“There is a 90% chance that I will file for divorce.”
That is what Anna (I changed the name for confidentiality reasons) said when her husband was a few minutes late to their couples appointment. Then she continued, “It has to be his way or the highway. I don’t feel like I have a voice in this marriage.”
She was looking for apartments to move out unbeknownst to him at the time. This was our second session together. I asked her if she would be open about her thoughts and plans when he walked in and she agreed. When he came into the room, he was shocked that she was planning on moving out. She said she would look for a short-term lease and that her preference was a 3-month lease to give her time to see how she feels and to “find her voice again.”
He protested but I knew that if he kept trying to convince her to stay that it would work against his chances to have her back since she needed to feel empowered and that giving in to his wishes would relax him in the short term but be bad for the relationship in the long term. She did find a 3-month lease and I saw them both alone at that point.
Sometimes in doing couples therapy, it is better to see partners alone until they can handle their feelings without triggering the other person. Ben (not his real name) said, “I hope you know what you are doing, telling me to let her go.” I responded, “I do not know if she will come back but if you keep pushing your agenda, I know for sure she won’t come back! Letting her go and you learning to soothe your own anxiety rather than try to control her is definitely your best shot.”
I am not saying here that separating is always a good idea; as a matter of fact- it can be a bad idea for many couples as it could be an avoidance strategy to get instant relief. However, in her case, I knew that psychologically she needed to act on her own behalf without taking care of him emotionally this time. (Her experience of the marriage was that she was always taking care of his needs and neglecting her own).
Ben learned how to self soothe; he was willing to go through the pain of not getting his way and letting her do what she needed to do for herself. With my help, he realized that he could handle himself when she was not focusing on his needs. Anna worked through some of her earlier childhood issues with me that kept her from standing up and being firm. She learned that it was ok to disappoint and frustrate others; not that disappointing people was her goal- but it was a natural, inevitable consequence of her taking up space in this world and being true to herself.
Ben would send her texts that would let her know that he is thinking of her. There was no manipulation in those texts and no pleading or judging her for the decision she made to leave. Six weeks into the separation, she asked him if they would like to go on a date. Three weeks after that, before the three months were up they moved back in together. She made changes to the house and he accommodated her. They experienced what it was like for BOTH people to have a voice. They came back into couples therapy and they developed strong communication skills where they both got to express and listen to each other.
They fell back in love with each other.
They even were a couple that agreed to be in a popular magazine spread with me on going from possible divorce to a thriving marriage. Years later, I ran into them at Trader Joe’s and they still were doing wonderfully and very much in love with each other. It was a joyful reunion!
So how did they do it?
1. They were willing to experience the anxiety of working on their “developmental” weak spots- him to be able to self-soothe, her to be able to be firm and make room for what is important to her.
2. They came regularly to therapy and applied what they learned.
3. They learned to have empathy and understanding for each other.
4. They made concrete behavioral changes for the better from how they communicated to how they made decisions on what to do with their house and deal with his son.
5. They began seeing their relationship as an interpersonal adventure where there was room for experimentation and sensible risk taking.
Here is the best news of all! I have many, many stories just like this. Partners can truly shift their relationship and make it thrive. I am here to help you with that!