What follows is a different type of post than I usually write. It’s less professional and more personal, so please forgive me if I take off my counseling hat for a moment and bare my soul.
Last week my wife and I celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. Let me clarify upfront…that’s not the heartbreaking part! We’ve been together a total of 45 years and she’s still my best friend. I wouldn’t want to do life with anyone else, and hopefully, we’ll be chasing each other around the nursing home someday.
So what made it so heartbreaking? Was it the health issues we currently face? Was it the personal family things we’re currently walking through?
None of these led to my heartbreak. Though they’re not fun, they’re just a part of life, and the further down the road you travel, the more apt you are to hit some rough roads.
What broke my heart was that at the same time as our upcoming anniversary, I received word of four different marriages that were headed for divorce.
These were not rookie couples. They were couples with kids who had been married for over 10 years. They were couples who appeared to have promise and hope. They were couples with whom I had some sort of connection. And they were couples who were capable of rising above their issues and going on to have a great marriage together. But, for some reason, one or both spouses decided the marriage needed to end.
I don’t want to minimize or trivialize the struggles they were facing. When you’re in the midst of such struggles, it’s easy to feel that things are insurmountable. Nor do I want to minimize or trivialize the efforts of those spouses who did everything they could do to keep their marriage together. Some of these spouses worked incredibly hard to save their marriage. But, as I’ve said before, marriage is a dance between two people. And sometimes you just can’t make your dance partner want to dance.
You might be thinking, “You’ve done marriage counseling for close to 30 years. You should be used to this by now.” But I’ve never been able to get used to divorce. (And I hope I never do.) No one dreams of being divorced. So to watch a couple who once vowed “till death do we part” wind up dividing property and kids because they believe they can’t make it work still breaks my heart.
Divorces will happen. We live in a complicated and messy world with complicated and messy people. Sometimes…
The hurt is too deep.
The personalities are too fixed and rigid.
The issues have been left unattended for too long.
The trust is too damaged.
I still want to believe that every hurting marriage can be restored. But sometimes divorce is just going to happen, no matter how hard you try.
So, out of my heartbreak, I want to plead with you. Whether you‘ve been married for 2 or 42 years…
Don’t sweep things under the rug. Talk about them sooner rather than later.
Don’t ignore your spouse’s needs. If you can, meet those needs more often than not.
Don’t let yourselves drift apart, even in the hard seasons of marriage. Fight against that.
Don’t let legitimate responsibilities take priority over your most important responsibility…your spouse.
Don’t compare your marriage with others. Instead, focus on being the best couple you can be.
Don’t take things too personally. Not everything is about you. Sometimes it’s about them.
Don’t die on every hill. Some hills are just too small to die on.
Don’t let pride or embarrassment keep you from getting help when you need it. A happy marriage is worth anything.
Will these things insure that you’ll never go through a divorce? No. These things are investments, and occasionally the investment may not pay off. But doing these things will greatly improve the probability of avoiding divorce and of making the most out of your life together.
And to my wife: Thank you for sticking it out with me for the last 42 years…and not smothering me in my sleep! I owe you!
In my opinion, infidelity is one of the most destructive blows that can be delivered to a marriage.
It’s even worse than the death of a spouse because when a spouse dies, it’s not intentional or desired. But with infidelity, a spouse…someone who has promised to be faithful…consciously engages in an act that breaks that faith. When a spouse dies, it’s a loss, but it’s not a betrayal. And when a spouse dies, you don’t have to continually see that spouse.
Infidelity can put a marriage on the critical list. Some marriages end. Some never really recover. And some actually go on to be much better than they ever were.
So let’s take a look at infidelity: What causes infidelity, what does infidelity do to a marriage, and what you can do when infidelity comes to light.
WHAT IS IT?
When we hear the word “infidelity” we typically think of a spouse who has a sexual encounter outside of their marriage and with someone other than their spouse. And this is certainly the height of infidelity.
But at its core, infidelity refers to being unfaithful to a partner.
I believe that when a spouse turns to someone else for the close emotional and relational connection they should only receive from their spouse, they are being unfaithful. This is often referred to as an “emotional affair.” An emotional affair can be just as devastating to a marriage as a sexual affair. And left unchecked, these emotional affairs often morph into sexual affairs.
For the purpose of this post, we’re going to be focusing on sexual infidelity. But the principles will relate to other types of infidelity as well.
WHAT CAUSES INFIDELITY?
People give many reasons for their infidelity…
There was alcohol involved.
The other person aggressively initiated it.
They didn’t intend to do it, it just happened.
There are lots of reasons given for infidelity, but they usually fit into one of two broad reasons…
An unplanned, impulsive decision.
There can be those times when a spouse wasn’t planning to be unfaithful, but acted impulsively, without thinking. These can be fueled by alcohol or other substances, or a spouse can wind up submitting to a strong sexual aggressor.
I personally believe that unplanned and impulsive unfaithfulness is a quite small percentage of infidelities. I believe that most infidelity falls into the second category…
An ongoing drift in the marriage.
This is a slower and more subtle approach. In this case, there has been a slow and progressive drift and distancing in the marriage…long before the infidelity becomes a reality.
The grind of work, kids, and life start taking their toll on the marriage. Spouses begin to take each other for granted and they stop meeting each other’s needs. Consequently, the gap between them grows larger and the connection between them grows weaker. And eventually, the atmosphere for infidelity is set.
So, then a spouse crosses paths with someone who takes an interest in them. Maybe they take an interest in the spouse’s work, their hobbies, or their personality. And it all may be innocent at first, but then they gradually start spending more time together. Then they start looking for ways to connect. As the connection/attraction between them grows stronger, the connection/attraction in the marriage grows weaker. And eventually, they’ve crossed so many lines that it becomes a small step to cross the last line.
But whether the infidelity was an unplanned and impulsive decision, or it was the result of an ongoing drift in the marriage, the infidelity will have destructive consequences on a marriage.
WHAT DOES INFIDELITY DO?
Just what exactly does infidelity do to a marriage?
Infidelity can affect couples in many little ways, but at its core, infidelity destroys the safety of marriage. Marriage is meant to be a haven of safety in the midst of a threatening and hurtful world.
But infidelity destroys that safety by destroying the three elements that promote safety in marriage…truth, trust, and commitment.
Think of a triangle. Triangles are used in construction because they give strength and stability to the structure. But if one side of a triangle is bent or taken away, it loses its strength and collapses.
Think of a marriage as a triangle. the first side is truth, the second side is trust, and the third side is commitment. If any of these is damaged, the marriage becomes weak, compromised, and in danger of collapsing. Infidelity deals a destructive blow to all three sides of marriage…truth, trust, and commitment.
This is why infidelity is so crippling to a marriage, and why so many marriages never recover from the infidelity.
WHAT CAN YOU DO WHEN INFIDELITY IS DISCOVERED?
So if infidelity deals such a crushing blow to marriage, what can you do when you discover a spouse’s infidelity.
When infidelity is revealed in a marriage, there are three basic options:
1. End the marriage.
For some marriages, the breaking of truth, trust, and commitment is too much for the hurt spouse to overcome. The infidelity is just too overwhelming and they just can’t conceive of continuing in the marriage.
If the betrayed spouse is a Christian, they may fall back on Jesus’ allowance of divorce for reasons of unfaithfulness, and end the marriage.
Infidelity will end many marriages, but others will turn to the second option…
2. Try to just put it in the past and move forward.
In this option, the betrayed spouse doesn’t feel the freedom to end the marriage, but facing infidelity seems too daunting. So much to the relief of the spouse who was unfaithful, the betrayed spouse concedes to try to put the infidelity behind them and focus on moving forward.
Though this may sound good, and even gracious, to avoid dealing with infidelity is a lot like ignoring a cancer diagnosis. It often destroys the marriage slowly from the inside out.
This brings us to the third option, and the one that I believe holds the most promise…
3. Commit to seeing a counselor and doing the hard work of repair.
Let me say upfront, this is the hardest of the 3 options. It can feel brutal because it forces you to face the infidelity in great detail when you would rather just try to forget it and move on.
But if your marriage is going to heal and grow stronger, the terrible wound of infidelity must be opened up and cleaned out before it can be stitched up and healed.
Counselors differ in their approach to helping marriages recover from infidelity, but here is the general approach I take when trying to help a couple recover from an affair…
There’s an initial meeting with both spouses. This is to get the story and a feel for each spouse’s desire and investment.
Next, there’s an individual session with each spouse. This is not for the purpose of keeping secrets from each other, but rather to help each spouse be a little freer without worrying about how their words might hurt the other.
Session four is a disclosure session. At this session, the betrayed spouse can ask the betraying spouse any and all questions that are important to them. The questions can range from “Did you tell them you loved them?” to “Where and how did you have sex.” The purpose of the session is not about being voyeuristic, but rather to start rebuilding truth in the marriage. As you can imagine, this is a difficult session.
The remaining sessions focus on rebuilding the marriage and addressing anything that contributed to the marital drift. This is where we address the things that contributed to getting them to this point.
As you can tell, this is not a quick and easy process. And issues from the infidelity can continue to crop up long after the fact. But it is a process that will give the marriage the biggest chance of not just surviving but of thriving.
Does every marriage survive infidelity? No. Some don’t survive because the offender won’t submit to doing whatever is necessary to re-instill trust in their spouse. Others don’t survive because no matter how hard the betrayer works to repair things, the offended spouse just can’t (or won’t) let go of the offense so they can move on.
So, when it comes to counseling, there are no guarantees, but there are some strong possibilities.
A FINAL WORD…
Infidelity can ravage a marriage, and its effects can continue to pop up long after the fact. But with a lot of hard work and rebuilding of truth and trust, safety can be restored and a couple can build a marriage that’s stronger after the infidelity than before. I know, cause I’ve seen it.
Some time ago, I spent a few days thinning out over 20 years of counseling files. As I went through each individual file, it was like a trip down memory lane. With each file, I could see their faces and remember their issues.
While doing this, I was struck by how many married couples I had worked with. I celebrated those couples who had turned things around and went on to have great marriages. But I also grieved over those marriages that ended in divorce.
Burdened by those marriages that ended in divorce, I began keeping a list of issues that contributed to those divorces. I discovered that, despite the uniqueness of each couple, there were some common and reoccurring issues that led to these divorces. And with the exception of three or four “big” things, most of the issues were smaller, more normal things that were left unattended for too long.
So, I compiled my notes into a list I called, “Ways to Lose Your Marriage” or just “The List” for short. And in the weeks to come, I’m going to be sharing this list with you. Each week, in no particular order, we will cover one way to lose your marriage.
So, here’s the first one.
One way to lose your marriage is to …
STOP SPENDING TIME TOGETHER.
When we are dating, we try to spend as much time as possible together. Even if we have nothing to do or nothing to say, we still want to spend all the time we can together because we were in love.
But after we get married, and after the honeymoon time begins to wane, we gradually spend less and less time together. We get busy building a home, building a career, and building a family, and we forget to keep building our marriage. Then, one day, we wonder why we’re not as close as we use to be. The spark seems to have evaporated. The relationship is more routine…more business-like. It’s not like it used to be.
So as time goes on, you begin to drift apart. Oh, you’re still raising kids, paying the mortgage, cleaning the house, and mowing the yard. But you’re just not as connected anymore. And it all started because you gradually stopped spending time together. You didn’t intend to. It wasn’t personal. Life just kept taking more and more of your time, and your spouse started getting less and less of it.
When you stop spending time together, you set your marriage on a gradual course of dissatisfaction and (if not corrected) divorce.
When I talk about spending time together, I’m not necessarily talking about hours of uninterrupted time, staring into each other’s eyes, and talking about the secrets of your hearts. It’s more simple and less threatening than that. Think of it as intentional time together and unintentional time together.
Intentional Time Together.
Intentional time together is planned and/or scheduled time together. It could be a simple as a dinner or movie date, or as elaborate as a weekend getaway or a second honeymoon. And the act of scheduling and planning the time is almost as important as the time itself because it communicates to your spouse that you care enough about them to put some effort into it.
Unintentional Time Together.
Unintentional time is more casual, spur-of-the-moment time with your spouse. Things like: sitting together, running errands together, taking a walk together, etc. Believe it or not, these times are just as important as the intentional times together, because they can happen more frequently and can become a part of the daily routine of your life.
Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, but spending time together when we were dating was easier because we were in love and didn’t have as many things getting in the way. But I want to challenge that thinking. Maybe it wasn’t being in love that caused you to spend so much time together when you were dating. Maybe you were in love because you spent so much time together. And you still had demands and constraints on your time when you were dating. You had school, parents, work, friends, and the fact that the two of you weren’t living together. Yet you still found a way to work around those constraints. If you could do it then, you can do it now.
I know this may be difficult at first, especially if you’re at a place where you don’t want to spend time with your spouse. You may be hurt, angry, or wounded, and spending time with them is the last thing you want to do. But let me encourage you. Don’t put it off or avoid it for long. Because not spending time with your spouse is one of the ways to lose your marriage. It’s on the list.
No matter how many times I see Jame Cameron’s movie “Titanic,” I am always uneasy each time I watch that ship slowly submerge, violently break apart, and then disappear to the dark depths. The fear, the panic, the finality…with each viewing, it’s unnerving.
Not long ago, I counseled 6 people who were either divorcing or headed towards divorce. And this was over the course of just two days! It was like watching the Titanic sink over and over again as I watched these marriages slowly submerge, violently break apart, and begin to disappear into the dark depths.
I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but each time a marriage ends in divorce it’s a tragedy of Titanic proportion. And the similarities are unsettling.
The Titanic was believed to be different than any other ship because it was reported to be unsinkable.
In every premarital counseling session I’ve ever done, as well as every wedding ceremony I’ve ever officiated, the couple before me believes they are different from other couples. They are convinced in their heart of hearts that their relationship is different and impervious to sinking.
But every marriage will encounter “icebergs” that will threaten even the thickest of marital hulls. And assuming that your marriage is exempt puts you even more at risk.
NOT TAKING PROPER PRECAUTIONS.
The company that designed and owned the Titanic was so sure of its superiority that they failed to take proper precautions. For example, they cut back on the number of lifeboats needed, and when they were in dangerous waters, they were over-confident, increasing their speed and dropping their guard.
Too many married couples are too sure of themselves. They are over-confident in that they fail to bring enough people into their lives who could serve as lifeboats in times of need. And they are so busy that they fail to slow down when they’re in difficult and dangerous waters. They just assume they can power through.
A LAST MINUTE PANIC AND SCRAMBLE.
When the Titanic hit the iceberg, they were unprepared and ill-equipped. They fell into an every-man-for-himself panic. They even ignored innocent lives by not filling the lifeboats to the capacity to save as many as they could.
The icebergs that threaten a marriage are many: financial icebergs, infidelity icebergs, relational icebergs, parenting icebergs, as well as others. Too many couples are unprepared and ill-equipped for the icebergs. So when they strike one, they fall into panicking, scrambling, blaming, and an every-man/woman-for-themselves mentality.
There are two images from Cameron’s “Titanic” that haunt me. The first is when the camera seamlessly morphs from Titanic’s polished decks gleaming in the sunlight to its ghostly, rusted wreckage strewn across the bottom of the dark ocean floor. And the second image that haunts me is the image of all the victims strewn across the surface of the Atlantic.
The results of divorce are similar. What once was a polished and shiny new marriage morphs into unsalvageable wreckage. And those who were once joyful passengers on this marriage voyage became victims of the tragedy.
Let me say this…I’m not trying to depress anyone, nor am I trying to heap guilt upon anyone who has been through a divorce. If this post has done either of those things, I sincerely apologize. Maybe it’s me processing a tough week of sinking marriages and sad wreckage.
But almost always, divorce – like the sinking of the Titanic – is a preventable tragedy. Yes, there are a percentage of marriages where abuses, abandonment, and adultery may doom a marriage to divorce…even if one spouse doesn’t want it. But those percentages are small in comparison to the overall divorce rate.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
Just as shipbuilders and captains learned from the sinking of the Titanic, we need to learn from the marriages that are sinking around us.
Don’t be arrogant or over-confident. No matter how strongly you love one another…no matter how long you’ve been married…divorce can happen to you. There are many “icebergs” out there that can and will threaten your marriage. Assuming that your marriage will be exempt puts you even more at risk. Be in love, but be realistic.
Take proper precautions. When you know there are “icebergs” out there that will threaten your marriage, then take precautions ahead of time.
Establish regular date nights for just you and your spouse, and fiercely protect them.
Create a financial plan that will secure your present and your future.
Give as much attention to romance and sex as you do to paying bills and raising kids.
Fix any problems you may have in communication and conflict resolution.
Make sure your expectations are realistic.
Don’t panic and scramble. If your marriage hits an “iceberg,” don’t panic and scramble. As a couple, turn to the lifeboats that are available to you: parents, friends, counselors, pastors, your church, etc. And don’t forget the other potential casualties around you. As a couple, gather up and protect the kids, family, and friends involved and keep them as safe as possible.
TO SUM IT UP…
I don’t mean to be all gloom and doom. Nor am I trying to scare you. But I want your marriage to safely navigate the sometimes difficult waters of life so that the two of you arrive at your destination together and intact.
So let me sum things up this way: Love each other like it was your last day together, and then your days together will last.
Stephen King is a prolific writer and probably one of the most well know and successful authors in modern history. Yet, he felt like quitting early on.
I read that one night, his wife was taking out the trash and found three crumpled pages covered in cigarette ashes. Out of curiosity, she pulled the pages out of the trash and read them. When she had finished reading the wrinkled pages, she took them to her husband and encouraged him to keep writing.
Those discarded pages eventually became the book Carrie. Carrie was not only one of Stephen King’s most successful books, but was adapted into four movies and a broadway play. And yet, he was going to quit writing it after three pages!
It’s easier to quit than to push through to the finish. We just don’t call it quitting. We disguise it by saying things like…
“It’s just not a good time to do this.”
“I’ve found something else that interests me more.”
“I was wrong to start this.”
“I’m just not cut out for this.”
“I can’t put in the time and effort this requires right now.”
“It’s too hard.”
As a pastoral counselor, I hear from a lot of spouses that are ready to quit on their marriage.
A few of them have good reason to consider quitting. There has been abuse, or infidelity, or abandonment. And in some of these cases, the offending spouse continues to repeat the offense or is unwilling to change. These are very difficult situations that may be out of the spouse’s control and certainly require expert help.
But many of the spouses I talk to, who feel like quitting on their marriage, got to that point for lesser reasons than abuse, or infidelity, or abandonment. Many of the spouses I talk to who want to quit on marriage, got there because of:
Lack of attention.
Widening gaps in sexual appetite.
Evaporation of common courtesies.
Failure to pursue one another.
These things are all bound to happen in marriage from time to time. When they happen on an occasionally basis, it typically doesn’t cause a person to want to quit being married to their spouse. But, when these things happen on a regular basis and accumulate over the years, they build up feelings of hurt and resentment that can seem insurmountable. More often than not, this is what causes a spouse to say things like:
“There’s just no chemistry between us anymore.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married.”
“We got married for the wrong reasons.”
“We’re just not good for one another.”
“If it’s this difficult, it can’t be right.”
If you feel like quitting on your marriage, you’ve probably felt, thought, and maybe even said some of these things. But let me remind you that in every good story you will find…
Dark and difficult seasons.
Characters who struggle with one another.
Plots turns you didn’t expect.
Resolutions that don’t play out until you get all the way to the end of the story.
These things don’t make the story bad. They actually contribute to making the story good…if you stick it out through the story.
So here’s the bottom line. When it comes to your marriage…
If you feel like quitting…don’t.
Walt Disney once said, “The difference in winning and losing is most often not quitting.”
Like Stephen King, you may be ready to crumple up your marriage and throw it in the trash. But with some time and some work, your marriage could be a rewritten. Don’t let your current frustrations keep you from a creating a future masterpiece.
I was listening to a Willie Nelson CD on the way to work the other day. The CD is entitled “To All The Girls.” (I highly recommend it, if you’re a Willie fan.) There’s a song on that CD called “Walkin’.” It’s about the demise of a marriage. Listen to the words of the chorus:
After carefully considering the whole situation I stand with my back to the wall Walking is better than running away And crawling ain’t no good at all
I was struck by these words, because they sounded like things I’ve heard in my counseling office. As I listened to this song, I found myself asking out loud, “Why are walking, running, and crawling the only options for a tough marriage?”
The other night I had a disturbing dream. I don’t have many disturbing dreams, but this one shook me to my core.
In my dream, my wife and I were separate…and she initiated it! She seemed to have little interest in being around me, and asked me not to contact her. Her indifference toward me was beyond painful, and it was clear that her indifference towards me was going to end our marriage. But that was not the most disturbing part of the dream.
As a Teaching and Counseling Pastor, I come across marriages of all shapes, sizes, ages, and stages.
There are those in the very beginning of their marriage. They have no kids, all the time in the world, and life is just one long extended date. But then there are those who’s marriage is down the road a bit. They are in the throes of raising children, battling time demands, and often living more like like room mates than spouses.
I see some who are deeply in love, while others are so distant they’re thinking of getting out. Some started their relationship officially with an elaborate and well coordinated wedding ceremony, while others had no wedding ceremony at all. They just began living together and have continued down that same ambiguous track.
In the face of all of this diversity, I find myself asking questions like…
Expectations. We all have expectations before we get married. We have expectations about what marriage will be like. We have expectations about how our spouse will act. We have expectations that tend to become the standard by which we measure and evaluate the quality of our marriage. We expect things like…
When I hear the word “gravity,” I think of different things. I think of an apple falling on Newton’s head. I think of the John Mayer song, “Gravity.” I think of giant pieces of space junk falling from the sky and wiping out my house…and my homeowners insurance refusing to cover it.
But I don’t usually think of marriage when I hear the word, “gravity.” What does gravity have to do with marriage any way…aside from the fact it bears down on all of us, causing us to shrink and sag?