On Giving Permission


Considering that I’m a Marriage and Family Therapy Intern, I think most people would assume that when a couple comes in for marriage counseling, I would advocate “working things out.” But here’s where I’m landing at this point in my life: I don’t believe people have to stay in an unhappy marriage.

I have personal bias, no doubt, and it’s something that I must be fully aware of when in session with clients. A few years ago, I remember telling my ex-husband that I would NEVER get divorced. I had been through my own parents’ divorce as a young adult, and it was a tough few years as I acclimated to a new family dynamic and processed the evolution and end of my parents’ marriage. I was certain that if people wanted it badly enough, they could work out any problems. But once again, personal experience has once taught me otherwise.

**Let me be clear: If you are in an abusive relationship – whether that is physical, verbal, or emotional abuse – YOU DESERVE A BETTER MARRIAGE. Find a counselor or life coach who can help you figure out your next steps, and can help you make sure that you (and your children) are safe.**

You know what I think these days? Sometimes, you marry the wrong person. You might have married because it was what you dreamed of doing as a child. (Raising my hand.) You might have married because it was your chance for a love story. (Raising my hand, again.) You might have married because your family was in turmoil and you wanted stability. (Guess I’ll just keep my hand up….) You might have married because you had children together. You might have married because you *thought* it was the right person, and what’s more, it might have been the right person at that time.

A friend once told me, “Marriage is never a promise for tomorrow, and certainly not forever. We try to fool ourselves that it is, but that’s a lie.” 

The Buddha said that life is impermanent; the only thing we can be sure about is that things will change. Of course we try to tell ourselves that marriage is forever. Who wants to get married and say, “Till death do us part, or, until we change our minds”? But the thing is, we DO change our minds, and sometimes, we don’t want the same things – or the same person – that we did when we walked down the aisle.

I have seen a lot of women in my office who complain about their marriage (and I’m sure there are men who feel the same way). I listen to stories about women who have hoped for changes in their partner for years, and/or who feel “trapped” or “stuck” in a marriage that makes them feel defeated and hardened to ideas of love and romance. So many of them seem to have stopped questioning why their partner won’t give them more respect, love, or compassion, and have started questioning what they are doing wrong, and what they alone can do to fix it.

These women come into my office sorting through their relationship, trying to determine whether or not they should stick it out, or if they should call it quits. Truthfully, and I do mean this, I wish every couple could work it out. The end of a relationship – whether married or not – is difficult and painful, and especially hard when there are children involved. But despite the pain, I do not think that every couple can – or should – stick it out.

Liz Gilbert said,

“[…] there is no one way to do life. And there is certainly no one way to do marriage. (Except to do it honestly, and in the best way you can, based on who you are, and what you need. And to not skip any steps along the way.)

What is the right answer, to a shattered marriage? What is the right response?

Go? Or Stay?

I don’t know.

I really have no damn idea. I can’t answer that for you. I was barely able to answer that for myself.

All I can tell you today is this — I went; some stay.

And both options can be the right one.”

I am not all-knowing. I can’t tell a client what he or she should do, and I don’t even begin to claim that I can see the answers clearly. I can, however, help clients to clarify their values, listen to their intuition, and be intentional about what steps they are willing to take to cultivate the life they want. That, in my opinion, is what marriage counseling should really be about.

So… maybe I’m not supposed to be the counselor who tells everyone to stick it out, or to stay together for the children. There are plenty of those counselors out there if that is what you’re looking for. Maybe, instead, I’m supposed to be the counselor who looks at a desperate man or woman and gives them permission to change their mind. Maybe I’m supposed to be the counselor who says, “If you don’t want to be married anymore, that’s okay.” Afterall, it’s not my job to tell them what to do. It IS my job, however, to create a safe and supportive space for them while they figure it out.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, dear readers (let’s keep comments respectful and appropriate).

One thought on “On Giving Permission

  1. Allison says:

    Well said, Kimberly! I think marriage is much more exciting and enriching when both partners feel both free AND responsible: free to be here or not, and also responsible for themselves. If you’re unhappy, the first person you need to look to is yourself — “What’s my role in this? Can I give to myself what I think I need from my partner?” When you’re clear about who you are, you can be clear about whether you’re in the right partnership. xoxo

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