A solid marriage is a wonderful legacy to give to your children. It does so much to secure them for life.” The words of my mother-in-law rang in my head, but I could no longer hang on. I had been married for 22 years. I loved my husband desperately but I was at the end of my rope. I didn’t feel like I could do it any longer.
For most of our marriage my husband traveled; often heading out on Sunday afternoons and arriving home late on Friday nights. And if that weren’t enough, he would hole up in our basement working every weekend. It was common for me to go to bed and wake up alone.
I knew my husband loved me, and that he felt bad about being away so much. I also knew that he was buried under work pressures and was trying to financially provide for our family. Still my heart had moved past the point of being lonely, and had completely shut down. Since I was a counselor, I knew the danger signals of a marriage in trouble. My last hope was to invite my husband to attend a marriage seminar facilitated by my clinical supervisor.
I felt more and more discouraged as the seminar progressed. I recognized my marriage was in the stage where couples burn out. In this stage, affairs are common and divorce is imminent unless people get help. One of the things my supervisor and his wife (both clinical counselors) said was, “When your marriage gets to this stage, you must get help.”
They said that even they couldn’t help themselves when they hit rough patches: “It’s like a surgeon trying to take out his own appendix. It doesn’t work.” Couples get into their cycle and it’s all they know. When that doesn’t work they try harder and harder, doing what they know, then give up.”
I begged John to consider counseling. Finally, he agreed. Within just two or three sessions our marriage changed trajectories: Instead of growing apart, we shifted ever so gently back towards each other. Even though the shift felt small, and I knew our counselor was human and not a miracle worker, the impact was radical.
One of the things we learned is that we cannot change each other. Wasn’t it the differences that attracted us to our mate in the first place? I needed to learn to put my rose-colored glasses on and appreciate all the things about my husband that other people did.
Our counselor told us a funny story about how angry he got when he couldn’t find his comb in the bathroom drawers — his daughters took them out wihtout returning them. After one too many ugly tirades, he realized he did not want to leave a legacy of anger for his family so rather than argue about his missing combs, he shaved his head.
When our children were young, I saw a Gary Smalley video where he spoke about honoring your mate. He said when your mate walks through the door, treat him as if the King of England just walked in. So, in a jesting manner the kids and I began to exclaim, “Haah, it’s Dad!” when he came home. But pretty soon it was no longer a joke — he responded to the high regard with which we treated him, and he in turn treated us in a similar manner.
Another revelation was when I was accusing my husband of not wanting emotional connection, there were things I was unconsciously doing to keep him away; to my surprise I discovered it was me who was afraid of emotional intimacy. I had to face things that had happened in my past. In my own personal counseling sessions I had to grieve that part of my life.
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen couples make is bringing all their emotional baggage into the marriage, hoping the partner will heal their wounds. I’ve learned that a marriage can only be healthy when two whole people show up, and it is not my spouse’s job to fix me.
Another critical piece is that unless couples are being open, assertive, and honest with each other, there is no emotional intimacy. Any other combination that includes passivity, aggressiveness, or passive-aggressiveness does not lead to connection. When you don’t tell your mate what’s on your mind, you have a marriage that looks good on the outside but contains no real connection.
Problems in marriage are normal. If married couples say they don’t fight they are either lying to you or not being honest with each other, and if people are not being honest with each other, there is no real intimacy. Leading marriage researcher, John Gottman will tell you it’s a myth that something is wrong with the marriage of couples are fighting. What determines whether or not couples divorce is HOW they fight.
Marriage is a people-making machine and nothing prepares you for marriage except marriage. That’s because two rough-edged people come together and make each other smooth.
One counselor told me: “When you want to pull away, push towards him.” It took everything in me to do that when I wanted to punish my husband with distance. All that would have done is make things worse.
Lastly, I realized I didn’t have to win all the time. I love hearing Dr. Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil) challenge his guests: “Do you want to be a ‘right fighter’ or do you want connection?”
If you’re having marriage struggles, consider seeing a counselor. I highly recommend the EFT marriage counseling model.
Recently, I read an article about a man who got irate about his wife not refilling the ice cube trays. One day he realized his love was so shallow that he could resent his wife for requiring him to do seven seconds’ worth of work. Later, he was invited, along with his wife to his professor’s house. Upon seeing the man’s pregnant wife, the professor jumped up and offered her a chair. He brought her some ice water, and asked if the home’s temperature was too warm. The husband said, “In the course of four minutes, my professor had served my wife in such a way that I hadn’t in four years!”
What a lesson for all married people. Marriage is not a chance for me to focus on all the ways my husband should meet my needs, and to throw a fit if he doesn’t. It’s not an excuse for me to act out by having an affair based on immaturity and selfishness. My job is to figure alternative ways to get those needs met in healthy ways, and to grieve the ones I can’t. I need to find ways to serve my husband, as Christ did when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:14, 15). When this is my focus, something marvelous happens: My husband moves towards me in love and service.
My husband still travels. Some problems don’t go away. But my entire focus is different. With a new perspective, supportive people to guide us, and God’s help, my kids will experience the legacy of their parent’s good marriage.
What marriage advice do you have to offer?
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."