There are many times when it is not the major traumas in life that kill a marriage, but rather what has been labeled as “creeping normalcy”—a way of interacting that has been normal, but is devastating to a relationship.
Consider the couple who attended a Marriage Intensive several weeks ago. By all outward measurements, Jim and Louise were a normal couple who had attained many of the accoutrements you would expect of a fifty-ish man, successful in business, and his lovely wife, a successful as an artist.
Jim and Louise were polished. Dignified. Polite. Distant and detached. His emotional range was as limited as his financial expenditures—both of which he guarded closely. She was nearly as guarded with her emotions, but every once in a while, as they introduced us to their story, she was let out a powerful zinger.
“He loves his money far more than me,” she said nonchalantly. He barely winced.
“So she says,” was his only retaliation.
Jim and Louise sat at opposite ends of the couch, with icy air separating them. She barely looked at each other. Both seemed to have taken more time to prepare their outer garb than their inner life. Dressed to the nines, they clearly spent more time shopping than they did sharing. And yet, while perfectly pressed, they were bleeding from a thousand cuts.
Normally I speak to a couple several times before they come for a Marriage Intensive. Jim and Louise had chosen to simply come to The Marriage Center to do their work. And yet, as we began their Marriage Intensive I couldn’t help but wonder why they were here.
Certainly their marriage was not working. There were no doubt that both were miserable and wanted change. But, they had spent thirty years perfecting ‘the distant dance.’ He had spent thousands of hours becoming the best attorney in his city. She had perfected her craft.
“What do you folks want out of this Marriage Intensive?” I asked.
Pure to form, each looked at the other to start the ball rolling.
“Go ahead,” Louise said. “You’re the one who has threatened to end the marriage.”
Boom. There was the first indication that someone was going to end this slow death march. Quite often it is the woman who brings the status quo to a halt, but apparently in this case Jim had begun clamoring for change “I’ve got twenty good years left,” Jim said, pushing his hands through his salt and pepper hair. “I don’t want to spend it like this.”
“Is that why you’re talking online to other women?” Louise shot out.
“Maybe so, Louise,” he said solemnly. “I’m tired of sleeping in the spare bedroom. I’m tired of distance. I’m tired of being used as a paycheck and nothing more. I’m tired.”
“And I’m tired of you spending your best hours at the office,” she fired back. “And now I learn about you talking online to other women. How do you think that makes me feel? It certainly doesn’t make me want to get close to you.”
“No doubt about that,” Jim said.
“Folks,” I said slowly. “It sounds like you have been living a very detached life for years. You’re both in a lot of pain and I’m glad you’re here. How about if we work at understanding the subtle ways, and perhaps not so subtle ways, you’ve injured each other? Why don’t we agree to fix things? Would you like that?”
Neither of them jumped at the offer. They had been withholding for so long that even now, sitting in Intensive Marriage Counseling, they were guarded and reserved. Even now, suffering from internal bleeding, they watched their words fairly carefully. Even now, after spending years alone in their respective bedrooms, they were not quick to offer the other a lifeline.
We had our work cut out for us. Fortunately, under their façade of perfection and collected emotions, both wanted a healthier marriage. It had taken a lot of courage to make this move, to come to a stranger and bare their souls. That was enough of a beginning. I shared with them what I had seen many times, and what would give them hope.
First, ‘creeping normalcy’ is normal. Many couples find themselves in a detached relationship, unsure of how they got there and equally confused about how to change things. It didn’t happen by one large step and they would not turn things around in one large step.
Second, change is possible. Just as surely as a relationship slowly becoming troubled, a relationship can be slowly turned around. It requires being intentional about ending the insidious bruising of each other and replacing those behaviors with points of connection.
Scripture implores us to “Be kind to one another, forgiving each other….” (Ephesians 4: 32) We encouraged Jim and Louise to begin changing this negative ‘creeping normalcy’ with ‘a new normal.’ This would consist of kindness, tenderness and compassion. As they could see each other as wounded, frightened people, they could draw upon the empathy and compassion they shared as Christians.
Third, begin with small changes. It is not necessary to make any massive changes. Rather, begin with small changes, beginning to earn the trust of your mate. Be intentional about the changes that are necessary to turn things around. Make small goals and follow through on them. Celebrate progress.
Fourth, set aside pride. Pride is one of the biggest culprits in finding your way back to each other. Feeling wronged and indignant about that, grudges are easy to bear. Rather, see yourself and your mate as equally culpable for developing a troubled relationship. There is no ‘good guy’ and no ‘bad guy.’ Both are responsible for getting things to where they are now.
Finally, make your marriage a matter of prayer. You cannot make these changes under your own steam. You won’t be able to forgive by sheer willpower. Allow God to do the healing work only He can do.