A couple we’ll call Rachel and Lee knew their relationship was disintegrating and called for a counseling appointment. They both stated they feared their marriage was headed for trouble. They shared a bit of their background, stating they had been together for fifteen years, married for twelve of them. In the beginning, things were pretty good, but over time, they both became more engaged in raising children and building their careers. Now, they rarely went out on a date and or were intimate. When they did have sex, it was not nearly as fulfilling as it used to be. Their communication had also changed. They found themselves using sarcasm or throwing a jab here and there when they were frustrated or disappointed. Words of love and affirmation were few and far between. They acknowledged they didn’t always like each other very much. Maybe you can relate to where Rachel and Lee find themselves. What do you think? Can this marriage be saved?
The short answer, there is hope, but it depends. The proverbial car is about to go over the cliff and if this couple can put up a guard rail and steer the car back on the highway, it’s possible, even probable, they can create a marriage where they are both thriving. Erecting the guard rail takes work, however, and Rachel and Lee need to fully commit to getting the job done. If they do agree to the task at hand, where do they even begin?
The first step is to be realistic about the process. Their goal of creating a fulfilling, mutually satisfying marriage is more of a marathon than a sprint. There are no magic wands to wave nor one giant leap to instantly create the ideal relationship. Relationships improve over time by making many small, albeit significant steps, which ultimately culminate in obtaining the desired outcomes. These steps are named and taken with intentionality. They center around investing in the four pillars of a successful marriage: friendship, partnership, intimacy, and trust. Each one is intertwined with the other; they are not mutually exclusive.
Friendship may best be defined as a relationship in which two people have shared experiences, including both enjoyable times and walking through difficult ones together. There’s a climate created in which both people are open to sharing their thoughts and feelings. Initiative is two-sided, and each person invests in the other to keep the friendship alive and thriving. The relationship is a secure one, knowing they are much more than an acquaintance or simply on the periphery of the other’s life, but instead a key person in the inner circle of the other’s relational world.
Partnership, if it is to be successful, is based on an agreement in which two people commit to keeping one another in the loop regarding one another’s goals, feelings, needs, plans, and expectations. They approach one another from the perspective of understanding, compromising where possible, and problem-solving to reach a mutually agreeable outcome. Take, for example, one husband’s decision to buy a new car without involving his wife in the decision. To add insult to injury, he chose a stick shift, which she couldn’t drive. You can be pretty certain he paid for that one!
Intimacy is more than just knowing facts about someone. It is experiencing one another from the inside out: “in to me see”. For example, you may know someone’s most beloved movie but that’s just a fact about the person. When you explore why it’s their number one choice, how it makes them feel when they watch it, what it reminds them of, and what similar experiences have they had, you now have much more intimate knowledge of the person.
Trust is a persuasion based on our life experiences in general, and interactions with specific people in particular. For example, we may trust one person to keep a secret for us and we know they will take it to their grave, but we might never trust that same person to invest our money wisely because of a poor track record in this area. We are more likely to have successful outcomes when we take the time to know someone. We want to look at how people run their lives. Are they who they say they are? Do they follow through on their commitments? Do they manage their emotions, behaviors, and schedules in a manner that values and respects the other person? The answers to these questions provide evidence for our decision to trust the person.
Making the Commitment
So, back to Rachel and Lee. Let’s say Rachel and Lee agree with the vision to rebuild these pillars. Each of them will need to commit and make the rebuilding process a priority. Words without action will produce zero results. That may include together taking a hard look at their commitments and letting some things go to free up time for their relationship. Then it will be possible to intentionally schedule meaningful times together, perhaps a date night, afternoon hikes, or fifteen minutes per day to share the highs and lows of their life. By putting the relationship first, each begins to feel valued and significant to the other.
In the area of communication, they will need to work toward eliminating those counterproductive habits of using sarcasm and jabs. Instead, they take responsibility for their own needs and feelings and express those in a manner that respects the other person. For example, instead of Rachel saying, “Do you think you might try to show up for dinner tonight?”, the request is made differently. “It would mean a lot to me to have dinner together tonight. Do you think you’d be able to make it home by 7 pm?”
We know no one does it all perfectly, so let’s say Lee doesn’t fall short and misses the dinner engagement. That’s not good, but rather than hurling a criticism, suppose Rachel expresses her real feelings. Instead of “You’re such a jerk for not coming home for dinner when you said you would,” she says, “I’m hurt and disappointed that you didn’t show up when you said you would. It makes me feel unloved and that I am not a priority to you.”
Ideally, Lee would respond by acknowledging her feelings. “I’m sorry. I can understand. I let you down and I want to do better.” This is undoubtedly more productive than a defensive reaction such as, “You’re always complaining. I’m working hard and you don’t appreciate me.”
Then there’s the question of forgiveness. Each one will have to decide to let go of the hurt they have experienced in the relationship, intentional or unintentional, and focus on moving forward with an ongoing commitment to take care of business and not harbor a list of mistakes or failures.
There’s another valuable step Rachel and Lee will need to take and that is changing their frame of reference. Instead of looking at one another’s shortcomings and areas to improve, they agree to focus on personal change rather than fixing the other person.
Finally, there’s the matter of serving one another first. We’re living in a culture where the emphasis has been placed on prioritizing what I need, what I deserve, or what I am entitled to. This approach doesn’t bode well in creating a successful marriage. We want to move into a role of serving the other, not without boundaries or inappropriately, but realizing a successful marriage is not just about me.
Recently I was in a candy store with two little ones, a brother and a sister. They were told they could each buy two pieces of candy. Upon leaving, they talked about their purchases. The little girl showed the little boy a package of two chocolate-covered Oreos she had. He was a little sad and said he didn’t get that. It seemed he regretted not making that choice. The little girl said, “That’s okay, I’ll give you one of mine.” He smiled and it was a done deal. We can learn something, I think, from them.
Amy holds an M.A. in Professional Psychology and is a licensed professional counselor in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Florida specializing in individual and marriage counseling.
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