“It’s over.” “We’re done.” “I love you, but I’m not IN LOVE with you.” These phrases have ended countless relationships, and in my counseling office, I regularly see couples who are on the brink of uttering those words. Often people regard therapy as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. And it can be. But just as possible is the chance that therapy will illuminate what is deeply broken in a relationship, wounds and ruptures that may or not be repairable.
THE CHOICE IS THEIRS
The general public may regard counselors as professionals in the business of saving relationships. I’ve encountered plenty of clinicians that also opine that their responsibility to couples is to help as many as possible avoid the trauma of divorce. But, in my experience, not every relationship can be mended, and perhaps some shouldn’t be. Now, let me be clear: I NEVER make the decision for my clients to end or continue a relationship. I don’t even offer an opinion about their direction in therapy. Clients’ choices reside solely in the realm of accountability of the client. But that reality doesn’t change my belief that sometimes, people choose to stay together even when they are continuing to harm one another, or even their children. Couples make the choice to separate or stay united for as many reasons as there are marriages that exist. And heated debates have raged for decades about whether divorce is an irreparable wound, especially for kids whose parents split up. But what about these fractious couples who continue to engage in destructive dynamics despite many rounds of therapy, with multiple counselors? Why do they stay?
DROPPING THE ROCK
I don’t give credence to the “easy” answers I sometimes hear — religious beliefs prohibitting divorce, financial constraints, couples being “addicted” to their painful mode of relating. Often, I think it comes down to our lack of comfort with letting go. Letting go of people, of dreams, of circumstances being what they “should” be, according to our well-laid plans. As a culture, we lack good modeling for letting go. The Anerican ethic often supports the opposite ideal — pushing harder against any obstacle until, with enough pressure exerted, the individual is successful in her effort to overcome. We don’t teach people the invaluable skill of grieving, despite the guarantee that loss will be a regular visitor in each of our lives. We champion achievement and accomplishment, and look down on those who “give up” or stop “trying.” Perhaps we would do better to learn from the lessons of our Eastern cousins, who maintain that ALL suffering is a result of “clinging”, of being unwilling to let go and release ourselves, others, our expectations or our beliefs. The more we hold on, the longer and more intensely we wed ourselves to suffering. Buddhists know that relief and freedom come with letting go. We are able to move in new ways, see from different vantage points, when we stop tethering ourselves to one specific value, behavior or person. I won’t claim that letting go is easy. It can be terrifying, painful and sad to let go. But it can also be the only way to embrace our truth. Unfortunatley, we can’t easily predict the correct timing to release our grasp, nor can we immediately know which ropes to let go and which to hold fast. Those insights can only be found within, in a fearless plumbing of the depths of our beliefs, feelings and values — a courageous endeavor to say the least. I wouldn’t wish for anyone the pain, confusion and grief that accompanies divorce. And certainly, a life changing event like ending a marriage demands a broad and thorough effort at maintaining the union before moving toward rupture. I’m simply suggesting that letting go can be a loving, affirming and respectful choice when all that lies before us is more suffering.
BOOKS THAT HELP: My favorite author on letting go, as well as practical ways to apply Buddhist principles to everyday Western life, is Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. Her no-nonsense, clear prose in books like “When Things Fall Apart:Heart Advice for Difficult Times” and “Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living” elucidate how to let go and develop a deeper sense of peace and purpose in our lives.