When your spouse wants to leaveWritten by Dr. James Dobson
What's inside this article
Nothing is more inspirational than the uniting of two unique and divergent personalities in a marital commitment that will last for a lifetime, with God's help. Who can comprehend this mysterious bonding that enables a man and woman to withstand the many storms of life and remain best friends to the end of their lives together?
This phenomenon is so remarkable that the Apostle Paul, under divine inspiration, chose it to symbolize the unfathomable bond of love between Jesus Christ and His bride, the Church. We could spend a month or two just thinking about the implications of that wonderful analogy.
Unfortunately, a depressing number of today's marriages end on a less inspirational note. Indeed, Western nations are witnessing a continuing epidemic of dysfunctional relationships. A recent study done by sociologists at Rutgers University concluded that the institution of marriage itself appears to be dying.1 I shudder to contemplate what life will be like (and how children will suffer) if the researchers prove to be right!
The agony inflicted by divorce cannot be overstated. It was this tragic situation that led me to write Love Must Be Tough, which continues to be one of my most popular books. It addresses not only marriages in distress, but concepts that will strengthen less troubled relationships. Let me focus my comments this month on the most important among them.
The standard approach to marriage counselling is to teach husbands and wives how to revitalize unhealthy relationships and help them work through their conflicts. Unfortunately, such advice assumes that both parties are equally motivated to work on their problems. That is rarely the case.
Typically, when a marriage is unravelling, there is one partner who is less concerned about the prospect of divorce, while the other is terrified by it. At its worst, as in cases of infidelity, the drifting member often has little desire to engage in counselling, except perhaps as a pretense to lessen guilt or criticism. He or she may have decided already that the relationship is over.
It has been my observation that the way the committed partner responds at that vital juncture will determine whether the marriage will survive or succumb. I'll explain why in a moment.
The pain of rejection
Only those who have been rejected by a beloved spouse can fully comprehend the tidal wave of pain that crashes into one's life when a relationship ends. Nothing else matters. There are no consoling thoughts. The future is without interest or hope. Emotions swing wildly from despair to acceptance and back again.
Nothing in human experience can compare with the agony of knowing that the person to whom you pledged eternal devotion has betrayed your trust and is now involved in sexual intimacies with a "stranger" . . . a competitor . . . a more beautiful or handsome playmate. Death itself would be easier to tolerate than being tossed aside like an old shoe.
If one word must be selected to describe the entire experience, it would be something equivalent to panic. Just as a drowning person exhausts himself or herself in a desperate attempt to grasp anything that floats, a rejected partner typically tries to grab and hold the one who is leaving. This panic then leads to appeasement, which destroys what is left of the marriage.
What went wrong?
Let's look for a moment at the other half of the relationship – focusing on the individual who wants out of the marriage. What secrets lie deep within the mind of the woman who has an affair with her boss, or the man who chases the office flirt? Surprising to some, the desire for sex is not the primary motivator in such situations. Something much more basic is operating below the surface.
Long before any decision is made to "fool around" or walk out on a partner, a fundamental change has begun to occur in the relationship. Many books on this subject lay the blame on the failure to communicate, but I disagree. The inability to talk to one another is a symptom of a deeper problem, but it is not the cause itself.
The critical element is the way a husband or wife begins to devalue the other and their lives together. It is a subtle thing at first, often occurring without either partner being aware of the slippage. But as time passes, one individual begins to feel trapped in a relationship with someone he or she no longer respects.
Now we begin to see why grovelling, crying and pleading by a panic-stricken partner tend to drive the claustrophobic partner even farther away. The more he or she struggles to gain a measure of freedom (or even secure a little breathing room), the more desperately the rejected spouse attempts to hang on.
Opening the door
Perhaps it is now apparent where the present line of reasoning is leading us. If there is hope for dying marriages, and I certainly believe there is, then it is likely to be found in the reconstruction of respect between warring husbands and wives. That requires the vulnerable spouse to open the cage door and let the trapped partner out! All the techniques of containment must end immediately, including manipulative grief, anger, guilt and appeasement. Begging, pleading, crying, hand-wringing and playing the role of the doormat are equally destructive.
There may be a time and place for strong feelings to be expressed, and there may be an occasion for quiet tolerance. But these responses must not be used as persuasive devices to hold the drifting partner against his or her will.
To the reader who is desperately in need of this advice, please pay close attention at this point: I'm sure you would not have dreamed of using these coercive methods to convince your husband or wife to marry you during your dating days. You had to lure, attract, charm and encourage him or her. This subtle game of courtship had to take place one delicate step at a time. Obviously, it would not have been successful if you had wept violently and hung on the neck of your lover, saying, "I think I'll die if you don't marry me! My entire life amounts to nothing without you. Please! Oh, please, don't turn me down," etc.
Coercing and manipulating a potential marriage partner is like high-pressure tactics by a used car salesman. What do you think he would accomplish by telling a potential customer through his tears, "Oh, please, buy this car! I need the money so badly and I've only had two sales so far this week. If you turn me down, I think I'll go straight out and kill myself!"
This is a ridiculous analogy, of course, but there is applicability to it. When one has fallen in love with an eligible partner, he attempts to "sell himself" to the other. But like the salesman, he must not deprive the buyer of free choice in the matter. Instead, he must convince the customer that the purchase is in his own interest.
If a person would not buy an automobile to ease the pain of a salesman, how much more unlikely is he to devote his entire being to someone he doesn't love, simply for benevolent reasons? None of us is that unselfish. Ideally, we are permitted by God to select only one person in the course of a lifetime, and few are willing to squander that one shot on someone we merely pity! In fact, it is very difficult to love another person romantically and pity him or her at the same time.
The right message
If begging and pleading are ineffective methods of attracting a member of the opposite sex during the dating days, why do victims of bad marriages use the same grovelling techniques to hold a drifting spouse? They only increase the depth of disrespect by the one who is escaping. Instead, they should convey their own version of the following message when the time is right:
"John [or Diane], I've been through some very tough moments since you decided to leave, as you know. My love for you is so profound that I just couldn't face the possibility of life without you. To a person like me, who expected to marry only once and to remain committed for life, it is a severe shock to see our relationship begin to unravel. Nevertheless, I have done some intense soul-searching, and I now realize that I have been attempting to hold you against your will. That simply can't be done.
"As I reflect on our courtship and early years together, I'm reminded that you married me of your own free choice. I did not blackmail you or twist your arm or offer you a bribe. It was a decision you made without pressure from me. Now you say you want out of the marriage, and obviously, I have to let you go. I'm aware that I can no more force you to stay today than I could have made you marry me in 1989 [or whenever]. You are free to go. If you never call me again, then I will accept your decision.
"I admit that this entire experience has been painful, but I'm going to make it. The Lord has been with me thus far and He'll go with me in the future. You and I had some wonderful times together, John. You were my first real love and I'll never forget the memories that we shared. I will pray for you and trust that God will guide you in the years ahead."
Slowly, unbelievably, the trapped spouse witnesses the cage door vibrate just a bit, and then start to rise. He can't believe it. This person to whom he has felt bound hand and foot for years has now set him free! It isn't necessary to fight off her advances – her grasping hands – any more.
"But there must be a catch," he thinks. "It's too good to be true. Talk is cheap. This is just another trick to win me back. In a week or two she'll be crying on the phone again, begging me to come home. She's really weak, you know, and she'll crack under pressure."
It is my strongest recommendation that you, the rejected person, prove your partner wrong in this expectation. Let him marvel at your self-control in coming weeks. Only the passage of time will convince him that you are serious – that he is actually free. He may even test you during this period by expressions of great hostility or insult, or by flirtation with others. But one thing is certain: He will be watching for signs of weakness or strength. The vestiges of respect hang in the balance.
If the more vulnerable spouse passes the initial test and convinces the partner that his freedom is secure, some interesting changes begin to occur in their relationship. Please understand that every situation is unique and I am merely describing typical reactions, but these developments are extremely common in families I have seen. Most of the exceptions represent variations on the same theme.
Three distinct consequences can be anticipated when a previously "grabby" lover begins to let go of the cool spouse:
- The trapped partner no longer feels it necessary to fight off the other, and their relationship improves. It is not that the love affair is rekindled, necessarily, but the strain between the two partners is often eased.
- As the cool spouse begins to feel free again, the question he has been asking himself changes. After wondering for weeks or months, "How can I get out of this mess?" he now asks, "Do I really want to go?" Just knowing that he can have his way often makes him less anxious to achieve it. Sometimes it turns him around 180 degrees and brings him back home!
- The third change occurs not in the mind of the cool spouse but in the mind of the vulnerable one. Incredibly, he or she feels better – somehow more in control of the situation. There is no greater agony than journeying through a vale of tears, waiting in vain for the phone to ring or for a miracle to occur. Instead, the person has begun to respect himself or herself and to receive small evidences of respect in return. Even though it is difficult to let go once and for all, there are ample rewards for doing so. One of those advantages involves the feeling that he or she has a plan, a "program," a definite course of action to follow. That is infinitely more comfortable than experiencing the utter despair of powerlessness that the victim felt before. And little by little, the healing process begins.
This recommendation is consistent with the Apostle Paul's writings in 1 Corinthians 7:15: "But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances. God has called us to live in peace" (NIV). Paul is not authorizing the rejected spouse to initiate a divorce in these instances. He is, rather, instructing a man or woman to release the marital partner when he or she is determined to depart. The advice I have offered today is an expression of that scripture.
Rebuilding and preserving
Well, that represents my attempt to summarize a basic theme of Love Must Be Tough, which is 212 pages in length. I hope it will be helpful to those who have been struggling to keep a troubled marriage alive.
In a broader sense, the principles I have described are not only relevant to husbands and wives in a time of crisis; they are applicable to healthier marriages, too. Indeed, I wish they could be taught to every engaged or newlywed couple in the morning of their lives together. There would be fewer bitter divorces if young husbands and wives knew how to draw their drifting partners toward them, rather than relentlessly driving them away. Respect, you see, is not only vital to rebuilding broken marriages, but to preserving healthy relationships day by day.
Now, isn't that just like an author to promise the moon to his readers? All writers have this tendency to overestimate the significance of their views. Books being published today offer everything from 30 more years of life for men or ageless skin for women. Unfortunately, these authors rarely deliver on their promises; they remind me of "Professor Miraculous" in the Old West who sold his Elixir of Life from the back of his covered wagon and then left town . . . fast. Hoping not to fall into the same "cure-all" trap, let me tell you candidly how I feel about the various concepts described in Love Must Be Tough – only one of which is addressed in this letter.
Genuine insights into human behaviour are not everyday occurrences – at least, not for me. Indeed, if one stumbles onto two or three fundamental principles in the course of a lifetime, he or she has done well. The concepts I expressed in this book focus on one of my allotted few. Do they always preserve dysfunctional marriages? Of course not. No one can make that promise. But even in cases where the spark of love has died, the principle of self-respect in the face of rejection holds true. The alternative is usually despair.
Though I haven't emphasized the role of prayer in the preservation of a troubled family, I'm sure you know that it is the key to everything. The institution of marriage was God's design, and He has promised to answer those who ask for His healing touch. Still, it helps to understand your spouse as you seek to restore what God has "joined together."
1. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America," The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 1999.
Order a copy of Love Must Be Tough on our online bookstore.
From the June 2000 Focus on the Family newsletter. © 2000 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox