Like many counselors who do a great deal of marital therapy, I get a large number of couples who are facing the prospect of divorce. The most common expression I hear from couples in this situation is, “I just want to know that I tried.” I will admit to feeling a bit discouraged whenever I hear this, because it is usually code for “I want to ease my guilt about filing for divorce.” Many people think that by merely showing up a number of times in a counselor’s office they have given their marriage a legitimate opportunity to turn around. When this effort inevitably fails, they feel more justified in giving up on their vows. In many of these scenarios, the truth is that neither spouse has really tried at anything except pinning the blame on the other and reducing their own feelings of guilt.
I am a perpetual optimist and I am all for last chances. It is just that my standard for trying in a difficult marriage is a bit different. Showing up for a counseling appointment is a good first step, but that is the equivalent of showing up for your job in the morning. The fact that you were in the building doesn’t make you a hard-working and effective employee. Fixing a marriage that is near divorce requires a great deal of work and showing up is just the beginning. So, what kind of work really counts if you are going to be able to say you tried?
Divorce can sometimes be inevitable if one spouse is determined to move on from the marriage, but that does not mean that there is no work to do, even for the other spouse. As I see it, the primary responsibility for each spouse going into a round of marital counseling is to identify his or her contribution to the relationship breakdown and to work on the character issues that contribution reveals. Every spouse comes in knowing their partner’s problems. Very few are able to identify their own, and these people have a much higher success rate.
Have you neglected your marriage because you are consumed with your job? Have you been overbearing and controlling? Have you failed to say ‘no’ or truly express your feelings to your spouse? Have you been selfish or failed to show any appreciation to your partner? We all contribute something to a broken relationship and if we are not looking for it, we are not allowing counseling to do the job it is designed to do. Even a really bad marriage has the potential to show you difficult things about yourself and help you to change. Don’t pass up this opportunity God has provided for you. Whether your marriage survives or not, use this as a chance to face the depths of your heart and embrace deep change. That will definitely give your marriage the best chance of turning around. At least you are getting out of your own way. At the very least, the system cannot stay the same if one of its members changes their role. Things will change, and if that means you end up divorced, you will do so with no regrets.
Your marriage may seem hopeless, and there may seem like no other option but pursuing a divorce, blowing things up and starting over. If you are at that point and caught between the desperate pain of your marriage and the guilt-ridden sense of failure that divorce would bring, stop looking for a chance to say you tried. Ask yourself whether you have changed. Once you can affirm that, you will move forward with no regrets no matter the outcome.
Mike Sorenson, LPCMH