I receive many e-mails and comments on my blog from men asking me what to do after they’ve really messed things up in their relationship. Most of these “screw ups” have been a series of behaviors over time that eventually burned out their marriages or long-term relationships. Some men had affairs, while others were dismissive, angry and bullying for many years in their marriages and took their marriage for granted. Often their wives have left them or are telling the men they want “space.” By the time they contact me, these men are often distraught and at a loss about what to do to save their marriage.
If you are in this same situation, let me start with telling you what not to do:
1. Don’t justify your actions (“I did it because I was under too much stress.”).
2. Don’t blame your actions on your wife’s actions or inactions (“You were paying more attention to our children than you were to me. What did you expect me to do? I need love too!”).
3. Don’t defend your actions (“You knew I had a temper when you married me. Why can’t you accept me as I am and stop trying to change me?”).
4. Don’t threaten or try to scare her into staying (“How are you going to be able to afford being on your own? Without me, life is going to be very difficult.”).
5. Do not tell her you won’t be able to live without her or you’re going to kill yourself or any other threats to try to make her feel bad about leaving you.
Repairing the damage and/or winning your spouse back takes humility courage, and accountability. Sadly, our world often sends men the message that being accountable, humble and finding the courage to apologize and repair your mistakes is weak. As a result, many men struggle with being defensive, have a difficult time saying (and meaning) they’re sorry, and are hesitant to admit they messed up because to do so, they believe, is weak. If you want to save your relationship, then you had better put that mindset out of your head. The truth is, that this kind of thinking will get you a fast track to divorce.
Saving your marriage requires that you throw away all the crazy messaging you’ve been taught about what it means to be a “real” man and humbly work to be a courageous human being.
Being courageous while trying to heal your relationship will require you to:
1. Have an honest conversation with your wife about why she wants space or is so unhappy that she wants to separate.
2. Listen to her answers and get clarity about what exactly you were doing that was angering her, pushing her away or was detrimental to the relationship.
3. Be 100% accountable for the way you have been showing up and repair the damage from your actions. Make a heartfelt, clear and direct apology for the behaviors that harmed the relationship—without any equivocation whatsoever. Simply own your mistakes, apologize, and then change your behavior.
4. Change in the specific areas she stated were a problem. If she says, she was lonely because you seldom talk or emotionally show up—then get help to learn to have deeper conversations. Pay attention to your tendency to dismiss or minimize her feelings and/or experiences and instead be an understanding, supportive shoulder for her to lean on.
5. Dare to go against the socialization messages you’ve been taught by a culture that demands that you shut down, toughen up, and be aggressive. If you want to save your marriage, these messages are the last ones you want to be listening to.
Saving your marriage requires you to be different in it. If you were lying, be radically and lovingly honest. If you were an observer who seldom talked or engaged emotionally, then show up and participate. If you have a hot temper, get help to calm down and to manage your anger. In my experience, when men truly have remorse for the ways they were showing up, and then make genuine and significant changes, most wives are thrilled to take them back. If those changes, though, are superficial or momentary, the wives will keep on walking.
Challenge: If you know you have behaved poorly in your marriage and you want to save it, then step up in the right ways. Make the necessary repairs and show up in new ways that are loving and relational. Make sure your changes are consistent and continue over time or you will lose her.