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When Divorce is Not the Only Option

What follows is an attempt to write what might happen if a couple were court ordered for an attempt at reconciliation.  A friend of mine asked me to do this.  It is a little long for a blog but you might enjoy the story:

A couple, the Stirlings, are sitting in front of me for their first session after being court ordered by Judge Zenas to see me in order to determine if their marriage is “irretrievably broken” or some such legal nonsense. I guess it means something like there is no chance in Hades these two, or at least one of them, is capable of being together. Well, that will be my working definition and it is my office so I get to make the law here, even if it is only about 120 sq ft. But the Judge wants my opinion, “can this marriage be saved?”, is there some chance these two people might make it together?”

On the surface of things, any reasonable person could conclude that this relationship is over. Mr. Stirling has found a new lover and has moved in with her. So what is his deal? I have been trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) that has a research documented success rate over the last 20 years or so of 73% of couples who go through the entire course of treatment are still with each other. At least for the ones I have seen and successfully treated, they are not only still with each other but have formed and are continuing to form a secure emotional bond, the bedrock of a lasting marriage. That is EFT talk for they learned what it takes to love each other and Mr. Stirling is most likely seeking that emotional attachment that makes him feel valued, accepted, understood, cared for, and well, loved. It is the same thing Mrs. Stirling is looking for, and that you and I and everyone on the planet needs and desires.

So what is Mr Stirling’s story about how loved ones like parents, past relationships, and especially his wife have responded to these emotional attachment needs? I am not looking at what Mr. Stirling says or does to get that answer, I am listening to the music of his emotions. Boy that sounds sappy but it is true. EFT is following the wisdom and logic of emotions and they tell a story of where the significant people in our lives, like mothers, fathers, and lovers have either been there for us at critical moments or let us down when it counted most to us. In other words, is there emotional deprivation? Did they experience a profound and painful experience of being alone and on their own? Did the person they were most dependent and trustful of abandon them at that moment of need?

Mr. Stirling’s emotions tell his story and most likely it is a story he does not even know. He just knows he does not like it, it feels bad, or rather she, Mrs Stirling feels bad to be around. And his new girlfriend feels good to be around, and it is not just about having sex, it is about how this relationship makes him feel, hopeful for someone to be there for him, someone to love him. I have found that when you can help someone understand their own emotional music their story comes rolling out and there is a profound sense of “yes that is what I am experiencing, it really is like that”. Maybe for the first time they begin to understand their experience of hurt and disappointment and not be driven by it like a lamb to slaughter.

Maybe Mr. Stirling’s experience is something like this and there is a place within him that longs for meaningful connection and maybe there is a chance his wife can become that for him and him for her? This is the hope that EFT can bring to couples and it is my job to help them realize that hope is still there, within their heart. It is always amazing to me how powerful the bond of marriage can be, how almost everyone I see really wants their marriage to work, they really just don’t know how. Can I find a soft place still within Mr. Stirling that longs for his wife to be that person? If this is so, then in my opinion this marriage is retrievable.

One of the significant and positive things that Mr. Stirling brings to the table is his love for his 5 year old son Noah. He is experiencing what looks like an attached, bonded relationship with his son. This is a place to start helping Mr. Stirling shift his perspective about adult relationships. This might be an opening to touch his soft place. He already knows what attachment is like, not simply as an idea but as a lived experience, and it comes in the person of his son. What we now understand is that adult love is still an attachment relationship not too unlike how we attach as children and parents. It gives me a place to help him understand that what he experiences with his son is similar to what he can experience with his wife and probably has experienced earlier in their relationship. Anyone that can attach to a child is capable of attaching with an adult. EFT can provide a roadmap to find that again. Will Mr. Stirling believe me and allow me to help? This really is the first determining factor of therapy. Does someone feel safe enough and confident enough in me, the therapist, to give reconciliation a shot?

What about Mrs. Stirling? Might there not be some problem with her that makes it impossible or impracticable for Mr. Stirling to stay with her? Short of an abusive relationship, there usually is nothing really “wrong” with anyone when it comes to love bonding. Couples get caught up in a dance of self protection, what EFT calls a fight cycle or demon dialogue, and never really feels safe enough to be open about what they need. Again, this is what we really want, to have someone we can turn to, be there for us, be responsive and engaged with us and take our needs seriously, and this fight cycle is the enemy of that, not the other person. Can Mr. and Mrs. Stirling get this? It is not my partner that is the problem, or that we just “don’t have that loving feeling anymore” but the way we move in our emotional dance with each other that is the problem.

Wow what a monumental shift in perspective this is. Will this couple that is court ordered to me be receptive enough to see this new light on what relationship is really like? I have three hours of sit down time to find out.

I spend a significant amount of effort with the Stirlings listening to their story. Mrs. Stirling is expressive of her emotional pain and distress at being left, feeling unwanted and rejected. Her pain is palpable, “Why am I not what he wants? He pushes me away every time. I am just trying to get him to listen to me.” I ask what that is like for her, and she says: “It makes me angry” and I can see it in her face and body posture. “Why aren’t you responding to me” her anger screams but all her husband sees is her anger, not her hurt and pain, her need for his presence in this moment. In her anger and distress other accusations fly “How can you do this to our children? How can you leave them?”

All Mr. Stirling experiences is her anger, her criticism and contempt. He cannot hear or experience her vulnerability of feeling left and abandoned in those moments when she is alone and afraid. She does not feel safe enough to be vulnerable and probably only knows to self protect with anger so she just escalates louder and louder, pounding harder and harder pushing for a response from him that says: “I’m in this with you.”

I turn to Mrs. Stirling and say: “Can we slow this down a little bit?” touching her shoulder to reassure her that I hear her. She sits back in her seat looking at me with pain in her face but resigned to stand down. She has decided to give me a chance. I turn to Mr. Stirling and ask him: “What is this like for you when she gets upset like this?” “I can’t stand it, what’s the point? All she does is tell me what’s wrong me.”, he says. “So do you feel like a failure, like you do not measure up, aren’t good enough for her?”, I ask. He says: “I don’t know, it just makes me feel bad.” “So you just want to get away, withdraw and get out of this?”, I respond. “Yes” Mr. Stirling replies, “I just shutdown, give up. What’s the point?” “Yes”, I say, “I can see that. The safest thing for you to do is shutdown, withdraw from her and put up walls.” His head nods in agreement and he slumps in his chair, a posture of defeat.

I ask both of them if this is what their communication is like, is this typical of what happens in every fight they have? They both nod in agreement and Mrs. Stirling says: “This is where we end up every time.” “This is why I finally just had to leave, Mr. Stirling says. “I just can’t take it anymore.” “And then you met someone else?”, I say. “Someone who felt safe, listened to you, not so difficult to connect with. Someone that you felt no need to run from?” “Yes”, Mr. Stirling replies looking at his wife.

“Yes, this is what we all need, you, your wife, me.”, I say. “We want someone to accept us, understand us, let us be who we are, what we are feeling, experiencing. And the moment we don’t experience the most important person in our life being there, being with us in this moment of need it feels like rejection or abandonment, or disappointment or failure. This is what separation is, what it feels like and all of a sudden we feel alone. We might not be able to put words to it but this is what it is. “I am alone, no one is here for me” and we either run away or fight harder to get a response from the most important person in our life, our lover, our spouse, the one that is supposed to be there ‘in sickness and in health’, to never abandon or degrade us. And if we have had this happen before with parents or other loved ones our brain operates in such a way that when something in the moment, in the present, is similar to a previous painful experience, our brain fills in the gaps and says: “this is like that” and it immediately goes into the fight/flight response as responding to a threat, hence the fight cycle.

The thing is we can learn to change all that. We can learn to slow down our emotional response to threat, even emotional threats, and learn to pay attention to our emotions so that we begin to know what we need. EFT can help do this, it can help you know what your emotion is and what you need and how to ask for what you need from your partner in a way that is not threatening but understanding and doable. We can become vulnerable and therefore accessible to our partner.

Mr. Stirling, it is just like how you are with your children. When they get upset do you shutdown and withdraw or do you take their emotion into your self and stay engaged with them, trying to understand what in world is going on? Do you desire to help them, to be there for them? (Mr. Stirling is nodding in agreement) Of course you do, you love them, and you soften, not getting caught up in your own emotional response, but in theirs, maybe not all the time but most of the time, especially Noah. Well, your wife and your older children need the same thing. As do you and me.

The thing about withdrawers, those who shutdown in the face of emotional threat like you do, Mr. Stirling is that they often don’t feel good enough. They get overwhelmed and kind of stuck, unable to figure out how to respond. Over the years of a marriage they try and try and try until they finally give up, feeling hopeless to ever say the right thing or do the right thing to make your wife happy.

What is that like for you? Is there any emotion associated with that, like maybe sadness?” Mr. Stirling replies: “Yes I do feel sad and it makes me uncomfortable.” “Yes”, I say. “And what do you think sad means for you? What’s it like to feel that sadness?” “It is a little scary,” he says. “Yes”, I say, and “what do you think a scared person needs? Think of Noah, what does he need from you when he is scared?” Mr. Stirling replies: “He needs me to hold him, to reassure him.” “Right”, I say, “and you need the same thing.”

I wonder if you would look at your wife right now? What do you see? She has her eyes on you, with a look of surprise, like something is new here, like something she hasn’t seen before or in a long time. Does this look threaten you or is it more inviting?” “What do you mean,” he asks me. I turn to Mrs. Stirling and ask her: “Would you mind telling your husband what you see, what this is like for you?’ “ I see a look of sadness on his face and it breaks my heart,” she says. “I don’t want him to feel that way, I don’t want to be the cause of that. I am so sorry.”

M r Stirling does not know what to do with this. Can I really trust that she means this? That maybe she cares? I can see the expression on his face, incredulous, disbelieving but with an awareness that she is not being insincere.

“You guys just had a connecting moment, a moment that secure attachment and bonding is built on. You saw each other, you were more open and vulnerable, willing to feel and express, just like we do with our children. I assume it felt good, maybe a spark of hope was kindled. I know there is a long way to go, many moments of wounding that need to be repaired for both of you. I know there is another person involved, another relationship that would have to be dealt with. I know that EFT can help and that couples that go through the whole course of treatment can find each other again. EFT understands adult love and bonding, there are definable steps and stages to it, including working through forgiveness. I wonder if you would be willing to consider this as an option before going through with your divorce? You can always get divorced, you don’t even have to take it off the table, it can be postponed. It is my opinion that there is enough to work with here, between you two, and worth the risk to see if meeting with me, going through EFT may save your marriage and your family. What do you say?”

Judge Zenas has asked me to give him an opinion in writing whether or not I think this marriage is irretrievably broken. After what I have observed today, your relationship is not broken beyond repair and I will say that to the Judge. No one can make you repair the relationship but I have seen enough to think that you can. “

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