There’s a Turkish proverb that says, No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back. I find this notion deeply comforting: that things can change, that people can turn their lives around, that it’s never too late to try. Even if it’s the eleventh hour. Even if their wheel’s in the ditch and they’re almost out of gas.
It’s amazing how long people will suffer in dreadful relationships before seeking help. Five, eight, ten years. Sometimes even longer. For many couples, I’m the last stop before they call a divorce attorney. Some have been deemed “incurable” by a previous therapist who simply didn’t have the skills to effectively help them.
“I don’t think there’s much we can do about your marriage,” one therapist told a volatile couple I now see. “But if you decide to divorce, I can help you with that.” This she declared before the end of their third session.
As a couples therapist, it’s my job to be optimistic, to be open-minded enough to look beyond the ostensible train wreck in order to see what’s possible. Sitting with people on the brink of divorce, I’m often the only person in the room with any hope at all. Hope is what gives people a reason to keep going. Hope fuels the faith that there’s still someplace worth going to.
Not that I believe in miracles or think that lasting change comes to us just because we dream of it or simply stand in the right place and wait for it to fall into our open arms. Change takes fortitude and a lot of elbow grease. Still, I believe that even the most troubled marriages can be turned around because experience has shown me they can. People can, and often do, get ahold of what’s solid and good in themselves and their strengths come through in unexpected ways.
Especially if I don’t give up on them.
“Come on,” my client Bennett presses. “Don’t you sometimes sit back and think about the people you see and say, Yeah, these two are going to make it; or, Nah, this one’s headed right down the tubes?
It’s no surprise Bennett’s asking, given the state of his marriage, he and his wife, Maureen so often feeling like they’re helplessly circling the drain.
“Sometimes I worry about people,” I tell him, choosing my words carefully. “I worry that they’ll pay attention to the wrong things and miss what’s important. I worry that, out of anxiety, they’ll set too low a ceiling over what’s possible for them.”
I say this looking him straight in the eye, wanting him to know I mean him, that he he sets a low ceiling on his own behaviors, that he asks more of his wife than he does of himself.
“But, it seems like risky business for me to play fortune teller,” I add, as I pick up and gaze into my favorite prop, a quartz crystal ball I keep on my desk.
“I’m not talking about tea leaves,” he dismisses me with a hand wave. “With all you know about couples, you’re saying you can’t look at people and predict?”
“No,” I insist. “I can’t. And, I won’t.”
And I mean that. I really have no idea who’s going to make it and who isn’t. It’s still a mystery to me what makes people change, why some people keep at it and others don’t, why people make the choices they do. And I don’t need to know. Some of the marital research being done these days that says eye rolling is a predictor of divorce. If that were truly the case, then I’d have to wager that nearly everyone in my practice is headed for divorce. And they’re not.
John Gottman, the researcher who talked about eye rolling, asserts that he can predict impending marital demise with ninety-six percent accuracy— citing, among other indicators, what he calls The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These nasty fellows had, at one time, been regular guests at our dinner table. Like the drunk uncle no one wants at their wedding, there the horsemen were, wreaking havoc, running roughshod through the house. And, like them or not, I didn’t know how to corral them or shoo them out.
“Look, Bennett” I say, after he’s pressed me again for a prognosis. “I have no way of knowing how much someone’s marriage means to them, how hard they’ll fight for it, or what they’ll discover on the way. It’s not a simple matter of chance. It’s not about destiny or chemistry or whether your astrological signs are well-suited or not. The outcome has everything to do with how much you’re willing to risk, how motivated you are to stretch. That’s something I can never predict.”
I saw a therapist who told me that my husband would never be interested in growing; that I would never be happy with him. Had she deemed him disinterested or fundamentally incapable? Were we to stay married, she’d implied, the best I could hope for was a marriage that was dissatisfying and frustrating, and ultimately unworkable. She’d never even met him. The best thing I did for my marriage was to stop my therapy before she talked me into seeing things her way.
I look over at Bennett as I roll my crystal ball between my palms.
“I understand you can’t foresee the future,” Bennett concedes. “But, I’m thinking about it like the tip sheet you get at the racetrack. You get information about every horse: what their times are, how their health is. On top of that, let’s say you’ve read a lot about horse racing …” he points to my brimming bookshelf, “Let’s say you know all there is to know, that you’re a pro,” he grins. “Maybe you don’t know who’s going to win… but you can always place a good bet, can’t you?”
He eyes me steadily, daring me to respond.
“Like us,” he says. “Me and Maureen. What are our chances?
Theirs is a marriage on the brink, and odds are they’ll divorce unless one of them can find a way to quit wavering and make a commitment to repair the mess of their making. I’m aware that both of them are waiting for the other to call it, one way or the other. Experience tells me that the hard work needed to resurrect a marriage as rickety as theirs requires both a desire and willingness to do so and a belief that it will be worth the effort. I’m not sure they have either.
So, after a calculated pause, I tell him the truth.
“I’d say you’re a long shot, Bennett.” I face him straight on. “Given your history and what the two of you have been through, given the kind of effort I’ve seen to date, I’m not certain you’ll cross the finish line together.”
His face falls a bit. He glances solemnly at Maureen.
“But, then again,” I add, gazing at both of them over the top of my glasses. “Seabiscuit was also a long shot.”
And therein lies the adventure. Whatever the odds, we have no idea how things will turn out until we get there. That’s why we’re on our feet in the last lap of a horse race. And that’s why I won’t make predictions—especially about other people’s lives. How could I know what effort they might ultimately muster? How could I possibly know what they should choose?
I prefer, instead, to encourage, to support people’s growth and help them recover from their setbacks. Since little in life is a sure bet anyway, I’ll put my money on the power of the human spirit, on courage, on people’s ability to turn things around.
Down to the finish, I’m still amazed by what people can do.
photo: Reme Olivencia