Almost Too Late?

couple without rings“Since the horse is clearly out of the barn, could you help me get the door closed?” That’s not exactly what my client said on his first visit to see me, but it was close.
He came alone to counseling. His wife was so angry and so hurt she didn’t want anything to do with therapy. Nor to do with him, he reported. He told me he was desperate to find a way to convince her to stay with him, but he certainly hadn’t acted all that excited to be with her through their three years of marriage.
They had married after she revealed that she was pregnant. Neither of them had been planning on adding a baby to their relationship at this point, but they both wanted their child to be born into a family where he would have two parents to care for him.
He worked long hours and wasn’t around the family a lot. When he did come home, he focused most of his attention on his son and his video games. At the end of the night he had very little to give to his wife. That’s why she suggested the separation.
He said he was a good father; that role was important to him because his own dad “wasn’t there for me.” His dad had seldom been home and when he was, he didn’t expend much effort on connecting with his son. My client had wanted to change that pattern of neglect when it came to his own son.
Now there was a good chance that his son would move three states away when the looming separation happened. He said his wife had gotten her fill of his distance, the lack of attention he showed her, and the harsh words he’d had for her when she asked for more of his time and energy. He repeatedly reminded her that he worked a lot to put food on the table and provide for her and implied that his efforts should have been enough for her to be happy. He had been able to silence her, but he was learning that he didn’t know how to keep her.
When she mentioned moving out, he ratcheted up his attempts to put her in her place and maintain control. He said he would give her no money if she left (though he knew this was an idle threat), and that he would fight her for custody of their son (although because of his work schedule, he knew that would never happen). He had realized that his efforts to squeeze her tighter had actually resulted in her pulling further away.
I was invited into the story at this point. I listened. I nodded. He had been hard enough on himself in the telling of his story that I avoided piling on. I did tell him, though, that his attitude about love and marriage and his behavior toward his wife had to change immediately if there was to be even the slightest chance this marriage was going to work. And even then, I told him, the chances were slim.
I compared having a good marriage to holding the bloom of a precious flower in his hand. He had to learn to cress it without crushing it. He needed help with feeding that flower in order to help it grow. That was where a counselor’s role could fit into their narrative. His wife needed to hear compliments in abundance. Conversation, gentle and caring, had to happen, because, I told him, “women run on words.” Speak to her gently and often, listen well and problem-solve with care. That was my prescription for him. “Make sure she knows how much she means to you,” I summed it all up at the end of our session.
He left with a template for a daily conversation that could help feed his marriage, a tool that would have him giving her a compliment every day and sharing what was important to him and hearing the same from his wife.
If there was still any life in the roots of their marriage, a thriving plant might still be possible. If it was in fact too late, he would be better for his efforts at connecting with her, so there was no reason not to try.
I shook his hand as we parted and reminded him that nothing about what I had suggested to him was magic. It had taken months for his marriage to go so terribly wrong; nothing would change in a few days or weeks. He’d need to be consistent, committed to a year or more of meeting her needs, praying the entire time for a merciful turnaround in her feelings toward him. Any slipup at this point could doom an already desperate situation.
As I looked after him, I asked myself why he had been so calloused toward her until she mentioned moving on without him. It was partly because his own parents hadn’t had a good marriage, so he didn’t have much of a model to follow. Maybe he was so focused on being a parent that he skipped over the part about being a loving spouse. And I thought a big part of the reason for his distance was that he blamed her for the pregnancy in the first place. He didn’t say it out loud, but I sensed his feeling she might have trapped him, being careless with the birth control when they were dating. So instead of taking responsibility for his own choices, he told himself he was manning up to be a dad, but all the while he was holding his wife culpable for the fact that a baby had changed his life plan.
Time will tell if this young man came to me when it was only almost too late, or whether it was clearly past the point when his wife’s heart could be turned around. If I were her, I’d be suspicious of any change that looked like it happened too fast and seemed too good to be true. It would take months of effort before a new pattern of love and appreciation on his part could be deemed to be believable to her.
Still, I’m the eternal cheerleader for marriages on the outs. Doing what will feed a relationship may stir up positive feelings between a husband and wife, promote bonding, and breathe life into a union that might appear to be dead.
The difference between “too late” and “almost too late” is often something you can only see in hindsight. No matter how dismal your relationship health might appear to be, do the work to revive it and leave your concerns about the prognosis for a point further down the road.

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