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The Win-Win Endgame for a Gridlocked Marriage

My heart goes out to couples who seem forever caught between a rock and a hard place in their marriage. When they talk with each other about anything personal, it seems like they have to choose between either being kind to their mates by quietly absorbing disrespect, or else standing up for themselves honestly, only to be put down all the more for doing so. It’s suck it up, or speak the truth, which is suck a little up now or a lot up later on. So it’s lose-lose, and the feeling is you can’t win.

Whenever either partner stands up for themselves, the other partner feels terribly and unfairly put down. For whatever reason, both husband and wife have become so focused on changing their mates that neither knows how to change or accept themselves. To make peace with their mate, neither partner can respect the person they have to act like they are. But if they were to get divorced from each other, neither one is yet able to respect the person they would become, or to accept the life they would have left after the divorce. So they in essence have become married to the fight. They find themselves unable to partner, even in a divorce. It’s too much like living over in the Mideast, where people seem gridlocked into a rising tide of prejudice and hatred.

If you are in such a marriage, and divorce is not an option for you, you feel trapped into the ongoing disrespect of your marriage. What can you do all by yourself to break the gridlock? First you can learn a new dance with your mate: detachment, the art of letting go. The key behavior to learn here is the ability to back off from lose-lose conversations. The marriage (and your children) need for you to just say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I hear what you’re saying,” or just “OK, whatever,” and then walk away, WITHOUT taking any negative thoughts or feelings along with you. That last move is the hard part, and without that it doesn’t work. You’d just go back for more dialog to get rid of your pain, only to find most of it stays with you, and you’ve picked up a fresh load to boot. How stupid is it to keep looking for comfort from the one who is hurting you?

Before I tell you how you can learn to detach in peace, you’ll need to get your motivation down by understanding why. This quiet, calm detachment does many things. It’s first of all a tourniquet—it stops the bleeding of words pouring out of your mouth, words that drain your energy and load up your partner’s guns. And it’s a bandage, which keeps out the infection of partner’s harmful words in the future. It’s also like putting on a cast—your walking away keeps you from activities that would harm you while the healing gradually proceeds. Finally, it is a thermometer for you both, a show of your strength. When you do let go in peace, it lets your partner know how strong you are becoming, making them want the peace you are getting. And if you can’t let go in peace, it shows you that your spiritual antibodies are low, and that it’s time to plug yourself back into a stream of grace and wisdom to power you back up.

So where can you find this grace and wisdom? The best sources are friends and family who have been through these waters, who have learned for themselves how to detach from close loved ones when they’re hurting you. Because there’s so often not enough of these folks close by, you may find what you need in a support group or a twelve-step program. Or you could turn to a pastor or counselor for wisdom and strength. Whoever you turn to, you’ll need to use this outlet for those thoughts and feelings that would otherwise come out at home and fire up your spouse. You’ll need a professional to show you hard-to-see wisdom, such as all the hidden benefits in how detachment works for you, and how the party less interested in contact always has the more power in a relationship.

Once detached, what do you need to work on? You need to focus on goals your partner can’t sabotage, like these:

1. Forgive yourself, your spouse, and anybody else that has harmed either of you, or your marriage. Of course, to give forgiveness, you must first have received it, from God and ideally from someone else. You don’t need to trust your spouse or even like them, just accept them as is. Hope and pray they can somehow someday get closer to God, and in the meantime, wish them well. As a cause and effect of doing so, you will realize how Jesus’ commands to love and do good to your enemies is meant as a buffer that will protect you from getting too close to them. You see, enemies draw closer to fight you when you criticize them, and when you give love that you don’t need to get in return, they back away. Why? Because it makes them feel guilty that they can’t be kind to people who are kind to them, and frustrated that they can’t hurt or control you into acting like you’re taking their pain away.

2. Come to grips with who you are: your failures and successes from the past, your insecurities and needs of the present, your dangers and opportunities for the future, and the strengths and weaknesses in your personality as a whole—your blind spots, hang-ups, unhealed wounds, unfinished business, and unfulfilled dreams.

3. Take responsibility for getting your needs met now, and for taking care of yourself when others won’t. This will reveal and resolve any unhealthy dependencies that are causing you to cling to a painful connection with your spouse. Have faith that God and God’s people will help you bring some good things out of any bad situation

So in all this, your focus needs to be on your personal growth and healing, not your spouse’s. Only this will prepare you for either future outcome: a reconciled marriage or a divorce. Unless you are ready to go either way, you will both feel trapped, no matter which outcome you are moving toward. The first one of you to get yourself ready for either option will have all the power. God, your children, and the mental health of all concerned want that person to be you. It’s not so that you win, but that God and the children do. God gets a good witness or representative to show the world His grace, and your children get a role model and at last, one safe haven from the war between the parents.

The average person keeps going back and forth between the two different goals of reconciliation or divorce, and never sees that what it takes to do well at one outcome is exactly what it takes to do well at the other. The skills and insights above will be needed to escape from gridlock into either partnering on reconciliation, or partnering on divorce, or maybe accepting that your spouse isn’t ready to partner in anything.

Only now can you safely send the gridlock resolution game into its second half. You can now use your forward gears, by pushing things to start moving toward either a reconciliation or a divorce. Since you have learned to retreat in peace, you can now take the risk of going back on offense, with a new agenda: learning and using conflict management skills. This ongoing invitation will push your partner to either get in gear, or get out. How does this work?

It works because they can no longer bear living at close range when you are no longer taking their pain from them. Because they can’t bear the embarrassment when it becomes so obvious that they are the one not trying to get along, that they are the one who still can’t bear to live without the fight. The tide turns into the second half when you announce something like this:

“I am done with this fighting and this stand-off. I am going to resume communicating with you, but now, only in healthy ways that esteem us both. If you join me in this, we will solve our problems, and our mutual respect will soon enough give rise to new ways of relating, as husband and wife, or as co-parenting partners in divorce. To learn to express ourselves differently, we’ll need to pick a professional counselor (therapist or pastor) to train us. He or she will teach us to identify unhealthy messages, and to reframe them in positive ways.”

[How can you tell what’s healthy and what’s not? The simplest, most effective, and by far the best researched list of communication do’s and don’t’s is the one from John Gottman and Nan Silver. You can’t argue with solid research that proves what behaviors make people happy growing old with each other, and which ones lead to divorce. At last we know these two lists of behaviors. You can get Gottman and Silver’s book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, visit the website www.gottman.org., or I can send you two old columns I did describing the behaviors that will produce a happy marriage and the ones that will lead to divorce. One article describes the seven healthy behaviors that research has shown to resolve problems, and the other presents the eight unhealthy behaviors that put problems on steroids, including the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These habits are taught in the Bible, and my articles give biblical references for the behaviors. I recommend you choose one of many marital counselors in your area that will use those guidelines for teaching you both what you will and won’t do in communicating with each other. . . . Now back to what you will someday be ready to say to your spouse:]

“So we don’t argue over what is and isn’t a healthy expression of ourselves toward each other, in the spirit of Matthew 18: 15-17, we will certainly need a counselor to tell us. That way the counselor can blow the whistle on hurtful talk, coach us in kinder words, and think of compromises to make bridges between our conflicting needs and views.

“You are certainly welcome to suggest a different counselor, or a different time to meet, but until I hear that you have done so, to get the ball rolling toward a new partnership working toward new goals, I have made an appointment for us on ____ at _____ with _________ at ______(phone ______, website ______). Your decision to come will express your willingness to work with me on the goals above, to build a mutually respectful relationship that has more distance and less love between us (divorce), or else one that has more love and less distance (a good marriage). We’ll choose together which way we go. It will depend really on how compatible our values and beliefs turn out to be. At last we will clearly be able to state what we value and believe in, doing so within a caring atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

“Now if you don’t choose to embrace healthy communication with me, I will give you what your choice will be saying you want, a divorce. I know you wouldn’t be able respect yourself for staying married to a person you can’t respect or trust, so I will offer you a mediated divorce so that we can pursue that new distance respectfully as partners. If you choose not to come see this counselor, your absence will likewise signal you do not want to learn these things, and I will use the time to plan a better life for me and our children in light of this decision on your part. So we will both be choosing divorce, you by rejecting the chance for learning to get along, and me by rejecting the status quo.

“Understand that our getting a divorce will not end our hopes of ever being happily married together down the road. That will only happen after one of us dies or joins up with another mate. Divorce just means that we are breaking up our sexual and financial partnership so that we can both heal up, and decide how we want to get on with our lives. Whether these two new lives will ever fit back together in a new marriage only time will tell.

“We’ll use one professional to broker the terms of our divorce through mediation. Partnering in a respectful divorce will be better for us and our children than staying in a disrespectful marriage. Being from a broken home will be better for them than being in a broken home. They will be going between two households of peace instead of living with two parents at war.

“There is one more way we could settle our differences. We could each use an attorney to fight for us, argue our cases in court. This is how greedy, insecure, impatient, stupid people who love their children settle things, by hiring greedy, secure, patient, smart people (lawyers) who don’t give a rat’s tail about the children. These mercenaries act like they believe their clients are innocent victims of their guilty villain spouses, when they know down below the hard shells around their hearts that they will get the last laugh, as the professional villains who make us and our children their victims. This path would maximize the number of lies told, the time it takes to get things settled, the amount of money we pay out to professionals (it’s less money to pay counselors and a mediator), and most importantly, maximize the emotional damage done to our children and their parents.

“If you go this way, I will be forced to follow suit. We’ll both lose, we’ll all suffer for it, but all the blood will be on your hands. Just know that I forgive you in advance, because it’s not worth it to carry a grudge, not when I can abide in a state of never-ending grace. If you ever decide to join me, I know somebody else will have to lead you there. And I will always keep praying that someone will, because I will always love you enough to want you to find the good life.”

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.