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I Thought Things Would Work Out!

When a marriage or long-term relationship ends, it seldom comes out of nowhere. There are usually years of clues, sometimes very loud clues, like yelling, screaming, and crying. Sometimes more subtle clues, like withdrawing, ignoring your partner’s concerns, minimizing your partner's feelings, and subtle jabs at their character, indicate that something isn't quite right. These behaviors may lead to an on-going pattern that the couple struggles to get out of. Each partner tries to insist that their way, or their perception is the right perception, and this often leads to more fighting.

Over-time, one person becomes exhausted by the partner’s inability to change and may want to go to counseling to address the marital issues. The other person may not want to go to counseling, or they may agree to go out of a desire to appease their partner. In some of these situations, by the time the couple comes in for marital counseling, both are overwhelmed with the lack of change in the other and and both continue to act out their patterns in therapy.

Many couples hold unreasonable expectations about themselves and their relationship - and many assume that the therapist will fix the other person. To the surprise of many couples I work with, I often validate that fighting is a normal part of any relationship. At a surface level, certain clues such as how the couple fights, motives for wanting to address issues in marriage and willingness to change are some clues that can help a couple begin to understand and change negative dynamics in their relationship.

The reasons behind why couples fight are many and according to The Gottman’s, couples experience perpetual problems and solvable problems. Perpetual problems are when the couple is arguing about the same thing just in different ways. For instance, a couple who is fighting about whether or not to buy a new car, is often seldom about actually buying a new car and more specifically about the meaning of finances that each partner has. These clues can be easy to miss because most people have not taken the time to understand the importance of money to them individually and the importance of money to their spouse. At times, we are often too busy making a living, to work on building a life.

At times, couples and individuals who have recently divorced or separated seek counseling reactively as opposed to actively hoping to save their relationship. Depending on the willingness of the partners and the extent of their problems, most people can see improvement in the quality of their relationships over time. I am always direct and honest with my clients concerning what my role is and what their role is in regards to what can and cannot be accomplished in couples or individual counseling.

During my first assessment of a couple or individual, I always inquire about the history of their relationship (s), family upbringing, friendships, and dating history to get a better perspective of them as humans. Often, there are clues that predicted their current predicament, which others could see, or their spouse observed and shared, but which they ignored. Women who struggle to feel heard in relationships often result in verbal threats of leaving the relationship as their only known tool to try to bring about change in their spouse. At times, their partner may feel resentful of these attempts, may internalize them as attempts at being controlled and may unconsciously ignore the spouse thinking to themselves “things will just work out”.

As a couples and individual therapist, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard newly separated or divorced clients say, “I just thought things would work out.” I get it! Many of us are not taught how to process conflict in a mature way, and we inevitably rely on what we have seen in our families of origin, from movies and peers, to make sense of a complex dynamic. I empathize wholeheartedly with this statement, and the regret and pain experienced are heartfelt and torturous. Depending on the depths of the emotional wound, it can take several years to process feelings of grief, loss and abandonment that inevitably surface, especially if the partner files for a Divorce or wants a separation. This often introduces a different level of pain that now has to be processed.

Whilst I understand the sentiment that someone might hope that issues in their relationship “just work out”, this is often an indication of what I call “fairy-tale thinking”. Many individuals struggle with knowing how to communicate in a relationship and may feel inadequate to admit they don’t know how to solve their relationship problems, or may feel shut-down by their partner whenever they have tried to share their feelings. Over time, one or both begin to fantasize about a different type of relationship, and this can put stress on the marriage. In many cases of infidelity, one spouse felt repeatedly ignored, dismissed and invalidated despite repeated attempts to solve the problem and tried to have their needs met by going outside of the marriage. These decisions often have long-term consequences and change the dynamics of the relationship. It is possible for some individuals to heal and recover from the betrayal of an affair, and at times, it is best for each partner to heal and end the relationship.

Relationship problems are seldom solved through manipulation tactics or magical thinking. Often, each partner has to be willing to change and to understand the dynamic forces at work individually and collectively. This process can look like peeling away at an onion, until you get to the core of the issues and is not for the faint-of-heart or for those who believe in what I call “instant fix-itis”. The quality of each partner’s thinking about how the relationship issues are to be solved are powerful clues into understanding where the hard work of healing needs to begin. Reality can be the sexiest and most rewarding part of rebuilding a relationship with a secure foundation versus one built on sand. In many relationships be it parent- adult child, spouse, employer-employee, or peers, these relationships almost always go through periods of change, where one member of the dyad is growing and changing and the other doesn’t understand why things need to change. All relationships require effort, which consist of patience, resources and mutually changed behavior. The willingness and extent to which either partner is willing to change is often a good clue into whether one needs to walk-away or stay the course.

In 2022, The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average time Americans spent working, playing and parenting. I found this data revealing and interesting because most Americans worked an average of 7 hours a day and On an average day, nearly everyone aged 15 and over (95 percent) engaged in some sort of leisure and sport activity, such as watching TV, socializing, or exercising. Men spent more time in these activities than did women (5.6 hours, compared with 4.8 hours).

I am curious as to how much leisure time was focused on improving the quality of the relationships they are in.

In my practice, inevitably problems with romantic relationships will come up, and my clients often say, "Veronica, there’s no manual for this stuff,” or “I wasn’t taught this stuff in school.” The reality is that we may not have been formally taught, but most of us learned how to be in a relationship by what we saw in our own families, on television and by watching fairy-tales. It is not impossible to have a fairy-tale type relationship, if both individuals are willing to work towards change. If a relationship is to succeed, it is directly determined by one question “How important is it to you to invest time into your partner, yourself, and your family” and “What are you willing to do differently?”.

I leave you with a question: “When was the last time you checked in with your spouse about his or her thoughts or feelings?” There are no magic bullets, no fairy god-mothers or fairy god-fathers, but there is a beauty, grace and deep intimacy that comes with being realistic about how one shows up in the relationship. If you want your partner to change, are you willing to also?

***

On a personal note, I wanted to share that you are not alone and that all of us at one point or another practiced "fairy-tale thinking" in a relationship. 

As a teenager, I remember being fascinated by love. I loved the imaginary feeling of romantic love without understanding what that word even meant. I remember being in our family living room talking about my ideas of “being in love”; when my father’s colleague, and a woman who had become a friend of the family said, “you are in love with love!”. I remember thinking, “what does that mean?” and continued to twirl to the soundtrack of "whistle while you work".

Years later, after suffering a broken heart, her words, like a seed, broke through my mind and I was reminded that fairy tales don't exist, and that as much as I might have wanted a relationship to work out, sometimes they end.

I came through those experiences having a deeper sense of my worth, a growing understanding of God’s true love, and a deeper respect for reality. I understood that I might like “things to just work out,” as though I could wave a magic wand, and everything would be perfect. However, reality taught me that I must first know the person in the mirror and be willing to work on tough issues so that I might have the real fantasy.

Today, my relationships are more thoughtful, and I am crystal clear with my boundaries – most days - it really is about “progress not perfection”. Being hurt sucks, and going through a betrayal of any kind takes time to heal. I was able to heal with the help of friends, faith, and family, and I now work with others to help them recover from betrayal trauma.

If your partner, parent, or friend is not ready or willing to deal with their side of the street, it is incumbent on you to learn how to take care of your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Dear reader, things don’t just work out - as much as we would like them to. We must be willing to invest time in working on our side of the street as we would in our careers and anything else that is meaningful to us. I hope you will reach out to find out how we can work together.

If you would like to know more about how I can help you navigate relationships and better understand yourself, schedule an appointment or email [email protected] for more information. I look forward to walking with you.

A word on intimate partner violence

This article does not address intimate partner violence and the subject is beyond the scope of this article.

However, if you are in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship or unsure, please know there is help available below.

Intimate partner violence is serious, and you are never at fault for being abused. If you are the abuser, there is help for you. Please see the resources below.

Couples counseling is usually not recommended if you are living with active physical abuse. To know more, please contact resources below or schedule a free consultation with me for more information.

If you are a Christian woman or man struggling in an abusive relationship, please know this is not God’s plan for you!. God’s love casts out all fear, and love is never twisted or forced! I can help with individual counseling.

Resources

If you need help to get out of an abusive situation

Call the national domestic hotline at 800. 799.SAFE (7233)

If you need help to stop abusing help is available 24/7

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