It only takes one to create a crisis, but it takes two to heal it.
Your relationship is in trouble… at least according to one of you. Perhaps, as it often happens, you don’t agree — one partner thinks it’s time to get help, the other insists that things will work out on their own. You may both have heard discouraging stories from other couples: “We tried everything: a romantic getaway, a retreat, even therapy — nothing worked.”
Couples’ therapy is a great help, but the fact is, nothing will work if you don’t lay the necessary groundwork first. Here are some basic conditions for rebuilding a damaged or broken relationship …
A relationship can’t be rebuilt if only one partner is invested in the process. It’s like the image St. Paul uses of a believer and unbeliever being “unequally yoked.” You are bound together in the relationship, but if there’s unequal willingness to get help and work things out — if only one of you is “walking” — then you’ll just be going in circles. In some cases, it takes months or even years of persistence from one partner before the other will concede that outside help is needed.
Change can only happen where there is mutual willingness to overcome conflict and choose each other again. Yes, it’s not about feelings, but about a choice. Desire is a fickle sentiment; what’s asked of a couple the day of their marriage isn’t just a feeling, but a choice, a free decision by both spouses to love each other. It takes two to start a marriage, and it takes two to repair one as well.
Choosing means renouncing
One of the main causes of marriage crises is infidelity, when one of the spouses reneges on that decision to love the other spouse in an exclusive and life-long way. Sometimes, what’s getting in the way of that commitment isn’t another person, but a job, a vice, an addiction (pornography or alcoholism, for example), money, or other material things that absorb our time and attention.
In order to repair a marriage damaged in this way, the guilty party must renew — in theory and in practice — that decision. Renewing our marriage means renouncing whatever is in the way. It’s impossible to rebuild your marriage if you haven’t chosen to be exclusively committed to your spouse. In some cases it’s just a matter of finding the right balance — a workaholic need not stop working completely, he or she just needs help to keep work in its proper place. In other cases, such as drug abuse, infidelity, or abusive behavior, the renunciation must be absolute.
Things are different now
If your marriage has passed through a crisis, things will never be exactly the same as they were before, nor should they be. Moving forward is not the same as going back to the past. You have to write a new chapter in your relationship. You have both learned something about your strengths and weaknesses, what works and what doesn’t. If one of you was too passive, perhaps you have learned to stand your ground. If one of you used to bend over backwards for the other, he or she needs to learn how to say no and stop resenting the other for being so demanding.
Having overcome significant challenges together, you may cherish more deeply the love you fought to protect. Your love has matured through the process of choosing each other once again. Overcoming a crisis in your relationship fosters a closer connection, more truth and humility … as long as you forgive.
The power of forgiveness
Forgiveness is indispensable in the healing process. Without it, resentment increases the conflict in a relationship, and rebuilding is impossible. Forgiveness helps us avoid the pitfalls of living in the past, seeking retaliation, and cultivating resentment. Only forgiveness can allow us to love freely once again.
This doesn’t mean that persistent bullying, humiliation, and other abuses ought to be continually forgiven. If abusive behavior is reoccurring in a relationship, especially if it becomes physical, it needs to stop before any real progress can be made, and it’s possible that a temporary separation might be needed until such time as the protection of the physical and psychological health of the victim can be ensured.
Take the first step
If you are waiting for your partner to change so that things can get better, but aren’t making any changes on your part, you’re sure to be disappointed. Even if you are an entirely innocent victim of the other’s infidelity, you will benefit from changing your own attitudes and behaviors regardless of whether or not your spouse takes the same initiative. You won’t be able to fix things all by yourself but if your spouse sees that you’re making an effort, it may help them be more disposed to responding in kind. Even seeing a therapist individually can help your relationship; it may allow you to address some of your personal challenges and provide you with tools for navigating conflict. This type of coaching, even if you’re receiving it alone, could have a positive effect on your marriage.
Every marriage goes through rough spots, some greater than others. That’s why we take vows; not just to express our love, hopes, and dreams, but to help ourselves remain committed when our feelings have changed, when one or both of us have failed in some way, etc. If we work together, forgive each other, and start over again, older and wiser, with or without the help of a therapist, we will be able to renew our decision to live together in love “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.”