The moment I walked in the door of our home after four days away, the smell knocked me back. I opened the pantry and realized we had forgotten to take out the trash before we left – including a discarded tray of meat. In that instant, every wave of tranquility and peace we had cultivated on our trip washed right out the door and instantly reminded me of the process we went through in our marriage recovery.
How do you keep breath in your body when everything around you is rotting? And more importantly, how do you keep yourself from rotting too?
Thanks to a fresh trash bag and disinfectant, the stench faded. But it was strong enough, long enough, that it seeped into places that still hold the odor. In time it will disappear but for now I am reminded of my error every time I walk past the door.
Our marriage has sat in that mess. Any relationship could, I guess. What started as an innocent neglect festered over time into a full rot. It took two of us to get there, and it took two of us to climb out. THAT is another story for another day, but in short, here’s what we learned in our cleanup and marriage recovery.
When you realize something is wrong, speak up. And when someone has the guts to speak up, have the humility to listen. Counseling is hard, and it’s expensive, and it’s humbling, and it hurts. Do it anyway. Your marriage and your family and the generations they impact are worth it. Go if you’re mad. Go if you’ve given up. Go if you hurt. As long as both people are willing, go. If it’s not the right therapist, speak up and don’t settle until it’s right. Both spouses should feel supported and heard. Partner unapologetically with a counselor whose beliefs are in alignment with yours, and whose primary goal is to help your relationship become stronger and better than it ever was in the first place. Find the right person who can be fair, firm, and dedicated to helping you work through the hardest parts of the rot.
People who are NOT your counselor: your parents, your siblings, well-intentioned friends, neighbors, or any member of the opposite sex.
The more people you share your dirty laundry with, the dirtier it gets. And then before you know it, it’s blowing down the street in the wind and you’ll never get it back. People are lovely but they are not trustworthy when there is juicy information on the line. A messy marriage is hard enough to repair without gossip, slander, or public humiliation threatening what little security and safety you still feel. Block out the noise of others’ opinions. They are not married to your spouse, they do not parent your children, they do not pay your bills, and they do not get to choose your future. You also do not want to pollute their opinion of your spouse – it will redefine and possibly sever relationships once you have reconciled.
Seek the wisest and most trusted counsel and continue to remind yourself that your marriage and family are sacred. In marriage recovery, keep the circle tight.
If you believe that counseling – or any kind of help or work – is going to magically fix the other person, you are wasting your time. Read and be well, mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. Improve yourself, eat well, and sleep. You cannot think clearly if you are exhausted and you will not behave well if your body is unhealthy. Run, or do yoga, or punch a bag, or throw plates. Endorphins are good for your spirit anyway.
You HAVE to admit your own responsibility in the matter. Even if you are only responsible for 1% of the problem in your marriage, own it, 100% of it. It is literally impossible to reconcile if you are unwilling to put down your fists and claim your own role in the situation. If there are behaviors you know you need to change, relationships you need to abandon, be willing to make the hard decisions to do so. And then, even harder, humble yourself to apologize and ask for forgiveness. The idea of offering a sincere apology might seem absurd but someone is going to have to be the first one to drop their offense to offer it. You can fight against each other, or you can fight for each other, but you cannot do both.
It’s tempting to turn one argument into a litany of every wrong the other person has ever committed. No good will ever come of that. Focus on the one issue. What we found is that any discussion longer than 45 minutes tends to turn cyclical and unproductive. Pause, cool down, and honor your commitment to revisit the issue when your pressure is down.
They hear more than we realize and internalize even the most minor things. Love them well, be honest, and if they witness an unkindness or heated discussion talk to them about it. They will be confused and the worst thing we can do as adults is erode their feelings of safety and security. Enlist help with a counselor and their teachers at school if they need a little extra guidance navigating a tough season in your home. Lean on trusted family to help circle them in love while their parents figure their marriage out.
Choose to look for evidence that your marriage is going to work. It will be very easy to look for proof that it won’t. Whatever you look for, you will find. (This is true in life and people in general, not just marriage recovery.) Resist the urge to put labels and chains on your spouse – “he always…” or “she’ll never…” If you hold them captive by their behavior in the past, you will begin to believe in your mind that they are incapable of change. And that is just not true. The sins and shame of the past are in the past. If they have asked for forgiveness (and even if they haven’t), set them free. Then choose to believe the best about them.
Yes, it will seem impossible. But harboring unforgiveness is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It will destroy you from the inside out and impede every single part of the reconciliation and marriage recovery process. Forgiveness does not mean trust comes back, nor does it mean sacrificing your needs or allowing the hurt to happen again. Forgiveness is simply setting the other person free from any debt you feel they owe you. You may not feel they “deserve” it but none of us does. Someone has to be willing to give that first round of grace. Forgiveness is hard enough as it is, and to add to the challenge, it is virtually impossible to forgive others if you cannot forgive yourself. If you’re struggling with forgiving yourself, speak with your counselor.
The most morbid joke I’ve ever laughed at was Jack’s invitation to a weekend away for our anniversary after divorce papers had already been filed. He asked, I burst into tears, he said “Awwkwarrrrd…” and I laughed until I thought my sides were going to split. Lighten up when you can. Even at rock bottom we all deserve light. (Incidentally, we did go away for that weekend, and it saved the whole thing. Cool story.)
If you both want it to get better, it can and it will. When you think you are ready to throw in the towel, hold on one more day. When you think you’re about to say the words “I quit,” bite your tongue one more time. Reach out to the person(s) who are in alignment with your goals of marriage recovery for encouragement. Reject any idea that it’s hopeless, beyond help, not worth it, or was never good to begin with. Your family matters. And I promise it’s worth it.
**Important note: I am not a professional or licensed counselor, and while we learned so much from brilliant people, there is no substitute for live professional help. Most importantly, if you are undergoing abuse of any kind, please reach out to any number of resources available to you. If you don’t know where to start, please send me a message, or reach out to your pastor or local Women’s Center to help you access the guidance (and if necessary, the safety and protection) you need. There are many individuals who will be able to point you in the right direction with care and confidentiality. Just reach out. You are not alone.
Montgomery County Women’s Center 24 Hour Crisis Hotline: 936-441-7273
Grace Point Counseling Center (local to The Woodlands, TX): 281-466-8602
My line of communication is always open – please feel free to send a note.
Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.