Long ago, you gazed at your partner-to-be, vowing, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Now… years later, do you feel the same? Knowing what you know now, having lived through years of fights, sulks, bad colds, in-law intrusions, illnesses, disappointments, maybe even affairs, would you still marry your partner?
Maybe you’re thinking, “Yes, you bet. We’ve weathered our share of hurt, but I’d still say ‘I do.'”
Yet others may be admitting, “No, definitely not. I wish I’d realized what I was getting myself into. I love our kids, but had no idea how hard marriage was going to be.”
There’s much sadness in that word “no.”
A couple who would answer “yes” turn toward one another…
Let’s talk about a couple I saw whom I’ll call Jack and Dana; their story has remained etched in my heart and mind.
Jack was in his early 70’s, Dana a bit younger. He was going blind from diabetes, and only had a few months before he would completely lose his sight. His military career had mandated their moving constantly as a family. He’d been professionally successful; she’d been a stay-at-home mom but now worked part-time in a job she loved.
Jack was gruff and dominating, but likable. Dana was more subdued, but with a sparkle in her eye.
At first, I didn’t understand all of what had brought them to therapy. They laughed and joked around. We focused on the pragmatics of what would need to happen when Jack’s vision was completely lost. Their children didn’t live close by, so they would face the bulk of this transition alone.
I urged them to do what’s called “anticipatory grieving;” knowing something inevitable is going to happen and grieving about it in advance. This kind of grieving, especially when done together, offers a way for a couple to support the difficulty of the change for both people.
But my gut felt as if something was being avoided. So I decided to talk with each of them them privately.
My gut was right.
Two stories from two partners…. “turning toward”
The day I saw Jack alone, he stumbled on his words, sounding quite different than before. His bravado had disappeared; what was left was sadness. And fear.
He shook his head slowly back and forth, as he explained, “I know I dominated the family. I didn’t know how to be any other way. It’s how my dad was, and his dad. Dana made her life about me and what I wanted. Until I saw how much she adores her job now, I never considered the fact that she hadn’t followed any of her own dreams. I knew she’d had them when we first met, but we never talked about them after our first child was born. Now I see I was selfish, self-centered. I want her forgiveness, but I’ve never been good with words.”
He paused for a minute.
“I know she’ll say she forgives me. She’s like that. But I have to be able to see her face, to know if she really means it. And yet, I’m scared to ask.”
Next I met with Dana. Her words were striking not only in their candor, but also how they mirrored Jack’s.
”I allowed Jack to dominate our relationship. And I had my reasons. I was insecure about doing anything but being a mom. My friends didn’t have careers and my mother, who was quite the martyr, criticized me for even thinking about it. I also knew that underneath that hard exterior, Jack counted on me. He needed me, whether he knew it or not. It’s not that I wasn’t really mad sometimes. I felt unappreciated for sure. But I didn’t speak up — ever.”
Apology and acceptance…
The next session, I asked Jack if he were ready to reveal what he’d talked about with me. And I watched as he tearfully apologized. There were tears in my eyes as well, as I heard Dana forgive him.
She sounded, and looked, like she meant it. She told him of her own insecurity and the shameful messages her mother had given her about wanting anything other than children.
So why did this conversation work? What were Jack and Dana doing that others struggle with?
Julie and John Gottman, famous marital therapists and researchers, would call what Jack did “turning toward” Dana. Since she did the same, healing occurred. .
Jack and Dana had an understanding of how they’d interacted — how their strengths and their vulnerabilities had been interwoven throughout their life together. They were taking responsibility for their own actions. They were admitting their role in a problem. They were turning toward one another.
It may not be too late to turn toward your partner …
If you realize you’ve hurt or disappointed your partner, ask for their understanding or forgiveness. It’s not too late to build a more intimate bond. It requires vulnerability. It takes courage. You have to risk understanding and accepting their perspective, rather than arguing about the “truth.”
That apology — that acknowledgment of your role in in what went wrong or was painful – can be a first step toward making the answer to that question… “yes.”
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Originally published January 7, 2017 ; updated and republished on February 14, 2024.