By Leslie Vernick (www.leslievernick.com)
This is the third installment of a series of blogs regarding important steps a counselor must take to help restore a destructive marriage. In the first blog I talked about the importance of all forms of safety in a marriage (such as emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, sexual). In the second blog, I addressed the importance of sanity. We want our counselee not only to think biblically but to be walking in grace and truth. When wrong thinking fuels, justifies, and excuses sinful behaviors, it’s not possible to heal a destructive marriage. As biblical counselors we want to help a couple build loving and godly interactions, but this takes awareness, repentance, perseverance, and a good amount of time in order to build a new history together.
The third step necessary to repair a destructive relationship is started only after the first two have been addressed, at least to some degree. When the couple is physically separated because of safety concerns, it is important to have concrete evidence demonstrating safety and sanity before a couple moves back together. The last thing you want to see is a couple repeating the same old patterns of abuse and destruction that caused the split in the first place. You can’t build new history together or any marital stability, when the old history keeps repeating itself.
In my first blog on safety I shared Shirley’s concern that her biblical counselor was pressuring her to allow her husband, Ray, to return to the home so that they could work on their marriage. Her counselor told her that they could not put the marriage together while still separated. Shirley’s fear was that she hadn’t seen enough evidence of Ray respecting her boundaries while separated. Ray’s current selfish behavior repeats their old marital history such as Ray’s needs always come first. Ray gets what Ray wants. Ray feels entitled to badger and bully to get what he wants. Shirley is never allowed to say no without a price to pay.
We know Ray is never going to be perfect. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But even while separated, Ray could be changing. He could work on building new history with Shirley. For example, if Ray is working on sanity and safety goals, then he must start to see his self-centered orientation (sanity). He also must accept Shirley’s feedback when she sees he’s repeating old patterns. Let’s see what this looks like when Ray is visiting his children.
“Ray, I want you to leave now. I’m tired. The kids are tired. We all want to go to bed.” Shirley says. (Shirley is asking Ray to be considerate of her needs)
“This is my house too.” Ray said. “I don’t know why I can’t stay and finish watching the football game. Go to bed. I don’t care.” (Ray is only thinking about Ray.)
“Ray, I’m not comfortable going to sleep with you in the house. Please leave.” (Shirley is being honest and asking for respect.)
“You’re being selfish. Don’t you know how boring it is in that room I have to stay in because of you? All I ask is to finish watching the game. It will be over in 30 minutes. Go to bed or stay up but I want to see who wins.” (Ray is attacking and blame-shifting. He is still in his old thinking patterns. He is not practicing safety or sanity.)
“You are not respecting my boundaries. You are not living in this house because of me but because of your own abusive actions. Right now you’re behaving like your feelings come before everyone elses . I said I was tired and I want you to leave.” (Shirley is giving Ray feedback on his words and behavior. This gives him an opportunity to stop in that moment and reflect about what he’s saying and doing and decide which Ray he wants to be. Is he going to be old Ray who continues to selfishly demand his own way and expect everyone to cater to him? Or is he going to build new history by caring that Shirley is tired and respecting her boundary and go home? If he capitulates to Shirley’s request, and goes home, is he going to handle his disappointment in not being able to watch the end of the game in a godly way or is he going to retaliate by slamming the door, calling her names, or other abusive behaviors that he’s engaged in before? If so, old history is repeated. If not, new history is beginning). This type of interaction becomes exhausting when it repeats itself over and over again with no change.
Last week I talked with a couple that has been building new history together. Their old history is that he’s been extremely critical, demeaning, and unappreciative of Wendy, a stay at home mom. He now sees how destructive that’s been and he doesn’t want to do that anymore (sanity), but old habits die hard. Recently they celebrated a small victory. John came home, tired and crabby, fighting a cold and sore throat. Dinner wasn’t ready and he started in on Wendy. “What the h#ll have you been doing all day.” He snarled.
Wendy started to defend herself but before she got the words out of her mouth, John said, “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that. I know you work hard all day around here.” Then he walked over and gave her a hug.
Wendy felt encouraged. She didn’t have to remind him not to talk to her that way. John reminded himself and self-corrected before it got worse. He apologized for his demeaning tone and words and affirmed her value. He also didn’t minimize it or make excuses for his bad behavior because he wasn’t feeling well. These small and seemingly insignificant moments of stopping old patterns and creating new ones, repeated over and over again, start to build a new marital history. Seeing evidence of these changes creates confidence that even when old history rears its ugly head, it won’t stay long. The old patterns are recognized and stopped so that more damage doesn’t occur. Seeds of trust are planted that builds hope that the fruit of repentance is growing.
Creating stability in the aftermath of a destructive marriage is about rebuilding shattered trust. We want to see evidence of, Do you hear me? Can you respect me? Do you follow through on your promises? Do you care about how I feel? Can you take responsibility for yourself when you mess up? Can I count on you to control your temper? Can I trust you to tell me the truth? Can I trust you to tell yourself the truth? Will you be accountable?
Marriage counseling during this stage can help the couple learn effective and loving communication skills. They need to develop godly ways to resolve conflict as well as talk through old hurts in a constructive way. When there is no safety and no sanity joint counseling is ineffective and often dangerous. If he can’t see his part or take responsibility for his own wrong thinking, beliefs or attitudes, everything ends up being the wife’s fault and her responsibility. Old history keeps repeating itself, even in the counselor’s office which leaves a wife feeling hopeless that her spouse can change and hopeless that their biblical counselor truly understands their problem. If this post helped you, I would encourage you to check out “Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage”, found here.