In Tammy Wynette’s country classic, the “D” word gets spelled out, not spoken aloud, to protect the divorcing couple’s young child. Yet the lump in the singer’s throat suggests that it is she who can’t bear to confront the brutal finality of the word.
Many of the couples I see in my psychotherapy practice, and many 0f the married individuals, report that they feel so stuck, discouraged, hurt and enraged about their relationship that they don’t know if they can keep going. Still, many who are hopeless about their marriage can and do find a way back, even from what seems like total ruin.
Typically, each member of the couple will have bitter complaints that go something like this: “I hate when you do such and such to me.” “Well I hate when you do such and such to me.” “ I only do such and such because you do such and such.” “Well I only do such and such because you do such and such.” Etc.
If both partners can put their own hurts aside long enough to see how they themselves have been hurtful, the marriage has a real chance. But in many cases, one of the partners becomes more and more adamant, insisting that all the couples’ problems stem from the other person. Of course there are cases when one of the individuals is indeed so derailed – for example, from drug addiction, or chronic infidelity – that there can be no progress unless those issues are addressed. More typical, though, is a situation where there is fault on both sides – even when the fault of one is initially more apparent than the fault of the other.
Sometimes, in cases where one partner refuses to accept any responsibility, the other partner will repeatedly back down and take the blame to keep the marriage going. The backing-down partner often develops “mysterious” chronic illnesses, like headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or muscular-skeletal symptoms, and may spend a good deal of time looking to doctors and healers for sympathy. On the other hand, the partner who never accepts any responsibility for the marital problems may also have a host of illnesses, which serve as a further blockade to the kind of searching self-honesty that would allow them to see their own part in the problem.
If one of you does all the accusing and the other has to do all the apologizing, eventually there will be, if not Divorce, then Deadlock. Divorce is one way out of deadlock, and sometimes it’s the right way. Staying in a dead marriage and being depressed, or finding distractions (affairs, for example) are other, less constructive ways of dealing with marital deadlock.
Most marriages arrive at deadlock at some point, and often not just once. And most good marriages that last are ones in which both partners have worked hard, repeatedly, to take responsibility, repair damages, apologize and forgive. We humans will never be perfect, but we can keep on growing as people, right to the end. If you’re not growing as a person – learning to develop more meaningful connection with others, overcoming the shame of acknowledging and addressing the destructive tendencies in yourself that prevent intimacy from deepening - your marriage isn’t growing, either, and it’s probably time to get some help.