Sometimes when couples are arguing bitterly, it’s hard for either of them to remember a time when they had been loving and kind to each other. The painful and deep tear in the fabric of their relationship has left them indifferent, or even hostile, to one another. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the wedding vows once shared, the romance that brought them together, and their hopes for their family’s future.
Marsha and Ken had been married for 20 years, with two daughters, ages 12 and 16. For months before they separated, the couple argued angrily, almost daily. Their arguments usually ended when one of them, too frustrated to continue, walked away. Nothing was ever resolved. Each blamed the other for being stubborn, unreasonable, unfair, and impossible to talk with.
It’s understandable that they would have such strong, angry feelings. The reasons could be that they are frightened of an uncertain future, or they may be furious at the other for infidelity, addiction or some other serious mistake that caused the divorce. It’s even possible they could be seeking revenge for mistreatment, current or in the past.
What would happen, if they stopped arguing and asked each other about a time when they treated each other well, when they actually got along? In the midst of a feud, no one wants to acknowledge the other person was ever lovable, decent and even-tempered. Neither wants to take a risk and be first to admit the person has those qualities.
Marsha and Ken, they married because they “fit.” Other couples may describe that feeling as love, infatuation, or romance. Ken and Marsha were convinced they could make a happy life together. And, that had been true for most of their marriage. Now loving feelings vanished. Instead they feel bitterness, sadness and anger.
When they stopped bickering and thought about times when treated each other well, Ken talked about when Marsha needed to return to work—after 7 years of being a full-time mom. She wanted to resume her career (nursing) and contribute to the family’s finances. As he talked, Marsha nodded and then she said, “I know it meant you would have to do more for the girls and to help with things around the house. And, you really did.”
It isn’t easy to remember moments when cooperation, kindness, and respect were the foundation of a relationship. Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Many couples manage to hold onto a bit of compassion for one other, even during their most bitter arguments.
Talking about good moments, times when their relationship worked for Marsha and Ken. Even though they felt close and caring didn’t change their minds about being divorced. It just helped them find a way to talk with each other, rather than constantly bickering and blaming.
How do you manage to treat your spouse with decency when you just want to shout at them? Here are some tips:
1. Realize that it will hurt both of you if you use discussions about finances or children to get back at the other person for causing the divorce.
2. Keep arguments about what caused the divorce separate from discussions about children and finances.
3. Remember a time when you and your spouse were able to talk about and solve problems together. Ask yourself, how did we do that? What did it take?
4. If you can’t seem to let go of the anger and bitterness in order to deal with other issues, then consider (a) using a mediator who can help you make decisions together, or (b) seeing a therapist or clergyperson on your own
We always have a choice. We can choose to be furious and resentful, or we can choose to be responsible and cooperative. At some point in the midst of all the anger and bitterness, we can choose to focus on the issues, not the marriage. Not because we are soft but because we want to claim our future.