Can A Marriage Be Saved By One Spouse? (Part 1)

Letter #1

Dear Dr. Harley,

I have just read your book, His Needs Her Needs, but my husband is not interested in reading the book or going to counseling. His theory is that things will get better on their own. After 12 years they are not getting better ---- they are getting worse. I feel very alone in this marriage but will not give up on it just yet.

My question is can counseling and self help books help a marriage when only one of the partners are willing to try these resources?

N.R.

Dear N.R.,

I'll answer your question at the end of this letter. But first allow me to make a few observations about your situation. While your letter is short, the answer is long. Please bear with me as I try to be as concise as possible.

It is very likely that your husband is not suffering as much as you are. In fact, the marriage from his perspective may be downright enjoyable. That would explain why he seems to have the patience of Job.

You and your husband may be in disagreement over how to spend money, raise your children, what to do on weekends or any of a host of other issues. You may find that he tends to get his way on these issues and you have had to put up with it.

Or you may not be getting your emotional needs met. Perhaps he does not talk to you the way he did when you fell in love with him. He may have stopped being affectionate years ago, and yet wants you to submit to his sexual advances. He may not even be home very often, leaving you to care for your children alone.

Or you may be suffering from ridicule, demands, dishonesty or even abuse by your spouse. He may have become rude and insensitive, or he may have become a tyrant, someone who you have come to fear.

Whatever it is that is making you unhappy in your marriage, you are probably more unhappy about it than your husband is. That's the key to why he doesn't seem as interested as you in resolving your marital problems.

People in your position try, usually for years, to get their spouses' attention. Those that complain often feel guilty about complaining, and their spouses often remind them that they should be grateful for what they do, instead of being critical of what they don't do. So these people learn to say less and less as the problems becomes greater and greater. Some people never do complain because they don't want to be perceived as critical an unappreciative. But in the end, the marital conflicts take their toll -- they lose the feeling of love for their spouses.

When that happens, the person gives up. He or she comes to the conclusion that the spouse will not change and that they must get used to the idea of living without care or consideration. Some of these people remain married for the sake of their values or children, but they remain emotionally distant from their spouses to minimize their pain. Others leave their spouses for someone else who has offered to meet their needs. Still others simply leave, because they find it less painful to be alone and out of the marriage than alone in the marriage.

When a person comes to me asking, "can one spouse save a marriage," my answer is a qualified "yes." I see one spouse saving a marriage almost every week. The way it's done is that the one spouse teaches the other spouse how to negotiate fairly. It takes patience and understanding to get to the point where they learn enough about marital negotiation to resolve their conflicts. However, many of the people I counsel lack the patience. They have lost their love for their spouses, and have very little motivation to save the marriage.

N.R., you can still save your marriage, but you don't seem to have much motivation left. Before long you will have lost your love for your husband and convinced yourself that it's not worth saving. You will probably leave your husband for good.

But before your marriage gets to that point, there is something you can do. Your husband may not be willing to read books or see counselors, but he may be willing to learn from you how to resolve marital problems. If you can figure it out, he may let you teach him.

My Basic Concepts section on this web site will give you many of the tools you'll need to resolve your conflicts. He doesn't need to read them if you can explain them to him. In my last Q&A column I offered some guidelines to help negotiate an enthusiastic agreement. It doesn't hurt to repeat them again here:

  1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe: a) try to be pleasant and cheerful through your discussion of the issue, b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
  2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your husband. Be able to state the other spouse's position before you go on to find a solution.
  3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon. Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like. You'll have a chance to do that later.
  4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you. And if your brainstorming has not given you an answer that you can enthusiastically agree upon, go back to brainstorming.

On this web site, I have two questionnaires that can help you -- the Love Busters Questionnaire and the Emotional Needs Questionnaire. Copy both and try to get your husband to fill them out. You fill them out too, and see if you can get your husband to agree to swap assignments. Agree to avoid certain Love Busters if he avoids certain Love Busters. Agree to do a better job meeting his needs in exchange for his doing a better job meeting your needs.

If you need special encouragement and guidance through this process, the Marriage Builders Counseling Center can help. (1-888-639-1639, toll free).

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