Hopeless Marriage: Relationship Resolution, Relationship Recovery

When is it time to quit? Married couples agonize with the question of resolving profound emotional distress and/or complete emotional indifference by divorce. Often the time between the actual decision to divorce, separate, or in any other way take action is quite unrelated to any one actual event occurring.

How many couples will say they knew years ago their marriage was over, they just didn't do anything about it? The most often used rationalization is children although all studies have proven that children from dysfunctional and emotionally disconnected parents faire far worse than those co parented by divorced loving parents. The nodal moment, the pivotal point, the time to make a major life decision regarding marriage goes unnoticed, unannounced and, in most cases, not acted upon. The question is "What can be done about this?"

Freud referred to marriage as the great civilizer--civilization may have a great price to extort from those who seek to be civilized. As a psychotherapist, I treat what I lovingly refer to as "hopeless couples." What exactly are hopeless couples? They are usually married (sexual orientation is irrelevant), have been living together with either complete disdain and blame or complete indifference, some have given up on sex, some have taken on lovers. They hold one common belief: their relationship is hopeless, irreconcilable and they can’t find the door marked exit. They feel trapped, victimized, paralyzed, abused, trampled, shamed, wounded and usually without resource. They all hold one other commonality, which is desperation--overt or covert!

These are the couples that present in my office. Most have been to many therapists and have stories of treatment failure at the hands of psychiatrists, clergy, psychotherapists, healers, and psychics--the list is as diverse as the couples.

They have heard about someone who treats couples without hope and they know who they are. Like an old Buddhist saying: "One master on the path has no need to introduce himself to another they recognize each other instantly." These couples, they know who they are without analysis. They are those without hope who have not been able to divorce, disengage, release and resolve to closure their relationship /marriage.

These couples come to therapy again for one of two major reasons. First, they cannot cope or deal with loss or in some remote part of their soul, psyche, or mind. And second, they cannot accept giving up. The giving up relates to not only failure but being alone.

Sometimes this is codependency. Sometimes this is habit. In many more cases than we all want acknowledge it is a deeper knowledge that this marriage may be resuscitated, that life may be breathed into it, that another outcome is possible. The question is how does anybody really know?

The psychotherapist who believes that an alternative outcome is possible helps to answer these questions. The outcome may be hopeless, or it may be that the couple may not have been ready yet to do the incredibly difficult work to change themselves and change their whole notion about marriage and relationship.

Marriages that are ill may never have been healthy, the seeds for the present crisis state were often sown during courtship. Some marriages lose their wellness due to stress and strain or to neglect. Regardless of the cause, the effect is the same: a relationship without resiliency, without an immune system--a relationship that cannot recover.

So, in a sense we are dealing with a complex system of repetitive behaviors in which the partners expect a different outcome. Therapists call this magical thinking because it is the way very young children think. Perhaps they have become so conditioned to the ennui that they expect nothing. Usually when they begin to discuss their marriage we discover each partner holds a great abundance of blame and resentment.

Blame and resentment are the most corrosive element in a relationship. Blame and resentment will destroy all positive and loving feeling in their path--replacing them with the darkest of emotions. Couples under the influence of blaming and resentment are usually so contaminated that we spend several sessions just mapping their influence on large sheets of white paper. If couples can even make it through these arduous sessions it is quite remarkable.

The couples have been part of the "loss processes" for some time, usually stuck in the phase referred to as denial. Kicking up the emotional stakes is very dangerous work indeed. Many demons are suppressed below the polite socialized persona initially presenting in my office. The couple in trauma has become numbed and are, in a sense, in a trance…they cannot even fathom the emotional turbulence below their narratives. Even the most vitriolic usually don’t recognize the anger that belies profound sadness that needs to be processed.

This whole process is an enormous project that requires serious commitment to the A-team approach. The therapist enters with the couple in a journey that rivals a trek through the underworld of descents of Odysseus and Aeneas into Hades where they pass through the "Vale of Mourning" and "The Plain of Judgment." This is the heroic journey the triad—the two individuals comprising the couple, and the therapist--must make to find resolution and closure. The room becomes thick with intense emotional energy, intensely uncomfortable; managing this level of anxiety is the task of the therapist. The Hopeless Marriage partners expect and deserve the role of their coach to be "the awakened one." The therapist must become intrusive, directive, and almost parental in keeping the boundaries clear. The therapist must prevent the chaos from usurping the focus and dissolving the sessions into "problem cauldrons" rather than a crucible where truth and vision offer to show each person the consequences of their beliefs and their behavior.

This process is psychic extrication, a time to untangle beliefs, untangle the expectations usually taught to us by our parents, socially acculturated belief systems which include gender based notions and socio-economic psychic software we internalized growing up. We give our partners the power we cannot integrate ourselves. Jung, the noted Swiss analyst said, fascination with someone is basically a matter of "…always trying to deliver us into the power of a partner who seems compounded of all the qualities we have failed to realize in ourselves."

This is a time when sabotage or a therapist refers to it as "treatment failure" occurs. Coming close to the core issues within each person and between the partners causes explosive psychic reactions. This is the time when baby sitter problems abound, business meetings suddenly cause session cancellations, trips get planned with dates that coincide with session dates, etc. The couple is avoiding the sessions and, while each reason they come up with is more or less believable, their motivation is clearly a psychic collusion designed to free them from discovery and disclosure. They cannot endure the pain of revelation--they are electing to escape. The therapist must at this point be steady and redirect them back into the work they are avoiding.

Some will run to fast track structured programs. When working with hopeless marriages we must always be seeking resolution not revolution. Couples attend weekend seminars on marriage encounter; clergy conduct retreats and even have websites with marriage tool boxes all predicated on the structured "quick fix," pro marriage and faulty communication theory system. Couples who are hopeless are also desperate and often fall prey to the expensive and fast solution which, inevitably, fails. The therapist who works at healing must work carefully, consistently and with great respect.

The question of the couple’s ability to release from the marriage is a function of their own spiritual wholeness and their capacity to endure significant and often unbearable pain. Marriage may serve to isolate us all from the existential abyss of the Great Void of the Buddhists. The tools available to support this traumatic confrontation include EMDR, pharmacological interventions and divorce support group.

There is a wonderful book that I recommend to all my Hopeless Couples written by Cheri Huber entitled "When You’re Falling, Dive." In this simple yet intensely profound book Ms. Huber writes on page 47: "If your life isn’t working it’s because you’re believing things that aren’t true and doing things that don’t work."

Therapy is ideally a vehicle for change and a source of healing that improves the quality of life of those who participate. Change is predicated on intention. Intention comes from a Latin word which describes a mode of "being" or a "relationship" towards its object. This may sound rather arcane, so allow me to simplify intention. Intention is what you produce, it is behavior, and it is observable. How many of us have the mantra that the outcome of our actions were not what we intended? Bad news what you produce is what you intend. Taking responsibility this way makes life a different arena--you become the author and the locus of control is back in your hands where it always was. Blame is silly in this context.

The healing we are talking about is fundamentally the meaning of the word which originally meant to make sound or whole, to restore to health. Our goal is to bring about the couple’s wholeness around a mutually agreed upon intention.

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