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Marriages Don't Fail - 3/2/2012

Whether you’re planning to get married, were recently married, or have been married most of your life,  you need to hear this story.

Butch and Shirley divorced eight years ago.  Butch had an affair, which he hardly attempted to hide.  When Shirley finally recognized its existence, she became tremendously angry and vitriolic. As a result, their divorce was far from amicable. Still, they were forced to interact with one another because of their then five year old son.

Butch and Shirley are good people.  They’re attractive, educated individuals who are successful in their own right. But, emotionally, they both feel inadequate and highly needy of approval.  Those feelings were there long before their marriage.  Sadly, however, “when you don’t feel you’re worth much, you have nothing of worth to share with a partner.” As a result, both of you wind up feeling neglected and unloved.  

From childhood on, Shirley saw herself as an ill-treated, emotionally abused individual.  That explains why she accepted Butch’s criticisms regarding her shortcomings and lack of loving behavior toward  him. His actions, however, did little to change that.  Quite the contrary, it caused her to build an even larger wall around herself,  which resulted in his increased rage over her perceived rejection.  

Ironically, they both  wanted the same thing, but the way they asked for it only resulted in alienation and rejection. Later in their lives, it contributed to his having an affair and to her  making the decision to end the marriage without counseling or understanding regarding where they were coming from.  

Over the years following their divorce, their anger mitigated.  They learned to be flexible concerning visitation and respected each other’s boundaries insofar as what took place when they were with their child.  So much so that, seven years later, Shirley called him regarding problems she had with a boyfriend.  Butch, likewise, asked her to come to therapy with him, to discuss how these issues might affect their child.  But, neither was the primary motive for their requests. Instead, they were fishing expeditions, designed to test where the other person was emotionally.  Over time, they started having dinners together with their son, which later led to them dating.  

In the process, they became closer and closer, until a holiday weekend when the three of them went to a family reunion.  It was somewhat awkward, but they were excited and happy to be together.  During the weekend, a group decided to go to a favorite country restaurant.  They all piled into Butch’s suv. On the way back, Shirley shouted, “Watch out for that object in the road”, but it was too late. Butch ran over it, punctured a tire and, in his mind’s eye, heard a thousand voices issuing from the occupants of the car.  “Pull over to the side of the road.  Get the spare out.” “Call the ranch for help.”  “Why didn’t you look where you were going?  I told you to watch out.”, etc., etc.  Frustrated and totally embarrassed, he shouted, “All of you, get out.  Walk back to the ranch.  I’ll fix the flat and meet you there.”  His voice was vitriolic and threatening.  So much so that adults and kids alike leaped from the car and began to walk back to the ranch. Thirty minutes after they arrived, he came in the door.  It was evident that he was angry and he retreated to his room.  Shirley tried to coax him out of the bedroom, but his response was, “You don’t need me. You always have something to say that’s critical, fault-finding and demeaning. I don’t need it or you.”  In retort, she said, “You haven’t changed.  Therapy didn’t help you.  I’m glad I divorced you.”

During a later family therapy session, their son described the situation more honestly than either of them.  He was clear, succinct and unbiased when he stated, “They were both at fault.  That’s what I was afraid would happen. That’s why their marriage failed.”  My response was, “I totally agree with you regarding blame, but marriages never fail.  Marriage is an institution. When it’s run right, it can thrive. When it’s run by emotional children, it experiences childish results.”

What always fails are the people running them.  Butch and Shirley aren’t bad people, although watching their behavior certainly suggests that they aren’t very mature. That’s because their actions, in this instance, stemmed from the little wounded child inside them, who is also inside every one of you. At the same time, they and each of you have the capacity  to be effective communicators and lovers when you behave out of the adult in you.  Unfortunately, in times of stress, that adult often disappears and the child looms up, larger than an Indian rubber ball.  

There’s an old adage I recall from my youth that says, “The most dangerous part of an automobile is the nut behind the steering wheel.”  I’d like to paraphrase it and say the most dangerous parts of any  relationship is the people in them.  When you act, react and behave out of your inner child, your behavior is nonconstructive and eventually destroys your relationship.  If Butch and Shirley had operated out of their  adult, he might have said, “Please listen to me.  I’m overwhelmed by all your suggestions and criticisms and I can hardly hear any one of you clearly.  I’m embarrassed.  I should have paid more attention, but I was enjoying the ride and just didn’t see it.  I don’t need criticisms or put-downs.  I feel bad enough.” What he needed to hear from Shirley was, ‘It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a tire.  We’re all alive, we’re all well.  I’ve seen you fix many a tire.  Why don’t we get out of the car while you fix it, and we’ll ride back together.’”  “I might have said that”, she quickly interjected, “if he hadn’t started yelling and being the out of control person he was.”  

“And he might have responded to you if you had said, ‘Butch, I love you.  You’re allowed to make mistakes.  I can joke about it, I can laugh about it, but I’m not laughing at you.  I enjoyed this excursion with you, because I love being with you.”

The moral of this story is very clear. Marriages don’t fail, but people in them do. When the people do well, their relationship will do well on it’s own.   

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