People often ask me “is it ever too late to save a marriage?” Another question I get a lot is “What happens if after reading our BIG BIG Book you realize that we should divorce?” Still, another question I get is “Can you help me decide if I should remain in this marriage?”
The people asking these questions all have one thing in common. They are genuinely hurting, and trying to somehow externalize their dilemma. It’s a human tendency to want to give your power away when contemplating a question that shakes your soul with such profound pain.
How do I answer the question “Is it ever too late to save a marriage?”
I start by telling our would-be client that there are two essential pieces to the answer.
Angela and Sy (not their real names) have been married for 19 years. They have two kids, Paula 11, and Gordon, 15. They have been bitterly fighting about the same issue for the past three years, and their poor kids have been a captive audience.
Angela wants to give up her family law practice. “I am so burned out.” She tells me as if pleading with me to somehow release her from her plight.
“Tell him what you want to do instead” barks Sy. “She wants to quit a career where she made 226K last year because she wants to write a Noooovel.”
Sy draws out the word contemptuously.
Unfortunately, the issue has metastasized into other marital organs. Angela and Sy both tried to recruit me to their side of the street. Angela and Sy used to have a long-standing feud about this. But now the issue was so massively gridlocked that it was no longer about Angela’s career change…it was now about whether or not they could remain together at all.
“We just fight about this constantly,” said Angela. “I’ve been building this practice for ten years, and I’ve come to hate it. I’ve seen too many families suffering. I’m tired, and I’m done. Sy makes twice what I make. It’s not about the money. He’s crushing my soul, and I hate him for it.”
When it’s Sy’s turn to give his take on things he gets agitated: “What’s she’s not telling you is that when we first got married, I worked like a dog for years flipping houses to pay for her law degree. Now she tells me that she wants to throw that all away, it’s like she’s saying all the sacrifices I made don’t mean anything.”
The first step in helping Angela and Sy is to help them see how they trigger and escalate one another.
They need help clarifying what dreams are underlying this gridlocked issue. Angela and Sy have fought about this issue so bitterly that they have fallen into a deeply scripted Groundhog Day.
In science-based couples therapy, we help couples like Sy and Angela accept responsibility for their own behavior.
Research tells us that fights about money are the most vicious. Sy and Angela needed to explain to each other what this dilemma means to them. But they first needed a structure and some skills that would permit them to do so.
I asked them to have a Generative Conversation so that each of them can be fully heard. When Sy was the speaker, he was able to describe his sense of pride in Angela’s success, and a feeling of relief that with her additional income they would have a worry-free retirement, and that their family’s financial goals could easily be met.
Angela learned for the first time that although Sy’s real estate business was successful, he was never really able to relax. “My dad lost everything in the recession of ’81. I worked with him right out of college. Brokering and flipping houses is all I know. I saw how crushed he was. Mom never worked…and he was too proud to ask. I’m always afraid that it could happen to me.” Sy’s eyes grew wet. “But I never talk to you about it Angie, because I don’t want you to worry.”
One of the valuable lessons that all couples learn in science-based couples therapy is that conflict is an inescapable dimension of marriage.
Michele Weiner Davis tells us that one of the secrets of a good marriage is learning to choose battles wisely. It’s important to differentiate between small issues and more critical ones.
Sy and Angela learned that if they could self-regulate and co-regulate during a conflictual conversation, they may learn something new and build empathy for one another.
In Dr. Gottman’s book The Relationship Cure, he writes:
“It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.
Is it ever too late to save a marriage? Not if you want to save it.
But it requires some sweat equity. During their Marriage Intensive, Sy and Angela cried and laughed together… and made a detailed plan that addressed both of their concerns.
They learned about their deepest fears and anxieties and grew closer in the process. Their bickering ended. The kids noticed and asked them about it.
Sy told their kids, Paula and Gordon. “A marriage is like an investment property. It will have an increased value when you invest in what it needs.
Angela smiled and chimed in, …and sometimes kids, when you don’t do regular upkeep…you’ll eventually want to do a major remodel.”
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.