“What happened to my marriage?” is the deeply troubling and personal question in the hearts of Rock House Center clients looking for a pathway to a restored marriage. While the details of each situation are unique, the root cause and the way out of the suffering are actually very consistent. So much so that we have come to refer to this foundational issue of a struggling marriage as Cause #1. We haven’t identified a Cause #2, because we have not seen anything else more prevalent in challenged marriages. The #1 answer, of course, is God’s pathway to restoration.
It is commonly said that “likes attract”, while others declare with equal confidence that “opposites attract”. Either way, there is also the underlying belief that for whatever reason these personalities do mysteriously attract, they are meant to be together. Most beliefs about attraction include the assumption that the attraction is destined to result in marriage or at least a relationship which will bless them both. As a result of working with couples who come to Rock House Center to address their struggling marriages, we have come to see a very different pattern of attraction.
Mutual emptiness and the attraction it generates are at the center of the struggle. The depth of the mutual need is greater than either spouse could ever fill. The unmet expectations quickly bring about frustration and blame focused on the spouse. We cannot give what we do not have, so a marriage under these circumstances is destined for disappointment. Even though the relationship may start off strong due to the strength of the attraction, it is prone to derail.
This mutual emptiness is commonly caused by emotional or physical abuse, extreme criticism, conditional love, and performance-based acceptance from key life figures like a parent. People with these feelings are truly suffering and seek to find someone to fill their emptiness. They work hard at relationships that hold the promise of being the answer to how bad they feel about themselves. That includes investing a great deal of emotional energy and time pursuing and winning over their relationship interest.
When two people in this emotional state meet, they are readily drawn to the pursuit and all the positive attention associated with the courting stage. The mutual attention begins to address and relieve their emptiness, and that relief advances the relationship. Both people are seeking approval and assurance in the relationship and work very hard to please each other. This communicates that the other is valued. Feeling valued by someone you value begins to soothe negative emotions of worthlessness or feeling unworthy to be loved. This soothing is a powerful attraction to advance the relationship. During courtship, this “positive energy” keeps them together and leads to longer term commitments. The problem comes when it is revealed that the relationship is running on emptiness.
The persona that each has displayed to this point is not sustainable, and interactions begin to sour with the first criticism, indifference, distraction, unkindness, or disinterest. When spouses have healthy levels of self-worth, this can be dismissed with grace toward each other. When it happens between two people with low self-esteem, the slightest negative comment hurts to the core of their well-being. Instead of the needed forgiveness, there is offense and probably obsession to blame or fix the other as the seeming source of the pain. The relationship quickly begins to erode, simply because people make mistakes, offense is taken and never truly forgiven, and disappointment and disillusionment set in.
As unforgiven offenses collect in the heart of both spouses, the behavior which first caused their own emptiness begins to manifest, launching a degenerative relationship spiral for which there is only one hope. As trite as it may sound to some, the only hope is the love of God and forgiveness. The only answer for the unconditional love and acceptance we all need is God. Imperfect people on their best day cannot satisfy the need we all have for unconditional love and emotional intimacy. People universally need assurance that there is someone with whom they can be completely transparent who will always love them back. True unconditional love is a divine need which can only be filled by the divine – God.
God has the way out. The restoration begins with forgiveness – starting with forgiving your spouse and working your way back through the timeline of your life to all of those who you rightfully hoped would affirm your value. Our parents, who did the best they could with their own life history, may well be on the list. Next we need to reject any lie we believe that we are somehow too flawed for God to love us without our earning it. Then we need to ask God to help us establish our worth in the belief of His perfect love for us. Do all of this in prayer to your loving Heavenly Father Who is always trustworthy to love you back. Over time, He will fill your emptiness from His wellspring of love for you.