Strengthening the Positive in Your Marriage
- Dr. David Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
- 2011 21 Jun
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men. Ecclesiastes 3:11
Finding anything good to focus on is difficult when you're in the midst of a marriage crisis. Waves of emotion create a gulf between you and your mate. With your emotional bridge in shambles, seeing the other side can be tough.
Steven is a bright lawyer who is married to Sarah, a winsome young woman. I began working with them after a severe crisis in their marriage prompted them to call for an emergency appointment.
Steven and Sarah are both in their early thirties and have three children. They came to see me after Steven had an affair with his personal assistant at his law firm. The affair, which he readily admitted after being discovered, devastated both of them.
"I never thought I'd do something like this," Steven said with obvious disgust.
"And I never thought you'd be capable of it either," Sarah said. "I thought we had so much going for us, but I guess not. If you could do this, we don't have anything."
Sarah was obviously filled with anger and needed to vent. I waited for her to continue.
"I asked Steven to leave last week," she said. "We have nothing if we don't have trust. I'm not sure if there's even any purpose in us coming to counseling. What's the point? I'm not sure if I want to be married to a man with so little self-control."
Steven threw his hands up in the air and looked at me.
"I hope you can talk some sense into her," he said. "She's got me painted as a criminal. It's not like I'm denying what I did. It was wrong and I know it. But it's not like there's nothing worth salvaging here."
"You don't get it," Sarah snapped. "Anyone who can cheat on his wife and children obviously doesn't think much of his marriage. So I'm not real interested in hearing about all that we've got to salvage."
I listened to their troubling story, attempting to help each understand the other and offering hope that we'd be able to stabilize their marriage if they were willing. I discussed strategies for creating safety, which we've talked about in previous chapters. However, our session ended too quickly, and I was skeptical that they believed they could find anything worth saving.
Sarah and Steven left my office discouraged. She was weary from trying to understand how her husband could cheat on her. She was furious, but she was also frightened that he might cheat again. She felt fragile and wounded, unsure of how she would manage their three children without his help if she left him.
Steven also wondered if their marriage could be saved. I scheduled additional sessions with them and also agreed to meet with Sarah alone to help her consider her options and determine how best to cope with this emergency.
A Salvage Project
Sarah is extremely disheartened and sees nothing to salvage in their relationship. She sees only more trouble on the horizon. Is she right? Is there nothing to salvage? Is it time for her to walk away? Many people in her circumstances do just that. However, it's important to consider the possibilities when the problem is fixable. Acting impulsively is rarely the best choice.
An exciting movement is taking place in many of our urban areas. In Seattle and Tacoma, close to where I reside, run-down warehouses are being transformed into chic, modern loft condominiums. Worn brick facades are being sandblasted and restored to their original beauty. What was once on the short list for demolition is now being targeted for renovation.
Someone had the insight to see the possibilities in these industrial sections of town, once considered to be a blight on the urban landscape. Now, after standing empty for many years, these classic buildings are bustling with boutiques, salons, day spas, and luxury apartments.
Rather than focusing on the problems, developers and designers saw the possibilities. They looked beyond the rust and rubble to the distinctive lines and patina.
My wife has that kind of eye. Christie can see beyond the obvious and into the possibility. She can integrate the potential into the problem. Recently, she excitedly asked if I'd go with her to see an old barge located in a marina not far from our home.
"Why do we want to see an old barge?" I said.
"Because it has possibilities. I saw a picture of it and noticed that it had wonderful lines and lots of interior room. It could be something."
"What do you mean?"
"I just mean it could be something. I don't know what it could be. You have to keep an open mind."
Keeping an Open Mind
An open mind? For a couple in crisis, this is like swimming across the Amazon River without fear of crocodiles and piranhas. When danger signs are everywhere, keeping an open mind goes against every instinct. Fleeing seems like a more reasonable option.
Sarah didn't want to keep an open mind. She wanted to form a kangaroo court right then and there, haul in her husband and the other woman, and find them guilty. She had no desire for patience, tolerance, or understanding.
To keep an open mind is nearly impossible when your relationship is held together by a thread, when you feel angry, hurt, and misunderstood. With emotions running rampant, insight and wisdom are in short supply.
To her credit, Sarah came back for counseling. She struggled, however, with many challenging questions:
Did his affair really mean there was nothing to salvage?
What positive qualities in their marriage could she still count on?
Was her husband likely to repeat his infidelity?
How could she show her love for him when she was so angry and hurt by his behavior?
Your crisis might be different from Steven and Sarah's. Perhaps you're not struggling with sexual unfaithfulness. Perhaps you're besieged by a lack of safety in your marriage, a lack of emotional warmth and affection, or an atmosphere of bitterness and hostility that never seems to abate.
You may be struggling as much as Sarah to keep an open mind. Being hurt again and again creates an environment of antagonism and animosity, and you've begun to see your mate in a negative light. You're in a crisis, and you've lost the ability to remember the good things about your marriage.
When a marriage is flooded with negative emotions, as is the case during most crises, we forget the good qualities that attracted us to our mate in the first place. Our positive feelings are obliterated by so many hurts and hurdles that we can hardly find our way back to where we once were. We distance ourselves from the positive feelings in order to survive. This is a natural aspect of denial.
The good news is that the positive feelings are often still there, but they're buried beneath the ruin of harsh words, degrading actions, and distant demeanor. We become separated from what has been good and vibrant in our marriage, and now, striving to maintain an open mind, we must remember. We must reattach ourselves to those wonderful qualities that currently lay dormant. These positive feelings, often razor thin, can help form the foundation of the bridge that allows us to find our way back to our mate.
Just like those designers and visionaries who looked at the aged buildings in downtown Seattle and Tacoma and saw vibrant shops, lofts, cafes, and walking malls, you must work hard to remember the beauty that lies beneath the ashes in your marriage. Rather than rehearsing the pain that screams, "There's nothing left to save," you must force yourself to remember and reconnect yourself to the good that lies buried in the hidden places of your marriage.
When I met with Sarah for several individual sessions, I encouraged her to vent her enormous pain. Her loss was immense: the innocence of young love and a seemingly perfect family; betrayal by the man she'd held in high regard; the endless, sordid pictures in her mind of her husband being with another woman; having to explain to their children why their daddy was no longer living in their home. Her pain was great, her loss overwhelming.
But hidden in the debris of that pain were possibilities. I asked her to do something she didn't want to do—remember.
I asked Sarah to tell me about their marriage, how they'd met, the activities they'd enjoyed as a family, and the qualities that had made her happy to be Steven's wife. She initially flinched when asked to do so—it was far easier to stay enraged and wounded with her pain serving as a protective barrier. If she could stay furious, perhaps she'd never be hurt like this again. Unfortunately, she would also forfeit the possibility of salvaging a loving marriage. She'd relinquish the opportunity to learn how and why this had happened and what she could do to lessen the likelihood of it occurring again. She'd give up the possibility of having a deeper, richer marriage than she thought possible.
Sarah softened during her third session. I'd sent her away from the previous meeting with instructions to write down at least five reasons she decided to marry Steven. Her list was exactly what I'd hoped to see.
He was a kind, gentle man, sympathetic to those in need.
He had a great sense of humor and was always witty and ready to have fun.
He was bright and able to carry on genuine conversations.
He was determined. He wanted to do something with his life.
He wanted a family and was a caring husband and father.
He took responsibility for his failures.
"How many of these qualities still exist?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," she replied. "The Steven I know is gone. I don't know this guy."
"You talk as if Steven is no longer himself, as though he's turned into some monster with a split personality."
"Those are my thoughts exactly: some kind of monster. That's the only way I can explain what happened."
"I think that's your hurt and anger speaking, Sarah. You can't decide if he is still a sensitive man. You don't know if he still has a good sense of humor. You don't think he still wants his family more than anything. But I think both of us know that's not the case."
"Nothing can justify what he did."
"What he did was horrible," I said. "No question. But can you honestly say he doesn't still have the qualities you cared about in the beginning?"
Sarah began to cry uncontrollably.
"He hurt me so bad," she said. "How could he do that to me? I've loved him completely. I didn't deserve this."
"No, you didn't," I said. "And it will be incredibly difficult to move past this. You need to realize that some things will challenge you as you try to deal with this. Some aspects of the marriage may have played a role in his affair."
"Are you saying I caused this?" she snapped.
"Of course not," I said. "But you'll need to keep an open mind when it comes to understanding the factors that played a role in his poor choice."
"I'm just afraid we've lost everything and that we'll never be able to get it back."
"I've worked with hundreds of couples in this situation, Sarah, and many are able to rebuild their marriages. If they can keep an open mind, they discover that the man or woman they fell in love with is still there. In your case, Steven wants to make things right. He wants to make amends, learn how and why this happened, and do everything humanly possible to make sure it never happens again."
"Maybe," Sarah said. "I'd like to believe we could patch our lives back together."
"Will you do your best to remember the qualities you've always loved about Steven? I'd like you to read your list to me again and imagine that they still exist."
After many counseling sessions, Sarah began to understand that the things she loved about Steven were still there and available to her—if she would allow the healing to begin.
Reaching for the Positive
Remembering anything positive is challenging in the midst of broken trust, violated safety and stability, and painful emotions. Everything can appear bleak. That's the nature of crises. Perceptions are skewed, emotions are frayed and edgy, and the outlook appears dismal.
In the midst of this desperation, however, opportunity awaits. There is a chance to remember what was good about your mate before the crisis and what still can be grasped within the relationship today and in the future. You can look clearly at the situation and determine if a reasonable risk is worth taking.
Sarah could begin remembering many positive traits about Steven, but to do so she'd have to decide if Steven was worth the risk, and that would require an open mind, a strong dose of wisdom, and immense courage.
We explored some of her memories of what they had built as a couple. Stretching beyond her comfort zone, beyond the ever-present hurt, she began to see some of their legacy:
three lovely children: Brianne (age three), Chelsea (age five), and Tyler (age nine)
several years of teaching young married couples in their church
a beautiful country home where they bred Arabian horses
a large extended family—hers and his
many wonderful vacations, including a favorite at a small coastal village in Mexico
a vibrant church family
a shared enjoyment of movies, the theater, and community activities
a strong and enduring attraction to one another
Sarah smiled faintly as she reviewed the life she had built with Steven. She still loved his company and longed to plan another vacation to the village they enjoyed so much in Mexico. She missed seeing him walk down to the barn in his suit and knee-high boots to water and feed their horses. She missed sitting with him in church and gathering their children for their Sunday afternoon pizza ritual. She missed her old life.
"But that's all gone now," Sarah said wistfully. "He ruined it. It will never be the same."
"No, Sarah," I said. "Right now, that life is covered with the pain of his affair, but much of what you've built is still there. If you want—but only if you want—you can remember, recapture, and reattach yourself to many aspects of your old life."
"And what about what he's done to dirty our relationship?"
"I guess it's like the old barge my wife had me look at a few weeks ago. It had a lot of stains, some broken hinges on doors, and some window caulking that needed to be replaced. But it's got great lines and immense possibilities. My wife says it can be brought back to its glory years with some elbow grease."
"Maybe you're right," Sarah said slowly.
"I think for now, ‘maybe' is a wise choice. No ‘forevers' until we see why he did what he did and whether he's willing to do some work to make sure it never happens again."
What We Focus On
I watched Sarah's disposition and perspective change slightly over a few weeks. She changed what she focused on and the meaning she attached to the horrific events. She began to open her mind to new possibilities.
Sarah reminded me that when we focus on something, we magnify its importance. In fact, what we see becomes our reality. In the midst of a crisis, we focus on the harsh words, the disdainful glances, the withdrawn love. Reeling in pain, we focus on those agonizing aspects of the relationship.
Couples in crisis lose sight of the positive elements in their marriage. Because they feel so much pain and because they dwell on that pain, they can't enjoy the positive aspects of the relationship that still exist.
"I know I still love him," Sarah said to me recently, "but I'm so angry with him at times that I can't feel that love."
"How do you know you still love him?" I asked.
"I just know that I do," she said. "I don't really want to lose him. He's brought me such joy during our marriage."
"It does sound to me like you love him. Maybe part of the issue is what you focus on."
"What do you mean?"
"What we focus on tends to become magnified," I said. "It's like a dog with a bone. First, the dog has the bone. After a while, the bone has the dog. The dog thinks he's so smart when he gets the bone. But after a while, he's still holding onto the bone and there's no meat left on the thing."
She laughed, nodding in recognition.
"We can be like that when it comes to marriage," I continued. "We cling to old feelings instead of allowing new ones to enter the picture. We need to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to be sure, but we must also allow positive feelings to return."
"Are you saying that when I constantly think and talk about my anger toward him, that anger becomes bigger?"
"Not only that, but you lose the opportunity to feel other emotions, like joy, love, kindness, and gratefulness."
Sarah and Steven have a chance to save their marriage, but they have a lot of work to do. They'll have to decide if they want to weather this storm or start over on their own. Time will tell, but for today it looks like they have an opportunity to start rebuilding their relationship.
The Bad-Day Blues
Have you ever had a bad day and then allowed it to overwhelm you? Many times our situation is not as terrible as it feels at the moment.
Many of us allow our emotions to take over and cloud our judgment. As a result, the problems escalate to the point where they seem insurmountable. Psychologists call this catastrophizing—taking a normal, troubling situation and blowing it out of proportion to the point where it is much worse.
Judith Viorst, author of the delightful book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, caused us all to laugh and think when she introduced us to Alexander, a kid with one problem on top of another. Alexander had a negative cloud hanging over his head, and nothing ever seemed to go his way.
Alexander is like us in many ways. From the moment he awakens, he's met with trouble. Nothing goes right, and he develops a sour attitude, expecting more problems to befall him. He wakes up with gum in his hair, and unlike his brothers he has no prize in his morning cereal. Hoping for better luck, he wants to move to Australia—the land down under—where things might be upside down and bad luck will turn to good luck.
As we read of Alexander's misfortunes, we can't help but smile. Is it because we've all been there? We've all had days and weeks when things didn't go our way. We've had times, perhaps even seasons, when we've sulked and counted our problems instead of our blessings. We recognize Alexander's myopia—his tendency to focus on his problems while ignoring things that might actually be going his way.
How is Alexander's story applicable to a marriage in crisis? During marriage crises, everyone else's life can appear better, smoother, happier, and kinder than our own. We may even believe our mate is having an easier go of it. We sulk, cry, and become agitated, all the while forgetting to notice the good things that may be happening. We see only the bad—and the bad becomes intensified. Before we know it, an entrenched bad mood gains momentum as we rehearse what's not going our way.
Can we let go of our negative thinking? Of course, but doing so takes practice. Instead of rehearsing all the things that aren't going our way, obsessing on the aspects of our marriage that trouble us, how about trying the following?
Identify things about your mate that you still appreciate.
Refuse to spend hours arguing and bickering.
Agree to share with your mate the traits you still appreciate about each other.
Stop rehearsing marital problems.
Seek and discuss solutions to the problems.
Bad days are part of life. But they don't need to become a way of life. Severe marriage crises happen, but there are often ways to get past them. Accentuating the positive and minimizing the negative will help you to that end.
Although Alexander is cute and our hearts go out to him, another part of us wants to sit him down for a lecture:
"Look, Alexander, life doesn't have to be as bad as you make it. When you focus on the prizes you're not getting, you lose sight of the ones you are getting. When you count all the things you've lost, you miss out on all the things you've gained. It's time to get on with life."
Bad moods and bad days come with the territory. But bad weeks, months, and years are often optional.
A critical barrier between a couple in crisis is the perpetrator/victim mind-set, which can be a serious impediment to healing. Here's how it goes: Having perceived myself as getting a raw deal from you, I rehearse the wrongs I've suffered and remind myself again and again that I am the victim. Of course, this point of view narrows my vision and causes me to move further and further away from you because I blame you for the pain I'm feeling.
Without intervention, before long I've convinced myself that you can never be trusted, you can never satisfy my needs, and you can never help me. In fact, you're completely toxic, and I need to get away from you. Can you see the harm in taking such a position?
The odd thing is that your mate is probably having the same thoughts about you. You're the perpetrator, the victimizer who can never, never be trusted. The barriers between partners becomes larger, the gap wider, and chances of reconciliation smaller.
Rarely is one person solely the perpetrator, while the other is exclusively the victim. More often, both partners have learned to hurl insults and hurts, and both have learned to rehearse their suffering.
What's the answer?
Harville Hendrix, in his book Getting the Love You Want, offers some very practical solutions:
- You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose—the healing of childhood wounds. Yes, marriage can be a wonderful place of healing for both of you. You can have a "corrective emotional experience" where you are treated differently and better than you were in childhood.
- You create a more accurate image of your partner. You stop viewing your mate as an evil perpetrator, and begin seeing him or her as very human and fallible, just like you.
- You take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner. You must let go of the belief that your mate can read your mind, or that his or her sole job is to satisfy your needs. With your help, however, your partner will likely work on meeting your legitimate needs.
- You become more intentional in your interactions. Rather than slipping into old default patterns of interacting, you work on being proactive—planning in advance how you will react to challenging situations.
- You learn to value your partner's needs and wishes as highly as you value your own. In the mature, Christian marriage, you are willing to forego being the center of the world and strive to meet your mate's needs. In fact, you frequently stop to consider his or her immediate need, and if possible, you do your best to meet it.
If you can nurture a spirit of "we're in this together and must find our solutions together" as you navigate this crisis, you'll be greatly strengthened for the journey. If you can view your mate as vulnerable, fragile, and in need of your love, you'll grow in empathy toward each other, creating a powerful bridge. And if you empathize with each other, rather than fighting, you'll be available to assist each other in the healing process.
Our Mate's Healer
Have you considered that one of your most powerful tools for finding your way through a marriage crisis will be to see yourself as instrumental in your mate's healing? This may seem like a radical concept in light of the fact that you may consider your mate the instrument of your pain. Trust me, he or she doesn't want to hurt you. Your partner doesn't orchestrate each day to bring pain into your life. People who are hurting usually end up hurting others.
What if, instead of taking a position against each other, you took a position for each other? What if, during this crisis, when things look bleak and discouraging, you decide to be an instrument of healing—your mate's healing?
We are told in the creation story that Eve was created to be a helper suitable for Adam (Genesis 2:18). Although the Genesis account doesn't explain precisely how this will play out, the apostle Paul offers many illustrations of the husband-wife relationship. He instructs us to encourage one another, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2). We are to let no unwholesome word come from our mouth and to build one another up according to their needs (Ephesians 4:29). What if we offered encouragement to our mate, even in the midst of struggle and conflict?
Dr. Hendrix elaborates on this process of utilizing the marriage relationship as an instrument of healing:
We make a decision to act on the information we are acquiring about ourselves and our partner and become our partner's healers. We go against our instinct to focus on our own needs and make a conscious choice to focus on theirs. To do this, we must conquer our fear of change. As we respond to our partner's needs, we are surprised to discover that, in healing our partner, we are slowly reclaiming parts of our own lost selves."
Could this excruciating marriage crisis actually be a crucible for change and growth? Can we use this struggle to shift our focus, accentuate the positive, and step forward as a healer for our mate? Rather than viewing our mate as enemy number one, we can choose to recognize his or her wounds and assist in healing. This increases the likelihood that our partner will assist us in healing as well.
Plugged In to the Power
The only danger in the prospect of healing our mate and in the process of being healed ourselves is in believing we can do this under our own power. The mind is willing, but the spirit is weak. We so easily slip into worn-out, default patterns of behavior. When the chips are down and we're feeling puny, to revert back to our old, hurtful ways is incredibly tempting.
What we need is a Spirit transfusion. We need to be changed from the inside out so that we learn to act from a renewed and transformed mind (Romans 12:2). With this renewed mind, controlled by God, we live out the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Our heart literally changes toward our mate—we want to become an instrument of healing.
If you're ready for radical change, consider this suggestion by David Clarke, author of A Marriage After God's Own Heart:
Reading and studying the Bible together will bring down walls and reveal who you really are. God's word will cut through every defense and barrier…Genuine closeness between a husband and wife comes only after their hearts are revealed—when they express their real thoughts, motivations, and emotions.
Today, if you are embittered and angry, feeling cheated and betrayed, consider that you can undergo successful heart surgery. Through the power of God, you can change this crisis into opportunity. With a renewed heart you'll see your mate in a new light and realize that the person with whom you're angry needs encouragement from you. If you offer it, more likely than not, you'll receive healing in return.
Excerpted from 10 Lifesavers for Every Couple by Dr. David Hawkins (Harvest House, 2008).
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.