Anyone who has tried to diet or stop smoking or maintain an exercise program for more than two weeks knows just how difficult it is to eliminate well-entrenched patterns of behavior. We can fight our persistent old habits tooth and nail, but they're always lurking out there somewhere, threatening to return and subject us again to their servitude. Many of these behavioral characteristics were cut during childhood in channels that run deep and wide. To change our ways of responding now, as adults, requires us to dam up the river, dig new basins and reroute the flow. It may be the most difficult thing a person is ever asked to do.
That is what the adulterer or the alcoholic or the child abuser is facing. When approached rationally, he will tell us that he dislikes what he has become and wishes he could change. But the old patterns persist, leading him to do tomorrow what he did yesterday. His promises and his declarations are not worth the gunpowder required to blow them up.
How, then, can we help turn him around?
Dr. Dobson shares an example of how a wife, called "Linda," can regain her dignity and bring hope into restoring her marriage.
What can Linda do to make her husband abandon his female toys? She has tried nagging and begging and being sweet and being angry, but nothing has worked. What now?
Furthermore, in talking to hundreds of Christians who have seen their families torn apart, I have heard one comment with overwhelming consistency: "I would never have made it without the Lord!" They have then told me how the presence of Jesus Christ was never more real and compassionate than during the worst of the storm, when the winds of tragedy howled around them. It is my privilege, therefore, to direct Linda and all the multitudes who suffer into this harbor of God's infinite love. I have seen Him turn disaster into triumph, healing wounds and repairing hopelessly shattered relationships.
But it is also true that God often uses pain and crisis to bring a sinful person to his senses. There is something about great stress that takes us back in the direction of responsibility. Remember that the rebellious Prodigal Son decided to go home to daddy only when his money ran out and he was eating with the pigs. A daily serving of slop does tend to make one hunger for the fatted calf. In the context of the present discussion, there is a place for a deliberately conceived confrontation in a troubled marriage that may take it literally to the door of death.
For purposes of illustration, let me return to Linda's situation. At the appropriate moment and armed with the prayer I have described, I would urge her to precipitate a crisis of major proportions. She must give Paul a reason for wanting to reroute his river. He is unlikely to make the investment of energy and self-control to accomplish the task until he absolutely must. It is only when he becomes miserable that he will accept the responsibility for change. It is only when he sees everything of value to him--his home, his children, his wife, his reputation--begin to slip away that his choices will become clear. It is only when the well runs dry that Paul will begin to miss the water.
You see, Linda's husband needs her to be tough--but loving--at this moment, perhaps more than any other time in his life. He is wavering between responsibility and irresponsibility, admitting that he's confused as to which path he should pursue. He needs a strong excuse to do the right thing, and he almost seems to be asking Linda to give him that motivation. As long as he is permitted to be "torn between two lovers," he can postpone a commitment and play one "wife" against the other. That shatters everyone involved.
I can hear someone saying, "I thought you didn't recommend divorce." I don't, and I'm not. The choice will rest with the unfaithful partner. But it must be clear to him that he cannot have it both ways. It simply won't work. And in fact, the best thing that can happen to a tomcat who prowls around at night is to come home after his first escapade to face reality. Right then, in the aftermath of his foolishness, he needs to feel the full impact of his sin. He should sit in an empty bedroom thinking, "What have I done? I have violated the trust of this beautiful woman who has borne my children, devoted herself to my happiness, cared for me when I was ill, and loved me more than I ever deserved. And, in return, what does she get but a selfish cad who would sneak around behind her back and sleep with someone else? Will she ever forgive me? Will my children forgive me? Will God forgive me? Can I ever forgive myself?
I had just moved to a small Texas city in my junior year of high school and attended a football game the first Friday night. Since I knew no one, I sat among unfamiliar students in the stadium. I must have looked like an easy mark to an eleventh grader named Ellis, who sat behind me and repeatedly hit me on the head with his rolled-up program. After two or three verbal exchanges between us, I turned around and jumped on his belly. I pounded him on the head and shoulders while he flailed at my body. It was a typical high school free-for-all with very little damage done to either of us. But believe it or not, that was the prelude to a deep and lasting friendship between Ellis and me. It was based on mutual respect. I overheard him telling another student in the hall later that year, "I wouldn't mess with Dobson. He doesn't look like a fighter but he's tough as nails." My other bosom buddy from the same era was a 180-pound senior named Harlan with whom I slugged it out one Saturday morning. That fight ended in a bloody draw, but again, it precipitated genuine admiration between Harlan and me.
Applying this concept to romantic affairs now, the same characteristic is often evident. How frequently it happens that a dating couple will become engaged or will rush toward marriage shortly after recovering from the worst fight in their history together. I am not recommending that Linda, Faye, Nancy, Mabel and the others try to blow their husbands over with anger or hit them with frying pans. I am saying that by having the courage to stand up for themselves, they may regenerate a portion of the respect they have lost.
Finally, let's return to the problem of the "trapped" syndrome. The person who is feeling smothered can find instant relief if you, his partner, will implement this advice I have given. By making it clear that there are limits to what you can tolerate, you are showing self-respect and confidence. Strangely, that often draws the partner toward you. Some especially immature people absolutely have to feel there is a challenge in the relationship to be satisfied with it. Such individuals might even need to hear the door starting to close on the marriage before wanting to hustle back inside.
"Ridiculous!" you say. Of course it is. We only have one life to live so why spend it testing our loved ones and measuring the limits of their endurance? I don't know. But that's the way we are made. Why else will a toddler or a five-year-old or a teenager deliberately disobey his parents for no other reason than to determine how far Mom and Dad can be pushed? That same urge to test the limits causes students to harass teachers, employees to challenge bosses, privates to disobey sergeants, and so on. And regrettably, it leads some husbands and wives to test the ones they love, too. What is required in each instance is discipline and self-respect by the one on trial.
Not that you should say these things with words, of course.
It is also important during this time of crisis not to do the predictable things. Having lived with you for years, your partner has analyzed to a tee. He knows what bugs you, what makes you laugh, and what makes you cry. He has memorized all you little "pre-recorded" phrases that sprinkle your conversation. My advice is that you change these tapes. Don't offer him suggestions when you would typically do so. Don't make those inane remarks he's heard for twenty years. Don't be so predictable! Your purpose, you see, is to convince this man or woman that events are swirling out of control and may take him in directions he has not anticipated. The old rules don't apply. And why is this new mystery advantageous? Because one of the reasons your lover has lost interest in the relationship is that the "challenge" is gone. It's become so monotonous and routine, hence, you would be wise to turn the whole thing upside down.
And by all means, unless there is business to be conducted, don't telephone a spouse who has separated. But if a call is necessary, state your reason for phoning after a few words of small talk and then get on with the matter at hand. When your business is finished, politely terminate the call and hang up. Do not, I repeat, do not get dragged into the usual verbal brawls. You don't want to appear to be an uptight crybaby merely covered by a thin veneer of poise. If you explode as you did in the past, it will be evident that you are, as he suspected, the weak old pushover he has come to disrespect. There may be a moment for anger if he insults you, but in that case keep your response crisp, controlled and confident.
An interesting thing happens when this kind of quiet confidence suddenly replaces the tears and self-pity of earlier days. Curiosity infects the aloof party and he begins to probe for details. For the first time in months, perhaps, he's coming your way. He's saying, "You seem different tonight," and, "I hope you're beginning to get over our problems." He's baiting you to find out what's going on inside. It is uncomfortable for him to observe that changes are occurring which he neither controls or understands. Tell him nothing. He needs to wonder.
Throughout these changes, you must be careful not to behave in unloving ways. Remember that with God's help, you are attempting to build new bridges to this disrespectful, trapped partner. Don't burn them before they reach the other shore. Don't call him names, except to label his harmful behavior for what it is. Don't try to hurt him with gossip or even embarrassing truth. Don't telephone his family and try to undermine his position with them. Don't inflame his hatred in the children of your union. And don't forget that your purpose is to be tough, yes, but loving as well.
The partner who is threatening to leave or chase another lover is rarely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's doing the right thing. He's equipped with a God-given conscience, after all, that is hammering him with guilt. You can be quite certain of that. He may appear resolute and determined, but we must assume that a tug of war is going on inside. He feels terrible about hurting his kids, for one thing. Furthermore, a spark of love may exist for you as the woman of his youth, glowing somewhere beneath his cold exterior. While his manner is saying, "I don't care anymore," he may be engaged in these kinds of secret conversations in his mind: "Have I hurt the best friend I ever had? Maybe I should call off this whole affair. But I sure don't want my relationship with Sue to go back to what it used to be. I do think I could love her again." Round and round go the pros and cons.
It's a curious thing, Paul, how a person loses all perspective when he's so close to a problem. It becomes difficult to see the issues clearly, and that has definitely happened to me in recent months. But in the past few weeks I've been able to pull back from our difficulties and I now see everything in an entirely new light. It is incredible just how foolish I have been since you decided to leave. I have tolerated your unfaithfulness for almost a year, and was even so naive as to permit Susan to come into our bedroom. I can't believe now that I did that. I guess I just loved you so much that I was willing to do anything you demanded, just to keep you from leaving me.
But I'll tell you, Paul, those days are over! If you want to go, you can certainly do so. In fact, that may be for the best. I doubt if I can ever trust you again or feel for you as I once did. I wasn't a perfect wife, to be sure, but no other man has touched me since I pledged myself to you. But you violated my trust--not once but repeatedly for all these months. I'm no longer special to you--I'm just one of a crowd. I can't live with that. I'd rather face life alone than as a member of a harem. If Susan is the one you want, I hope the two of you will be happy together. I'm still not sure how something so wonderful became so dirty and distorted, but that is between you and the Lord. We both have to answer to Him in our own way and my conscience is clear.
So where do we go from here, Paul? I've been doing some intensive thinking, and believe you should pack up and leave. It just won't work for you to hopscotch between Susan and me, sleeping with us both and trying to make it all seem so normal. You say you aren't sure which one you want? Well, that isn't very inspiring to me. You pledged eternal love and commitment to me on our wedding day, but now that could be gone with the toss of a coin. What we both need is some time apart. I think you should find another place to stay, perhaps with Susan if you wish. If in the future you decide you want to be my husband, then we'll talk about it. I make no promises, however. I'm doing everything possible to remove you from my heart, to spare myself any more pain. It's not going to be easy. You were my only love--the only one I ever wanted. But that was then and this is now. God bless you, Paul. The kids and I will miss you.
Then, without warning, her entire demeanor begins to change. The next time they are together, Linda seems more confident, more in control. She asks for nothing and even appears rather bored with the conversation. "What's going on?" Paul wonders. "Has she found another man? Is some dude moving in on my territory? Is he going to be sleeping in my bed and expecting my kids to call him dad? Hold on a minute! Am I about to lose something very important to me?"
Two weeks later, Linda delivers the speech I suggested. She feels uncomfortable trying to say it face to face, so she sits down and expresses her thoughts in writing. (This is recommended since words can be chosen more carefully without counter arguments and interruptions; also, a letter becomes a permanent document to be read and reread in the days ahead.)
Paul finds the envelope in his mailbox that evening when he gets home from work. "Here we go again," he sighs. "I'll bet Linda is begging me not to see Susan anymore." Instead, she has granted him freedom to leave and even urged him to do so. His cage door springs open and his wife suddenly takes on an aura of self-respect and dignity. For a certain percentage of people like Linda and Paul, that is the beginning of the healing process.