Should I Remarry My Ex-Spouse?
If Not, How Can I Just Let Go?
Introduction: This week I am posting two letters from the same person. Almost
everyone who divorces has second thoughts during and after the divorce. When I help
couples restore their love for each other, these "second thoughts" are a distinct advantage
in keeping the couple together long enough for my program to take effect.
But occasionally, the divorce goes through before I have had a chance to intervene,
or before my program has a chance to work. In many of these cases, the "second thoughts"
bring the divorced couple back to me with a desire to reconcile. Does it work? Can a
divorced couple be happily re-married? Yes, I've seen it work many times, and I am
currently helping several couples achieve that objective.
But sometimes a divorced spouse simply needs to "let go." In these situations there
is no real hope for reconciliation, but the fantasy of a family made whole is so compelling,
that all other options are shunned. The false hope prevents an ex-spouse from getting on
with life and crucial opportunities are missed. Why do people seem to hang on long after
realistic hope is gone? Can they do something to break out of their self-made prison, and
escape to a normal life?
These two letters illustrate the anguish of someone who is torn between wanting her
family made whole, and wanting to save the rest of her life from what could be a hopeless
marriage. And they give me an opportunity to address a very common dilemma.
Dear Dr. Harley,
Where do I even begin? I had been married for 14 years until my divorce was final
last month, but I still feel SO married.
We have had a very rocky relationship. My husband first left 5 years into our
marriage and moved in with another woman, right after I had my first child. After 3
months he wanted to move back home and I agreed---actually was thrilled to death to keep
my marriage and family together. My friends and family had a much more difficult time
dealing with this than I. We sought counseling but it was not helpful.
Then, 4 years later, he moved out again and starting seeing another woman. This
too was temporary and I once again tried my best to forgive and forget. This time
counseling seemed to be more helpful. Alcohol and dishonesty were major factors in
creating our poor relationship so he attended AA and I attended AlAnon. In the end,
however, it wasn't effective.
I am not going to sit here and say alcohol and dishonesty were the only two factors
involved in the break up of this marriage. I have not always been supportive of his needs
and desires and he feels that I have not loved him unconditionally. I know that I have not
done all that I could do. But I did what I thought I should do at the time.
Now, we have been divorced for one month. It was a very nasty divorce that
included too many friends and family (and self-serving attorneys). I know that neither of
us really wanted the divorce but we don't know how to achieve the relationship we want.
Once again, he had another woman but admits it was a horrible mistake and regrets
it. Since the divorce he has asked me to see a counselor with him. But I have been so
exhausted from all of this that I refused. I told him that I needed to see some lasting
changes in "him" before I would consider working on "our" relationship. I told him that
I would agree to counseling if he would stop seeing other women. He refused to stop
dating, and so now I have to decide if it's worth the risk.
I feel that I am always the one negotiating his return and I am scared that I am
doing this because I can not face him being with someone else. I know that I love him and
he loves me but I am afraid that we are trying to hold on to something that just can not be
Do you think that there are marriages that are not repairable (even if both partners
are willing to stay together)? I feel like such a fool when most everyone (including family)
says, "Why are you even entertaining the thought of putting yourself back into a situation
that you are going to be hurt again? He has done this 3 times ---won't you ever learn?"
Well, I do feel pretty stupid sometimes but I can not help having this idealistic goal for my
marriage. My question is----- Have you ever seen anything this "twisted" repaired? Where
do we begin---if so!?
You had one of those marriages that when I hear about them, I heave a sigh. My
goal in life is to save all marriages, and none of them are easy. But the one you describe
is one of the most difficult.
However, I would have tried to save yours because your husband did not present
a physical threat to you. Granted, he was an emotional threat, capable of driving you (and
your family) nuts. And there are many marriage counselors who would tell you that you
did the right thing when you divorced him. But I would have tried to look at angles that
you may not have considered. One of your biggest problems to overcome is his addiction
to alcohol and other women. You were on the right track seeking help from Alcoholics
Anonymous and AlAnon, but those excellent programs do not save marriages. In fact, it's
been my experience that people in those programs tend to divorce.
What your ex is up against is that he has two entirely different approaches to life.
They are orchestrated by his Giver and Taker, who live miles apart in his mind. They are
so different that they make him almost two entirely different people.
On the one hand, he is the Giver, who never wants to hurt you, always wants to
meet your needs, wants to keep his family together, and is ashamed by his past
misbehavior. This is the side of him that you know loves you and that you want
But he is also the Taker: Self-centered, self-absorbed, and wanting nothing of you,
except for you to watch your child while he is out drinking and/or out with another
woman. It's his Taker that ruins your marriage, because it operates with no thought for
Incidentally, whenever he tells you that you should love him unconditionally, it's
his Taker that's doing the talking. The Taker wants to be loved unconditionally, because
it doesn't want to do anything to earn your love. His Giver would never want you to love
him unconditionally. In fact, it would tell you to find someone else, because he's not
worthy of you.
He represents an extreme form of what we all have within us. We all have Givers
and Takers, and the solution to marital problems is to integrate them both into our
marriages. The approach I would take to counseling you and your husband is to work on
We would hit those two topics unmercifully until you learned to negotiate in the interest
of both of your Takers (which is what the Policy of Joint
Agreement does), and also learned to be incredibly honest with each other.
I would encourage you not to require nor accept any sacrifices from each other,
because that would mean that one of you gains at the other's expense. When your Givers
offer anything to save the marriage, I would suggest that you ask, "how do you feel about
doing that?" Unless you would be "enthusiastic," a reaction that only the Taker can make,
we would look for other solutions.
In a moment of unabashed honesty, your ex-husband's Taker might tell you that no
program will ever work for him, because he will never want it to work. He may tell you
that he fully intends to have short relationships with other women the rest of his life. He
gets tired of being with one woman, especially you, and must simply take a "vacation"
once in a while. He might also tell you that he intends to drink whenever he wants, and
he likes to get drunk. The two, drinking and finding another woman, usually go together.
If in these most honest moments, he confesses that nothing you or anyone else does will
prevent him from doing what he enjoys the most, he might just be telling you something
that's been true all along: Your marriage cannot be saved.
However, if in his most honest moments he thinks he may be able to control his impulses
under certain conditions, and he knows what those conditions are, then it's a matter of
seeing if those conditions can be put in place.
Your family would shoot me to suggest that your marriage can be saved, but
technically, it can be. The trick is for your husband to come to you as an integrated person,
both his Giver and Taker taking you as his wife. To be integrated, we must negotiate with
our Giver and Taker to come to an agreement that satisfies them both. My book,
Fall in Love, Stay in Love,
will help you create that integrated person in both of you. I'd suggest you read it together.