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How do you advise a couple when one partner wants to end a relationship and the other wants to save it?
Clearly no-one should be persuaded – let alone forced – to stay in a relationship in which they are genuinely unhappy or being ill-treated in any way.
But for all relationship professionals, from therapists to divorce lawyers, the scenario where a couple actually seems to get along pretty reasonably but are on the verge of splitting up is all too familiar.
They’re polite and considerate to one another, they aren’t fighting, superficially at least they’re not angry with one another. No-one’s getting the silent treatment either. But somewhere along the line, they’ve become disconnected. They’re sitting there side by side, but they’re not together. Or at least, it doesn’t feel like they’re together.
Inevitably, in this situation, one partner is convinced the solution is to split up, the other isn’t so sure. What has made the ‘leaning out’ partner want to go? And what’s making the ‘leaning in’ partner want to hold on? It won’t be the same in every case, but quite often it’s a matter of shifts within the relationship that have left one of the partners feeling left behind, excluded from changes that have happened with the other partner.
These can be outward changes – a new job, the arrival of children, the death of a parent, moving home, illness, an interesting hobby – or inner changes, psychological or spiritual growth through counselling or religious practice. Whatever the cause, one of them has changed, and the other doesn’t know how to deal with those changes, and may feel deeply threatened by them.
The result is disconnection. One is scared, the other feels misunderstood and unloved. It’s usually the one who feels unloved who decides the relationship is over.
I recently attended a conference at which the main speaker was Dr Bill Doherty, the Canadian marriage therapist and trainer, and his subject was these ‘mixed agenda’ couples, and the method he has developed to help them work out whether they really could be a going concern once again. The amazing fact is that he has found the vast majority of the couples – and remember, these were couples in the throes of separation and divorce – end up finding that their relationship is worth the effort involved in saving it after all, even though it means facing some deep and challenging soul searching on both sides, and changes in order to re-connect and make it possible for the relationship to thrive again.
‘How much are you willing to change in order to save your marriage?’ is a key question for each of the partners. It inevitably comes as a shock – they didn’t realise they needed to change. Surely you should love each other for who and what you are? Isn’t it wrong to expect someone to change?
Well no, it isn’t! We all have to adapt to situations, to the changes that life presents us with whether we ask for them or not. And it’s the same in marriage. Marriage isn’t static. It’s dynamic, and the success of it depends on the relationship being strong and supple enough to contain the growth and the development of the couple, both together and as individuals.
In our throw away culture of built-in obsolescence, where divorce is now the outcome for almost one in every two marriages, with all the pain and loss, heart-ache and economic hardship that entails, it was so encouraging to learn about a programme that helps couples to re-find the lost spark in their relationship. That helps them to see that even if there’s only a very little love left, it can once again become a big, strong love given the willingness and desire to conserve rather than dispose of something so important and vital to their happiness that it will impact on themselves and those closest to them for years to come, maybe for the rest of their lives.