“It’s impossible for me to listen to her,” Justin said as he jumped up.
“Can I talk to you?” he said heatedly, gesturing to me and storming out of the room.
His wife, Danielle and my co-therapist, Debby, looked at one another dumbfounded.
“Certainly,” I said. Looking to Debby, I suggested that they talk over what had just happened.
Justin was angry. He had escalated quickly, but fortunately had the presence of mind to call a time out, seeking my help in sorting through his landslide of feelings. We left the cottage at The Marriage Recovery Center and went next door to the house.
“What’s up?” I asked Justin, a 30-year-old, burly man who had been married to Danielle for more than 10 years. Seated in the house, he let loose.
“How dare she ask me to listen to her after all she’s done to me,” he said in his booming voice. “How can she possibly ask me to attend to her feelings when she has hurt me so badly? How does she expect that to work? She’s the one who left me for six weeks. She’s the one who played around on the Internet with friendships with other men. She’s the one who said she’s not sure she loves me anymore. And now she asks me to listen to her feelings of hurt? What about mine?”
Justin’s questions were good ones. How does this all work, when couples have layers of issues, layers of feelings and layers of wounds built up like mounds of spaghetti? How do you step away from the spaghetti long enough to see the situation accurately, if that is even possible?
Let me offer a few ideas that can help.
Remember that many problems are entangled with other problems.
Rarely is a relational problem distinct and separate. Problems become overlaid by other problems, her feelings mixed by his, his by hers. Prepare to examine problems for their complexity.
Be prepared to tease apart ‘your stuff from their stuff.’
This requires keen listening and an open heart. It also requires that you enter into the discussion with the premise that each person plays a role in the problems.
Because both parties play a part in the problem, blame will not help in solving problems. It is completely ineffective to enter a discussion prepared to point out what your mate has done wrong. Fixation on how your mate has wronged you may make you feel better temporarily; it is completely unhelpful in working together to solve problems.
Reiterate that ‘we’re in this together and we can figure it out.’
Partnership is a strong antidote to distance in a relationship. Agreeing that you both play a role in the problems, and must play a role in the solution, will do much to advance the relationship toward healing.
Getting clear about mutual responsibility, look solely at how you contributed to the problems.
This is the tough part. Armed and ready to prosecute your mate, the proverbial courtroom is no place to solve problems. It is up to you to admit your shortcoming, inviting your mate to talk out the problem. If they admit shortcoming as well, that’s even better. If not, you will have gotten your house in order, which is—after all—all you can really change.
With a broken and contrite heart, admit wrongs to your mate.
God loves the man/woman with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17) and will honor him/her. Your goal must not be to change your mate, but to get your house in order. If you do that, God promises to bless you. This is your spiritual responsibility.
I let Justin vent for a few moments before suggesting we pray, asking God to reveal to him his part in his wife’s pain. I watched as he settled down, shifting his mindset from one of adversarial anger to contrite connection. We went back over to the cottage prepared for him to truly listen to Danielle, owning his part in their struggle. As he did so, I watched her heart soften toward him—and that’s the way it works.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency, and affair-proofing your marriage.