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When Is a Marriage Beyond Help?

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One time in a land far away a client asked me if I could help her save her 15-year marriage. Her husband was threatening to leave her, was stonewalling and was generally emotionally cold, but she said he was willing to see me. I worked with him for several months, and they stayed together.

However, one day a year later as I was preparing to leave the community, she approached me, very troubled. This is what she said: “You’ve turned my husband into everything I ever wanted in a husband. But I don’t want to be with him.”

What happened? What was really going on was that she did not want to be in the marriage, but couldn’t face that reality. Instead she perceived the problem to be with her husband. It took positive changes in him for her to realize the deeper issue was hers, not his.

When a long-term committed relationship is deteriorating, there is typically a lot of guilt, shame, anger and resentment. Enter the big-four marriage-enders: contempt, criticism (blame), stonewalling and defensiveness. Often alcohol abuse enters the picture. Sometimes there is bullying and violence.

What is the fail point in a deteriorating marriage? When is a marriage beyond help? The underlying issue often turns out to be that one or both parties do not want to be in the marriage.

Marriage is a big commitment, and most people try hard to keep their commitments. The private “I don’t want to be here,” and the public “until death do us part” are in deep conflict.

Consequently, one or both parties can’t face their own desire for it to be over. Using whatever means they can come up with, they bring it to a head, thereby allowing them to blame their partner for deciding to end the marriage. They may use bullying, violence, alcohol abuse, cheating, high-risk behavior like speeding while intoxicated – anything that will force their partner to make the decision.

So if you are concerned about the health of your marriage and want help, it’s time for each of you to take a long honest look at what you want. Can you see a future with your partner… for both of you? If you can’t think this through on your own, get appropriate professional help in gaining some clarity. Do nothing until you can make a calm, clear decision to end it or recommit, and then act on that decision with respect, dignity and care.

Facing your own wants and needs, at a deeper level, can save you and your partner a mountain of hurt whether you stay…or part.

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