When Your Partner Wants to Leave
- Monday, October 13, 2008
The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice. ~ Proverbs 12: 15
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. ~ Galatians 5: 13
Susan sat across from me, dabbing at the tears in her eyes as she struggled to maintain her composure.
“I told myself I wouldn’t do this,” she muttered angrily. She tried to speak, but lost control and began sobbing.
I hadn’t seen Susan and her husband Sam before, but Susan told me about their plight when she called to set up this appointment.
“My husband wants out,” Susan told me over the phone. “He has agreed to come to one counseling session. Is there anything you can do for us?”
I told her I couldn’t offer any promises, but indicated we could try to do “damage control,” so if there was a chance of saving their troubled marriage, she could learn how to limit harm to their marriage, as well as enhancing the possibility of saving their relationship.
Sam sat stoically, looking at Susan. He seemed untouched by her overwhelming emotion and was even critical of her tears.
“This was part of the reason I didn’t want to come today,” he said. “I knew she was going to be really upset, and I’m just done. There is a lot you don’t know about,” he said, motioning to me. “This isn’t all about me being the bad guy.”
“I am sure there are many things for us to talk about,” I said. “I don’t think there is any ‘bad’ person, and I hope you’ll both be willing to talk about it.”
“No promises,” Sam said coolly.
Susan had composed herself now, and added, “I’d like to talk about how we got here, and if there is any chance of slowing things down. I don’t want you to move out.”
“Again, no promises,” Sam replied. “I don’t want to hurt Susan, but I can’t handle the fighting and criticism. I don’t like how I act when I’m with her. And things are never going to change.”
“Why do you say things can’t change?” I asked Sam.
“Ask Susan,” he said coldly. “We’ve tried to change, and we just keep slipping back into old habits. I don’t want it anymore. I want out.”
Susan appeared frozen, as if a bomb had been dropped on her chest. The world she had spent years creating was falling apart.
“What about the girls?” she said anxiously, referring to their two young daughters. “What about our faith? What about the house? Doesn’t any of that matter anymore,” Susan pleaded.
“Don’t try to guilt me into staying,” Sam said angrily. “The girls will cope.”
I spent the next hour talking to Sam and Susan about their marriage—thirteen years of married life. They shared how they had begun fighting more frequently, always about the same issues, with no resolution. Sam blamed Susan, and Susan blamed Sam.
Listening to Susan and Sam, I heard many of the themes I’ve heard from countless other couples I counseled who had separated—many found their way back to each other, some didn’t. Some common themes are:
- Unresolved problems—a tendency to fight about the same issues, again and again without resolution;
- Growing resentment—blaming each other, losing respect over time;
- Decreased intimacy and sharing—sexual distance and limited closeness;
- Busyness and lack of time for fun;
- Poor communication—lack of friendship with each other;
- Lack of spiritual intimacy—decreased time reading the Word and attending church;
- Failure to seek help—attempts to cope on their own.
As with other couples I counsel, Sam and Susan’s marriage didn’t erode in one step. It took years to get to where they were today. Now they were in a crisis, and my objective was to stop the damage and create an environment where the marriage could possibly be saved. What would it take?
I empathized with Sam’s discouragement and Susan’s sadness. I then shared with them an idea—something I call the 90-Day Experiment. Here’s what it looks like and how I described it to them:
“For 90 days—three months is all!---we’ll meet and perform an experiment. No promises, no guarantees, but we’ll try some things I’m sure will create positive changes in your marriage. You must be willing to follow these guidelines:
1. We will engage in weekly marriage counseling for three months;
2. We will not engage in any physical or emotional extramarital relationships of any kind;
3. We will learn how to solve problems, using proven strategies and techniques;
4. We will stop blaming each other, believing the other person is the cause of all the problems;
5. We will not criticize each other;
6. We agree to never intentionally cause the other harm;
7. We will increase positive activities, having fun on a weekly basis;
8. We will keep our promises;
9. We will pray and attend church together;
10. We will catch each other doing things “right,” and celebrate each and every small step of progress.
At first Sam refused to participate, saying he was convinced nothing could change. I shared with him that he seemed to be basing his decision on how things had been, not on how they could be.
“What’s going to be different?” he persisted. I had heard his argument from countless other couples whose energies and enthusiasm is drained by disappointment.
“You will both have to play by some new rules,” I said. “These new rules aren’t just pulled out of a hat, but have been proven to change the most troubled marriage. If you’re both willing to work hard, you’ll see a lot of progress—guaranteed!”
Sam reluctantly agreed to give the marriage another ninety days. While he was skeptical, he did the homework I gave them, and they made progress. He slowly warmed as he discovered things actually could change.
Sam wasn’t the only one needing to change, of course. While Susan felt victimized by Sam’s threat to leave, she had significant work to do as well. She tended to be critical in ways she had never noticed. She agreed to examine ways she participated in their turmoil. She agreed that while Sam was the one threatening to leave, she had to take responsibility, as well as he, for their troubles. Both had to learn effective ways to solve problems, and then to encourage each other as they noticed efforts to change. Each small step of progress, celebrated, led to even more efforts to change.
With much work, Susan and Sam were able to save their marriage. While it was not easy work, and took months before they noticed significant change, they were encouraged with each step of progress. As we “pulled the weeds, and planted seeds,” they noticed a beautiful garden growing.
You, too, can find new hope in your marriage. It takes hard work, often professional help, deliberate effort and much grace—but, it is possible!
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The
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