One of the seeming discoveries from this pandemic has been increased clarity about the state of your primary relationship. The two of you have had to face loss, ambiguity, fear, financial strain, difficult parenting decisions, all while spending much more time together than perhaps ever before.
Long ago, you gazed at your partner-to-be and said, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” But maybe now… your attitude has changed.
So… if you knew then what you know now, would you still marry your partner?
Some of you are certainly thinking, “Yes.” That’s wonderful! I feel the same.
But others of you are admitting to themselves, “No.”
What the difference between those who answer each way?
A couple who would answer “yes” turn toward one another…
Let’s talk about a couple I saw many years ago 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 through the years. 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 could no longer see.. Their children didn’t live close by, so they would face the bulk of this transition alone. This process is called”anticipatory grieving;” knowing something inevitable is going to happen and grieving about it in advance – together.
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 and 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 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 she had our first child. 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.”
Julie and John Gottman, famous marital therapists and researchers, would call what Jack wants to do – “turning toward” Dana. If she does the same, then healing can occur. Jack wanted my help to be vulnerable and form those words and how he felt shame for his impact on her.
Then I met alone with Dana. Her words were striking not only in their candor and insight, but also because they mirrored Jack’s.
”I allowed Jack to dominate our relationship. There were 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 Jack 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?
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.
The couple who would say “no” have turned away …
If your answer is “no,” you wouldn’t marry them again, then that knowledge is likely reflected in your everyday life. You may be bitter or detached. You may blame them for your unhappiness. You may feel cheated or like life’s been unfair. You may be lonely. If you’ve been abused, you may have struggled to find the strength and the courage to leave, and are simply trying to survive.
There’s so much sadness in that answer of “no.”
If you realize you’ve hurt or disappointed your partner, it’s never too late to turn toward them — to ask for their understanding or forgiveness — 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.”
But 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.”
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published January 7, 2017 ; updated and republished on January 14, 2022.