Is it really possible to save your marriage when one partner wants out of the relationship? Some of my clients face this question when they attend therapy. Some of my clients attend therapy to declare to their therapist and their spouse they want out of the relationship. However, what they usually want is to feel heard and respected. They will not put up with the relationship the way it is. Others truly want out.
“What brings you to therapy today?,” I ask in the first session.
“We need to work on our communication. We fight and argue all the time. And James keep threatening to leave. I wish he would stop doing that.”
“I never threatened to leave, Aimee. I have already been searching for a new apartment and plan to move out at the end of the month. I just need some time a part,” James states in a calm voice.
“You see what I mean? We can never agree on anything. He won’t even talk to me. How can we make this marriage work?”
“You are here to make this marriage work. I am here to tell you it is over.” James gets even calmer.
“So what is the biggest problem or challenge you would like to work on your relationship for this session?” I ask as the session is blocked by the argument.
“Respect,” James blurts out.
“Tell me about respect. What do you mean by this and in what way is this affecting you?”
“Well, Aimee has never once respected me in this relationship. She yells and screams in front of the kids and her family. It makes me feel like I am a servant in the home. Sure, I lost my job for 6 months, but now I’m back on my feet. Even the kids don’t listen to me and have lost respect for me. I have no way of ever getting that back again.”
“That’s not true. We do respect you. I still have to work and take care of the family, you know. Sometimes, I get a bit heated. But I want this relationship to work. We have three kids together. Now that you have a job again, I feel like you’re ready to bolt.”
“What are you talking about? For nine years, you have been disrespectful to me. I have had enough. It’s over.”
If you were listening to this conversation, what would you think? Should they stay together or are they ready to break up?
What really happened here is a series of events over a span of nine years. In the beginning, Aimee was the over-functioning partner. She realized that she would be the breadwinner of the family. James was a good husband and provided for them, but he didn’t provide enough for the standard of life Aimee had set for herself.
Aimee worked hard to keep and maintain those standards. They both had a good life. After three kids and constantly working, they drifted apart while living under the same roof. Aimee was a rising star at work. She was respected, she gained power and authority, and she worked hard for it.
At home, the kids loved and respected her. Over time, she and James had different views and goals in life. Aimee wanted James to do more. James was content with the life they had agreed upon.
Their expectations changed during the nine years, which is not abnormal. They carried on with life as normal, however, the power differential started to shift in the marriage. James agreed to almost everything Aimee said in order to keep the peace and avoid making her angry. For the most part, she made good decisions. James let his easy going character allow this shift happen.
Even when he disagreed with her, he couldn’t tell her about it. If he did, there would be consequences. But each time he kept this thoughts to himself, he hated that part of himself and felt disrespected. The feelings echoed back to how his parents would ignore him at the dinner table, how his brothers ignored him, and how his boss treated him.
Sitting in the therapy room, James can’t take it any longer. He is trying hard, but can’t see how Aimee would have a different opinion of him. Aimee wants the marriage to work and to be different, but that would mean she has to change to accommodate James.
“There is no way Aimee will ever change”, says James, “I know her too well.”
“If you just give this a try, maybe we have a chance,” Aimee, now agitated, blurts out.
“What would you like to get out of our session?” I ask after noting that there’s only ten minutes left in the session.
“I came here today, so that I could tell my side of the story. I didn’t want Aimee to spread lies.”
I begin to formulate a plan in my head as soon as I hear James’s statement. He feels disrespected and unheard; that is the main reason he is in therapy. He has not felt heard in almost a decade. Aimee is trying to save her marriage the best way she knows. She is trying to tell her husband that she will change, and he should believe her. His experience with her tells him he can’t trust her words. He needs to be heard, but he is so frustrated and fearful that he doesn’t feel safe to do so.
Part of James wants to leave the marriage. I can’t tell him to stay in the marriage. As soon as I create resistance, he will leave. My job is to get James to engage with Aimee, no matter what decision he makes. After that, Amiee needs to make James feel heard and respected. Once she does this, then she will be able to communicate her needs for the relationship.
“So before we wrap up the session, here are my thoughts. I suggest that we focus on the next week only. You have five days from now to think about the situation. During this time, I would like you two to have a conversation. I want you to talk about the way you feel with Aimee, James. She can’t offer solutions and she should just listen to you. You will report back on how you feel and whether you feel heard.”
“Aimee will also talk about how you moving out hurts her, and what she needs to be able to move forward and help you get what you need. You are not to offer any solutions but listen to Aimee. This will be a time to talk about your individual needs. How does that sound?” I ask.
“I’m game for this,” Aimee says.
“I don’t know.” James avoids eye contact. “I’m not in a position to make any commitments. I already found a new place and will be signing the lease this week. I’ll see what I can do.”
Both James and Aimee leave feeling a little sad. It wasn’t the first session they hoped for. Instead of just moving out, James has begun to think about changing his mind. While it’s not ideal, this small move is in the right direction while not forcing James to do anything.
They are taking their relationship one week at a time. No decisions are being made about their future, but they are taking the time to start listening to one another. They will need a few more sessions to get them to a better place in their relationship. When they do get there, it will mean hope for their marriage. If they don’t, then it could be too late to save the relationship.
Check back on this blog for any future updates on James and Aimee’s situation.