Marriage: Split, Survive, or Save?
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Are you wondering what to do about a crossroads in your marriage? Carey and Toni Nieuwhof talk through the options, providing direction and hope.
Marriage: Split, Survive, or Save?
Toni: I think the part about splitting is—you know, you are having all these struggles with your relationship—and it’s like you can pack the relationship up in a box, and put it out to the roadway, and someone will whisk it away: “There; the problem is done.” When the day of separation comes, you actually get another box. In that box, you have the financial problems, and the property division, and the parenting schedule, and making parenting decisions. Then, layered underneath that, are all of the relationship problems that you thought that you were putting out to the roadside.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I will never forget the day of driving with my dad to a band rehearsal for our church.
Ann: Yes; describe a little bit about your dad, like, “Where was he in your life?”
Dave: I’m in my 40’s, probably, at this time. We had started our church five or ten years previously. My dad and I were not close; he left when I was six for a girlfriend, actually. He ended up being remarried, but now was sort of back in my life. It was sort of fun, because he was a drummer; he paid his way through college playing the drums. I’m a guitar player. Going to this rehearsal, I’m thinking, “This is a cool moment. He is going to watch his son in rehearsal.”
Out of nowhere, I get this thought—I’ll never forget it—I look over; and I go, “Hey, Dad, did you regret the divorce?” I had never talked to him about this, so it was sort of a scary moment for me to bring this up. I don’t know why—out of nowhere—I had this thought, “Hey, Dad, do you regret the divorce?”—thinking, “I don’t know if he will answer this.”
Before I am done with the question, he responds, “_____, yes!” I remember going, “Why?” He goes: “Because I missed you; I missed your whole life,” and “It was one of the most regrettable decisions of my life.”
Ann: —which was so healing for you, because you really had no relationship. You kind of assumed, like—
Ann: —he didn’t really care about you.
Dave: I did not expect that answer. But as I bring that up now, I’m thinking, “Every marriage, especially in a situation like that, comes to a fork in the road, where you are going to make a decision about when it gets hard: ‘Are we going to fight for it?’ or ‘Are we going to end it?’” Obviously, my dad ended it; and then regretted it years later.
I tell you what—we do not want that for you—we don’t want that for any family. Obviously, that is our mission, here, at FamilyLife: we want to help marriages/families. We want to build godly legacies. One of the tools God has given FamilyLife, that has been around for generations, is what we call the Weekend to Remember® getaway, where couples come—pre-married couples, married couples, couples who have been married decades—come to a hotel/to a getaway and take, from Friday night through Sunday morning, a look at their—you put energy into your marriage and really leave the weekend with God’s game plan for your marriage—
Dave: —to make it work so that you don’t end it.
Ann: Guys, this is so big—because it really did—I feel like it really changed our marriage. It gave us God’s blueprint of why He wants us to be married, and it will help you thrive; it will help you avoid pitfalls. You’ll experience God’s good plan for marriage.
Dave: I wish my mom and dad would have gone to one; it might have saved their marriage. But we want to save your marriage, so this is a decision that can literally change your legacy. Here’s how you can sign up—and if you sign up right now—it’s half price.
Ann: Did you hear that?!—half price!
Dave: I don’t know about you, but I’m a guy that is all about half-price deals.
Ann: Are you cheap? [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and you can sign up for any Weekend to Remember getaway in any city. I’m telling you: it’s going to change your life; because this is a decision that is critical, not just for your marriage, but for your legacy as well.
We get to talk about that today with Toni and Carey Nieuwhof. She knows well, because she is a divorce attorney—in your former life; right?—
Dave: —where you sat with couples, sort of who were wrestling with that very issue. You wrote a book called Before You Split. I can’t wait to hear your perspective, because you’re in a marriage to Carey; but you’ve also sat and watched couples wrestle with the same kind of questions my mom and dad had to wrestle with.
Ann: Yes; so Carey and Toni, thanks for being with us/back, again, on FamilyLife Today.
Carey: It’s great. So glad to be here.
Toni: Such an honor.
Dave: Toni, I didn’t know as much about you until we got your book, Before You Split. It’s—I mean, we’ve had a great conversation, talking about your marriage almost ending, struggles, bringing baggage—as you call it, “mud”—into your marriage and working through that.
Today, I want to talk about something you wrote in your book. It’s really about that fork in the road, when a couple is struggling. We’ve talked about your struggle/our struggle. There is a decision. You call it: “You either have a choice to either split,—
Ann: —“survive, or save.”
Dave: Let’s talk about those three options. Pick either one you want to start with; but as a couple wrestles with that, how do they negotiate what to do in that fork in the road?
Toni: Splitting, I think, is obvious to people; because we all know someone or maybe we’ve even gone through a separation ourselves. I think the part about splitting—for people, who haven’t gone through it before themselves/that isn’t familiar—is you’re having all these struggles with your relationship. It’s like you can pack the relationship up in a box, and put it out to the roadway, and someone will whisk it away: “There; the problem is done.”
The issue, though—if you have kids, in particular—is that when the day of separation comes, you actually get another box. In that box, you have the financial problems, and the property division, and the parenting schedule, and making parenting decisions; and then, layered underneath that, are all the problems you thought you were putting out to the roadside.
Splitting is often a source of disappointment and disillusionment, I found, for the clients I worked with.
Carey: Yes; if I could just jump in, there is one story you tell that haunts me every time. It was a particular client—I’m sure you have heard it more than once, who came in your office—and it was dad. He was in the middle of a messy divorce; and everybody gets poorer, and everything gets complicated. You think you’re going to get access to the kids, and it doesn’t work out. One of the things he said—you write about this in the book is—“If I had known how complicated this would be, I would have worked harder on my marriage.”
You saw that, time and time again; because people go, “This is hard”; but they don’t realize that divorce is harder. I think that has been a really powerful motivator for me and made me really grateful we didn’t choose that option; but I think, for any couple that is on the bubble now: “Yes, this is hard; but divorce can be harder.” It really can be.
Dave: You sort of think it’s a solution to a problem, and it’s really an exchange of problems; right?
Carey: Yes; that’s a great way to think about it, Dave.
Toni: I do want to just inject a side note here that there are some families I worked with, where they needed to separate to allow healing to happen—in cases where there are safety risks, where there is violence, or a substance problem that is out of control—I’m sure you’ve come across those cases too, Dave, where it needs to happen so that people can heal.
Carey: That’s a good point; unsafe is totally different than unhappy. I’m talking about unhappy marriages—not unsafe marriages—but yes, you are totally right. An unhappy marriage—like ours was unhappy—it wasn’t really unsafe.
Toni: It wasn’t harmful.
Carey: Now, I am like so grateful; because the joy exceeds, at this point, the pain that we had to go through. That is just a little sprig of hope for those of you who find yourselves in an unhappy place rather than an unsafe place.
That is “split”; then there is “save” and “survive.”
Toni: Surviving is staying together in your relationship, with your emotions disconnected. This is also a common place for couples to end up. I know, as newlyweds, you think, “No, that will never happen to us”; but I’ve done surveys of church groups, before I’ve done marriage talks; and the issue that keeps rising to the top is feeling disconnected or lack of intimacy.
Carey: —so like roommates. You’re roommates; you’re still together.
Toni: Yes; feeling like you’re roommates—
Carey: —business partners.
Toni: —or feeling like you’re in a family business contract.
Ann: At the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway, we call it emotional isolation.
Toni: Yes; for anyone, who is listening right now, who maybe sees themselves in that position in their marriage, first thing I want to say is: “Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean that your marriage is over.” I think that’s what I’ve seen, especially in my client practice, is people say: “Well, the love is gone; so it’s over,” “Once the love is gone, what is there left?” That’s just not the way it has to be.
We had reached the point, where I wondered whether it was even possible for me to be in love with Carey again.
Carey: I know that sounds ridiculous, but it actually did happen. [Laughter]
Toni: No; and I can absolutely say now, it would have been/I would have missed out on so much if I had followed those feelings out the door.
Toni: There are ways that you can rebuild your connection, even if you feel like it’s broken right now.
And then beyond “surviving”—
Carey: —third option.
Toni: —is the option of “saving.” Saving your marriage is reaching the place, where you feel like you’re in sync, like you have each other’s backs; you’re deeply satisfied, and you do have that connection.
Yes; all I want to say about saving your marriage is that it is possible. It is so possible to go from surviving to saving—and surviving in your marriage, for a temporary period, while you work on rebuilding your connection and seeing what you can do to rekindle the love that you, obviously, did share at one point in time is—yes, in my opinion, absolutely possible.
Dave: And I love the research you cite in your book from Linda Waite. With a team/they studied 645 unhappily-married spouses, and they studied them at the beginning and five years later—am I getting this right?—
Dave: —and just said, “Couples that got divorced compared to couples that fought for their marriage—50 percent of the ones that fought for it said, “We are happier now than we ever were and never thought we would be this happy.” Only 19 percent of the divorced couples said, “We’re happier.”
I mean, you read something like that, and you’re like, “Wow; it really is worth fighting for.” It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be costly—it might take everything I’ve got—but it’s worth it. You can actually get to—you guys are a living example—you are in a place that is better than you were.
Carey: Yes, we would be in that category.
Dave: Yes, we would too!
Carey: Yes; and it’s cheaper than divorce. Like a good counselor is cheaper than a good divorce lawyer or a divorce; it’s going to be expensive. Listen, as a pastor, when I sat in that seat for 20 years, I’d talk to couples, who had problems. The number-one thing they would say: “We don’t have money for a counselor,”—
Carey: —or “We don’t have money for a date night.” I’m like, “Guys, this is an investment, like an investment actually has a return. The return that we have—I’m not talking about money—but just in terms of joy, and happiness, and actual friendship.”
One of the things about this coronavirus pandemic we’ve been through is—my goodness—you better like the person you are in lockdown with. We have three meals a day—I’m not on the road anymore—and we never run out of things to talk about. We’re not that couple, sitting at a restaurant, who has three words for each other over the dinner. We developed that best friend; we have some habits that we’ve implemented and strategies that have helped us with that.
Ann: Yes, you have some tips that I thought were really good. The number-one tip was: “Avoid the blame-and-shame game.” That’s a good tip; talk about that.
Toni: The blame and shame—I can’t even think of a couple that I worked with—where blame wasn’t a part of what was going on. I have to say that between Carey and I—absolutely, we were stuck in that trap of blame—and it sounds like: “It’s all her fault,”/“It’s all his fault.” Even for people, who say, “Well, I know I’m not perfect; I have some weaknesses,”—they still have the underlying belief that—“Well, 95 percent of the blame rests with my spouse.
Toni: “Maybe, 5 percent of it is mine,”—having that/I call it a victim-story mentality—so not a victim in the sense of unsafe, or violence, or anything—but just that victim narrative that puts me in the posture of being helpless.
I like to describe it as putting on a pair of glasses that are wrong for you. That victim story narrative becomes a lens that you look into your relationship through, and it causes this blurriness that prevents you from seeing the nuances; and the details; and most importantly, your own role,—
Toni: —like what it is that you are contributing.
The effort to ditch those victim-story glasses is so, so important—just to take a posture of becoming—making it your pursuit to become more self-aware, and even to open yourself up before God, and ask for “the light of Christ to illuminate whatever it is that I’m bringing to this mess that we’re in right now.”
Dave: Well, here is a question for you: “If I want to save our marriage, and my spouse isn’t interested, what do you do?”
Toni: I like the answer that I believe Dr. Gary Chapman gave to this kind of question, where he said, “What is it that you can do for a defined period of time that is different from what you’ve done in the past?” I think, sometimes, a spouse checks out: because it has just been too painful; and maybe, there are unresolved grievances; and there is just a real heaviness in the relationship that is shutting them down.
But if there was something that changed that dynamic; for example, I just want to tell this story about what happened with us when we were starting to get out of the really tough years of our marriage. One day, Carey and I were having this argument—I remember it clearly—and he stopped in the middle of it. He came over; and he looked at me in my eyes and said, “That’s it! You deserve someone who cherishes you. From now on, I’m committing to be that one who cherishes you.”
Toni: It was a game-stopper at the time; because it was completely different from how our arguments had been going down in that vicious cycle of conflict, where typically, Carey would pursue me and try to resolve the problem; and I would withdraw. We would end up in tears—and he did—but this was completely different. It was, more importantly, I think it was a different posture that Carey was really committing himself to.
Toni: It did start to change the trajectory of our relationship.
Carey: I don’t even know what we were arguing about. But I remember thinking—because I had talked to a couple of friends—I remember talking to my mom and dad once about: “Toni and I are not getting along.” We’re not airing-our-dirty-laundry-in-public-while-it’s-going on kind of people; but you know, you have that inner circle. I was getting feedback from a few people—my mom included—who was like, “Toni is really an awesome person; you are not seeing things correctly.”
Carey: And I had a couple of friends give me that kind of feedback too.
She’s [Toni] at me—whatever you were at me about that day—and I was at you, whatever it was—but I thought about it objectively: “Do you know how many men would love to be married to this woman?” Then I thought, “Just be that guy.” I couldn’t emotionally, in that moment, be that guy; but I could go over to her and say, “Hey, I’m sorry. You actually deserve…”—because Toni is a good person. She’s got faults—one or two just very small little blemishes—[Laughter]—but I’m head-over-heels in love with her today.
At like that time, I’m just like, “You deserve somebody who cherishes you.” Then I thought to myself, “I hope I can be that guy.” I think, most days, I am now, which is great. The feelings come back; your emotions catch up to your obedience.
If you are saying, “But the spark is gone,”—which you hear a thousand times—that’s your number-one complaint. We thought, when you started serving couples, it’d be like: “We’re fighting about money,” “…sex,”—
Carey: —“…parenting.” It’s like: “No, we just don’t/I don’t feel anything for him anymore.”
Carey: It’s like: “Listen, your emotions catch up to your obedience.”
I knew the obedient thing to do would be to deal with my own junk: try to love my wife as Christ loved the church, and try to be that guy who cherished her. It didn’t take 15 years; but here we are, 15 years later—yes, we are having a good time/a great time—to the point, where we do actually say to each other: “If gets a whole lot better on the other side of heaven, I don’t know what that would be; because this is pretty amazing.” That’s—we still have our moments—but they are moments.
Intimacy is shared experience: “I will contribute to the solution side,”—find things you love to do together—when you were dating, there was stuff you did: you went to movies together; you hung out with friends together; you built a campfire together in the backyard; you went hiking in the mountains—I don’t know—whatever you did. You enjoyed it.
We have found, since our kids left home—and they are both independent—we have a huge amount of time together. Rather than building separate lives—Toni does have a few friends; I have a few friends—but rather than building separate lives, we just found a whole bunch of stuff we enjoy doing together/shared experiences. That is what intimacy is: “What are some hobbies?” “What are some fun things you can do together?” We hike; we cycle together; we are boaters.
Toni, for our 30th anniversary, Toni wanted to canoe. It was one of those: “How expensive is that thing? Ah; you want a nice one; okay, great.” Then I’m like, “Now, I’m going to have to go canoeing.” I think I said to you, “This is something—I’m getting this for you—I’m happy to pay for it. This is something you do with your friends.” [Laughter] Then, one day, I’m like, “Okay, I’ll go out canoeing with you.” You know what?—I like it! I don’t even know why I like it, but I really enjoy it. Now, that’s one more thing we can add to a life-giving activity that we really enjoy together.
Your life is full of those experiences together with your kids/with your friends. There is a deep and authentic friendship that you just can’t replicate—I mean, we’ve got three decades-plus into this one—you can’t manufacture that overnight with someone else.
Dave: You’re more in love now than you were 20 years ago; and nobody thinks that’s possible, and it is. It’s literally: “God can do that.”
Thank you, guys, for being so honest, and leading all of us on a journey to a place, where God wants us to be. It’s been incredible.
Ann: Yes, thanks for being with us.
Carey: It has been incredible.
Toni: Yes, thank you.
Carey: Thank you, Ann; thank you, Dave.
Bob: I think, maybe, the key word in what Dave and Ann Wilson have been talking with Carey and Toni Nieuwhof about today is the word, “intentional”; the word that they just used.
Most of us get to a season in our marriage—where we put our relationship on the back burner—it’s on autopilot; it’s supposed to just hum along fine in the background, without any attention, or maintenance, or care. Just like everything else in your house, there is going to come a day when that thing that you’ve had on autopilot is going to break down.
We have to take care of our marriage: we have to invest, and we have to be intentional. That’s one of the reasons why there are couples I know who, every year, make it a point to attend a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. It’s marriage maintenance; it is their two-and-a-half day escape, where they can focus on their relationship and one another, and get some of the dust and cobwebs out of the relationship, and freshen things up a bit.
I mention that because we are about to launch the fall season of getaways. We’ve got about 30 events happening in cities all across the country this fall. Right now, if you register to attend an upcoming getaway, you’ll save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. That offer is good through Monday. There is no better time than today for you to go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com—find out more about the getaway; find out when it is coming to a city near where you live; and register online—or call to register: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number; that’s 1-800-358-6329.
Take advantage of the savings, and then get away this fall for two-and-a-half days, and focus on your marriage at a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. If you have any questions, call us; or go online to FamilyLifeToday.com, and the information is available there. We hope to see you at an upcoming getaway.
And don’t forget Toni’s book, which is called Before You Split. Find out what you really want for the future of your marriage. For those, who are at a point, where you are thinking, “Maybe, this is over; maybe, this marriage can’t be saved,” the book, Before You Split, is the book to read before you make that final decision. You can order it from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number; that’s 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about a movie that is opening in theaters this weekend—the latest movie from the Kendrick brothers—it’s a documentary about fatherhood; it’s a powerful film. Alex and Stephen Kendrick join us tomorrow to tell us all about it. We hope you can be with us for that as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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