I have been counseling couples for 35 years. Quite often individuals come in for help wondering if it is really possible to save or improve their relationship. Perhaps their partner is totally uninterested in working on the relationship. Perhaps their partner is an alcoholic or drug addict. What are their chances of saving their relationship?
Since two people always get together at their common level of woundedness, here is what I say to the partner who has sought my help: “As long as you choose to remain in this relationship, there are things for you to learn. Each partner contributes their 100% to the relationship. While it is often easy to see what your partner is doing that is harmful to the relationship, it is often difficult to see what you are doing. Yet until you learn about your part in this relationship system, you will take your own dysfunctional behavior with you into another relationship. It’s generally a waste of time – unless there is physical abuse – to leave a relationship before healing your own end of the system. The time to leave is when you have learned to make yourself happy regardless of what your mate is doing. When you learn to take 100% responsibility for your own feelings and needs, and if your partner is still behaving in ways that are unacceptable to you, then it’s time to leave. You need to discover how to respond to your partner in ways that are loving to yourself and that support your own joy and highest good.”
When the partner who is available to counseling does his or her inner work, one of two things happen. Either the other partner likes what is happening and becomes more open, or the relationship becomes more distant and difficult. I tell my clients that it is a 50-50 deal – half the time things get better and half the time they get worse. They need to be okay with either outcome. If fact, I encourage them to let go of the outcome and just be in the process of learning how to take loving care of themselves.
Let’s take some examples. Craig is unhappy in his marriage because his wife, Gloria, is often angry and judgmental toward him. Craig sees himself as the victim of Gloria’s unloving behavior, blaming her for his unhappiness. However, Craig is a equal part of the relationship system. He generally reacts to Gloria’s anger with compliance, giving himself up in his covert attempt to control Gloria’s anger. He believes that being a “nice guy” will control her feelings and behavior. So, while Gloria is attempting to overtly control Craig, Craig is attempting to covertly control Gloria. Until Craig starts to speak his truth rather than give himself up as his form of control, he will feel resentful and distant with Gloria. If he has the courage to take loving care of himself by speaking his total truth without blame or judgment, and take loving action for himself based on his truth, then either things will get better or they will get worse. The only way Craig will be able to be honest and take care of himself is if he is willing to lose Gloria rather than continue to lose himself.
Marilyn is married to Martin, a non-abusive functioning alcoholic. The problem for Marilyn is that when Martin drinks, which is every night, he completely disconnects from her and she feel very lonely with him. She’s tried in many ways to get Martin to connect to her, but nothing has worked. Most nights, Marilyn just watches TV, feeling sad and alone.
Until Marilyn decides to do whatever she needs to do to make herself happy, nothing will change. If she decides to take classes, get together with friends, join a support group or go to Alanon, she will no longer be a victim of Martin’s decision to withdraw through alcohol. If Marilyn continues to take care of herself over a time – six months to a year – and nothing changes, then she can decide to leave. Or, she can decide to stay and just continue making herself happy. The possibility also exist that when Marilyn stops pulling on Martin to make her happy, he may decide to deal with himself rather than be left alone most of the time.
Can this relationship be helped? Maybe. Do your own inner work and find out!