Will We Make It?: Core Beliefs that Influence Relationships

Mary and Tom, married for 40 years, come into my office with one question: “Should we stay married or get divorced?”

Tom grew up on a Midwestern farm, rising early to milk the cows and feed the chickens. He was the oldest of five, and always helped his mother take care of his brothers and sisters. His dad drank a little too much, but for the most part was a hard worker and always took care of his family. Married for 60 years, Tom saw them go through good times and bad. Sometimes when the fights got loud and frequent he wondered if they shouldn’t get divorced, but mostly he was grateful for the example that they could figure out their problems and move forward in their lives.

Mary grew up on the west coast in and out of big cities. The child of a single mom (her dad died in a car accident when she was young), they often lived with relatives or friends. Mary loved the hustle and bustle of a full house and she describes her childhood as, “finding love around every corner.” Mary’s mom put herself through college and medical school and Mary has fond memories of sitting at the kitchen table doing homework together. Although she wishes she knew her father better, she always spent holidays with his family, listening to stories and hearing how much she was like him (they both twitched their noses the same way when they got excited).

Tom and Mary met in their early twenties while Mary was attending a local college and Tom was fixing cars in an auto shop down the street. They had the typical dating story, that culminated in marriage and kids. Eventually Tom owned the auto repair shop and Mary started keeping the books and scheduling appointments. They didn’t have explosive fights, worked out problems when needed, and pretty much agreed on how to raise the kids and run the business.

Now they sit in my office, contemplating divorce. Their lives look normal to me and I can’t find any extreme situations or behaviors (e.g. violent traumas, affairs, serious illnesses, bankruptcy). Tom tells me, “We’re not in love, and maybe we never have been.” “What does that mean?” I ask. Their answers are somewhat vague, about soulmates and a certain feeling. Mary sums it up: “Do we stay together because of our history, or do we divorce and go find our true loves?”

I hear this question quite often, in different forms, from teens to Traditionalists and everyone in between. People want me to analyze their relationships and predict if they are meant to be together. What I’ve learned is people come in with certain key beliefs that tend to surface when they’re deeply questioning their relationship.
If you’re asking if you’re in love then you’re not, because you can’t fall out of love with your soulmate
“In love” is different then loving someone and you can only be “in love” with one person
If you don’t get it right this time don’t worry about it; soulmates have lifetimes to practice
Marriage is forever; there is no divorce
People fall in and out of love over the years in a long-term relationship
“In love” is just chemistry and it’s gone after 6-12 months
Longevity in relationships is about compatibility, not feelings
We have the capacity to love any number of people; there is no “one”
Long-term relationships were conceived when everyone died young; we’re not designed to be in relationships this long
Now I can argue for or against each of these beliefs and debate their validity with research, history, or theology, but honestly that rarely leads to a change in belief. Sometimes it gives people time (which offers more opportunities to change and sustain healthier behaviors), but still the end result has to fit both belief systems in order to sustain the relationship. Some couples come together around a common belief while others have divergent or even conflicting beliefs, but as long as they each feel congruent within their own system, there is hope. Sadly I learned with Tom and Mary that they both believed in soulmates, and they both believed they were not each other’s soulmate. After answering their own question they began coming to me to learn how to create an amicable divorce that allowed them, their children and their extended family a healthy separation.

Couples counseling is one of the most difficult types of counseling you’ll ever undertake. The level of honesty, vulnerability and raw emotional processing that occurs in front of not one but two other people can be intimidating and, quite frankly, not seem worth it. However the potential for healing and hope for a different future is one of the most powerful processes I’ve witnessed.