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August 16, 2013

Is Your Spouse About to Walk Out?

Patty Newbold recently wrote a great article about what to do if you have been blindsided by a spouse who wants to leave. She has some excellent advice for anyone whose mate has said "I love you, but I'm not in love with you," or is talking about leaving the marriage.

One reader's comment included the observation that it is, after all, the spouse who wants to stay who is the one more committed to the relationship. But things aren't always that simple.

Abusers usually want to keep the relationship intact because that is how they retain dominance and control. The marriage is the arena in which they act out their anger and rage, and they need a target for that rage in the person of the spouse. Any commitment they have is to their own need for power and the cycle of anger. The spouse who leaves an abuser may have been strongly committed to the marriage, but has been forced to choose survival instead.

Those who have had affairs often want to stay in the marriage, despite having demonstrated a lack of commitment to their wedding vows. They may be in denial about the damage they have caused, or they may feel real regret. But once trust has been destroyed, it is extremely difficult to rebuild. This is true of any kind of betrayal. People who have misappropriated marital funds, who have consistently failed to keep important promises, who have concealed criminal activity, who have hidden their substance abuse -- all have forfeited a partner's trust. Even a very devoted spouse may find it intolerable to live with someone whose word cannot be relied on.

Some people have become so complacent in their marriages that they seem to be absent, even when they are in the room. They are inactive and unresponsive. If asked, they might say they are committed to the relationship ("I'm here, aren't I?"), but they fail to exert any effort beyond simply showing up. They want the marriage to be there, perhaps because there is comfort in familiarity, but they don't interact with their partners except on a very superficial level. Their partners try to engage them, by inviting, cajoling, pleading, and eventually screaming, but instead of responding, they simply withdraw. When the frustrated spouse stops trying, the withdrawn one thinks that peace means things are better. But what it really means is that the unhappy spouse has given up, having discovered that it is impossible to stay committed to someone who isn't there.

If your spouse feels like leaving even though you want to stay, don't give up hope. If there is any love left, and if you are truly committed to doing whatever is necessary to save your marriage, you have a chance.

If you have been physically or emotionally abusive, you need expert help. Probably you will need to remove yourself from the home until you complete a long-term, in-depth recovery program. If you honestly want to change yourself and commit to a safe, healthy relationship, you must make significant, permanent changes in your thinking and behavior.

If you have betrayed your spouse in some way, you will need to work very hard to gain forgiveness and rebuild trust over time. Reconciliation is rarely easy, but if your remorse is genuine and you are actively making amends, a spouse who still cares for you may be willing to try again.

If you have been neglecting the relationship and withdrawing from your partner, letting go of your defenses is the first step to re-establishing a connection. Use honest, heartfelt communication to discover what the two of you really need and want from each other so that you can turn toward each other and once again feel the joy of sharing life with the one you love.

When things have reached the point where one spouse is ready to pack a bag and walk out, getting some kind of professional help is wise. A counselor, therapist, relationship coach, marriage education class, retreat, or seminar can help you recognize and change negative patterns while learning how to understand and connect with each other. Following is a list that can help you find resources in your area.

Emotionally Focused Therapy
The Gottman Referral Network
Imago Relationships
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Compassion Power: Love Without Hurt

4 fabulous comments:

  1. Rosemary!! This is a brilliant elaboration on a facet of Patty's post and its comments. It is ultra-ironic that the culprit is the one who has the most to gain by staying in the relationship. It is fine of you to mention too that abusers or cheaters need to seek pro help. What are your thoughts on the complacent ones though? The ones who have been absent for decades, a mere piece of furniture to their spouse? Would you recommend pro help for them too? It is disturbing to witness any of these and perhaps even more so with your loved ones.

    1. CJ, yes I would indeed recommend counseling for couples where one or both are physically present but emotionally absent. Often these couples have become trapped in a cycle that they may not even recognize and that they certainly don't know how to break out of. It often happens with people who try to avoid confrontation. Their avoidance stimulates their partners to try even harder, which causes them to become emotionally flooded and therefore withdraw even farther, which makes their partners even more upset, which then just causes the withdrawer to withdraw even more. Sue Johnson ("Hold Me Tight") writes about this as one of her Demon Dialogues, and John Gottman ("The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work") describes it as Stonewalling. Even when couples realize they are in this cycle, they usually don't know how to get out of it. A well-trained professional will quickly recognize the pattern and can show them how to replace it with something much more productive and satisfying for both.

  2. Rosemary! I read Patty's article and yours is a fantastic addition full of great resources and advice. I found the comment about the person who stays being the committed one a little unsettling though I couldn't quite put my finger on why. Your writing has really cleared that up for me, and I thank you!

    I think that there may be many "present but not present" marriages out there, and I think that by writing about that you may have many readers who will say, "Ah, that's me! I can do something about this!"

  3. I agree with your comment about commitment being a complicated issue, and not always as it appears on the surface.

    I believe that in addition to the commitment we make to a marriage, there is an equally important commitment, which is the commitment we make to ourselves. We cannot be more committed to a partner than to ourselves.

    Leaving a marriage that is harmful is not a lack of commitment. It's good self-respect and good self-care.


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