassion, outlining a plan to learn from them. Sit down with your mate and perhaps your Marriage Counselor, and determine what there is to learn from the set back. If you can be objective, you’ll see places of weakness that must be strengthened. You’ll recognize traits and behaviors that need closer attention. 

Finally, practice the plan. Having understood what you did wrong and how the mistake happened, practice the new plan. Do it right, over and over, and celebrate when you can face a problem and work it through in a healthy way. And smile. Set backs happen to everyone! Keep things in perspective. 

Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at TheRelationshipDoctor@Gmail.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 troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Publication date: October 15, 2012