Most people know when their marriage is in trouble. Although denial may provide temporary relief, it invariably breaks down, and couples eventually realize that something must be done.
Is that where you are today? Perhaps the denial has stopped working. You’re in distress and need a marital miracle, but you’re unsure where to turn. This book is an excellent place to begin.
Although you may have tried to convince yourself that the problems aren’t that serious, you know better. You’ve become less sure about the stability and safety of your marriage. You know things are only going to get worse, but facing the truth is a frightening prospect.
Couples in crisis have a number of issues in common, including the following serious warning signs:
Fighting Without Resolution
Few things are as destructive as constant fighting. Although any amount of conflict takes its toll, fighting that involves verbal attacks, including sharp words or sarcasm, is especially deadly. Some couples avoid hurtful words and attack with distance instead. All of these behaviors erode the integrity of the marriage.
Perhaps you know couples who bicker about everything. They seem to find some perverse satisfaction in this kind of combat, which continues with no resolution in sight. I call these “round-robin fights” because they revisit the same issues again and again.
This type of endless battle is exhausting. The fighting focuses on people and not on solutions. These destructive habits cause people to lose respect for one another and lead to critical damage to their relationship.
Occasional criticism is hard enough to manage in a relationship. Constant criticism is a death blow. No one enjoys being criticized, and should this occur with any kind of frequency, a relationship will find itself in serious trouble. Criticism typically produces defensiveness and countercriticism. This leads to even more defensiveness, and the cycle continues.
John Gottman, in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, describes this process:
Criticism involves attacking someone’s personality or character — rather than a specific behavior — usually with blame…Unlike complaints, criticisms tend to be generalizations. A telltale sign that you’ve slipped from complaining to criticizing is if global phrases like “you never” or “you always” start punctuating your exchanges.
Gottman makes the point that complaining about a particular issue, provided you are focused on a specific topic and headed toward resolution, can actually be good for a marriage. However, couples who argue over generalities with no clear focus and who make no effort to solve problems find themselves in serious trouble.
Threats of Separation or Divorce
Nothing is quite like throwing out the explosive D word. Nothing causes your mate more anguish than making threats, especially about divorce or separation. Each of us needs stability and safety, and the spouse who uses these threats as weapons is employing a lethal strategy.
Unfortunately, such threats work only a time or two. After that, both partners are likely to start throwing the D bomb around like an overused four-letter word. One threat leads to other threats, which lead to increased resentment and hostility. The war escalates, and no one wins. The only guarantee is that the marriage will be in crisis.
Just as the person experiencing acute medical distress needs special care, a couple in crisis also needs special treatment. When a person suffers from a severe medical condition, the medic or emergency room doctor doesn’t spend hours gathering a comprehensive patient history. The medical personnel need specific information to stabilize the immediate situation. Long-range decisions can be made later. Long-range plans are irrelevant if the patient is dead.
The same analogy fits the marriage in crisis. The alert counselor doesn’t approach the situation in the same way he or she approaches a longer-term counseling client. This is a time for immediate action that will accomplish several goals:
- stabilize the marriage by decreasing conflict and increasing positive regard
- assess the immediate emergency and set appropriate goals
- prepare for longer-term work
- provide encouragement and hope
At first glance, these may seem like very limited goals. However, if the clinician does not achieve them, there will be no patient to attend to in the weeks ahead. The patient, or in this case the marriage, will be DOA.
An Emergency Mind-Set
When a couple finally hits the bottom and confronts a crisis that could end their marriage, they’re often willing to do anything to save their relationship.
But what exactly is an emergency mind-set? It includes these attitudes:
- We will do whatever is needed to stabilize this marriage.
- We will start doing those things immediately.
- We will immediately stop doing those things that have created this crisis.
- We will seek the level of help and intervention needed to save this marriage.
Crisis or Opportunity
Although danger is a part of marital crisis, these times also bring incredible opportunity. I’ve been privileged on many occasions to assist couples through marital crises not only in my counseling practice but also in marriage intensives. These are always vulnerable, humbling, and powerful experiences. During three-day, ten-hour counseling sessions, I am able to fully get to know couples and help them discover their destructive patterns. I observe their nonverbal language, the way they approach each other, and the way they speak to each other.
I listen to how they solve their problems (or don’t solve them). Do they find ways to create larger possibilities, or as so often happens, do they become ensnared in petty arguments and hurtful conversations? Once we outline the specific destructive patterns, we’re in a much better position to end them.
Together with your counselor, you can find the destructive patterns and change them into effective interactions. You’ll notice your marriage rebound as you free yourselves from the problems that have threatened your relationship.
If you’re willing to learn new skills, you can make huge improvements. Your crisis can be an opportunity to shed damaging ways of relating and to exchange them for strategies that actually work.
Copyright © 2009 by Dr. David Hawkins, Used with Permission, Published by Harvest House Publishers. Adapted from 10 Lifesavers For Every Couple.