How do you make a marriage therapist cringe? Ask him if he thinks you should stay married or get divorced. Therapists are not in the opinion offering business whether a couple stays or divorce. Their job is to help couples talk through their feelings and expectations so that they can make that decision on their own.
At the root of what drives couples struggling with the question of whether or not to terminate a marriage is usually a broken promise. Couples able to navigate around them ultimately make their marriages stronger. Others can’t find it in themselves to trust that their spouse will ever be able to keep a promise. Those marriages are over.
Broken promises in a marriage fall into three categories.
Broken promises around sex and intimacy
An agreement in marriage, generally assumed and sometimes unspoken, is that a couple will grow together in their physical and emotional intimacy. Somewhere along the way that may change. One partner has an extramarital affair. In another relationship, a spouse becomes distant or depressed, emotionally unavailable for intimacy. A partner who has not been forthcoming about their sexuality, for example, withholding that they are gay, lesbian or bi-sexual causes pain and a feeling of betrayal.
Erosion of Trust
Being caught in a lie is a sure recipe for erosion of trust in a relationship. Pretending to be deeply religious when in fact you’re an atheist; cheating on your partner and then continuing to have an emotional relationship with the other person; lying about being financially responsible without disclosing a bankruptcy will all leave your partner doubting your trustworthiness.
Loss of Respect
Being a fraud or withholding information about one’s health or character triggers loss of respect. A client bragged to his betrothed that he had been an attorney at a high profile law firm when he was a paralegal. Another talked about wanting children but had a tubal ligation. In these instances, the lying was unforgivable. Their spouses no longer respected them.
David and Isabella are dealing with a situation that has eroded trust in their relationship. David met Isabella, an attractive schoolteacher, divorced with two children, while separated from his first wife. Swept off their feet and in a fog of romanticism, they married before the ink on his divorce papers had dried. There was a lot they didn’t know about each other.
Isabella had no idea that David had not saved enough money to fund his 16-year-old daughter’s college tuition. Isabella had not disclosed to David that two properties she owns with her ex-husband are in foreclosure. Isabella’s schoolteacher salary is barely enough for her to take care of her children, let alone handle the financial fallout from the foreclosures.
One Sunday morning while mowing the lawn David was stewing over their financial situation when it hit him; “I made a promise to my daughter. She’s the person that matters the most to me. I can’t renege. She graduates from high school in two years. Isabella has dragged me into a mess. How am I ever going to scrap up enough money for tuition?”
Feeling exasperated and defeated, David sinks into a new reality. His otherwise happy new marriage is built on the foundation of an unforgivable unbroken promise. The couple comes to me for therapy. Are Isabella and David going to stay together or split?
We work on communication and understanding each other’s perspective and stepping back from their emotions to make decisions unclouded by bitterness. It’s not working. David loves Isabella but he can’t get over her withholding her financial situation. He doesn’t want to comprise his daughter’s future given the hurt she has gone through in the previous divorce. He’s not going to place this relationship in jeopardy.
In therapy, we are making some progress exploring ways of making and keeping promises. The relationship is stronger for the work they’ve done. David however, continues to have a difficult time accepting this. We are working on reaching a wise decision about staying married or divorcing taking into account the short term and long term implications to avoid regrets later. Making peace and finding solace in their decision is a priority.
I’m not sure whether David and Isabella will eventually make it. They are taking this relationship one month at a time, hoping for a miracle to happen and waiting to hear back about their liability for the property in foreclosure. Only time will tell whether they stay married or divorce.
This situation could have been prevented had the couple been upfront with each other from the start. Failure to disclose information about ones-self sets a relationship up on top of a broken promise. Erosion of trust and loss of respect are sure to follow. On-going communication keeps promises in the foreground, solidifying a healthy relationship.