If you’re leaning into your marriage and are willing to do whatever it takes to save your relationship, this article is also for you.
Research indicates that 30 percent of couples seeking marriage counseling have one spouse who’s leaning into the marriage and one spouse who’s leaning out. In other words, one person is all-in and wants to do everything possible to salvage the relationship, while the other is deeply wrestling with whether or not they want the relationship to continue.
I’ve seen this play out in my counseling practice: About a third of the married couples in crisis I see have one person who’s deeply committed to making the marriage work and the other who is struggling with whether to separate. Many couples in this predicament have worked tirelessly, in therapy and on their own, to save their relationship, and often come to me as a last-gasp hope at saving what’s left. When a couple is in this painful place, I walk them through a process of getting clear on what each wants. Then I offer a realistic and specific plan for what the path of divorce looks like and/or what the path toward saving the relationship looks like.
During this process, I work with the couple on setting ground rules for communication and daily living, especially in one-in, one-out relationships. Why? Because the internal problems each spouse is facing in deciding whether to stay, combined with the often painful cycles and external problems that have led them to seek counseling, continue to heighten the tension in an already tense relationship. With this as a backdrop, in many cases, the leaning-in partner’s anxiety increases, because of the absence of knowing and/or controlling the outcome, and they start engaging in behavior that make things worse.
In such a sensitive time, it’s easy for either partner to engage in immature, anger-fueled, or fear-based behavior, but it can be detrimental to success. If you’re in such a relationship, you'll want to avoid these five behaviors:
1. Don’t blame your partner for all the problems in your relationship.
Certainly, when anxiety is high and you want to change the outcome and gain some sense of control, it’s natural to want to point fingers and get the other partner to see what they’ve done to the relationship. Instead, avoid blaming, and ask questions.
As my colleague Suzanne Kaufman states, “Listen to learn and speak to be known.” To increase intimacy, share statements about your experience and ask about your partner’s experience. Stay true to your goal of staying calm and coming from a grounded place. Focus on the work you need to do and what you can control in the situation.
2. Don’t criticize, name-call, or launch verbal attacks.
This is one of the easiest negative behaviors in which to engage when two spouses are alone, or when they’re talking about emotionally charged issues. When you feel like you're not getting through, and you have no power over what your partner decides, many clients will use inflammatory statements to keep their partner engaged in a debate. Remind yourself that you can’t control their behavior, and find ways to be OK with the outcome. Taking a breath before speaking, and thinking through what you want to say, can help alleviate the need to belittle or berate.
3. Forego controlling behaviors and actions of jealousy.
Examples of this would include checking phone logs and text messages or crossing personal boundaries that you wouldn’t have crossed during the better moments of your partnership. Undoubtedly, this is particularly difficult for marriages in which one partner has had an affair, but checking up on the offending spouse will likely only push him or her further away. By exerting slightly more control, you’re likely losing much more control.
Most people want their spouse to choose to be in the marriage because they want to, not because they feel pressured, controlled, or have to stay. Consider Sarah’s story: When her partner came to her and told her that he was struggling with the relationship and wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay, she was in shock. Rather than trying to calm her anxiety, she reacted. Over the next few weeks, things went from bad to worse. Her fear turned into control and anger, and her partner pulled further away. Ultimately, their marriage didn’t make it. She sat in my office months later, regretting her behavior and wishing she’d had the tools at the time to calm herself so she could have done her part to create an environment that might have given the relationship room to breathe.
4. Refrain from a constant state of intensity and seriousness.
So many couples and spouses on the verge of separation or divorce fall prey to a sustained emotional intensity that physically and mentally wears them down. It’s like the body has gotten stuck in fight-flight-or-freeze mode. Because either spouse is always prepared to go on the defensive at negligibly provocative actions or words, one or both partners maintains such seriousness all the time that it can be difficult for the other to want to communicate. Don’t erect extra walls when so many barriers have already been put in place. Remember how to laugh, or at least how to de-stress.
5. Don’t emotionally shut down.
During a time of uncertainly, it’s tempting to shut down and close yourself off completely. Being uncommunicative or refusing to share how you're really feeling over time can suffocate the relationship. This “acting in” behavior tends to pave the way for future emotional outbursts or periods of depression.
While you don’t want to be led by your emotions, you also don’t want to stifle them. This is a tough balance to negotiate, but an essential ingredient for the sustainability of the relationship. For example, if your partner says something that hurts you, instead of shutting down and going inward, you could respond by saying, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but what you just said hurt my feelings.” Just get it out without expecting a certain response. Practice noticing and saying what you feel.
The ultimate reason for following these steps when your relationship may be on the brink of ending is that you can’t control your partner’s behavior. You can only control you. If you choose to be loving, kind, honest, and authentic, and live from a place of emotional maturity, the probability of a renewed connection will have a better environment in which to grow. But, again, even if you do all the “right” things this article suggests, you still cannot control your partner’s reactions, beliefs, or emotions.
When faced with a marriage in crisis, increase your self-awareness. Pay attention to yourself and the ways to calm your fear. Seek to become the best version of yourself, even if that means individual therapy, talking with a spiritual leader, or discussing what’s happening with a close friend.
When you learn how to calm your heart, quiet your mind, and soothe your own anxieties, you will be making it easier for yourself — and your spouse — to reenter the marriage with a renewed focus and commitment. No matter what happens to the relationship, you take yourself with you wherever you go. These are all beneficial tips for personal growth within any emotionally healthy relationship. You might as well start practicing now, regardless of the current state of your marriage.