couples therapy
imago therapy

Am I in or am I out?

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    January 2012

What can we do if we’re not sure we want our marriage to last? Some of us really know that we’re through, but kids, lack of money, logistics, or fear of the confrontation make it seem too hard to begin dealing with separation and divorce right now. However, although we’re just not ready or able to take action at this point, we know that we’re rationally and emotionally done.

Others have mixed feelings. Part of us really wishes things could be different, so we could be a happy couple again. The other part of us has given up, because there just doesn’t seem to be any hope…nothing seems to work anymore. All of our attempts at improvement seem to backfire or, if there are good moments, they don’t last; trust seems to be gone; it just doesn’t feel safe to reach out or hope anymore; perhaps we ourselves are even acting out in destructive ways, which puts even more distance between us. So we’re stuck in a totally ambivalent place that feels miserable inside, and we don’t know if we have the desire, or the energy, to keep working at things.

If we were to go for couples counseling at this time, the ambivalence would be precisely the issue that would first need to be addressed.

Do we each really wish enough that the relationship could last to give it one final, sincere, full effort toward positive change, even though — since nobody can predict the future — all we know for sure right now is that at least we’d be able to say that we tried?

The effort required for something like this needs to really be thought about for a while, because reviving the relationship won’t work unless both partners are 100 percent committed to the effort. Behaviors and patterns would obviously have to change, so we each need to take time to really do some soul searching: am I willing to take the risk and whole heartedly do this work?

For partners who have come to the conclusion that they want to try, what would this work entail? It’s likely that the help of a professional couples’ therapist will be necessary, since old patterns of interacting have become so automatic by now that it usually takes a neutral observer to help recognize and adjust them. The healing process would begin by telling and hearing from our partner what unmet needs or upsetting behaviors have set off the unhappy distancing that has occurred. Both will have something to say about this, and each will be asking for change in the other.

Since old ways of talking about these problems didn’t work, new ways of communicating will have to be used. And, since old reactions to hearing this stuff usually led nowhere but down, there will also have to be new ways of listening and responding.

Because the outcome is so undependable, why would it even be worth going through all the effort to try these changes? The reason to go through this process is all about us; we need to get our needs met. If our partner says something like, “I feel controlled when you’re demanding my attention and if you back off, I can be more present,” this is definitely worth a try. You’re thinking, “I didn’t even know what your problem was, now it turns out that it’s something I’m doing wrong? That can’t be, but, I’m willing to experiment with change and see if you’ll come through with what I need.”

So, once we hear the details of what “backing off” looks like, we try it, and if we actually see our partner becoming less guarded or resentful and more emotionally available, it’s an “aha” moment: so this is what it takes! Ideally, we begin to recognize that making some small changes in how we conduct ourselves brings us more gentleness and appreciation. So the first reason to make these efforts at personal and behavioral change is to get more of what we need.

The second reason is also for us, and probably more important than the first. We need to learn what it takes to be a good partner. Whether this is the relationship that has what it takes to last or not, we need to make sure that we don’t repeatedly find ourselves in a relationship where our needs are unmet yet again. We all know people who were always looking — but never found — a good partner to settle in with and commit to because of a nonfunctional style of relating which they have, but of which, they are unaware. We don’t want that to be us!

So, we commit to giving it our best. Experts say that about a six-month period will yield an answer: “Yeah, it’s working;” or, “Well, I really tried, but this can’t work for me.” This is almost a no-lose situation. Hopefully, the marriage will begin to feel hopeful and rewarding, and the love will be experienced again. If not, the personal growth will be something that cannot be taken from us and will help us move on to a better place.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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