Relationship Connection: Is it possible to get beyond staying married just for the kids?

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Question

My wife and I have been married for almost 30 years, have raised 5 children. We have struggled in our relationship nearly since day one.

Fairly early on I started to notice some very toxic behaviors (reactivity, anger, negativity, frequent and prolonged silent treatments, etc). For the first 24 years of our marriage, I never wanted to point fingers and just kept on trying to work on myself. Gradually, I felt myself sliding further down, getting more burned out and more and more detached in the relationship.

Last year I made a very big mistake. I moved out of the home and had an emotional affair with another woman, which lasted about six months. I finally decided I didn’t want to lose my family, I broke off that relationship, and we agreed to give our marriage another try.

We have now been separated now for about a year and a half and have been “dating” and trying to work on things for nearly a year now. We both have been seeing individual counselors and have intermittently seen couples counselors. I would like to make things work in our marriage and family, if possible.

My counselor has met with both of us several times and feels my wife has very strong borderline traits, if not full on disorder, which she has displayed throughout our marriage. She feels I have been co-dependent. I started to identify these behaviors for the toxic nature they were about three years ago and started to set some clearer boundaries, though I think much of the damage to the relationship was already done.

Through her counseling this past year she has improved a fair bit in these traits now, but I still struggle very much with trust and feeling close to her. I feel like I care for her and love her but I’m not “in love” with her, even though I would like to be. Of course, she has significant hurt and trust issues with me in light of my betrayal to her.

With so much water under the bridge, do you think it is truly possible to go beyond a token relationship for the kids and duty sake and to rebuild the trust and bonds of true love and affection in our relationship?

Answer

First of all, I’m the last person to set limits on what’s possible for your relationship. I’ve seen too many couples survive and thrive and beat the odds when they both want to work hard to save their marriages.

After counseling couples and individuals for nearly twenty years, I’m not naïve to the realities of mental illness, betrayal, temperament, trauma, family life, personalities and other realities of life. We can’t know what that might look like for the future of your relationship, but I believe that as long as you and your wife are actively trying to find each other, you’re more likely to create a stable and loving relationship.

Your emotional affair has obviously set things back, but it sounds like you’re both willing to work through that painful betrayal. An affair, though horribly painful for everyone involved, is often an opportunity to pause the marriage and evaluate how things are going. Even though one person is clearly at fault and needs to take deep personal accountability, the couple eventually finds themselves in a longer conversation about the kind of marriage they want going forward.

This new marriage, born out of the ashes of the affair, is one that is more intentional than the original marriage. It’s impossible to evaluate the marriage in the crisis of the affair betrayal. The betrayed partner needs adequate time to heal and experience enough stability to look at the marriage as an equal relationship. You’ve been working at this for almost two years, which is adequate time for most couples to begin exploring the nature of your relationship.

This is a time to have honest conversations about the impact you’ve had on each other. There is no need to be critical, rude or accusatory. Instead, it’s a time to soften and speak honestly about how you’ve been affected by the other person’s behavior and influence. This requires tremendous courage and humility to speak and be spoken to about painful realities from each person’s perspective. It takes time to find the words and to let them sink deep into your hearts.

Since you didn’t say anything for 24 years of marriage (in the name of loyalty), much of what you’re sharing with your wife is likely difficult for her to hear. You may feel like she’s countering with defensiveness. You both have important things to say to each other. The relationship needs to make room for both perspectives until both of you feel understood.

These conversations will happen both informally and formally in the presence of a supportive couples therapist. Work closely with these professionals so they can help you both identify and address the presence of any mental illness or personality disorders that make it difficult to repair and connect with each other.

And as you know, there is a balance of joy and sorrow in your relationship. You both have redeeming traits and you’ve also knocked the emotional wind out of each other. Make sure to keep a healthy perspective of these strengths and weaknesses as you talk with each other. Schedule time to be together where you’re not wrestling with these heavy topics. And of course, schedule time to talk, write, sort and connect about what you need from each other.

As long as you’re both willing to be accountable for how you impact each other and engage in a personal process of improvement, the marriage has a better chance of coming back to life.

Imagine what can happen when both partners are focused on changing themselves instead of only focusing on changing the other person. Author and marriage educator Wally Goddard said the following about this tendency to change our partner:

We tend to see our spouse’s faults and shortcomings as character flaws, but we see our own weaknesses as the best we could do in the face of difficult circumstances. (We are) inclined to love (ourselves) and fix others. We sometimes believe that everyone else’s view of the world is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are. Our pride teaches us that we understand our partners and what makes them tick. We presume to understand their thoughts, motives and intent better than even they themselves do.

You have worked hard in your marriage for almost three decades. I hope you’ll keep working at it because you’re both working at it. You have much to work through with serious mental health, betrayal and other challenges confronting you. You’re getting support, you’re pacing yourselves and you’re changing the very nature of your conversations to build a better and more honest union.

Yes, lots of water has passed under your marital bridge, and you’re not going to ignore that reality. It’s in the honesty of that reality that allows you to build a relationship that honors the struggle and anticipates a new beginning.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

 

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2 Comments

  • JOSH DALTON May 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

    you could decide to be gay. like most LDS marriages end up,

    • NotSoFast May 30, 2018 at 11:32 am

      Now there’s a stupid comment. Sleep on it Josh.

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