QUESTION: My husband, Joe, tells me he feels suffocated in our marriage and wants out. What should I do? How should I change my relationship with him?
JAMES DOBSON: Though I realize it may be the most difficult thing you've ever done, the only promising option at this point is to open the cage door and set Joe free. Gather every ounce of courage and self-respect you can muster and have a serious talk with him along the following lines:
"Joe, I've been through some very tough moments since you decided to leave. My love for you is so deep that I just couldn't face the possibility of life without you. To a person like me, who expected to marry only once and to remain committed for life, it is a terrible shock to see our relationship begin to unravel.
"Nevertheless, I have been doing some intense soul-searching, and I now realize that I have been attempting to hold you against your will. As I reflect on our courtship and early years together, I'm reminded that you married me of your own free choice. I didn't blackmail you or twist your arm or offer you a bribe. It was a decision you made without pressure from me. Now you say you want out of the marriage, and obviously, I have to let you go. I can no more force you to stay today than I could have made you marry me.
"So, if you never call me again, then I will accept your decision. This entire experience has been painful, but I'm going to make it. You and I had some wonderful times together, John. You were my first real love, and I'll never forget the memories that we shared."
Slowly, unbelievably, Joe will see the cage door start to rise. He has felt bound to you hand and foot for years, and now you've set him free.
"But there must be a catch," he's likely to think. "It's too good to be true. This is just another trick to win me back. In a week or two she'll be crying on the phone again, begging me to come home. She's really weak, you know, and she'll crack under pressure."
It is my strongest recommendation that you prove that your husband is wrong in this expectation. Let him marvel at your self-control in coming weeks. Only the passage of time will convince him that you are serious.
QUESTION: How is Joe likely to respond to the new me?
DOBSON: He may test your resolve in the next few months by showing hostility, being aloof, or by flirting with other women. He'll be watching during this time for signs of weakness or panic. If you continue to show self-confidence, you will convince him that he is actually free.
Three things typically happen when you convey that understanding:
(1) The trapped partner no longer feels it necessary to fight off the other, and the relationship improves. It is not that the love affair is rekindled, necessarily, but the strain between the two partners is often eased.
(2) As the cool spouse begins to feel free again, the question he has been asking himself changes. After having wondered for weeks or months, "How can I get out of this mess?" he now asks, "Do I really want to go?" Just knowing that he can have his way often makes him less anxious to achieve it. Sometimes it turns him around 180 degrees and brings him back home.
(3) The third change occurs not in the cool spouse but in the mind of the vulnerable one. Incredibly, she feels better -- somehow more in control of the situation. There is no greater agony than journeying through a vale of tears, waiting in vain for the phone to ring or for a miracle to occur. Instead, the person begins to respect herself and receives small evidences of respect in return.
Even though it is difficult to let go once and for all, there are ample rewards for doing so. One of those advantages involves the feeling that she has a definite course of action to follow. That is infinitely more comfortable than experiencing the utter despair of powerlessness that she felt before. And little by little, the healing process begins.
Does this approach always work? Of course not. Nothing always works in human relationships. Some people will re-examine the decision to leave and decide to return. Others will keep on going. Either way, however, showing respect for yourself in the crisis will maximize the opportunities for your relationship to survive. Even if it's too late to reconnect with Joe, you'll have your self-confidence back and will be able to go on without him.
(James Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, CO. 80903; or www.family.org. Questions and answers are excerpted from "The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide," published by Tyndale House.)
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