When your friend leans over and whispers in your ear, “Did you hear that Sally and John are getting divorced?” most of us are saddened. We want relationships — love for each other — to succeed, not fail. We want to hear stories of happily ever after, not breakups and separation.
And the obvious question many ask is, “If they loved each other enough to get married, why is staying together so difficult? Did they fall out of love? Did they not marry the right person?”
You may have asked that question yourself about your own marriage.
I wish I had all the answers. But many marriages can avoid the devastation of divorce with only minor changes in how we relate as husband and wife. This is because underneath the pain and resentment is an ocean of love and feelings that desperately want to keep us together.
When working with couples, my first course of action is to shift the polarity and dynamics in the relationship.
I turn him into the “giver,” mainly through increasing acts of kindness, affection, and appreciation. Expressing gratitude, buying her flowers, offering a hug, and doing something small for her each day.
Initially, her job is to receive, but with a caveat — she must accept his giving “graciously.”
One may believe that he has the more challenging task. He must physically start behaving and giving in loving ways that often take him out of his comfort zone. Many men are not good at communicating feelings or remembering the small details that bring her joy.
On an emotional level, it’s not simple either, as his expressions and efforts reflect a depth of connection and love he may not have felt for a long time. Many of his words and actions go against the resentment and bitterness he currently feels.
Yet ironically, it is my experience that she struggles most, receiving with grace. This is unexpected because as opposed to the giver who must “do something,” a receiver is passive — she just needs to open her hand to accept his gifts. What’s the big deal?
But this is not the full picture. Because for years, she has kept her walls up and her heart closed. She cannot open her hand fully, not to mention her heart. Often, her challenges may have started well before her marriage, sometime in childhood. She is so distrusting that even saying “thank you” authentically is difficult.
Some of her struggles reflect the negative dynamic they have created:
❌ He doesn’t mean it.
❌ His kindness won’t last.
But the most common struggles she faces are deeply personal:
❌ If he really knew me, he wouldn’t treat me this well.
❌ He doesn’t really love me.
❌ I’m not worth his love.
❌ I’m not good enough.
and, of course, the mother of all fears and pain:
❌ I’m not lovable — I will be alone.
And her husband feels this. He knows she’s not fully accepting of his affection and efforts. Eventually, his heart also closes due to feeling rejected, unloved, and unwanted. In many cases, this has caused him to pull back, shut down, and give up.
Reversing this dynamic isn’t as difficult as one may believe. Sometimes, just bringing this relationship gridlock to light is all it takes. When he and she have that “aha” moment and commit to changing their behaviors, the relationship quickly improves. The positivity of giving and receiving loving kindness reinforces a cyclical loop of pleasure and joy.
And as she opens up and receives graciously, he gives more and more consistently, creating deeper trust and love.
The most considerable resistance I face as a therapist is getting the couple to embrace the changes in the first place. Depending on how far apart they are emotionally — how much damage has been done through the years of neglect — this can be very challenging.
He stands in his corner and declares that he will never share his feelings for her again, as she never believes him and only uses his heart against him.
She stands in hers and won’t allow him in again, as she has been hurt so many times in the past.
But even in this situation, it’s not a lost cause. Because underneath the pain is the desire to reconnect, as they fell in love for a reason, and it’s all there, 100%. We just need to reveal it. And this starts with a simple question:
“Can you give me 5 reasons why you love your wife?”
This can be a struggle at first. But his resistance doesn’t last. Before you know it, I have a list of twenty beautiful character traits he knows are true. He reminds himself that she is:
and the list goes on. His heart has warmed, and his mind has moved beyond his current negative predicament.
“This list is your new marriage bible. When you wake up and see your angel sleeping by your side, this is how you see her. And you will choose something from this list every day and let her know how grateful you are for being your partner. I will use this list against you when you complain about your wife.”
Then, in a highly unprofessional move, I take this list and email it to his wife. “Do you know this is how your husband feels about you? This is who you are to him? Can you believe and accept that someone sees all this in you? Are you ready to open your heart to this truth? To this man? Are you ready to let him in?”
An avalanche of tears, fears, and hopes pour forth. Sometimes scary, but always hopeful, as we begin to scrape away years of bitterness and pain. This is the road to recovery, the road to intimacy, and the road to a great marriage.
So, did you marry the wrong person? I assert that, for most of us, your spouse is your soulmate. It can be hard to connect, as Gd has put each half of our soul in a different body with a different personality, history, background, and emotional wounds. Yet, because our souls spiritually are one, literally, in the deepest sense, we can and must learn to love each other, support each other, and come together as one in the physical world as well. 🙏💚