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What to Do When You're on the Edge of Separation

What to Do When You're on the Edge of Separation

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question t

“I can’t take it anymore,” Joanna said tearfully. She grabbed a tissue, adding, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t going to cry.”

“What’s going on?” I asked. Joanna was a new client and I didn’t know anything about her history.

“I’m sick of my marriage. I’m not sure how I feel about James anymore. It seems like the more we try to talk about our problems, the angrier I get. I want out but feel guilty about wanting a separation.”

“Tell me more about your marriage,” I said. “How long has this been going on?”

“We’ve been fighting nonstop for the past year,” she said, her mascara now running down her face.

“Fighting nonstop?” I asked incredulously. “Really?”

“Not literally nonstop. But, we can’t find a solution to our problems and every time one of the hot buttons comes up—and we’ve got a bunch—we fight.”

“So, have you folks considered doing couple’s work so you can learn some tools for navigating these hot spots?”

“He won’t come for counseling,” she said. “Says it’s a waste of time and money. He says he has no use for psychologists.”

“I’ve heard that a time or two,” I said smiling. “But, it looks like what you’re doing isn’t working very well either.”

“Nope,” Joanna said, trying to compose herself. “It’s to the point where I’m about ready to tell him it’s counseling or he can find himself an apartment. I’m exhausted and just can’t do this anymore. Do you think that’s too radical?”  

“Not at all,” I said, matter of factly. Listen to what you’re saying. You’re telling me you two can’t talk about these many ‘hot buttons’ without a flare-up. You’re saying these flare-ups are exhausting, causing you to consider separating. You’re saying you can’t solve these problems alone. It seems perfectly reasonable for you to insist on professional help. If you don’t take action, your marriage will be in greater jeopardy, possibly leading to a separation. Do I have it right?”

“Perfectly,” she said softly.

We continued to explore some of the “hot buttons” in their marriage. Married for only three years, they had a blended family and were having problems with each other’s children. There were financial struggles, with each disagreeing about how the other spent money. They were also fighting about sexual issues. The common denominator, however, was an inability to deal with issues effectively. They needed help.

My inbox is overloaded with emails from couples, similar to Joanna and James, on the verge of a marital separation. Struggling to resolve issues, they fight about the same things over and over again. These issues, unresolved, become “hot buttons,” with greater emotion and reactivity attached to them. Each becomes more easily triggered, leading to even more fighting which eventually leads one or the other to consider separation.

But, you don’t need to separate. There is a better way! Let’s consider what must happen if you’re in a marriage filled with “hot buttons” and endless conflict. Let me offer a few tools I talk about at length in my new book, 10 Lifesavers for Every Couples.

First, recognize and honor “hot buttons.” Every couple has them—topics that can only be talked about in front of a professional or when we are at our best. Know that these topics can only be discussed when both are ready and willing to talk about them non-defensively, or with a trained professional who can tiptoe through the issues. Don’t try to walk through these minefields alone!

Two, create safety. Agree to not allow these hot issues to contaminate every aspect of your relationship. Keep these “hot topics” in your Personal Plutonium Box while you enjoy other aspects of your marriage, taking out the hot issues at the right time and place. Never—and I mean never!—ambush your mate with these hot topics. Agree together when, where and how these topics will be discussed.

Three, stabilize your marriage. Stabilize your marriage by refusing to use the D word—“divorce”—reassuring your mate of your love for them, and remembering why you married them in the first place. Practice meeting your mate at their point of need, considering their what they need from you to feel loved. String together one loving action upon another, while refusing to fight.

Finally, with the help of the trained professional, learn to solve problems. Armed with new skills, practice listening to your mate, learning what they need from you. Give to them generously. At the right time, ask for what you need. Practice mutual loving actions, and soon you will notice a positive shift in the emotional tone of your marriage.

Published March 10, 2009

Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery 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.