Recently, a couple Dr. Wall was working with, shared how they were able to turn around a failing marriage into a successful one. With their generous permission, he shares their success secrets so that others might benefit.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a snake on a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
And the way of a man with a maiden.
Proverbs 30: 18-19
I always figured, if I’m going to be married, I may as well enjoy the journey.
Dr. Bing Wall
I had the good fortune of having Professor Harvey Joanning as one of my major professors at Iowa State University in my doctoral program. He used to tell us that we need to be scientists as therapists: Let your clients teach you about themselves. Come into the session not knowing. Be inquisitive, like an anthropologist studying a culture he doesn’t know. You don’t know your client. You haven’t walked in their shoes. Find out what makes them tick. Let them teach you to be a good therapist.
This is a wonderful mindset. It is also respectful. When hurting people come to therapy they often do not know what direction to take. Many have rarely just talked about their concerns and have someone listen. As they talk I try to take a “not knowing” stance.
And I’m learning.
Over time my clients teach me what works and what doesn’t work. What do people contemplating divorce think and feel? What goes through people’s minds when they have an affair? How do their spouses respond? How do they heal? How long does it take? If they’ve fallen out of love, how do they get it back? If they’ve reached a near divorce and turned the corner and are succeeding and enjoying their marriage, how in the world did they do that? What was helpful to them?
This brings us to Bruce and Mindy*. They have a remarkable story. They got about as far down as any couple I’ve ever seen, and instead of divorcing, have totally recommitted themselves to each other. They are now thoroughly enjoying their marriage. How in the world did this happen? This is the great question I ponder in my office. I teasingly tell people if I could figure this out I’d be on Oprah. It is the great question of all marital researchers. If we can help distressed couples rebound and find joy in their marriage, we would be doing a great service to humanity.
The therapy question was: What they had done to turn their marriage around? Most people answer the question in a sentence or two. Mindy and Bruce spent the whole session discussing this question with me. It wasn’t long before I realized that we were on holy ground. I was blessed to have been the learner, as they taught me what helps a terrible marriage succeed. Fortunately, I took notes from the beginning.
Mindy came to therapy first, after Bruce had filed for divorce and moved out. Both had had drug problems in the past and had had several affairs during their marriage. Recently, during their separation, both had had affairs.
Folks, if your husband is having an affair and he’s filled for divorce, this is not a good sign! Mindy simply would not accept this as the status quo. She went to work to win her husband back. Listen in as this couple explains, “What worked.”
BW: Why were you able to reconnect in your marriage?
Bruce: She wanted it. I thought, Hey, I’m here. If you want it come and get it. She wouldn’t back down. She was persistent. She showed me that she wanted TO love and that she wanted to BE loved.
BW: How did she do that?
B: Little text messages. Little notes. Showing up at the right time. She took initiative. She made it evident to me she WANTED to be loved. Before it was nag, nag, nag, nag, nag, nag, nag. She started showing interest in the things I liked.
BW (to Mindy): How did you stop nagging?
M: I told him what I needed instead of being nasty about it. For example, he said he’d quit smoking but really hadn’t. I’d quit smoking 8 years before and I was nasty about it when he struggled with quitting. Now, instead of nagging, I told him I feared he’d die. I realized he wasn’t hearing how I felt. I just said it. The bills, the house. Now we do it without yelling and screaming at each other.
B: Before everything was separated. This is my money. Her money. You pay for this. No you. Then argue. I earned it. You weren’t around when I earned it. It’s my choice. Mom gives the kids $5. Dad gives them $20. We were pitted against each other to be popular with the kids. Then she wanted to put our money together and change how we did our money. It was a huge trust issue. I feared she’d run off with it. My willingness to put our money together showed her I was serious. It let her know I was in it.
M: We used to live as two separate people: Him and me. Occasionally it’d be us and then our kids. Now it’s us and everything comes from that.
B: Now we are a family.
BW: How has sexuality changed?
M: He said I seduced him.
B: It felt like the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.
M: When we were new we were sexual, but in our marriage, sometimes I felt he wasn’t interested. I just let it be and not do anything. I started to do little things. Make him dinner. I knew he was shut off to me. So I told him how I wanted it to be: I wanted a kiss every morning. I told him I wanted to be sexual 2 to 3 times a week. He wouldn’t believe the change. It’s what I wanted. I hadn’t told him what I wanted. I didn’t know at first what I wanted and then I did know.
B: It helped what she wore. It was a rejuvenation.
M: I went out and bought sexy underwear for us and to make me feel good. I started doing things that I liked to take care of me.
B: This was a big thing. She wasn’t moping. She was comfortable in her sexuality. She wasn’t scared to parade it. Private mementos. I like the blue jeans and T-shirts. No flannels or granny pajamas. Before she wouldn’t even look at me.
M: I’m gonna hide.
B: Now I like her pajamas (wide grin).
BW: All new?
B: Oh, yeah.
M: I would pursue and he’d give a little back. Then I’d do a little more and it’d be too much, so I backed off and didn’t text and call and then he’d call me. It was very hard not to call him back. I wondered (often) if I was doing the right thing. (I did) tiny bits of things. I’m a persistent person. We’ve had a rocky marriage and you can’t change in one day. How much is enough? But if you want to be loved AND love, you have to DO WHAT IT TAKES and not lose heart or be in panic mode. Be myself. Be honest with my own healing and put it all out there. Be willing to take risks and be rejected. I kept taking a risk.
B: The biggest things was getting us both to come to counseling and get it all out. Why would I go talk to some quack? But you need to talk to somebody, to give you a chance. It doesn’t need to be the God thing. The pastor. Say this is what the Bible says. Come together and lay it all out on the table and sort out the bad and the good. That was the big thing. Laying it all out. It wasn’t bad to keep her. I knew I loved her. Did she want me? Yes, she did. She wanted to be loved by her husband. The foot massages, back massages, all helped!
M: The other night he brought up commitment.
B: I told her I didn’t think we were quite there. We haven’t made that commitment. Comfortability. Trust. Everything. I didn’t have to worry who she’s talking to and to have her have the same feeling and not worry who I’m talking to.
BW: How are you handling the pain from the hurt in the past?
M: I pray for the day I go one day without thinking about it. I know that on the other side there are better days ahead. I think of that instead of the bad.
B: It was the honor of a husband. She played the man card. She did this (had an affair) under my name. How could you? Why could you? If you are going to do, that just leave and do it. Don’t drag my name into it. She was married to me. (When she did that) I figured I could live my life with my children and somebody else. I didn’t realize I needed her and I needed to show her I needed her. I opened up. I told her (what I liked). The cards. The phone calls. The quirky things she likes. The cuddling. She’d never said that before we got married, because of having the baby ‘cuz she got pregnant.
M: I wanted to be hugged and loved and cuddled but he should know that! Now I try to tell him. I needed him to tell me what he needs, too. (It turned out he likes) backrubs and his clothes cleaned and hung up. That’s how he knows I take care of him. It wasn’t cooking!
B: Simple. Scratch my back the way she does it.
M: Before, I didn’t want to touch him.
BW: Why can you touch him?
M: I’ve gotten in touch with what I need—the rebirth of my marriage.
B: That’s the key. Here’s the chance to reinvent the whole thing. For years (all) we knew was what we didn’t like!
M: He’s interested in what I’m interested in. I like to hike and take pictures by the lake by the water. Taking risks and believing God’s gonna catch me and direct my paths.
BW: You’ve learned to give and that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.
B: That’s the key.
M: I hid behind a lot of things over the years (drugs, alcohol).
B: It was almost worse. She went from drugs to a freak on the other end. It’s more balanced now.
M: Maybe it will come. I tried to let him be the leader of the family.
Closing comments from Dr. Wall: Life is simple isn’t it? Little kindnesses. Little things to let the other know you are interested. Texts. Notes. Phone calls. I love yous. Backrubs. New underwear. Teasing. Flirting. Giving. Reaching out. Touching. Being honest instead of being mean. Telling instead of scolding. Time together. Embracing affection and sexuality. Pursuing it. Not being afraid of it. Initiating, instead of waiting, waiting, waiting. What if your partner is waiting too? We’ll wait all the way to our lawyers. Acting instead. Taking risks. Asking God to lead you. Not wallowing in the pain and the hurt and the failure. Being proactive instead.
You reap what you sow. Some of us need to change the seeds we’re planting.
*Not their real names