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Who Holds the Power to Repair a Troubled Marriage?

Rickety rope bridge spanning a foggy chasm.

When I work with couples that are struggling in their marriage, I like to provide them with the following metaphor. I explain that their situation is like a dark chasm spanned by a rickety, old rope bridge. On one side of the bridge is the husband, and on the other side of the bridge is the wife. The couple is separated from each other, but they need to get back together.

What I typically find is that both partners usually want to be reconnected, but neither wants to initiate the effort to cross the bridge.

There are usually two reasons for this hesitation:

1) Each partner concludes that the other person is the primary reason for the marital problems. The husband believes that his wife is most at fault, and the wife believes that her husband is most at fault. Since they don't think they are the one who created the issue, they don't think that they should be the one to solve the issue. Hence, both consider it their spouse's responsibility to traverse the bridge.

2) Neither side wants to start crossing the bridge by themself because it feels too risky. Once you start out across the bridge, your partner could stand on the other side and cut the ropes, sending you careening into the chasm below. For example, if you apologize or show kindness to your spouse, they may respond in anger or worse--they might use your apology as "proof" that you were the primary culprit in the dispute.

The problem in this case is that there's very little trust and a great deal of blame in the relationship. It's no wonder then that this couple is having a difficult time reconciling.

The longer each person refuses to take a step out onto the bridge, the more likely they are to walk away from the bridge and ultimately from each other.

To help couples make progress in improving their relationships, I've found that it's best to switch to another metaphor. I explain that instead of visualizing an old, rope bridge between them, the couple should see their relationship-work as similar to being on a teetertotter. 

Teeter-totter sign at a park.

As anyone who has experienced the fluid movement of a teetertotter knows, you can't enjoy a teetertotter by yourself. You need a partner. And even more importantly, if you are out of sync with your partner, it doesn't do any good to get off your end of the teetertotter and yell commands at your partner. That won't fix the rhythm. Instead, when you are out of sync with your partner and you want to get back into rhythm, you have to do the following.

  1. Stay engaged. Work at improving the relationship.

  2. Focus on yourself. Notice what you can do better.

  3. Make adjustments in yourself. When you engage in positive change, expect your partner to respond in a similar manner. 

In some cases, it's possible that your partner may not actually desire reconciliation. But you won't know that for sure until you try the three steps above. If you try these three approaches and your partner responds by getting off the teetertotter, then you'll know the ride is over. But overall, the key to fixing a damaged marriage is to start by admitting your own mistakes and changing your behavior for the better.


(Credits: Rope bridge banner image created with Microsoft Bing Image Creator by using the following instructions, "an old, crumbling rope bridge spanning across a dark ominous chasm with smoke. photo realistic". Teetertotter sign photo by author.)

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