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It always takes two to reconcile a damaged marriage

My friend says, with an ever-so-slight thread of defensiveness in his voice, “There’s a reason for all divorces. It’s fault that’s much harder to determine. I refuse to accept that fault is always split equally.”

My friend is technically correct, and in two ways. First, not all divorces happen as a result of consensus. Only sometimes do “we” decide for divorce. At least as many other times do “I” choose divorce, leaving another “I” protesting, pleading, weeping for the mate to reconsider and stay. I’m saying there’s not much you can do when, in the absence of any serious marriage violations on your part, your mate just announces he/she is done with you, done with the marriage, and is leaving “because I have to go find myself … because I don’t love you ‘that way’ anymore … I hope you find someone who can really love you for yourself … because we’ve grown apart.”

Blah, blah, blah. Whatever. The point remains, if you’re married to someone who won’t do the work of marriage, you’re doomed. And who could say that’s your fault? Second, it is sometimes the case that Mate A, while, like everyone, imperfect and having room to grow and improve, is more or less “victimized” by Mate B whose behavior (serial infidelity, verbal contempt, chronic addiction/compulsion, physical violence, crime, evil, etc.) has moved well beyond the ordinary imperfections we expect in ordinary marriages (forgetting the dry cleaning, being irritable, drinking too much at a Christmas party, occasionally forgetting to pay attention, etc.)

It’s true; sometimes the sins of Mate B have more moral weight than the sins of Mate A.

What’s ironic, then, are the occasions that Mate A nonetheless still wants to stay, heal and reconcile the marriage. Sometimes the most demanding and painful “judgment” Mate A can pronounce on Mate B is to say, “I’ve got forgiveness wrapped and ready for you … if you are prepared to come to the marital table and do the work of confronting and redeeming yourself!”

And sometimes Mate B does come to the table. And miracles happen. Real change. Change beyond any change we thought was necessary or possible. We don’t recover the former marriage. We tear down the old marriage and build a marriage neither of us thought was possible.

And, other times, Mate B crumbles in the face of the work. Shame wins the day. The offer of forgiveness itself becomes the terrifying adversary against which he/she must defend at all cost. And Mate B immolates him/herself in the flames of divorce.

Yep. Fault is not always 50/50. However …

It might intrigue you to know that many clinicians, me included, still push on with crisis couples to coax “fairly assigned blame” into the background of the discussion. Why?

It doesn’t bode well for the healing of a marriage (after a particularly egregious offense by Mate B) to spend too much time affirming the obvious: Mate B has been a real (expletive) and Mate A didn’t deserve it in the least! I’m saying you can’t build a reconciled future with one partner forever wearing a metaphorical hair shirt and the other partner forever occupying the office of Noble Ever-Forgiving Saint. Both the “saint” and the “sinner” would tire of these artificial, limiting roles. Entrenching this marital identity would ultimately become erosive to real reconciliation and freedom to love and grow, again, together.

(I remember a line from the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment,” where the husband, Flap, says, defeated and resigned to self-loathing, “Who would I be if I wasn’t the man who was disappointing Emma?”)

What healthy, self-respecting person would want to spend forever with a man/woman spiritually limping around the house, ever apologetic, ever futile in attempts to “make up” for past transgressions? And what healthy, self-respecting person would want to spend forever with someone whose moral superiority stood always vanguard and condescending over your irreconcilable moral debts?

At some point, a healthy Mate B is going to say: “Forgive me or don’t. But I’m going to forgive myself and move on. I can’t build a life with someone who needs me to feel badly about myself.” Or, at some point, a healthy Mate A is going to say: “The only person here who can’t forgive you is you! I can’t build a life with someone who despises himself and pushes my forgiveness away.”

I’m saying that, even when the moral analysis of a wounded marriage is not 50/50, the work of healing and reconciling a thriving marriage is always 50/50.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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