from Martha and Don Rosenthal’s book
Learning to Love: From Conflict to Lasting Harmony
This month’s guest post is from therapists Martha and Don Rosenthal’s excellent book called Learning to Love: From Conflict to Lasting Harmony. In it, Martha speaks eloquently to the issue of hope when we are in a state of discouragement about our relationship. We have been inspired by her words and hope that you will be too!
I feel it’s important to begin this work with a message of hope for those who may not be feeling much hope. In our years of offering couples retreats, Don and I have seen many relationships in dire straits. It’s not unusual for half of the couples at a workshop to be questioning whether they want to remain together. We see couples who are barely on speaking terms, some whose marriages have been rocked by affairs. some who can’t stop creating misery for their children, some utterly deadlocked over the basic issues of their lives. And yet, no matter how bad it is, Don and I always reassure them that they have the power to change it all. It takes willingness and persistent focus, but it can be done. In a surprising number of cases, these couples leave with an understanding that allows them to let in a little light and hope, enough to begin creating a new relationship.
People in a desperate state are often the last to know the true potential of their relationships. Their opinions on the subject simply aren’t trustworthy. Oftentimes they’ve already made up their minds that the relationships can’t work, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if not challenged. We tell them that from our experience, they do have reason to hope. Not only have we been hopeless ourselves, but we have seen many others come back from the same darkness. This is a message worthy hearing, no matter how bleak things look.
Taking a workshop by itself could never be a panacea, but it’s a beginning. We don’t try to convince people with arguments that they can change. We try to show them ways of dealing with the most difficult problems, to give them an experience that proves even the knottiest long-term issues are workable.
Usually the key is a shift in attitude. We often meet with couples who describe the painful situation in their relationship as if it were either their partner’s fault or something that just happened to both of them. Each is encouraged to ask, “What’s going on between us now, and what is my role in creating our pain?” Those who are willing to do this have to examine some of heir deepest assumptions, such as; “I would never do what my partner is doing”, “I could never love someone who’s behaving this way” or “My partner is responsible for my pain.” They see how the mind closes the heart, and how readily they can undo a decision made from a place of illusion. These are the people most likely to emerge from the dark tunnel, to leave the workshop with a reference point for finding their love. Once couples experience even a small part of this, they can no longer maintain the fiction that this situation is hopeless.
We don’t say every intimacy needs to continue. Keeping people together for its own sake is not our interest. Some may be so far down the path of resentment that they can no longer find the embers of their love. But if the embers can be located, they can be fanned. Yes, it takes time and dedication, especially after toxicity has built up. It means developing the willingness to open the heart in the midst of all the cumulative hurt and anger that usually prevail. Over time this capacity can be reinforced in may ways: books and tapes, friends, conscious intention, prayer and affirmations—whatever helps us remember the essentials. For those willing to try, the effort generally makes the difference. But it’s surprising how many people come to us with no idea of how different it could be. When couples emerge from the darkness of their crisis, and many have, including us, they often come to see it as a blessing in disguise.
A painful experience points to what isn’t working. When the pain becomes intense enough, it gets everybody’s attention. If partners can use their distress to move from judgment to empathy, from blaming each other to acknowledging their own role in the difficulty, they have a tremendous opportunity for a new life and a new relationship. It’s heartwarming to have met so many couples willing to accept this challenge, to step on to a new and extraordinary path. This message of hope is one based on personal experience, and my greatest wish is that it be heard by all.