The Crucial Choice Every Struggling Couple Must Make

Couple sits on either side of pillar, backs to each otherGage and Lylah reported a “same” week and that “nothing” had happened or changed. When asked what it would look like to take steps toward one another—their mutual goal—they both shrugged in uncertainty. Neither had any preference for how we spent the day’s session, no complaints, and no feedback. Gage appeared very sleepy again, drinking an energy drink—he usually brought either an energy drink or coffee to session and typically nodded off anyway.

At one point, I asked Gage whether he had any desire to fight for his marriage. He responded that he had “tried once” to do so and nothing worked. When pressed, he struggled to produce any narrative evidence of his “fight” except for a special gift he had given to her a number of years ago which she received with insufficient appreciation. He made it clear he would make no change in his behavior while simultaneously reporting he wanted the marriage fixed. He believed Lylah was responsible for “getting over it,” yet he harbored resentments for her infidelities while excusing his own.

He refused to make any real, active choice toward his wife, and she expressed being paralyzed in the relationship—uncertain how, albeit willing, to regain trust, which she pointed to as their singular hurdle if the marriage was to be rebuilt. She would wait for him to initiate the leap. Gage remained silent and began nodding off near the end of session, at which point I leaned over and told him, “You may want to take a few sips of your drink.”

I posed solution-focused, intimacy-building questions to stir opportunities for Gage and Lylah to begin to “take steps toward one another,” yet both seemed frozen. Session after session, I observed emotional pain; attempted to coach Gage to acknowledge Lylah’s or his own; nudged both toward any semblance of vulnerability; attempted to join with Gage, the most resistant member; then emboldened Lylah in spite of Gage. Yet again and again, I watched Lylah look at Gage, saying, “Nothing?”

During our ninth session, Gage shared how his 12-year-old daughter had come home one day and balled up on the couch crying. He shared that in those instances he has no idea what to say or do so he just gives her space, but later that day he spontaneously took her to the mall and paid for her to get a makeover. Her comfort became his joy, and her cold distance on the ride there was a stark contrast from the chatter and banter they enjoyed on the way home. He said he “felt much closer to her” and that it was “nothing” for him to do that. I reflected that in this anecdotal story he may have revealed something of the answer to the burning question: “What might it look like to take a step toward Lylah?”

Sometimes couples do not take the necessary steps toward one another. They allow emotional infection to spread in spite of medicine they are fully capable of administering. Neither understanding nor forgiveness, healing nor intimacy is for the therapist to cajole or control. The couple, together, must first make a crucial choice, and that choice is itself the operative key.

I reminded Gage how he had commented that he typically feels helpless in the face of his daughter’s emotion, yet his actions toward her had made a difference. I challenged that moving toward one another in such ways is what you make of it and can have the side effect of building the relationship. “I’m not so sure it’s a side effect,” I said. “It may be the medicine itself.”

By the end of the 10th session, I saw no steps being taken toward one another. I questioned whether either was prepared to make a choice toward the marriage or whether this was an empty effort.

I essentially challenged that the velocity of the relationship was moving ahead whether or not they made active decisions. The session ended near-silently, as it had in previous sessions, with Lylah warmly thanking me with eye contact and a handshake and Gage sleepily picking up his drink and walking toward the door, barely snagging my offer of a handshake as I confirmed, “See you next week?” They spoke in unison: “Yes, we’ll see you next week.”

The couple appeared ambivalent about whether to take active steps toward one another. Both seemed unwilling to engage together in interventions aimed toward cultivating mutuality, validation, or connection in their relationship.

By our 16th session, Gage and Lylah had maintained their ambivalence, and in the last minutes of the session, Gage revealed that he had participated in therapy sessions to appease Lylah for the sake of their daughter but had no desire, hope, or intention toward the marriage. Only Lylah returned to my office thereafter.

Sometimes couples do not take the necessary steps toward one another. They allow emotional infection to spread in spite of medicine they are fully capable of administering. Neither understanding nor forgiveness, healing nor intimacy is for the therapist to cajole or control. The couple, together, must first make a crucial choice, and that choice is itself the operative key.

Note: Names and details have been altered to protect confidentiality.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • tabitha

    September 27th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    to stay or not to stay
    that is the question

  • Talmadge

    September 27th, 2016 at 3:36 PM

    I think that there has developed in society this belief that marriage should be roses all the time and it should be easy. It isn’t easy and it was never meant to be easy. It has to be a constant work in progress for it to succeed. If you are not going to put the work into it that it deserves then you are not going to make it, end of story.

  • reed

    September 28th, 2016 at 8:11 AM

    I would like to know what your suggestion would be when one of us is ready and willing to give it our all and the other person does not think that anything fight for or worth saving. IT breaks my heart to think that after all this time I could seriously lose itall, but here we are and I am not sure where to go from here.

  • Elaine m

    September 30th, 2016 at 10:41 AM

    B Oscar,
    As a Life Coach I guide people in their attempts to begin crucial conversations. They are educated about Universal needs which all human beings have. They are supported as they identify their feelings and connect them to unmet needs. I proceed to advise them on how to approach their partner and how to avoid putting them on the defensive. This form of communication helps to break down one wall at a time so that there can be a true assessment on whether to move forward or to end the relationship. If the choice is the latter it is important to formulate a plan on how to proceed in a rational manner.

  • glenda

    September 28th, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    I am soooo glad that my mother didn’t sugar coat things, that she was honest and up front with me about just how much work it actually takes to make a marriage work. And that even then there are still some days that you want to pack it all in and leave. But you don’t, you just keep going because you know that tomorrow is another day and another chance to make it work.

  • Brannon

    September 29th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    Do you know how angry I would be if y husband came to therapy and was so disinterested that he fell asleep?

  • Michelle H

    October 4th, 2016 at 3:23 AM

    Everytime I see s add about college on my Facebook page… I feel like I’m being smacked in the face! I believe Jehovah is warning me to be mindful about being around those whom carelessly say things that touch.

  • lyndsay

    September 29th, 2016 at 2:01 PM

    We got married pretty young, too young actually, and so there was a time where we finally had to sit down with each other and decide of this is what we wanted out of life. We had to make a conscious effort to fight for the marriage because unbeknownst to us, there was work to be done that was never going to resolve itself without a little bit more effort on our part.
    Had we been a little older when we got together then I think that we would have had an easier time with that, but instead we were kids and just thought that everything ought to fall into place.

  • B Oscar

    September 29th, 2016 at 5:37 PM

    The hardest step for me was admitting that if we did not get a marriage counselor then we were not going to make it as a couple.
    Once both of us admitted that as the truth, I think that it was so much easier for us to begin the process of repairing and moving forward.

  • sara

    September 30th, 2016 at 12:39 PM

    real wake up call when you begin to truly see just how much this could be hurting the children

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