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When Marriage Crumbles

What an honor it is to walk into someone's life at just the right moment. I had a chance recently to talk about assuming love, expecting love, and looking for the third alternative with a woman ready to toss in the towel on her marriage.

Recent life events had created a lot of tension between her and her husband of twenty-plus years. Like me when I was 34 years old and frantic, she'd already written her version of the list. Thank goodness she hadn't presented it to him yet.

What's the list, you ask? It's all the things you ruminate about when life grows unpleasant and you desperately want your spouse to love you enough, respect you enough, cherish you enough, take care of you enough to make it all better. It's powered by a desperation to regain closeness, but it comes out like a laundry list of holes in your life you insist your husband or wife or life partner must fill. And it always ends with "or else."

Or, as she put it, "It's my way or the highway, buddy."

When she tried on the idea that he loves her fiercely and hasn't lost any of his best qualities, then tried to explain the upsetting incidents as if those things were not in question, she got it. Right away. She had known enough all along to find the path back to a close relationship, but her fears had shut out that knowledge. That's the power of assuming love.

Whenever we are afraid, our thinking narrows. We become focused on the danger signs. For her, a raised voice had been a warning of real danger in an earlier relationship. She immediately focused on protecting herself, setting self-protective boundaries, instead of listening. But there was no threat in this raised voice. It was, she now realized, a way to communicate his own fears, which her actions had accidentally racheted up.

She had recently retired. An event like retirement takes away structure from our lives -- both of our lives. It offers many possibilities, but it also guarantees changes in even the littlest moments of our daily lives. We may never have discovered if we're married to the sort of person who can stand to break away from a task for a shared excitement or someone who needs single-minded focus. We can see the "look at this" interruptions as greater intimacy or as childish annoyances. We can see the "not now" signals as withering criticism or great communication.

We get out of sync, too, during life changes. One of us is ready for an exciting new risk just as the other reacts to too much change by becoming unusually risk-averse. One wants a cheerful supporter to help reduce the scariness of risk. The other wants a helper in taking the painful steps to reduce risk. Neither wish means we've stopped loving each other or don't want the other to succeed. But we need some third alternatives, not competing agendas.

In any new adventure -- and every life change brings a new adventure -- we want emotional support, help with challenging tasks, someone to clear the distractions from our path, comfort when we don't get the results we hope for, and understanding for the effort and attention it requires. It's easy to expect all this will come from our partner, but it won't. No one person can do all that. It's easy to mistake rejection of any of these expectations as a withdrawal of love, but it's not.

The way to receive the most from our mates is to expect love. It's what we chose them for. It comes in many forms, and we don't get to choose which ones. But we always get more when we're not resentful about whatever else we're expecting. And our ventures and marriages benefit when we look outside the marriage for the rest of the advice, cheering, assistance, and patient listening we need.

I'm always surprised by how someone just inches away from walking out on a marriage reacts when assuming love restores their hope for the relationship. I haven't met one yet who wasn't still very much in love and frantic to feel their spouse's love again. Giving that back to them is the most rewarding thing I've ever done.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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