By the time a person becomes ambivalent in their marriage things have reached crisis mode. In my fourteen years helping couples resolve marriage conflicts I’ve met hundreds of individuals who have reached a crossroad, are rethinking their future, and are contemplating divorce. They haven’t decided to end the marriage yet but they’re no longer 100% “in” the marriage.
While every ambivalent person is different and every marriage has its own history and unique set of problems, there’s one thing that every ambivalent person has: misery. Never have I heard an ambivalent person say, “This is fun, I want to be ambivalent for the rest of my life.” No way! It’s a very uncomfortable place to be.
So they come to a marriage counselor and ask, “Should I leave or stay?”
While the advice-giving part of me wants to respond with an answer, I resist that temptation and take the question-asking approach instead. I tell them, “I don’t get to vote on your marriage but I would love to help you weigh your options.” This makes them and not me the decision maker, it makes them less dependent on others for advice, and it protects me from giving bad advice.
Here are the questions I ask the ambivalent with a short list of possible answers.
What are the costs of staying ambivalent?
“My ambivalence feeds my partner’s ambivalence.”
“Being in a wobbly limbo land of loving my partner but not being in love.”
“Anxiety. Both options (staying in the marriage or proceeding with a divorce) will lead to misery.”
“Fear of the unknown. I feel unstable and out of control.”
“It costs me nothing and gives me control over my partner.” (Some people call this marital sadism).
What can your partner do to woo you back into the marriage?
“Nothing. It’d be too little, too late.”
“Plenty” (at which point the ambivalent spouse gives a long list of complaints from “stop abusing me” to “lose weight)”.
“If they make the changes I’ve been asking them to make for years I’ll be angry! Why does it take a possible divorce for them finally to get to work on our relationship?! Don’t they love me enough to make changes without a threat?”
“Nothing. My heart is dead, my emotions are cold, my walls are thick, and my love is long gone.”
“Nothing. My partner’s offenses are too great to ever forgive” (at which point we weigh the potential cost of bitterness).
“Nothing. I’ve found a new soul mate.” (When a third party disrupts a marriage disentangling is very, very difficult).
When you first met your future partner how’d they woo you into their orbit?
At this point I’m hoping there will be some fond memories, funny stories, or recollection of the good times they had.
If the ambivalent can’t recall anything good about their partner or their history it’s almost certain a divorce is in the works (this has been verified by marriage researcher John Gottman).
What are the costs of pursuing a divorce?
“It’ll tweak our kids.”
“It’ll cost an arm and a leg” (reminding me of the joke, “Marriage is grand; divorce is twenty grand”).
“We’ll lose the house.”
“I’ll have to re-enter the dating scene which is scary.”
“I’ll have a new identity: divorced.”
“It’ll feed my guilt (or bitterness, or anger, or fault finding).”
“I might be doing something God, my partner, and my friends hate.”
What changes could you make that might rekindle love for your spouse?
“I know my spouse didn’t spouse change, I did.”
“My spouse is still magnetic but I the metal nail have turned to wood…I’m simply not attracted to him/her anymore.”
“Plenty. There’s a big likelihood that the things my partner does that drive me crazy are reactions to things I do that drive them crazy.”
“Forgive, accept our differences, lower my expectations, drink less, stay home more, do a better job at meeting their needs, give up my sense of entitlement, increase my tolerance and resiliency, not make them responsible for my anxiety, jealousy, anger, or depression.” (These words are music to a marriage counselor’s ears).
“I can act as if I love and am committed to my spouse and hope my emotions catch up.”
Let me end this blog by violating my commitment not to tell people what to do. Here is some friendly advice. If your spouse says “We need marriage counseling,” pay attention. Ignore them at your own risk. If your partner becomes ambivalent the work it takes to salvage the marriage becomes a hundred times harder.
*Options for the spouse of the ambivalent will be covered in a future blog post.