After 40 Years of Marriage, Can We Get Past All the Hurt?

Belle writes:

My husband and I have been married for 40 years. In the past 40 years we have been at odds with each other over many things that could have ripped us apart but we have kept trying. We hurt each other so much that now the wounds are getting deeper and not so easy to let go of. We want to live our lives together forever, but I am so scared that we both have had enough.

My mother has lived with us for 10 years since my father passed away. We hadn’t talked about this and we never dreamed that our lives would have turned out like this. My sister flew the coop and won’t ever be a part of our lives again. She has made that perfectly clear with her silence. 

I was wondering if we could try to get our life on track. It has been off the rails since we stopped dating and became man and wife. I know that a marriage isn’t supposed to be this way. Please help us find ourselves again. Please put us back together because when we are good, we are very, very good.

Dr. Chalmer answers:

Belle, I’ve worked with many couples in situations similar to yours: long married, lots of struggles and pain over the years, but determined to make it work. You’ve had a long time to accumulate the wounds you mentioned, and enough experience of good—very, very good—that you don’t want to give up on the marriage.

You don’t say what kinds of hurt you’ve done to each other. You didn’t mention being fearful of violence, but if you are at risk of violence, your priority needs to be safety—contact your local domestic violence hotline and make a safety plan. Assuming you’re physically safe, read on.

Belle, please check out my video called “The Two Golden Gifts for Your Relationship,” where I talk about stability and intimacy. (I also have a chapter on the topic in my forthcoming book [sign up to be notified about it here].) From your description, it sounds like you and your husband have done what many—maybe even most—couples do at some point in a long relationship: inadvertently sacrifice intimacy—essential emotional honesty with yourselves and each other—for the sake of stability. It sounds like that process started for you and your husband as soon as you got married, which isn’t uncommon since marriage raises the stakes a lot.

The problem with that strategy is that we need intimacy as much as we need stability. When a couple’s intimacy is impeded, they often find themselves in conflict about anything and everything except what they really need to be confronting. It sounds like you and your husband haven’t been able to deal with serious differences effectively for a long time (the fact that you didn’t discuss your mother’s moving in beforehand is an example).

You’re asking for help to find yourselves again, so you can put your marriage back together. I think that’s exactly the right approach: to be able to put your marriage back together, you’ll each need to be honest with yourself, so you can be honest with each other. You’ll need to learn to tolerate the anxiety of being out of sync with each other, so you can talk about serious differences without freaking out. You’ll need to develop strength, resolve, and integrity, and radical respect for each other’s strength, resolve, and integrity.

That’s what couples therapy can help you do, so that’s what I recommend.

Readers?