Leave Your Spouse While You are Still in Love – Part 1

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A few years ago I thought I might want to leave my marriage. During a struggle that lasted over a year, only one person ever said to me, “You mustn’t do that.”

It wasn’t any of my friends.
…..It wasn’t any of my family members,
……….It wasn’t my pastor,
……………nor were any of my in-laws this straightforward.

The only person who said, “You mustn’t do that,” was my therapist, Bud.

I don’t fault any of the other people in my life for failing to be this direct. Many didn’t understand the extent of my conflict – I had hidden it well. I think those who did know what was up felt it much more important to meet me with support rather than confrontation. Its a difficult call for anyone, especially when dealing with someone as boneheaded as me.

For the record, Bud did not represent himself as a pastoral counselor, or a Christian counselor. He never tried to make his case from a religious point of view at all. I believe that he was simply convinced that for me to leave my marriage would not only be self-destructive, but would sabotage one of the most important functions of marriage: to grow people up. (Bud’s approach was/is shaped by Bowen systems theory – pay particular attention to the concept of self-differentiation.) (also, See Note 1 below)

Bud knew my situation well enough to know that I was not married to an inherently destructive woman.  He was not recommending that I hang in there with someone who might endanger my life (although he might have agreed that I deserved to be endangered….). It only took a few sessions for him to see that, even though I was certainly a brilliant therapist (cough-cough), that I was as locked into a selfish view of the world, and that all my training and experience as a mental health professional wasn’t going to break that hold.

There were no life-changing insights that followed – there rarely are, in any approach to therapy. But this particular season of self-reflection gave me a heightened appreciation for how incredibly difficult it is for any of us to recognize when our respect for a spouse is eroding, much less how to respond in constructive ways.

However, one thing has become clear. Many, many couples wait until it is “too late” to deal with these dilemmas….

And so, out of this I’ve begun to believe the right decision for some persons may be to…

Leave your spouse while you’re still in love..

I am a therapist and I am a minister. I believe that sacred vows matter, and that we pay a price for breaking them (even though this an article of faith — see Note 2 below). I assume it seems strange for a pastoral counselor to be suggesting that someone leave his or her marriage, especially while still “in love.” After all, the great majority of marriages still occur within a sacred setting, and don’t virtually all religious groups assert the importance of keeping sacred promises?.

Yet, consider this….

Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.  Some studies report that as many as half of all married persons will have at least one extra-marital affair. Even though monogamy continues to be promoted as the cultural norm, it is clear that this is an ideal we’re not all that keen on. And remember, hardly any couples head to the altar with the intention of straying – more typically first affairs begin with an, “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this” moment..

Having hiked this ground with hundreds of couple, its clear to me where the breakdowns occur, and on why I think that the best approach for many persons is to leave while still in love.  If you want to get a headstart on part 2, take a look at  Alienation Cycle.


Note 1: Bud worked with me from a perspective that is very consistent with the Christian worldview from which I very shakily attempt to order my life. Much of American culture promotes an enrichment view of marriage, which basically insists that if my marriage doesn’t make me happy, then I’m under no obligation to keep my vows. A Christian view of marriage insists that this sacred connection is intended to mature us into more sacrificially loving human beings. Sometimes Evangelical Christians put it like this: God is more interested in making us holy than in making us happy. That sort of language may be off-putting to some, but really all it means is that we’re supposed to be about the business of growing up.

Note 2: The view that we benefit from keeping sacred promises, and diminish ourselves  when we break them, is a statement of faith.  As I’ve said in other places, no one can “prove,” as the opening quote declares, that only grief and suffering will bring us to consciousness. Nor can anyone prove that keeping promises is the best approach to life.  At best, one can only make observations, reflect on experience, and then decide whether or not to have faith in what the great religious traditions teach about all the possibilities inherent in actually living out the tradition.  I’m very aware that this faith approach to life could all be a farce. It may well be that suffering is inherently meaningless, and that all of our wondrous theologizing on the matter is just one great obsfucation aimed at helping us cope with our anxiety over the stupidity of the existence in which we find ourselves mired. So when I say that I “believe” that suffering can be transforming, or that keeping promises can be transforming, I merely mean that I choose to live as if this is true even though I can’t prove that it is true.

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About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
This entry was posted in Marriage, Maturity, Spiritual Formation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leave Your Spouse While You are Still in Love – Part 1

  1. Mark Brady says:

    Wes, I love the perspective that an important function of marriage is to grow people up. Yes. And I’m guessing that many marriages go through their own particular Dark Night of the Relationship Soul. At such times a really good, skillful authority like Bud can be of inestimable value.

    As for this: “The view that we benefit from keeping sacred promises, and diminish ourselves when we break them, is a statement of faith. As I’ve said in other places, no one can ‘prove,’ as the opening quote declares, that only grief and suffering will bring us to consciousness,” social neuroscience is moving us more and more in the direction of “proof.” See, for example, Dan Siegel’s The Mindful Brain. In it he offers a documented, scientific perspective that such work actually appears to increase integrative connectivity across brain structures, improving immune function and the capacity for calming oneself after an upsetting limbic hijacking!

  2. kathy says:

    wes, i find this very compelling. i have come face to face with this very issue of eroding respect in the last year. medication, therapy, and time have healed some wounds but honestly i’m not sure how to move forward. so i’m anxious for part two of your article. i hope it answers the question: when you see/feel respect eroding, how do you stop it from happening? or can it be stopped? in my own life i wonder if it’s already too late. given our choice to stick with it – i wonder how we move forward with this now “damaged” marriage.

  3. Emily says:

    Self-sacrifice makes you holy? Are you kidding? Any theologian worth his/her Luther or Paul knows it’s all grace and faith that makes us holy. No one could self-sacrifice enough to achieve any amount of holiness or sanctification for that matter. The fact is, to imply we can in any way, be self-sacrificing for another human, is well – simply not true. Sure, we may give up something of our wants and desires for the good of another but for what end? Because we love them? We all know our own motives for sacrifice… and chances are, none of those motives are holy. Bottom line, in my opinion, if we follow the logic of self-sacrifice resulting in some sort of holiness… then we make Jesus’ death on the cross to be nothing more than a self-righteous suicide.

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