Watching a Marriage Die

The message was routine, a request for an antibiotic prescription to take on a trip out of the country. My staff had left for the day so I returned the call myself. The medical portion of the call was straightforward and lasted only a few  minutes so after discussing the antibiotic request I asked her about her family. I knew them all well as I had been the doctor for the birth of her 18 year old daughter. She told me that her kids were fine and that everything was okay with “them.”

Her emphasis on the word “them", referring to he children made me wonder if there might me something wrong with her "us", her relationship with her husband. It seemed she was implying that things weren’t going well in her marriage. I asked her what was going on. She told me it was a long story. I pressed her a little further and she confirmed my fears saying, “We are in the process of getting a divorce.” My heart sank. They had been married for over 20 years!

I asked her what had happened and if there was anything I could do to help. She was sure there was nothing anyone could do. She and her husband had drifted apart. They had little in common now that their children were grown. She was a busy professional trying to advance in her career while he had taken an early retirement a few years earlier. She was seriousness and business, he was having fun. They seldom talked about anything and the romance had died.

They tried a counselor but felt like it made things worse. In the counseling sessions they realized that neither one of them was willing to make the changes the other wanted. The sessions were circular, always keading back to the same place of disagreement. It seemed there was nothing anyone could do.

As she shared the story one phrase she spokejumped out at me. She said, “I have tried to take responsibility for my part of the problem.”

In that statement she revealed the root problem in their marriage (and many others). They believed that they each had “parts.” Their’s was a transactional, contractual relationship. It was a “I’ll do A,B and C and you do D, E, and F” kind of relationship, a relationship based on mutual benefit. If there was no longer any mutual benefit then there was no reason for the relationship to continue. If the other person did not do their “part” the marriage was effectively over.

Their contractual definition of marriage did not allow them to make the sacrifices needed to save their marriage. Marriage is intended to be a covenant, not a contract. In marriage two individuals make an unbreakable commitment. They leave their individual lives behind and become one. There are no longer individual parts, each person is committed to the whole of their relationship. It is a “I’ll do A,B, and C no matter what" kind of relationship, a commitment without limits.

We discussed how difficult this is. There is a natural tendency to want the other side to admit wrong and to work on things as well. As true as this is, it leads to hurt feelings and frustration as the imperfections and mistakes of the other spouse become the focus of attention. Marriages that endure are achieved by those who value the institution of marriage more than they do their own feelings of discontent. It is an incredible sacrifice.

I offered to meet with her or her husband, together or separate, if they wanted to talk further. I hung up the phone and said a prayer for them, their marriage and their children. I pray that they will come to the understanding that as painful as the road may seem, fighting to save a marriage is always worth it.

- Bart

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