Note: This message isn’t for anyone in an abusive or toxic marriage. Your safety and health are most important.
In 2010, my marriage was falling apart.
It seemed easier to give up.
The idea of focusing on making our marriage better seemed daunting and, sad to say … hopeless. I created a fantasy life where I lived with my kids in a cute apartment living a “free” life. I tapped into this fantasy whenever things were particularly crappy and I needed to feel a sense of control of my life…and escape. I now know that my fantasy life was interfering with my ability to fully commit to my marriage. I had one foot out the door. But at the time, it felt like a lifeline.
“How can anything get better when at least one person is not really “in the marriage”?”
It was our darkest time, we had almost nothing to give to one another. I was so caught up in my own blame and disappointment that I couldn’t find compassion, love, or empathy for my husband – it was just gone. I was ping-ponging between feeling numb, unhappy, and trapped … and acting like everything was okay. I was far from okay.
In my mind, it was his fault that I was this unhappy and if he would just be more (fill in the blank), all would be better. But it wasn’t that simple.
There we sat – it could have gone either way – stay or leave? My husband was the first to put a stake in the ground (for which I will be eternally grateful). “You don’t have the right to leave this marriage until we have done everything we can to make it work.”
I was pissed off, relieved, and confused.
I was pissed off because I didn’t need him telling me what the righteous thing was to do, right? I was relieved because a part of me was really scared to leave. And I felt confused because I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge and still believed leaving might be easier.
He was right. We have two children, we made a commitment to one another and we owed it to our kids to give it everything.
How will I do this, I wondered? I don’t feel the love. I don’t really feel like I care. I don’t know if I have it in my heart to do what it takes. I was truly disconnected from my feelings.
In retrospect, I realize that we tapped into another level of commitment called whole-minded commitment. We intellectually committed to one another. We created a rational plan that made sense and kept us focused on an end game.
When we commit whole-heartedly, there is some assumption tied-up in it that our heart is engaged…that we FEEL something.
When we commit whole-mindedly, the level of commitment is the same, but it comes from our minds and doesn’t require us to feel anything – we don’t need to feel like we want to, we just need to know we want to for very good reasons. There’s no pressure to feel anything we aren’t feeling.
As parents, we have a whole different dynamic to consider when contemplating divorce. That’s largely why so many feel trapped. And feeling trapped compounds the problem because it makes it harder to think clearly. We want the fairy tale romance and family and feel terribly disappointed that we aren’t living it. On the one hand, we’ll do anything, on the other hand, we feel powerless. This is where whole-minded commitments come in – we can step in as if we’re taking on a project, rather than doing a list of romantic things that make us want to cringe (massages, candle-light dinners, etc) because we feel disconnected, unappreciated, and distant.
Project Recommit begins.
Though we didn’t know much, we knew just enough to know that if we were to divorce at that point, we’d probably be horrible co-parents with all sorts of resentment, blame, and unresolved pain. We also knew that when we eventually found someone else, we’d likely end up in a similar situation if we didn’t resolve what was interfering with our marriage success at this time. It was likely we would re-create similar problems in a future relationship if we didn’t do some work on our “issues.”
It was with this awareness that we recommitted as follows:
- We’ll commit to couples counseling together. We did not set a specific timeframe, but we did both hope things would get better fast (haha).
- Our commitment was really to focus on our own “stuff”. We needed to figure out what was up with us individually so we could be better partners, with each other or with someone else in the future. At this point, we hoped we could fix our marriage, but neither one of us was sure that would be the result.
- We agreed that if we could do this work on ourselves, we’d be in a better position to work on our relationship – maybe we’d even recover some of our feelings.
- We knew, at a minimum, we’d be (a) better co-parents, (b) not recreate the same problems in future relationships, (c) have some improvement in our lives in general; and, in the best-case scenario, we’d (d) fix our marriage. It’s with that whole-minded commitment that we were able to get started.
In the beginning, we weren’t affectionate or loving in a romantic way. We didn’t have sex. We just knew we were both in it together and were committed intellectually to do what it took to get to a better place…whatever that meant.
So on we went…initially, it was anything but fun…frankly, it was painful and hard. But slowly we noticed we were enjoying some of our counseling sessions. We noticed that we were starting to have better conversations again. We noticed things were improving.
And then one day, we realized that we did it. We saved our marriage.
We were right. It worked!
Sometimes it becomes important to make a commitment whole-mindedly even when your heart’s really not in it…because sometimes the stakes are too high not to.
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned, and one that you need to just take my word for it, is that I could have decided to whole-mindedly commit to my marriage on my own (without my husband) and the outcome likely would have been similar. Yes, it was wonderful that he was as committed as he was and I am not minimizing that at all. He was a trooper and we stood together for our family. I admire and respect him deeply for that.
But if your partner isn’t willing and you feel at risk – either at risk of having an affair or rashly leaving the marriage – do this ON.YOUR.OWN. If you work with the right coach or therapist, he/she can help you to see that the work to be done is on yourself and to look deep inside into your own inner world to save your marriage.
Some of you are thinking – but you don’t know my husband, he’s a jerk. He isn’t kind. He works too much. He never spends any time with me. He doesn’t know how to support me emotionally. I get nothing from our marriage. I don’t deny any of that. But if you leave now, it’ll be worse than if you do the work on yourself first. I know that with 100% certainty. I remember when my husband and I were teetering on the edge of stay|leave and I was afraid that we would have an awful co-parenting relationship if we were not married and that helped me to recommit.
It was the work I did on myself that changed how I feel about him. The truth is, he didn’t really change much. Nor did I. But how we experience ourselves and one another has changed.
We saved our marriage by falling back in love with ourselves – we took the focus off (fixing) one another and brought it back where it belongs…you got it…back to ourselves. We all know that we can’t change others, but we all try our best anyway 🙂
As long as you are blaming him for your unhappiness, you’re not ready to leave. Period.
Let me repeat that. If you are still blaming him for your unhappiness and “bad marriage” you are not ready to leave.
Got it? No matter how many women you can get to agree with you that he is a jerk, if you’re blaming him, don’t leave.
When we blame, we are being victims. Don’t leave a marriage as a victim because it will never serve you well.
When you stop blaming him, take 100% responsibility for the circumstances you find yourself in, and still want to leave the marriage, so be it.
Some Action Steps
- Naturally, you’ll find yourself back in the fantasy – the one that has you leaving and escaping the marriage. I was recently asked what to do when you are in that place. The answer is to get curious. Sit with the feelings that made you want to escape. The answer is NOT to resist the feelings, it’s to wonder why you want to leave at that precise moment…what did he or the situation trigger in you? Just witness what is going on and ask yourself why you want to leave.
- Do something to take care of yourself. Make a list of 10 things that bring you joy immediately (massage, pedicure, nap) and 10 things that make you feel great after your have done them (organizing a drawer, exercising, cooking a healthy meal). Try to do one thing from each list each day.
- Find someone (therapist, coach, or friend) who can help you to work on your inner game…to remind you that this work is about you and not about your husband. It’s not about doing more for your marriage, it’s about learning to take responsibility for all that is in your life – the good, bad, and ugly, and to accept and love all of you. It’s much easier when you have someone to remind you of the path you are on.
What’s my life like now?
It’s not perfect but it’s wonderful. We have an amazing friendship and a loving marriage…he is my best friend.
We are now committed whole-heartedly. And because of that one decision in June 2010, I get to kiss my kids goodnight every night instead of every other weekend and a few weeknights. There is something really sweet and special about going through the darkness with someone, and out the other side. There is nothing like the realization that you both worked freakin’ hard and you did it! It becomes clear that love is not enough. Finding love again and again is enough. And letting one another down and losing the feelings of love can be part of it all. And that it’s all okay.
NOTE: A note to moms about the grass being greener on the other side. It usually isn’t. The grass is actually greener wherever you water. While several of my divorced friends are happy to be out of their marriages, they are not happier overall. They have traded problems. Most of my divorced friends struggle financially and their husbands are never out of their lives. Never. It sounds lovely to imagine making house without your husband, being in complete charge of your household, making your own choices, believing that you will feel happier and more relieved. I had the same fantasy. I also imagined that I would meet a man who would cherish me and take care of me…who would love me, romance me, and excite me. It’s just a fantasy. Fantasies take us away from reality, from now. And all we really have is now. You can leave, no one is stopping you, but you also could stay and increase the chances of (1) creating a happy marriage, (2) being much better co-parents if you get divorced, and (3) finding a healthy relationship in the future if you get divorced. It’s a win:win. And I ask you, what’s the rush? Why not give it a try?