On Marriage, Part 3: Hope for Healing Damaged Marriages

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This is the third part of a marriage series.  Part 1 was thinking about whom to marry and Part 2 shared what we’ve learned about staying married.  Part 3 addresses what to do if you feel like your marriage is in trouble.

For each of these posts in the marriage series, I feel (rightly) obliged to show my credentials:  who am I to say anything about marriage?

I’m Mike.  I’ve been married to Kim for 23 years and we’ve come through the death of a son, a miscarriage, a daughter with extreme health concerns for her first four years, fourteen moves, five years living in a developing country (two in a slum), getting fired, deaths of parents, severe depression, and two what I would term major crises in our relationship, both lasting over a year.

What I can say for my perspective is this: we’ve walked through a lot together and we’re still happily married.  We like each other.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We laugh together.  Our marriage isn’t perfect, but we wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s.  And we’ve worked our butts off to get this far.

I’m not an expert, not a licensed marriage and family therapist, and we have not experienced many of the worst things that destroy marriages.  So why try to say anything?

Three reasons:  One, I’m a transformation junkie.  I believe God can change any of us, at any time, none of us are beyond redemption, and likewise our marriages.  Two, I believe that the scars we carry are opportunities to speak to others who are struggling with wounds similar to what we have survived; God redeems our suffering by making us able to love others who are suffering as we did.  Three, I hope this offers a safer way to start seeking help, a first step, and this may be your chance to start doing something before it’s too late.

If reading this helps one marriage, it’s so much more than worth the hours of writing.  And from my end, I want to know I’ve offered what I can.


People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems.   

The worst year of our marriage happened here in Nicaragua.  We got so fed up with each other that our dates became the venting of our stored frustration with each other, the time we addressed our conflicts.  Who wouldn’t look forward to that Date Night?

The lowlight, from my perspective, was when we went out to dinner and I just lost it in a restaurant, started crying and couldn’t stop, had to go out to the car and we just drove home, where I insisted Kim get out so I could go be by myself.  I can’t remember ever crying in public like that, before or since, even at a funeral.  Big surprise, we stopped having dates soon after that.  Then we were just unhappy with each other all the time, while never spending any focused time together.

For perspective, Kim and I had been so romantically in love that once, during our college dating years, we made a rule limiting how many seconds we could gaze into each others’ eyes.  So if you’ve asked yourself, “How the hell did we get here?” yeah, so have we.  And we made it back from there.

People often think you have to resolve your problems with each other before you can heal.  You may need to heal some first before you can resolve your problems. 

Of course the best advice is, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” meaning reconcile by the end of the day–i.e. as soon as possible–so that nothing can build up.  But though this will help protect our relationships from serious division, it’s not a cure all.  Not every conflict can be resolved in one conversation, sometimes we try to forgive but have trouble letting some things so, and when there is a pattern of the same behavior, promptly addressing it still may not touch the root of why it keeps happening.  Oh, and sometimes we disagree over the conflict, can’t settle it, and then we’re just in bed and angry and the sun is long down.

Your problems almost certainly did not start overnight. 


Here is what I know:  your problems almost certainly did not start overnight.  Ours didn’t.  They grew and spread through many choices over many days and weeks and months, maybe even years.  Perhaps in a rare situation you or your partner just made a horrible, destructive decision out of the blue and everything came crashing down.  It happens.  But almost always the decisions are the daily kind, like erosion, the small disagreements and tensions and fissures that add up.  Maybe you have had a dramatic breaking of trust, but likely that came at the end of a chain of events, too.

We had reached the point where we could no longer go back and find the roots of our problem.  Kim and I symbolically had to sweep everything off the table and start over.  We put our time together back in the center of that table and nothing else.  Then, slowly, we would add things back, after we were certain our relationship had stabilized again.

Most of you have seen that visual lesson where someone shows how if you put the big rocks in the bottle first, the rest of the rocks and sand and water can fit, too.  We weren’t going for that.  We dumped everything out of the bottle and put in the rock of our marriage, plus the bare minimum of our responsibilities (keep feeding our kids, show up for work).  Then we started over learning to like each other.  We intentionally, consciously changed how we spoke to each other.  We were not avoiding the areas of conflict altogether, but we were not discussing them, or even alluding to them, on date nights.

We went on an anniversary trip together during this time and it was…stilted.  We were no longer just easygoing and comfortable with each other.  We had some nice times and also some awkward, difficult conversations, because we were committed to keeping things positive with each other.

If what I’m describing sounds like denial to you, think of this:  you have a gaping wound in your side and every time you bring up the conflict between you, it’s like taking sandpaper and rubbing it up and down that wound.  You might think, “No, I’m addressing the problem,” but it’s possible all you’re really doing is inflicting pain and aggravating the injury.  If you can’t stand each other, you’re not going to want to work things out.  Ever.  You might stay legally married but your relationship may not recover.

In our opinion, if you have covenanted to be married for life (those vows you said, not a contractual agreement), you have a long time to let yourselves heal and keep working through the conflicts until you can reach reconciliation.  Neither of you is going anywhere.  Whereas if you keep making the other person scream out in pain, one of you might go somewhere, far away, because you (or he or she) has reached the pain tolerance limit.


Prayer has saved our marriage.

We pray.  We believe in prayer, we believe in God’s desire and power to answer prayer, and we both think our lives would have gone horribly if God had not intervened many times.

When we are angry or fed up or at the end of our rope with our spouse, someone’s heart needs to change.  But I can’t change my significant other’s heart.  Often, I can’t even change my own.  But God can, and I can be willing for it to happen, which in my experience is the one crucial prerequisite.

You may read that and think, “Why does my heart have to change? I’m not the one who’s wrong!  I’m not at fault, except maybe 15% of the time!”

That may be true.  And you both may think that–which mathematically doesn’t work out at all.  But assuming 1)you want to stay married, and 2)on this trajectory your marriage will smash on the rocks, your heart will have to change, whoever is more to blame.

I once preached a sermon entitled, “You’re Wrong.”  Most Christians who have any grasp of orthodox (sound) theology know that we are sinners saved by God’s grace.  That’s our party line.  But even though it’s implicit in “we sin” that we must be wrong–sin means doing or thinking something wrong, self-damaging and dishonoring to God–it’s harder to hear “you’re wrong” than “you’re a sinner.”  What’s up with that?

I think two things:  we don’t really, fully with our whole hearts embrace that notion of being sinners with all its uncomfortable implications, and we are willing to admit to God that we’ve screwed up but not nearly so willing to acknowledge to people that we aren’t (always) right.

Maybe I overgeneralize here, but let’s take the case of the conflict between you and the person with your ring: are you wrong?  How much of the problem is because of you?  Can you start there as you approach how you will reconcile and heal, that you really are wrong? 

Ask God to change your heart.  I mean seriously, even if you are not in the habit of praying, even if you aren’t entirely certain there is a God up in the sky (or wherever the God-you’re-not-sure-of might dwell), ask God to change your heart and help you see where you are wrong.  Why?  Because 1)God just might do that, and it’s worth the risk of asking to save your marriage, 2)asking to see where you are wrong is a big step toward coming to see that you are, in fact, wrong in a lot of things; you’ve acknowledged the possibility.  God can work with that.

If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

Nope, I don’t know your situation personally (unless I do), but I do know that even if your significant other “started it,” the pattern of irritation and criticism and defensiveness and sarcasm and avoidance and manipulation and passive aggression is now being perpetuated by two.  Most of us pray for God to change our spouse.  When the conflict drags on and grows into a full-blown crisis, we might get angry at God for not answering.  But I know this, too:  If you ask God to change your heart toward your beloved, and you keep praying that, he will answer your prayer.

I’ve learned that one of the biggest blocks to true forgiveness is the need to be justified, to have the other person say how right I was and how wrong he or she was.  I’m grateful that I learned this before I entered our marriage, and the lesson saved what has become one of my closest lifelong friendships. Two people holding out for hearing “you were right” can easily become The Zax.


Forgiveness is to marriage as oxygen is to lungs.

I tried to stress in Parts 1 and 2 that if you can’t or won’t forgive, marriage isn’t for you.  If you’re already well into marriage and only just now discovering this fact, you have to 1)learn, 2)get divorced, 3)resign yourself to an unhappy relationship.  I suggest 1.

But forgiveness is hard; it is one of the things that makes marriage such demanding and sometimes grueling work.  You may be facing trying to forgive something that feels beyond forgiveness.  In the end, that’s the choice of whether or not you will stay married: can you forgive that?  Maybe “that” is adultery; maybe it’s years of habitual neglect or indifference; maybe it’s doing the things that bug you the most on purpose, just to piss you off.

And maybe you can forgive, but is there any indication the other person will change even if you do?

So much of marriage is based on hope.  I think most of us enter our marriages with starry eyes and unsubstantiated confidence that everything will go well.  The truth is, we are making vows to love a person who is going to change and grow and we have no idea who they will become.  And that’s describing emotionally healthy people.  “Sickness and health,” “Richer and poorer,” “Better or worse,” those are seriously wide ranges that we’re committing to.

We’ve entered this relationship that assumes change is not merely possible, but guaranteed.  What we’re really asking, therefore, is not “will the other person change if I forgive,” but “will the other person change to stop doing this thing I can’t bear?”  My point here is, we’ve already taken a huge leap of faith that the person I loved when I exchanged vows is someone who a)I will still love even after she has changed radically over the years, and b)will still love me even if my changes are difficult for her, even if I don’t become what she hoped I would be, even if I don’t become what I hoped I would be.  Like I say, it’s starry-eyed that this doesn’t strike us as a huge risk, but when you look at results, clearly it is.

 Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of hope.

So I am taking a similar risk when I forgive and believe that my spouse will change.  Forgiving in hope of seeing change (not as manipulation to get change) is the risk we take in marriage.  Seeking God to change my own heart and believing that Kim is trying, too, that is a radical act of radical hope, especially when we don’t feel loving toward each other.  And yet, it’s not a true risk, because for our hearts to survive, we need to forgive anyway.


Forgiveness does not equal Reconciliation

I have to make a crucial distinction here:  We forgive everything, but not everything can be reconciled.  By this I mean we do not hold hatred or resentment in our hearts against our significant others (nor anyone else, if we want to live and grow).  But we may not let them in the front door ever again, if the problem is bad enough and they show no commitment to change accompanied by action.  Reconciliation requires genuine change.  Virtually always, it requires both people to change.  Note: Trying harder to get the other person to see you’re right is not change.


Not every conflict can be reconciled and not every conflict should be reconciled.

“WAIT!  I thought you were trying to heal our marriage, not talk us out of it.”

I used to be the optimist who believed that every single marriage can be saved.  I don’t anymore.  I do believe, as I said, that everyone can change and be transformed by the power of God.  I also believe that if two people are committed to staying married, they can work out their problems.  If neither of you will give up, then you don’t have to get divorced.  It comes down to the two of you: no one outside can force you to quit, so as long as neither of you quit and you keep working on your relationship, you will work through things.  Eventually.

But sometimes, the other person gives up and you can’t make them try.  Should you stay in a marriage with someone who doesn’t want to get divorced but refuses to make any effort to change?  I really believe that is between you and God.

Should you stay in a marriage in which you are being physically abused?*

No.

The only “unless” I will submit is that your husband or wife is willing to demonstrate genuine repentance–meaning not merely “I’m sorry” but turning around and going the other way–through a number of agreed upon steps that might include therapy, limited time together, outside accountability and certain other benchmarks that show evidence of effort and progress.

There is a crucial difference between forgiveness and allowing someone to continue in destructive behavior. I may forgive someone for stealing from me, but I won’t have them walking through my home unaccompanied again, unless I know that the person has changed.  I mean, really, demonstrably changed.

Having said that, I don’t want to speak against someone else’s faith or willingness to forgive.  I have a number of close friends who have forgiven some awful things in their marriages that I cannot picture being able to forgive, much less reconcile and continue to be married.  But the truth is, I have not been through their situations, and we experience God’s grace when we’re in the midst of the struggle, not standing outside watching it.


 

I know this has been more narrative than step-by-step, so I’ll offer that, too.

Decide for yourself (and with God, if you pray) whether your conflict is worth ending your marriage over.  If it truly is, you should decide that consciously, not through erosion and passing the point of no return.  If it’s not, then make up your mind to do whatever you can on your end to fight for your marriage…and continue with this list.

  1. Identify what you have done wrong.
  2. Pray for God to help you change your heart toward your spouse, no matter who has done what.
  3. Ask God to help you forgive what your love did wrong.
  4. Apologize, ask forgiveness, and commit to changing.
  5. Receive apologies, forgive (this may take time) and don’t keep score or hold it against him or her.

As I said, you may need to do step 3 and commit to it over a period of time before you can make progress with reconciling your conflict.  And you may never reach the point where fault is acknowledged and forgiveness asked.  You may both simply have to choose to forgive and let it go.

Remember, taking these steps assumes your relationship is in a place to work through the conflict.  If you need to heal and regain fondness for each other first, do it.  Make that step two and keep returning to it.


 

There is a vast quantity of research and writing on marriage and healthy relationships.  The very best source I know is the Gottman Institute.  They have forty years of research invested in figuring out why some relationships last while others end.  Here is their blog that directly addresses the things that they have found most often kill relationships, which they refer to as “The Four Horsemen”:  Criticism, Stonewalling, Defensiveness and Contempt.

I highly recommend reading through these posts on the Four Horsemen, which include not only descriptions of destructive habits we can all get into, but ways to address each and work together to change.

 

I hope and fervently pray this may be of some help, or that you are able to find the help you need elsewhere.  When we most need help, often we feel least willing to seek it.

If you have comments or questions, I would be more than happy to respond.

Here is one last thing I know: God does love you and does desire to help your marriage.

 

 

*If you suspect you are being physically or emotionally abused, seek help from someone you trust personally or a professional.  I am NOT suggesting here that forms of abuse other than physical are acceptable, but they may require more discernment to identify.

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