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CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?
Written By: Mark Smith


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It seems as if I have heard that question a million times, as I sat across from desperate couples during their initial session. The prospect of divorce is terrifying for most people. However, there seems to come a point where one's unhappiness becomes weightier than even the fear of divorce. That is the point at which I usually end up meeting with these couples. They are making what feels like to them to be a last ditch effort to salvage their marriage. Not that they usually believe in the therapeutic process, as of yet-it is basically a complete shot in the dark, a way to maybe avoid falling into the abyss of emotional, social, and financial ruin. An old battlefield axiom states that there are no atheists in foxholes. Impending doom has a way of making believers of us all. So, in front of me I frequently see a couple of veterans of marital warfare, complete with fresh wounds, as well as old battle scars. They have come in an attempt to build on their newfound, and extremely shaky faith in the saving power of marital therapy. The answer that I frequently give to their desperate question is usually quite conditional, due to the fact that the effectiveness of marital therapy actually has more to do with the clients than it does with the power of the process, or the talent of the therapist. Has your marriage ever been in desperate straits? Is it there now? In this article I will attempt to describe seven vital building materials, which are essential in order to not only salvage a marriage, but also to rebuild it into something solid, intimate, joyful, life lasting, and wonderful.

The first building material required in rebuilding a marriage is motivation. Change is difficult, and gut wrenching at times. Are you willing to pay the price of messiness, and feeling out of control, and digging deep into places within yourself that you really don't want anybody touching? How badly do you want to remain married? Marital therapy is like gutting a duplex while you are trying to live in it. I believe that almost all marriages are both salvageable, and worthy of being saved. I believe that most people would be ultimately happiest remaining married to the person they are currently married to, as long as issues are resolved and changes are made. As my brothers say when we are playing basketball, "don't bring no weak stuff." It takes courage and determination and strength and character to rebuild a marriage from the ground up. Many other important and valid pressures can get in the way and squeeze out the needed time for therapy if therapy does not remain a high priority. You must be seriously motivated.

The second, and perhaps the most important marital building block, is teachability, or the ability to have what I call "insight." Insight is having an epiphany. It is having an "ah-ha" moment. It is the ability to stand back from yourself and openly observe and examine your issues without being defensive in the least bit. It is powerfully life changing. Anybody who has ever been married has been in therapy. Marriage is therapy. It is an opportunistic tool formed in order to break you down so that you can learn about and heal unresolved childhood issues. It can be a proactive, growth producing experience, no matter how bad the marriage is. Part of teachability is being accountable. It is standing in the box, to switch to a baseball analogy, even though you might be exposed to an occasional screaming fastball from either your spouse, or, for that matter, from your therapist. A lot of people are simply not capable of insight. They are too defensive, or what I call shame-based. They cannot take critiquing, when in fact accurate critiquing is exactly what they need the most. They build lives for themselves in which they do not ever have to be critiqued by anybody-even their spouses. They are sometimes surprised to discover that healthy critiquing actually comes with a healthy marital contract. Defensive individuals like the ones I'm describing almost always grow up with overly critical, and many times raging parents who mercilessly shamed them all throughout their childhood. You must be insightful in order to rebuild a marriage. It is all about taking a fearless and searching moral inventory of yourself, rather than reactively pointing your finger at your spouse. The more insightful you are, the more progress you will make.

The third building material needed to rebuild a marriage is the willingness and ability to embrace and work through whatever emotional pain might come up during the therapeutic process. The clinical name for this building material is "deep processing." Basically, it means dealing directly with sadness, anger and fear, rather than fleeing from them. I think that it is human nature to attempt to avoid pain. Most people employ a variety of addictive behaviors in their efforts to "numb out," and avoid their pain. We have learned that allowing painful feelings to well up, and pour out has tremendous healing properties. It is like cleansing your heart and mind. It is like having a heavy weight lifted off of your chest. So much of what is diagnosed and seen as the disease of depression (and then quickly medicated into oblivion) is healthy, appropriate pain that should be a large part of our growth and healing process. Fixing your marriage entails fixing yourself, and fixing yourself entails healing the deep emotional wounds sustained in childhood. Facing your self, warts and all, is definitely a necessary aspect of the marital therapy process.

The fourth building material involved in rebuilding a marriage is trust. Trust in your partner, in the therapist, in members of a group you might be in group therapy with, and in yourself. Some people are so trust damaged from their childhood experiences, that it is virtually impossible for them to trust. Frequently, after we are well under way in the therapeutic process, clients do develop a great deal of trust in the therapist. That trust is earned as a result of progress made, new insights developed, as well as the provision of a consistent, safe, caring, connected environment.

The fifth needed building material used in order to develop a new and greatly improved marriage is trustworthiness. The lack of personal trustworthiness has sabotaged many attempts at marital therapy. In this context, trustworthiness means following through with your commitments, doing what you say that you will do, consistently making appointments on time, check in hand. Many times people are well intentioned, but they lack the discipline, focus, and responsibility that they would need to complete any type of rebuilding project.

The sixth building material is an obvious one-lots of patience and lots of time. People are used to instant results. They want quick fixes. There really are no quick fixes if your goal is to truly make your marriage significantly healthier. We work with most of our clients over a matter of years, rather than weeks, or months. Think about how deeply ingrained issues are. They are part of the foundation of our personalities. They literally have been part of us for decades. That simply will not change very quickly. The change will be genuine, and long lasting, but it won't be quick and easy.

The seventh and final building material needed to rebuild a marriage might surprise a lot of you-group therapy. Group therapy is by far the most effective form of therapy, even for marital issues. As couples work in their separate groups on the real core issues-their individual childhood stuff, the marital issues almost take care of themselves. Almost every client that I have ever worked with, who has made a significant amount of progress has done a great deal of group therapy. In group, clients find a great deal of insight, support, encouragement, accountability, perspective, community, friendship, and laughter. People get healthier quicker when they help each other. Group is like the gym for emotional muscles. Of course, a great deal of marital work is done as well, but it is not the main focus.

Most marriages can be saved. People just need direction. Before they come to therapy, many times they are fumbling around in the dark, cursing the darkness that is usually represented by their spouse. So much of their attention is on what their spouse is doing or not doing that they have a hard time taking responsibility for their own lives. When both parties are working hard on their own issues and they are patient and realistic in their expectations for change, the divorce rate is almost non-existent. Your marriage probably can be rebuilt.


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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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