Editor's Note: 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 each weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Dear Dr. David,
I read your column regularly and appreciate what you say. However, you rarely talk about what to do when a marriage fails. It seems like you avoid the issue of divorce, especially among Christians. I know that divorce is common, and it seems like we should be talking about it. We need to hear about what we can do to save our marriages that are in trouble, as well as how to cope if they fail.
I am a thirty-five year old woman, with two children, whose husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore and left suddenly. I know they say that I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. Of course, we had our share of problems, but I always thought we worked most of them out. Several months ago he left suddenly, breaking my heart and confusing our children. He won’t really talk to me, and I don’t know if there is anything I can still do to try to save things, or if I have to accept the inevitable. I feel like I’m living on pins and needles, waiting for him to give me the bad news. Your advice is appreciated. ~ Brokenhearted
Thank you for writing. Your letter touched my heart and I’m sure it will touch the hearts of other readers as well.
You are right that many Christians refuse to talk about divorce. There seems to be a silence about this topic—it’s as if we want to pretend it doesn’t exist, much like we do with addictions and other common problems. We talk about the power of God to heal any problem, yet don’t talk much about the fact that God also gives us free will to make choices, no matter how destructive.
It also seems that we feel ashamed if we’ve failed in any way, especially with divorce. Divorce usually occurs after longstanding problems aren’t resolved. Because many fail to develop healthy relationship skills, and lack emotional and spiritual maturity, relationships fail. However, we’re all human—divorce happens and we need to face it. You’re right that we need to not hide in shame, but openly talk about this problem.
There is little more painful than to be rejected by a mate, and I’ve written about these issues in my book, Love Lost. In this book I talk about the challenge of living in the confusing world between marriage and divorce. I discuss coping strategies, some of which I’ll mention here.
First, remember that your marriage is not over until the papers are signed, and a lot can change between a mate moving out and divorce papers being signed. While I don’t want to offer false hope, many marriages can be saved if certain actions are taken, and certain destructive actions are avoided.
Second, this is a time to take inventory. You note that you didn’t see the separation coming—this is a time to prayerfully reflect on why your husband left, and determine to remedy everything in your power to change. Hopefully you’ve asked your husband to tell you his reasons for leaving. Listen carefully to his complaints, guarding against being defensive or blaming him for leaving. This doesn’t mean you have to accept everything he says, but an attitude of openness and learning will be of great help to you.
Third, once you’ve learned your part, and issues to be addressed, set yourself on a course of correction. Undoubtedly you’ll need professional assistance to not only cope with the loss of him leaving, but to assist you in making appropriate changes. Should the marriage not survive, you’ll have established a supportive therapeutic relationship as well as begun the process of making helpful changes.
Fourth, make every meeting with him positive. Every encounter we have with our mate either adds to the “love bucket,” or detracts from it. Given the precarious nature of your marriage, you need as many points as you can get. Therefore, as you navigate through the maze of separation, and possibly even divorce, show him your best side. Believe me, he’ll take notice.
Fifth, avoid negativity and, acrimony. Again, each encounter with him is critical. I’m assuming he’s seeing the children, so there are opportunities to interact with him. While you need not be over-solicitous, decide ahead of time how you want to interact. Guard your heart, being careful not to have these interactions turn acrimonious.
Remember also that your husband is undoubtedly struggling. We sometimes only think the “dumpee” is hurting, forgetting that the “dumper” is going through challenging times as well. Empathy for him may be a bridge between the two of you.
If your husband talks about getting attorneys, encourage him to slow down. Allow him time to reflect upon this course of action. Ask him if he’d consider a “therapeutic separation,” where you allow each other time to consider the situation.
Sixth, get help. Counseling should be offered as part of this time of separation—not as a means to manipulate him in any way, but as a way to simply explore possibilities. A trained psychologist or counselor will help you, and possibly both of you, to either work on stabilizing your marriage, or at least separate in the healthiest way possible. In my Emergency Marriage Intensives, I work with couples in crisis, assisting them manage negative feelings, seek stability and possibly build a bridge of reconciliation.
Finally, gather supportive friends who will join you in earnest prayer for your marriage. At a time when you feel so helpless, more than ever you need to bathe your thoughts and actions, and those of your husband and children, in prayer. When your emotions are on a rollercoaster, you’ll need the safety of friends, and your relationship to the Lord, to help you find peace amidst the storm.
While I’d love to end this article with unending optimism, you’re right to remind me that not all marriages succeed. Many fail, leaving pain and turmoil in their wake. Yet, we have this hope: after the darkness of night, joy comes in the morning. (Scripture) Should you experience the process of divorce, you can gather loving friends and family who will journey with you to the other side, where you have the opportunity of creating a new life.
David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. 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.