BEFORE A BAD GOOD-BYE
How to Turn Your Marriage Around
By Dr. Tim Clinton
This book is an excellent book on marriage for all couples, but it is primarily written for couples who are ready to give up on their marriage and call it quits. Its goal is to help them turn their marriage around through a four-step process: Reframe, Reclaim/Release, Reconcile, and Refashion. The author suggests devoting 6 weeks of intensive effort to each step. He weaves several “case studies” through the book to illustrate the application of what he is suggesting. He uses the metaphor of three doors to illustrate the three options that couples have when their marriage is in trouble:
Door # 1 The Big “D” – Divorce: God’s ideal is for couples to be united in marriage for life (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5-6; I Corinthians 7:39). Clinton writes: “Divorce is always a lose/lose proposition and looking at it metaphorically, it’s a room without an exit.”
One family expert characterized the process of divorce renegotiations as “one of the most demanding tasks that rational beings are expected to perform.” It leads to: feelings of abandonment, anxiety, betrayal, inadequacy, loneliness and rage. With respect to the challenges of co-parenting, he writes: “Two separate people, living and working in different worlds, trying to raise the same set of kids is, at best, an impossible situation.”
Divorce hurts kids and leaves scars: “The first reaction is one of pure terror.” It leads to insecurity, depression, detachment, loneliness, abandonment and withdrawal. “The odds are pretty poor for children of divorce.”
Door # 2: Marriage in Name Only: Time heals no wounds. The older this kind of relationship, the more disengaged a couple becomes and the more difficult it is to help them. “Existing in a loveless marriage is much like stealing. It robs both partners of love, mutual respect, of joy and of whole trunkfuls and albums full of warm, happy family memories.”
To show the prevalence of marriages like this, Clinton quotes the results of a survey that showed that only 5% of kids wanted a marriage like that of their parents. He continues:
“Don’t let your children be scarred by your prison of pain. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming they won’t understand or are too young to be hurt. They do understand. And they will be hurt. Remember, you’re not making memories. You are the memories. You cannot not communicate. Your words and actions have real power. Don’t underestimate them.”
Door # 3: Staying Power and the Power of Staying:
1. No matter how far down you think your marriage has gone, it is still worth saving.
2. Your marriage can be rebuilt; it can be more beautiful and exciting than ever before. How? By following God’s plans for love and life, by resolving to stay and try to work it out. God can bring beauty from ashes.
The author places a healthy emphasis on the individual responsibility of each partner to take full responsibility for himself or herself and his or her own actions. He writes
“Quite often, one person acting alone in your marriage can trigger new responses in a relationship…even though the idea of reaching intimacy with your partner may sound like an impossible dream.”
He cites the case of a wife who came to the conclusion that if her marriage was going to have a fighting chance, saving it had to start with her. That realization took her from a vague sense of mission to a fully-defined commitment. He notes that changes starts inside us:
"You are the only person over which you can exercise true control…So when it comes to making changes around us, we must start with what we can change – ourselves.”
Conversely, many couples have difficulty committing to work on their marriages because one spouse feels that in doing so, he or she is in some way excusing the other’s role in destroying the marriage.
He describes the process of how couples lose at love, starting with unrealistic expectations such as that marriage will complete me, that love will keep us together, etc. through the everyday pressure that tear at love such as everyday stress, Satanic attacks, selfishness/sin, childhood scripts, etc. These pressures often lead to the process of disaffection and polarization, terminating in isolation, which the author describes as “the island of me”. He writes:
“All happy marriages are not carefree. There are good times and bad times, and certainly partners may face serious crises together or separately, Happily married husbands and wives get depressed, fight, lose jobs, struggle with demands in the workplace, and crises of infants and teenagers, and confront sexual problems. They cry and yell and get frustrated. They come from sad, and abusive and neglectful backgrounds, as well as from more stable families. All marriages are haunted by ghosts of the past, but every good marriage must adapt to developmental changes in each partner.”
The process of disaffection starts with distancing from one another, staying overly busy, tuning out one’s partner, glossing over important comments and not sharing about your everyday life. It begins with a very damaging secret held in the heart of at least one spouse. The secret is: I am unhappy with this marriage.
The cycle of disaffection is characterized by criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. It continues with the tactic of “raising the bar” – creating a hurdle that one’s spouse must leap over in order to prove his or her love. It often results in seeking to get one’s needs met outside the marriage. “Since distancing is a deliberate, positive response to protect yourself, the negative effects of distancing go unrealized until things become severely strained.”
At this point, one or both spouses enter into a downward spiral describes as follows:
The next step is polarization, which Clinton calls the “The Red Zone”. Each partner stakes out his/her position and refuses to budge. At this point, there is no structure, no direction, no purpose, no safety, and no honor. Instead there is deep anger and resentment. In addition, there is at lest one of the following:
The process ends in isolation, where each partner is isolated on a lonely, desert “island of me”. Clinton concludes:
“When you reside on an island of me, all the characteristics of polarization become intensified. Any illusion of a safe relationship has dissolved, stability has gone the way of safety, and all the subtlety has gone out of working toward the relationship’s defeat – it’s become the obvious order of the day. And you begin to wear anger and resentment right on the chin, daring anyone to take a poke at them….And what’s more, any trace of love has been swept away, bringing sorrow, emptiness, and expectation – and the knowledge that those expectations will never be met. What a horrible place to live. Life there is a never-ending string of painful experiences, many of which are also traps of your own design and construction.”
This step starts with praying the prayer of Psalms 139:23-24: “Search me, o God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” It is important to remember that God never wastes a wound, but rather uses it to develop us. Nevertheless, we need to take steps to stop the pain, including:
If one or both spouses have fallen into depression or resorted to counterproductive strategies such as drug or alcohol abuse, he or she needs to get help to work through them. Most partners, seeing their spouses take a positive step like dealing with depression or anger or a drinking problem, will recognize that as a commitment to the marriage. One should not have unrealistic expectations at this stage. Clinton continues:
“It’s important right now to have few expectations. Remember that you both have many conflicting emotions swirling around inside. Expect each other to be human and to fail occasionally. Expect only that you are both going to try hard to make something very tenuous, but very important, work. And since this is meticulous work, neither allow your expectations to soar too high, nor allow them to fall too low.”
Reclaiming one’s marriage is a spiritual task and a spiritual relationship includes a third party – God. This takes a horizontal relationship and makes it a triad. It is by faith that a woman submits to her husband, leaving herself vulnerable to be taken advantage of. Likewise, it is by faith that a man gives himself up for his wife, of which his wife can take advantage. By faith each submits spiritually to the other as an equal before the Lord.
Reclaiming one’s marriage also involves creating a safe zone – a safe place where differences are celebrated rather than criticized. Problems and disputes can be a key to a deeper relationship. In addition, one should give his or her spouse the benefits of the doubt when she or he is trying to rebuild the relationship. If more specific expressions of love are preferred, they should be shared rather than making one’s partner guess.
Another key element of reclaiming one’s marriage is learning to respect again:
“The centerpiece of a polarized relationship is a lack of respect – for each other and often for yourself…Begin by looking at your spouse as a human being…Next, begin to treat your spouse with respect. This may be difficult because, in all likelihood, your spouse has not treated you very respectfully…Another vital element in fostering respect for each other is to take down the high bar of perfectionism. Your partner does not have to be perfect to deserve your respect. Nor do you have to be perfect to be respected.”
Forgiveness is an indispensable element in reconciliation. Clinton writes:
“Now it’s time for your love to grow because of what you and your spouse have become. And to pave the way for that to happen, you and your partner must forgive each other, if you haven’t already, for the sins that you have perpetrated against each other. Next, begin to empathize with each other…Forgiveness is the act of letting go of the anger and offense and turning all desire for retribution and revenge over to the Lord. It’s being prepared to reconcile if you can and if wisdom permits, to reestablish all necessary ties with the person being forgiven. Forgiveness is about canceling a debt, and it’s something I do. Reconciling is our responsibility-it takes two…Forgiveness is not something that just happens. In fact, the opposite of forgiveness is what just happens. Forgiveness is something that you have to work at, and sometimes it’s not easy at all.”
Empathy is the next step in reconciliation. Putting oneself in the shoes of one’s partner and seeing things from his or her point of view will help defuse many potentially explosive situations. People always behave in a way that makes sense to them, and understanding my partner’s past, especially past hurts and wounds, will help me to see how her or his behavior that irritates me makes sense to her or him.
Finally, to be reconciled, one needs to choose to love again:
“Choosing to love again is a risky investment. But like any risky investment, the payoff can be enormous-a revitalized and refashioned love, a stronger marriage.”
This stage focuses on the rebuilding of marital intimacy, which the author calls “the island of we”. “The depth of intimacy is then measured by the level of total connectedness you experience as a couple.” This is a process and one that requires some hard work, including:
Sexual intimacy is also a very important – and holy – part of marital intimacy. When the relationship has been hurt by disunity, it can be very difficult for one or both partners to attain sexual intimacy, and it may take some serious rebuilding of the relationship before sexual intimacy can be attained again.
“How do you make the marriage bed the safest place on earth? You allow each other all the freedom you need to become all you both want to become as a sexual human being…That doesn’t mean that you have to go along with everything your mate suggests. You have a right to your own tastes, your own likes and dislikes, your own limits and boundaries….This is never a time to force your will on your partner. It’s time for you to find mutually exciting and rewarding ground upon which to build a thrilling, rewarding and very fulfilling relationship.”
Finally, the author suggests that ultimately the couple needs to build “an island of three”, i.e. a triad that includes God. He defines spiritual intimacy as follows:
“Webster’s defines intimacy as a ‘personal, confidential friendship gained by close study’. God defines marital intimacy as two becoming ‘one flesh’. Intimacy is a close, personal, tie. It is knowledge and understanding, a total commitment to another’s well being, concern for another’s sensibilities. It’s marked by the characteristic of being deeply invested, and there exists an overwhelming sense of safety between those involved. Intimacy is the highest expression of love and, therefore, is what God desires as a relationship with all His people.”
This is an excellent book for any married couple or any couple contemplating marriage. True, it is addressed to couples who are contemplating divorce, as the title suggests, but the principles are applicable to all marriages. Even the best marriages pass by rocky stretches of road and the principles of choosing to resolve conflicts and to respect one another are universally applicable. It is based on the author’s experience in counseling marriages in difficulty and it “rings true” with real life.
John Ed Robertson
October 30, 2006
Clinton, Dr. Tim; Before a Bad Good-Bye: How to Turn Your Marriage Around; Word Publishing; Nashville, TN; 1999; ISBN 0-8499-3743-4