Rx For a Troubled Marriage
by Donna Jackson
New Woman, March, 1998

Imagine you're on the phone catching up with a friend who says she can't stay in her marriage another minute. She's even called a few attorneys and a real estate agent - that's how bleak things are. Surely she should go, you say, as you listen to the awful details of her unhappiness.

Months pass. You talk again. She's decided to stay and try to work it out, she says. Oh, there are a hundred reasons: the kids; the financial realities of divorcing; the fact that on a good day she remembers she loved him once; and, mostly, she hopes it will be different between them - sometime soon.

You hang up the phone, sure of this: She'll be just as miserable a year from now as she is today. She's just making the best of a bad situation, poor thing.

What you expressly do not expect is the opposite scenario: to talk to her a year later and find that she and her husband have changed, worked things out, transformed their marriage into something far richer - they've found, truly, a new level of intimacy together. They are, shock of shocks, happy together after so much marital woe.

In this country, a couple divorces every 26 seconds. But what about the couples who teeter precariously near the brink of divorce and don't split up? Of course, we all know that some couples who opt not to separate are miserable together forever. And some marriages cannot and should not be saved (see box, "Should You Fight for Your Marriage?"). But, says Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting and the audiotape program based on her couples workshop, Keeping Love Alive, "I've seen many couples in my practice who nearly divorced - often after feeling as if they've been locked in a living hell together for years - and yet they're able to rebuild a marriage that is better than they could ever have imagined. They're often happier than other couples who never went through such a terrible close call." According to Weiner-Davis, this kind of reconciliation happens much more often than we as a society tend to think, and has much to teach us about the inner workings of a good marriage.

Although every women's tale of marital hell differs, all couples who nearly split come to the same bleak spot in the end: miserable, depressed, feeling betrayed, in turmoil, scared, defeated, furious, and in such pain that they feel as if they're being torn apart inside. What, then, enables some women to transform their marriages? What emotional tools do they use? Exactly what is a good enough reason upon which to base such a major life decision? To find out, we interviewed a number of women who nearly divorced - and didn't. Most of them stayed for one or more of the following reasons:

They See Some Good in the Bad.
According to Weiner-Davis, many of these women have just a glimmer of hope that their marriages can improve. Take Kathy, a 37-year-old Hollywood producer's assistant. "My husband and I were miserable together for years," she says. He'd been unfaithful to her before they got married, and she couldn't forgive him. "I was constantly jealous, and it made me bitter. Then, when we'd been married for a few years, he went to a bachelor party and let a prostitute sit on his lap and roam her hands all over him. I heard about it later, and I was merciless."

Things quickly escalated to the point where, during an argument, Kathy slapped Jack and he shoved her. "We had a three-year-old daughter, and I didn't want her to see us like this, so I told him to leave," says Kathy.

But something happened during their separation that gave Kathy a shred of hope. She and Jack decided to write letters to each other to work out the details of their divorce. "These letters were so clearly from a very kind person, someone very hurt, very confused - someone who was good through and through," she explains. Reading his letters, Kathy found herself hoping that things could be different between them. They eventually decided that Jack would move back in. "Even though it took a lot of sweat and tears, the really solid, good marriage we have now all started with that feeling of hope."

Their Husbands Also Engage-to Some Degree-in the Process.
Unfair as it seems, experts say it is usually the woman who decides to fight for the marriage. But no amount of dedication on her part is enough unless her husband is at least somewhat committed to the process. According to John Gottman, director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute, and author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail...and How You Can Make Yours Last, "Often, a marriage succeeds or fails to the extent that a husband can accept influence from his wife." If he listens and responds to you in a way that keeps communication moving forward, your efforts stand a good chance of paying off. As Kathy says, "Jack showed up for every therapy appointment, he wrote me dozens of letters. None of what happened for us could have happened if he hadn't been actively involved in the process of trying to rebuild our marriage."

They Take a Leap of Faith.
Many of these women say they came to a place where they made a decision to work towards a better marriage even as the relationship was at its very worst. This leap of faith precipitated a cascade of changes within the marriage.

For Kathy, the leap of faith came after she'd spent time researching articles about how the kids of divorce cope. "The information I found out was not good at all. I realized I didn't want my child to be a child of divorce. I started wondering: Is there a way that you can live with a person you're having so many conflicted feelings about and let the resentments go? Once I made the decision to give our marriage everything I had, things began to change. Both of us seemed to have a new commitment to working things out." They agreed to see a therapist together, and eventually Kathy found someone who was "confrontational, but also kind. He flat out told us we were emotionally battering each other. He made rules: He told us we could not see each other except in his office because we were both too immature to talk things out on our own. He didn't want to hear about who had done what to whom. He wanted us to learn to back down. He taught us that if you want a good marriage, you give in when you're wrong - and when you're right. For the first time, I learned that I could be myself and have my strong opinions and still back off, give in. I didn't need to batter Jack emotionally until he agreed with me or pleaded for forgiveness."

Sometimes a new discovery or vital piece of information motivates a woman to take a leap of faith. As Weiner-Davis says, "Any reason for staying together is a good reason," assuming the couple wants to stay together. Whether it's religious faith or fear of the financial realities of divorce, "allowing your fears to give you pause can be a very positive survival skill," she adds.

They Issue an Ultimatum.
Peter Kramer, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of Should You Leave? A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy - The Nature of Advice, says that couples who stay together despite their grievances often learn to discern what the crucial issues are and how to stand up for them. Sometimes the ultimatum is nonverbal, for example, refusing to go to a company party or moving out of the bedroom.

Grace, a 54-year-old businesswomen married 39 years, tells how her marriage was saved by an ultimatum. "We were having trouble with one of our teenagers who was suddenly failing in school, and we went into family therapy. My husband had a drinking problem, and our family therapist said that if therapy was to work, he had to stop drinking. But he didn't. I told him if he didn't stop drinking and using alcohol as an emotional crutch to avoid the feelings that therapy was trying to help him realize, in three months I'd be gone." Grace's bold move worked.

They Learn to Accept Each Other's Limitations.
As important as it is that you take a stand on issues that are unacceptable to you, it's just as important to realize that in order to be happy with your partner, you don't necessarily have to like every single thing about him. "There is an illusion that either you'll be able to change all the things about your relationship that you don't like, or else you'll eventually feel good about the things you can't change," says Weiner-Davis. "But that's not true. You won't eventually feel better about your partner in every single way. You have to accept that - that's part of marriage."

According to Gottman, such acceptance is critical, given that most couples never resolve most of their key problems. And if they leave, they'd most likely find different but equally upsetting and unfixable problems with the next person. Which means, he suggests, couples need to learn to accept each other's limitations. According to Neil Jacobson, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Washington, research bears this out. A recent study about a new type of therapy called "integrative couple therapy" - which seeks to help partners accept each other's flaws and idiosyncrasies - boasts an 89 percent success rate at helping couples in trouble significantly improve their marriage. Advocates of integrative couple therapy say that dissimilarities between partners can be vehicles for intimacy - opportunities for couples to get closer once they feel fully accepted by each other.

They Find the Right Kind of Help.
For many women, an investment of time and money into a marriage education workshop brings on the necessary changes in their marriage. Georgia says she and her husband, Phil, were at the point where they only spoke when an issue came up that had to be addressed - with the house, or with one of their children. "If friends wanted to invite us to diner, they knew they had to call each of us separately because we just didn't talk." They had already been to three different marital therapists. There was clearly nothing left to do but divorce.

But then, as they began to call family members to tell them their sad news, one of Georgia's sisters told her about a marriage workshop that had turned around several marriages she knew of. She pleaded with Georgia and Phil to go. So Georgia and Phil attended a three-day course called Retrouvaille(for more information, see box, "Should You Fight for Your Marriage?"). At the end, says Georgia, "We liked the course so much we signed up for another marriage education course a few weeks later - and by the end of that one, we had decided we should stay together. We felt love for each other again. Suddenly we understood that neither of us was wrong or bad - we were just very different people and that was okay. It helped us both to stop judging and to accept the other person's uniqueness."

They Focus on Changing Themselves, Not Each Other.
There are some things we want in a relationship that we will never get from our partner. The solution, says Kramer, is "to find them - or develop them - in yourself." Sometimes our concerns about our partner's inadequacies might actually mask concerns about our own inadequacies. For instance, Kramer describes one couple where the women had initially been attracted to her husband because of his stability, his "salt of the earth" quality. However, after several years of marriage, she complained that he was staid, stodgy, boring, not willing enough to take risks, "not dynamic." But in truth, says Kramer, this particular woman was not very dynamic herself. When she realized this, she was able to accept him as he was. She let her anger at him go and began to work on her own feelings of social inadequacy.

Regardless of the path the women took to retrieve their marriages from the brink of divorce, they all shared one thing in common: They were overwhelmingly grateful that they had stayed. Perhaps Kathy expresses it best: "I'm finally in the place I've always dreamt of being: We used to be the bickering couple that might not show up at a party because we would be at home having a blowup. And now we're the opposite of that. I'm so glad I stayed; I'm glad for me, for Jack, for our daughter."

Should You Fight For Your Marriage


It's very hard to figure out whether to stay in your marriage or leave, though some cases seem more clear-cut than others - for example, those involving physical abuse or chronic drug abuse. Behavior that would be intolerable for one person might be a minor inconvenience for another, and many negative behaviors such as chronic criticism and blaming can be reversed. So how do you know if your marriage can be saved? According to Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education(C.M.F.C.E.) in Washington, D.C., a clearinghouse for information on marital education programs, you can't know much until you're sure you have done everything you can to save your marriage. Says Sollee: Most marriages don't break up over big issues, but rather due to "irreconcilable disappointments. People fall in love, and then, over time, all these little disappointments in each other break their hearts and the marriage breaks apart." In other words, two people simply become worn down by layers of resentment, and they are unaware of the tools that are available to help them. Eventually, divorce seems like an attractive solution. But according to Sollee, few suffering couples know about the wide range of excellent and highly successful educational marriage programs now available to equip them with a more realistic view of what to expect in marriage, and provide them with more efficient ways to handle inevitable conflicts and communication problems. Sollee's advice for couples in trouble is to start with one of the extremely helpful couples weekend programs around the country. Indeed, C.M.F.C.E. [www.smartmarriages.com]) is based on the premise that all couples have the ability to learn skills that will help them to create (or re-create) and maintain successful relationships. Here is a sampling to help get you started:
* RETROUVAILLE (French for rediscovery). Trained volunteer couples, who nearly divorced but instead learned to rebuild their trusting bond, teach others how to heal their own marriages. Retrouvaille boasts an 85 percent success rate at improving marriages - when both partners are openly willing to work at the relationship. While the programs (one weekend plus three months of follow-up) are run by clergy, along with three couples who've "been there," Retrouvaille is nondenominational. Call (800) 470-2230; Web site: www.retrouvaille.org.
* PAIRS A 120-hour educational program that provides proven skills to sustain love. Couples attend one weekend a month and one night a week for a period of four months. PAIRS also offers weekend and one-day courses. Call (888) PAIRS-4U. Web site: www.pairs.com.

If you choose joint counseling with a therapist, bear in mind that, in the words of Frank Pittman, M.D., a psychiatrist and family therapist in private practice in Atlanta, "Therapists are trained to protect people from relationships that might hurt them." He adds that "marital therapists are also trained to relieve pain and, therefore, they're often very squeamish about witnessing their clients' suffering." As a result, some of them tend to steer their patients out of difficult relationships. Find out whether your therapist is more oriented toward helping couples stay in their marriage. This is actually the current approach in marital therapy. Last year the first-ever national conference was held on "Smart Marriages," with 700 experts, marital therapists, and policy makers in attendance. Their goal? To help teach people that if you are unhappy in your marriage, it may be because you and your partner don't have the necessary emotional tools.

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