However it happened, you find yourself in the middle of a marriage crisis. You may not have even seen it coming. Maybe you did, but you were pretending not to notice. Or maybe you saw it coming, but couldn't do anything about it.
Your first reaction is likely shock. You feel that gut-wrenching grab in your stomach, the cold sweat of fear gripping you. That "punched in the stomach" feeling floods your body with adrenaline, pumping you into an all-out fear response.
If you are like most people, your initial response is to try to convince your spouse that he/she is wrong. You beg and plead for an opportunity to change. For an opportunity to do something different.
You believe that if you just give a rational response, an argument to work on things, your spouse will get on board.
You are hoping that your spouse's mind can be changed.
That failing, you react in an emotional way, hoping that will get through.
Reality check: the reaction of convincing, begging, and pleading sets the stage for an even deeper crisis. In other words, your initial response may do more to push the marriage into crisis than your spouse was even feeling!
In other words, your response does not improve your chances. It worsens them.
But that doesn't mean that the marriage has no chance. Or that there is nothing you can do. Only that your initial reaction may cause more problems.
You want to be opening possibilities, not deepening the crisis and closing doors, right?
So let's just admit that those reactions are based in fear. Fear is primitive, and not the best point of reaction.
There are several reasons why this can be counterproductive.
First, you will likely end up reenforcing the beliefs your spouse already has. The reactions of begging and pleading only make you look needy and unreasonable. If your spouse has any feeling that he/she is not getting his/her needs met, this reaction will create an immediate thought of "see, this is just what I am talking about."
Second, if your spouse feels unheard, misunderstood, or ignored, then as you are trying to "convince" him/her, all that will be felt is your being more dismissiveness of his or her feelings. You may think you are speaking logically, but it will be heard as you being dismissive, of you once again not listening and certainly not validating your spouse's feelings.
Third, there is a psychological term that you need to understand: "psychological reactance." This term refers to the fact that all of us, when we feel pushed, pulled, cajoled, etc., will tend to do the exact opposite, even if we agree with direction to which we are being pushed or pulled.
If someone throws us a rope and pulls, we will pull back. We truly are "stubborn as a mule!" Human nature makes us this way. For survival, it is a fine trait. For working on close human relationships, not so helpful.
So, don't give more to push against.
Remember that most of the time, when you finally hear about the crisis, your spouse has been thinking about this for some time. Few people leave the first time the thought crosses their mind. It is usually after lots of soul searching and thought.
Okay, so we have established that the begging, pleading, and convincing will not work, but will only firm the beliefs you really want to change.
So how do you respond?
First, let's talk about some "don'ts," some things to absolutely avoid.
Please read and pay attention here!
DO NOT try to use "reverse psychology." This is the type of communication that many resources on the internet suggest.
This term relates to a way of relating that suggests the person do exactly the opposite of what you really want. The assumption being you will get them to rebel into doing exactly what you want. Another term for this: manipulation.
Reverse Psychology may work on your 5 year old: "don't you dare drink that milk! You do NOT want to get strong!" But it will NOT work on an adult.
It may surprise your spouse, and just for a moment, confuse them. But then they will be onto you. And you will lose even more credibility.
Remember, by the time your spouse tells you there is a problem, he or she has been thinking about it for awhile. The various scenarios have been painted. It may be news to you, but it is not to your spouse.
Whatever reverse psychology you might use, it will do one of 2 things:
1) lead your spouse to think you agree (when you do not),
2) lead your spouse to think you are not taking it seriously (when you do).
So, no reverse psychology!
Also, don't get caught up in believing you need to fix everything in one conversation, either right after your spouse "drops the bomb" or any other time. Marriages are not saved or destroyed in a single conversation.
We all are great script writers. We are worthy of Oscars. The only problem is, we are all writing the scripts, but no one else is following OUR script! They are following (or trying to follow) the one in their own head.
While you are rehearsing that conversation and how it will go, realize it won't go that way, so don't place all your hopes on that one convincing, transforming conversation. Your spouse is following a very different script.
Don't try to initiate a big relationship talk. This is not the time to delve into your issues, hashing them out, and hoping for resolution. Remember: psychological reactance. The more you push, the more the other person will resist.
Also remember that the more we talk about our beliefs, the more deeply we believe them.
The more your spouse repeats his/her feelings of unhappiness and belief that the marriage is doomed, the more deeply he/she will come to believe it.
Don't dodge your spouse's relationship conversations. Just don't initiate them or perpetuate them. Listen. Don't correct. Listen. Don't argue. Listen. Actively listen. Ask questions, clarify to make sure your spouse feels heard and that you understand (not agree, just understand what he/she is saying).
If you can't beg and plead, and you can't pretend to agree, what can you do?
Gather your courage. And remind yourself that courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of fear. Your brain and body will not be calm and clear. But you will choose to overcome what your brain and body are screaming -- flee or fight. You will choose to act in courage.
Thank your spouse for being honest and sharing.
Be very clear that it probably took a great deal of energy for your spouse to even speak. This is true, even if you do not agree with what your spouse said. It still took energy. It was a risk. Honor that, even if you don't like what was said.
For example, "Wow! That must have been hard to say! That is hard to hear, but I am sure it was harder to say."
Accept that what he or she said is what he or she feels (at least right now).
For example, "I think I understand how you are feeling. Is this right? (then repeat what you think you heard)"
It is important to check to make sure you understood what your spouse said. I have heard from many people that assume they are headed for divorce, when in reality, the spouse just needed the relationship to change.
You can also verbalize that you are a bit surprised (if you are), and that you do not feel the same way, but certainly understand that is how he/she feels.
Also, you can state how sad you are that there is so much disconnection that you were unaware (if you were unaware). If you were aware of the disconnect, you can say it: "I have been feeling disconnected, too. I am so sad we are at this place."
Be careful. This is not the time to problem-solve. No suggestions of how to fix the problem. At this point, you want to hear your spouse, let him/her know you listened, that you know it was hard to say, and a statement of your own sadness.
There is time for rebuilding in the days to come.
Dr. Baucom has been helping people to save their marriage for over 20 years. He can help you, too. Vist at http://www.SaveTheMarriage.com