Jim and Fran sat across from me, the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Expressionless and silent, Jim came reluctantly to the couple’s three-hour Marriage Intensive session.
A handsome, serious-minded forty-year old man, Jim had almost cancelled at the last minute, claiming to be flooded with work, but also admitting he saw little hope in changing their marriage patterns that left him scanning the ads for an apartment.
Appearing underweight, Fran is desperately sad and depressed. She cannot stop crying even before the session begins. She knows Jim has nearly one and a half feet out the door, leaving her scared to death. She wonders if he’ll leave she and their three children before the holidays.
This was my first Marriage Intensive with them, and we are meeting to arrange the 90-Day Commitment to see if we stabilize and strengthen their marriage, restoring their passion for each other. This was not a time to explore all the issues that had led up to Jim preparing to leave his fifteen marriage, as important as that was. We wouldn’t talk about her parents’ impact on their marriage when they were younger, and wouldn’t even talk about his affair ten years ago, as critical as this was to the integrity of their marriage.
No, this Marriage Intensive was Marriage 911—a relational emergency room visit, where I, the ER Relationship doctor, would attempt to provide several key functions:
• Stabilize the marriage.
• Provide guidelines for future security.
• Outline expectations for a 90-Day Commitment to work on the marriage.
Fran wanted me to do more. She pushed for us to talk about all the issues that led up to their fragile condition. I told her I couldn’t, and in fact we couldn’t do more at this time. Like the emergency room doctor, our task was to stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient, run some tests, and make plans for treatment. If we could succeed at these limited goals, we might save the patient and buy more time to do more extensive work.
There are thousands of couples like Fran and Jim whose marriage is on fire. They scratch and claw at one another, finding fault and affixing blame, causing more and more harm. Their weekly forty-five minute sessions are filled with hurt and pain, and they leave the psychologist’s office worse than when they came in. Once a week sessions aren’t enough to put out their marriage fire—they need more.
Fran and Jim don’t need to explore how they met, their early patterns of relating and so on—as important as these are. They don’t need to sit blaming each other for their problems. What they need is Marriage 911—an opportunity to relate in a new, healing way.
Consider this email from a desperate housewife.
Dear Dr. David. My husband tells me everyday that he no longer loves me. He is a handsome businessman, and I have fears of unfaithfulness. He won’t go for counseling and says he is thinking about moving out. We have two wonderful daughters who adore him, and it would break their heart for him to leave. I tell him repeatedly that God doesn’t like divorce, but he just gets angrier. I tell him he is being selfish, and he just stomps out of the room. I can’t seem to get through to him. What can I do to make him see that he is making a huge mistake?
Like thousands of others, your marriage is on fire and you must pull back and get in control of your life—not his. Consider these courses of actions.
First, you need to do damage control. Your marriage is incredibly unstable and ready to fly apart. In fact, it may fly apart, and you must prepare yourself for that possibility. Trying to coerce him to stay, by verbal manipulation, guilt, fault-finding and anger, will not work. That will only push him away.
Second, ask him if he will agree to ‘cause no harm.’ This must begin with you! You must both endeavor never to do anything to intentionally harm the other. Even if he won’t agree to that idea, you must adhere to it. Ask him if he will agree to 90 days in counseling—then if he still wishes to leave, he is free to go.
Third, stop acting desperate. Yes, this is easier said than done. Your dependency and desperation, however, don’t make you more attractive in his eyes. You must let your husband know that you wish to work on the marriage, but if he threatens to leave, open the door for him.
Fourth, make every interaction with him positive. Remember why he fell in love with you in the first place. Remember what traits of yours he found attractive—and rekindle them. Memorize Philippians 4: 8-9, focusing on things that are lovely, noble and admirable in your marriage and the world. They are there—you must search for them!
Fifth, refuse to bite on any ‘story starters,’ where he makes a provocative statement. When he says he no longer loves you, your response can be, “That makes me sad,” and let it go. When he says he wants to move out, your response is, “I don’t want that, but you’re free to leave anytime you wish.” Don’t react to his provocative statements.
Sixth, get support. You will need friends and family who will offer encouragement and positive support to help you keep a clear head during these most difficult times. You will need support so as to not react to him, maintaining your emotional equilibrium. You’ll need people who have a vision for saving your marriage, not for finding more fault.
Finally, get your own counseling. You may be trying to save a marriage single-handedly. It can be done if you will adhere to these guidelines. Guard against discouragement and anger—these will push him further away. Maintain encouragement, building on whatever opportunity arises to appreciate one another.
I have seen dozens of marriages saved by this relational jujitsu. Instead of reacting, you choose how you want to respond. Instead of being dependent and desperate, you regain your spiritual and emotional balance and let him (or her) flounder. Instead of functioning out of a place of weakness and fear, you act out of clarity and purpose.
I’d love to hear from others who have tried these strategies, or from those who would like to work with me.