I recently met with a woman who wanted out of her marriage. Her complaint was not unlike others I have heard. She had had enough of her husband’s inability to be open with her. She was tired of being in a relationship with no emotional connection. After years of suffering in silence, she had turned to a close-knit group of friends to have her emotional needs met. “They ‘get’ me,” she said. “They value my opinions. They care about me; my day, my life. I don’t have to work on the relationship with them. It just flows.”
I responded empathetically; it was clear that she was hurting and that it had been years since she felt a deep connection in her marriage. But I also asked, “What if you could have a similar emotional connection with your husband?”
She paused. “Doc,” she said, “You’re asking me to stop a locomotive of thought. I’ve been thinking about getting out of this relationship so long that I can’t just switch my thinking overnight. And, besides… it would be impossible; he could never do it.”
The pause told me that she was taking my question seriously. She was thinking, “What if I could get these things from my husband?” This small pause spoke volumes about her ambivalence. She began her marriage hoping they would be together until one of them died. At that time, she felt a deep emotional connection to him. They had children together. They had good times together. They had a home together. They depended on one another financially. They had had struggles and overcome them together. But right now, she was unsure if she could see a future with him.
‘I’ve been thinking about getting out of this relationship so long that I can’t just switch my thinking overnight.’
As this woman’s story shows, deciding to divorce does not happen overnight, and the process is fraught with ambivalence. The thought of divorcing typically begins in the mind of only one partner, and it initially develops at a snail’s pace. By the time it is voiced out loud, it may only be developing at turtle speed. In only a small fraction of the couples we work with at the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project is the idea of divorce moving at highway speeds. Rather, most people who admit that their marriage is in trouble have thought for a long time about divorce, both fantasizing about the relief it could bring and agonizing over the negative impact it could have.
In our discernment counseling protocol, we guide both partners through an examination of what brought their marriage to the brink of divorce. We emphasize that both partners must take responsibility for what they have done to contribute to the declining health of the marriage. We investigate all efforts that the couple has made to correct the problems. Finally, we ask couples about the best moments in their relationship, the times they felt especially close to one another. This interview yields a snapshot of the good, the bad, and the ugly of a couple’s marriage. It also underscores any relationship ambivalence that either partner has been experiencing.
For the woman I mentioned above and her husband, the end result of their discernment counseling was agreeing to a reconciliation pathway that included taking divorce off the table for six months. The two committed to an all-out effort to restore their relationship to a healthier state. After six months, they would discuss their marriage, the work they had done, and whether or not they should put divorce back on the table. This plan honored the ambivalence she was feeling but also created space for attitudes and feelings to change.
Ambivalence is part and parcel of being in a long-term relationship. How we handle that ambivalence is what matters.
During the six-month period, the couple required therapy to get past some of the relational wounds they had both experienced. She had to suspend the “locomotive” of thought that was pushing her toward divorce. He had to become more emotionally expressive, which didn’t come quickly or easily. She had to be patient during this process. And she had to take a look at her own role in their marital problems; how she had often turned away from her husband to have her emotional needs met, instead of helping him understand her better. As she made new choices to turn toward her husband, letting him know of her hopes for further connection, she was also making choices for a healthier relationship. She began to side with the part of her ambivalence that favored the future of the relationship instead of its demise.
The more I work with couples on the brink of divorce, the more I realize that each person lives with a degree of ambivalence in their marriage. At times we’re highly aware of the frustrations we have with our partner, and we become more conscious of that ambivalence. We’re not sure whether we’re enjoying our marriage or whether we’re totally committed to making the marriage last. When things are going well, on the other hand, we’re less aware of our ambivalence and less likely to entertain ideas about getting out of the relationship.
There are always going to be differences and things to negotiate. That means ambivalence is part and parcel of being in a long-term relationship. How we handle that ambivalence—whether we choose to turn toward, instead of away from, our partners—is what matters.
Steven M. Harris, Ph.D. LMFT, is Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. He is also the Associate Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project. He and his wife have been married for twenty-five years, and they have four children together.