Can 'Irreconcilable Differences' be Reconciled?
- 2007 29 Mar
Jack and Barbara were happily married — once upon a time. However, their seven year marriage spiraled inexorably downward as conflicts tore them apart. They chipped away at one another about finances, discipline of their three children and frequency of intimacy. When angry, she often used biting word, and he slammed doors and spun out of the driveway. Finally, Jack decided to end their turmoil by moving out.
I counseled Jack as he vacillated between signing divorce papers and thoughts of reconciliation. I watched as he struggled to move forward with his life. His left brain methodically plotted out the course of his life while his right, and more emotional side, lost footing and settled into an enduring sadness. Letting go of his marriage was not as easy as signing the rental agreement on an apartment across town.
Talking to Jack, it became clear that he was not finished with his marriage. He had left angry and depleted from years of "unfair fighting." Although tired of hours of blaming and accusations, he shared, "There was a lot more to our marriage than those times of conflict. I miss her smile, her sense of humor, her tenderness. I miss the way she could make up our home. You ought to see my apartment now. It looks like a train wreck. The macaroni and cheese was no special treat for dinner last night either."
Jack agonized over the loss of his marriage, wondering if it might be possible to span the incredible gap between he and his wife. We talked about what it would take to bring them back together — not to endure more years of heartache, but to recreate their relationship.
We decided to send Barbara a card inviting the possibility of talking. We agreed upon a purpose; opening dialogue with no pressure for reunification. He had changed and his heart was ready to talk again. He sent the card.
Barbara received the card, and immediately recognized his handwriting. She laid the card on the table and prepared a cup of tea. She was surprised at the flutter she felt as she looked at the envelope. She felt an odd mix of annoyance and excitement. Would this be a welcoming note, she wondered, or possibly another one of Jack’s scoldings for the way she had handled some situation with the children? She slowly opened the note. The card had a picture of autumn leaves in golds and browns with the words, "A Season of Hope." Inside, Jack had written a note.
"Barbara. Time seems to have tamed a lot of emotions. I am surprised at how I feel compared to how I felt three months ago. I am not sure what I want to say, but would like to begin talking with you again. My heart is softer. I can see where I was wrong, and have no need to blame or attack you. I wonder if you feel the same. I wonder if you have second thoughts about our marriage. Would you like to talk? I will call you in a few days to see if you want to meet for a cup of coffee. A latte can cure a lot of ills. Love, Jack."
Today Jack and Barbara are talking about reconciliation. Perhaps your story is similar to Jack and Barbara's. Perhaps your marriage is teetering on the edge of brokenness, but deep down you still hold a sliver of hope that your marriage can be made whole again. With them, and with you, the process of reconciling years of hurt requires careful consideration. Solomon says, "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider." (Eccl. 7:14) But, what should you consider when entering such uncertain territory? Here are a few suggestions:
Are you overreacting to times of trouble? It is tempting, when times are bad, to believe that everything is bad. When emotions are high, things get blown out of perspective. Battle lines are drawn and enemies are made. One must be careful to keep things in perspective. Love blossomed powerfully once and it can again.
Have you considered your part in the problem? While it may be satisfying to blame everything on your mate, playing the victim, this is usually a very simplistic appraisal of the issues. What do you bring to the situation? What are you really like to live with?
Have you sought out expert advice on your problem? This does not mean talking to friends who are likely to side with you and take up an offense against your mate. It means finding an objective listening ear who will evaluate the full extent of the problem, point out troubling patterns of interaction and ways to handle conflict effectively;
Have you been careful to fully forgive past problems? Assuming there has been a change in behavior, and a repentant heart, you may need additional work to let go of grudges and anger, remembering forgiveness is a process, not an event;
Have you both made amends for past wounds? Making a sincere apology is certainly a beginning, but it may take much more than that. Deep wounds do not heal quickly and often require special counseling assistance;
Have you remembered that there are no perfect relationships? As you considered throwing out the old in hopes of something new, please remember that the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but it still needs to be mowed. There will be problems in every relationship and, as the Apostle James says, these problems can be a catalyst bringing us closer to the person Christ wants us to be. (James 1:1-2)
The prospect of reconciliation with someone who has hurt you can be daunting. Perhaps you have moved into a place of calm and safety, and like a startled turtle, are reluctant to poke your nose out again. Consider the story of the prodigal son in Luke 12. After squandering his father’s blessings, he humbly returned home. The father greeted him, immediately forgiving past sins and embraced him again. God does that for us — perhaps you can do that for your spouse. Perhaps it is time to talk. Latte anyone?
This article was adapted from Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage (Revell, $14.99, March 2005)
Dr. David B. Hawkins regularly counsels hurting couples as a licensed clinical psychologist and social worker. He teaches at Washington State University and has hosted radio and television broadcasts on abuse and domestic violence. He is the author of several books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage.
Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.