How to Save a Marriage You Think can’t be Saved

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Becky’s note to bloggers: When I decided to go for my graduate degree in Marriage & Family Therapy, I knew I wanted to develop an expertise that involved working with couples whose marriage or relationship was at death’s door. Believe me, I had reason to think there was a need for therapists who specialize in this type of therapy…

In 1993 my marriage was at death’s door. I was miserable and feeling desperate to dive out of my 8-year relationship, but a lot was at stake – we had two young children, and being a housewife, I had a college degree, but little work experience. I had no idea how I would support myself.

When I could no longer hold my distress in, I told my husband how unhappy I was. Having him around was intolerable, and my feeling was that he needed to move out as soon as possible, but he didn’t want to. To get clarity about what we should do we went to a well-respected therapist in town with every degree, license and credential imaginable. After that one meeting the doctor sent us away saying that since I wasn’t motivated, there was nothing he could do. He told us the best thing would be to separate and to come back later for couple’s therapy if my feelings changed. At that time I was so full of anger and frustration that I could not imagine that day would come.

In our fear, confusion, and lack of understanding we declared a stalemate and started the legal process to end the marriage. One year later my anger and frustration had dissipated and I realized I still loved and cared about my former husband, but my motivation to save our relationship arrived too late. Lawyers and the divorce process had destroyed his goodwill toward me, and any motivation he’d previously had to work on our relationship. He had quickly moved on and had already developed a serious relationship with a woman he would later marry.

In the years after that I spent a lot of time wondering what had happened, and how could our divorce have been prevented? There were so many questions: How could I have gone from wanting out of a relationship so intensely to wanting to do whatever it would take to repair it? Was there anything a therapist could have done to help us through it so that we might have been able to avoid divorce? Had anyone else ever experienced this?

It would take years before I would discover the answers, and when I did, I realized that that despite the knowledge and training our therapist had, he did not understand what we were going through, or how to guide us through it. I’m not mad at him because I know that the general public sometimes expects too much out of therapists – especially ones who have a Ph.D. It’s not uncommon for people to assume that a mental health professional at the doctoral level knows everything there is to know about each and every psychological and relationship issue, but the truth is, we don’t. In school we learn the basics about many topics regarding mental health and relationships, but in the end, each one of us has areas of interest that we focus our attention on, and these become our areas of expertise. Show me 10 therapists and I’ll show you a wide variety of specialties from children and ADHD to autism, anger management, play therapy, legal testimony, criminal minds, adolescents and mean girls, to the elderly and Alzheimer’s caregiver support. I don’t know what my former marriage therapist specialized in, but I know it wasn’t marital crisis and how to revive a dying marriage. If it had been, he wouldn’t have sent us away to separate and fend for ourselves. I believe that had we had a therapist who understood the dynamics of what was going on and held our hands and coached us through it, the outcome might have been very different.

I wish my former husband and I had found a therapist who specialized in marital crisis, who understood what was happening and could have explained what was going on, what to expect, and had told us how to handle it. Ideally he could have told us tangible things could have done to maximize the chances for a positive outcome such as reconciliation.

From the first day of graduate school, I dedicated myself to becoming a therapist who could do that. I focused my energy on understanding how humans select mates, and how we go from selecting a mate to deciding to divorce that mate. How do relationships deteriorate? How can they be pieced back together once major damage has been done? Is it even possible?

I succeeded in finding a clear understanding about how and why marriages and relationships die, and learned that with the right guidance and coaching, some relationships can be revived and brought to health. I learned about what interventions work, which ones don’t, and I now use the ones that do in my practice to help couples in marital crisis and are thinking about divorce so they may make the wisest and best choices for them.

If I see a couple’s marriage in crisis like mine was in 1993, and one person is feeling the way I did way back then – angry, frustrated, and in desperate need of space, I know that this person must get that space or a hasty divorce decision is likely to be made. However, the crucial piece is that the separation must have a purpose, plan, and focus, with time lines and guidelines that ensure a couple don’t make a mess of their lives during this extremely fragile period. A couple that tries to separate on their own without a therapist’s guidance, and who do not get therapy individually for the issues that caused the marital discord in the first place have a 95 percent chance of ending up divorced.

The idea of the MS is to mimic a divorce so a couple can experience what it is like – from the good, the bad, and to the super ugly. Sometimes when a man or woman grazes around single pastures, they have an awakening to what they are giving up!

I call the intervention Managed Separation (MS), because that’s just what it is. When I see that an MS is indicated and the couple agrees, we set up a time to get together and negotiate the terms. I have a basic list of things that must be addressed from finances, custody of the children, dating, contacting one another, sex between the separated couple, secrets, affairs, and more. After going over the list and details are worked out and both people commit to the agreement, I prepare a contract for the couple to sign. Although it is non-binding, it leaves no doubt about what the purpose of the separation is for, how long it will last, and how each person will behave during the months ahead.

In the weeks and months to come we agree to meet once a week to check on the separation and to iron out any details, questions or concerns that come up, and believe me, they do. In addition, each person agrees to weekly individual therapy. Every aspect of the MS has taken information from the research on marital interventions, separation and divorce and is designed to maximize the chances of saving a marriage that might be savable, but otherwise certainly would have ended in divorce. The caveat is that during such an emotional and frightening time, the rules and interventions require a lot of self-discipline and self-control, and not everyone can do it – this is a time when emotional maturity can pay off huge dividends!

The purpose of my Managed Separation interventions are:

1. To help individuals find clarity in the fog of indecision.
2. Prevent individuals from making a hasty decision to end a relationship that under the right circumstances might have been saved.
3. If the decision is to divorce, to be able to look back with no regrets and say, “We know we did all we could to save the marriage, and concluded that ending the relationship was the best and wisest decision.”

In a Managed Separation I see my role as a therapist as not only helping each individual to become as healthy as they can be through psychotherapy, which has the added benefit of making them a better partner, but also as a life coach who motivates and influences each person to stick to the agreement so that a miracle might occur. Sometimes it’s successful, and when it is, it is so sweet!

I’d love to hear from people who have questions or suggestions about the Managed Separation process, and also from those who can retell their own stories about what saved their marriage or relationship, or what they wish they had done that might have saved their relationship … looking forward to hearing from you…

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