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Free Therapy #27: Couples in Pain

There is no sadder song than a failed marriage. When a marital union falls apart, it is like a large glass chandelier crashing to the floor, sending shards of glass in all directions. Everyone gets cut: children, parents, siblings and friends. And some will never heal. Or they might heal but years later, the scars still sting, ache or throb.

I was about five – it was 1961 — when my parents told me about a little boy my age that deserved our concern. His parents were getting divorced. I had never heard that word before. It was a profound lesson. A mommy and daddy could decide to not be together anymore. What? Really? My little brain struggled to comprehend the atrocity of love gone bad.

Picture a person with one foot on the dock and one on the boat as it pulls away. When our parents divide themselves, they divide us. We feel the ripping inside but it makes no sound. Look in the mirror and the jagged edges are hidden from view. But you feel it. That deep, sad grief of loss. You will never be the same.

When I lived in Vienna, Virginia in the late 1960s, it seemed like all the married parents lived normal, boring lives in small track suburban homes on streets named Cottage, Hillcrest and Marshall while the divorced parents lived in these shabby apartments behind the shopping center.

The kids of divorce were all a little more wild than the rest of us as I recall. One in particular was Joe Crain, who in 6th grade, became a best friend for awhile. I would hang out with him at his apartment with his sister Lynn who would pretend to be Diana Ross and sing Supremes songs. His mother always worked and his father lived elsewhere and we were never supervised.

Joe got in trouble once for bringing a rubber to school. I had never seen one before and he explained what it was for. He also told me about something called “69” which I did not quite understand but I knew had something to do with sex. I remember the principal calling me into his office once to warn me away from Dirk, one of the divorced kids who lived in the apartments. He said he was “no good” and would be a bad influence on me. I believed him and took his advice but remained intrigued by the tinge of danger and risk attached to these kids.

Looking back now I see they were wounded, angry and a little fearless. Enough bad stuff had already happened to them that it opened them up somehow to behaviors and experiences I had not yet begun to imagine.

Still, I felt insulated from their particular color of pain and strolled along, secure in my safe, little world. My parents never fought. Ever. They would always be together I thought. Until they weren’t.

My dad must have been quietly miserable for a long time before he became involved with the woman who would become his second wife in the middle of my junior year of high school. We lived in Ohio then and on March 30, 1973, my dad’s 48th birthday, my mother let me know he was moving into his own shabby apartment, near some shopping center in Fairborn. I took it hard and refused to speak with my dad for about a year.

Almost exactly ten years later I filed for divorce from my first wife following a year of wrenching marital warfare. I never knew such sadness; such crushing despair. At one point while all alone, I collapsed on the floor of my living room sobbing up my pitiful pleas. So many of us have been there. We just want the pain to end. And it does but we are forever changed.

In the last 25-30 years I have sat with hundreds of couples struggling with this baffling dilemma: How does love wither and die? How does it become hate? How do our wedding vows grow stale like dried leaves and crumble into dust? How does it happen exactly? We all want to know.

I have a few clues that I will explore in more detail in my next blog but here are ten ideas to think about.

  1. Empathize, don’t personalize. We tend to make it all about us and miss what is going on with our partner.
  2. Find something in what your partner is saying that you can agree with. See it from their perspective and seek to validate them.
  3. Express thought and feeling empathy. Help them feel understood.
  4. Remember your truth is your enemy. The more you fight for your truth, the more your partner will do the same.
  5. David Burns reminds us, “We all provoke and maintain the exact relationship problems that we complain about.” We fail to see how we do this because we only focus on our partner’s faults.
  6. Beware of the endless blame and defend cycle. The more we blame, the more our partner defends and blames which triggers us to do the same.
  7. Hurt people hurt people. The more we hurt, the more we want to hurt our partner.
  8. When we agree with our critic, we prove them wrong. When we disagree with our critic, we prove them right.
  9. Instead of attacking your partner, own your feelings and reach out. Say, “I am having a problem and I need your help.”
  10. Regularly ask your partner what they need and want and seek to meet their needs and wants if you are able. Tell them what you need and want.

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.