Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Are You Having Doubts About Your Marriage?
We've all been there. I've been a marriage counselor for over a decade, but I've also been married for nearly two decades. (Yep, I'm that old). In addition to successfully working through rough patches in my own marriage, I've sat in the marriage counseling office with literally hundreds of hurt and angry couples over the years. One thing I've learned is this: It's common to have moments of doubt. After weeks of nasty exchanges and hurt feelings, why shouldn't you start to wonder if you're really compatible? After a series of bitter fights with no resolution, why shouldn't you start to feel a little hopeless? It's reasonable to wonder.
It can be very difficult to remain optimistic about your relationship when you've been having bad experiences with each other. But here's the thing: When you're feeling hurt, angry, frustrated or afraid it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and the opportunities that lie beyond the struggles. Because it can be so hard to think straight when you're mad and hurt, I'm going to hold the hope for you and share my long-term perspective with you.
Four Reasons Why Your Marriage is Worth Fighting For
One: This is NORMAL.
All couples go through challenging times together, on the road to becoming stronger. It's one thing to get married. (Having a ceremony and party is a piece of cake. Pun intended). It's quite another thing to become married. The process of becoming married doesn't start until the honeymoon phase is over, because, unfortunately, we don't even know where we need to learn and grow until we have a conflict about it.
Stepping on each other's toes, getting upset with your partner (or having them get mad at you) is how we learn where we need to make changes. Those skirmishes outline the current boundaries. Becoming married is the process of redrawing those boundaries. Becoming married usually involves learning how to communicate with each other, learning how to show each other love, learning how to work together as a team around household tasks / parenting / finances, learning how to respect and honor each other's boundaries, learning how to prioritize your relationship, learning about your own “growth opportunities,” and learning how to accept each other — faults and all. (Listen to “Cultivating Unconditional Love.”) This is a lot of work, and is often, regrettably, hashed out over many, many fights and tense exchanges. Reflect upon how many months you spent planning your wedding? Plan on it taking much longer to successfully become married. FYI, many couples put this work off, not fully “becoming married” until many (often long) years after the actual wedding occurred.
Two: It Gets Better
Sadly, many couples crash and burn during this normal growth process when they think that the relational turbulence they're experiencing means that something is intrinsically wrong with their relationship. It isn't. Becoming married is challenging for everyone. It's tragic to me when couples bail on their relationship without giving themselves and each other the chance to grow together.
Because when you successfully get to the other side of this it gets much, much easier. Imagine what your like will be like when this is resolved: Communication is easy, you have a set of agreements that you're both on board with, you have systems in place that allow your life to run smoothly, you're not constantly triggering each other's anger or anxiety, you're supporting each other's hopes and dreams, you're both feeling loved and respected, and you're having a good time together. (And even having sex!)
I believe this is possible for you, but like all couples there is work to be done between here and there. Start by revising your expectations that this “should be easy.” To give you a timeline, I think my husband and I began to figure all this stuff out around year five at our house. (And that was actually about 8 sessions into our marriage counseling process). It could have happened a lot faster, in retrospect, had we gotten help sooner.
Three: This Will Follow You
Even if you do ultimately choose to end this marriage, you're going to take your patterns and unexplored growth opportunities (aka, “issues”) with you into your next relationship. If you want to be successfully married to anyone, sooner or later you're going to have to work on your ability to communicate, show love, work together, respect boundaries, etc.
The research shows very a clear and dramatic relationship between the number of marriages people attempt, and the success rates. Despite common misconceptions about high divorce rates (read “Why Divorce Rates are Down”), most couples in first time marriages who come into marriage from a place of strength in terms of their age, education, socioeconomic status (read, “What's The Best Age To Get Married?”) can make it work. However, second marriages have a much higher divorce rate. Second marriage with children involved are not for the faint of heart. Third+ marriages are frequently troubled, and haunted by ghosts of the past.
The punchline: No matter how many partners you churn through, your patterns in relationships are unlikely to change until you do.
You've already made the vows — why not double down on your commitment and do the work right here? If you do that, your very worst case scenario is that 1) You'll grow into a stronger, healthier person more capable of having a high quality relationship and 2) If you ultimately decide to leave, you'll do so knowing you did your very best.
And the best possible outcome? You'll create an amazing, satisfying, intimate and happy marriage that lasts a lifetime. Win-win!
Four: This Stopped Being About You When You Had Kids
Disclaimer: Although I am very much pro-marriage, I'm not necessarily “anti-divorce.” In fact, sometimes ending a relationship is the most responsible thing to do if two people have discovered they are really, intrinsically incompatible AND that they aren't committed enough to make the changes necessary to have a healthy marriage with each other. (Read, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”) This is particularly true for dating couples, childless couples, empty-nesters, or younger couples who are still in the process of developing an adult identity.
However, if you already have kids together…. I believe that you owe it to them to fight as hard as you can to make this work. Of course there are rare times when it is better for the children if you live apart, particularly if one parent is not safe for them to be around (like in cases of domestic violence, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, substance abuse situations). However, in less extreme circumstances, even when divorce is handled as sensitively as possible it is very difficult on kids.
The chaos of getting shuttled around to different homes (and the potentially different rules and expectations in each), dealing with suddenly single parents who are distracted, overworked or dating, negotiating step parent / step sibling relationships, and coping with the grief of their lost family is an awful lot for kids to handle. It frequently overwhelms their ability to cope, and may be either externalized (showing up as behavior or emotional issues) or internalized (trying to be “perfect” and not have feelings). Neither is good for developing little minds and hearts.
Some people believe that it's bad for kids to be around fighting and conflict. This is certainly true when toxic, scary fighting is happening, like name calling, abusive language, things getting thrown, or people being hit. However, kids learn how to resolve conflict in healthy ways when you model it for them. They also learn that normal, healthy relationships still have conflict and friction, but more importantly they learn how to successfully work through it. That way they won't feel worried that something is terribly wrong with their own marriage when it's time for them do the work of “becoming married” too.
I know it can feel hopeless sometimes, especially when you feel like you've tried everything. Divorce can seem like the only reasonable solution when you have no idea what else you could possibly do, and when your partner seems dead-set against changing. But just because YOU don't know what to do, doesn't mean there isn't a path forward. Getting expert help and guidance can open new doors that you didn't even know were there. Is it hard work to pull a marriage back from the brink of divorce, and save a family? Yep. But imagine how relieved you'll feel when you're on the other side of this, with an intact family and a happy home.
Having a strong, healthy marriage is the greatest gift you can give your children. It's worth the work.
- This is normal
- It gets better
- This is a growth opportunity for you, either way
- If you have kids, this is bigger than you
I hope these ideas help you keep your head up, and remain hopeful about your future together… even when times are hard. Keep fighting for love, my friend!
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby