THE BLOG
07/28/2011 12:50 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

When It's (Not Really) Over

"It's over," Lois, a defeated-looking woman, said to her husband as they sat in my psychotherapy office. She was more angry than sad. Tim was crestfallen.

At the moment of Lois' definitive pronouncement a subversive doubt bubbled up in my mind. "I think there are two kinds of 'It's over,' I said. "In the first, it is over--one or both people have given up on the relationship and it is not salvageable. All bridges to reconciliation have been burned and hopelessness sabotages any wish to preserve the relationship."

Tim looked even more devastated.

"But there's a second kind of 'It's over,' " I continued.

"It's not really over, and the person who says it is doesn't want it to be, but he or she is so afraid of getting burned again that hopelessness protects against additional suffering."

Lois gently nodded her head.

"Which is it?" Tim asked.

"The second," she said.

Declaring that the relationship is over serves various functions. Sometimes it means just what it says--the relationship cannot be resuscitated and it really is over.

At other times, a relationship that seems past salvation can and should be saved.
Here, the seemingly fatalistic declaration "it's over" can be a self-protective strategy that shields a spouse against re-injury and pain and lessens the likelihood of shock and devastation. It also hides the deeper connection between the couple that still exists beneath the hurt and fear and hinders the pessimistic partner from trying to salvage the relationship. Once you realize this, it can restore unexpected hope.

At first Lois and Tim had little reason for optimism. They had slowly grown apart over twenty years because they each focused more on work and parenting than on each other. We examined what brought them together, what they originally shared, where they were struggling now.

I encouraged them to work on four levels:
o Self-care
o Pulling "weeds"
o Accessing shared meaning
o Dreaming together about a better future

We started with genuine self-care, rather than the cotton-candy variety that they had used for years--watching too much TV and spending more time on their PDAs than talking to each other. Lois also reined in her excessive spending and lessened her time on the phone with female friends when Tim was home--admitting that it was a way of "punishing" him, as well as connecting with people she cared about. Tim put away his gadgets, was more attentive to Lois, helped around the house--instead of viewing it as "her job," which he admitted was his way of seeking revenge on her for ignoring him at home--and stopped escaping for whole weekends at a time on golf junkets.

We then began pulling the weeds that were leeching life from their relationship. First we focused on teaching Tim to recognize when he was distancing himself from Lois. He needed to understand that he would not lose himself when he was close to her. He also had to uncover what precipitated these feelings. Once he realized that when he had an agonizing day at work he just wanted to isolate, he was able to loosen his boundaries so he was more emotionally available to Lois. When he experimented with this he realized that instead of tiring him further, being connected to Lois gave him energy and hope.

Lois had to develop a stronger sense of what she wanted and needed; and the self-trust to advocate for herself when she and Tim collided. By protecting what she valued, she was less resentful of her husband. Lois and Tim also built space in their relationship to house the hate that periodically arose, by setting aside time each week to speak honestly, but non-condemningly about what disturbed them about their spouse and the relationship. Each person listened without judgment or defensiveness to their partner's concerns and complaints. Both felt taken more seriously and relieved that they no longer had to suppress their discontent.

I also encouraged them to reconnect with what brought them together and what they now shared and to dream together about the kind of future they wanted. In sessions and at home they focused on what inspired them during their courtship: a passion for rock-and-roll, sharing life-changing books, and social change.

They began talking about how to remake their own lives and their shared life in a way that reflected who they truly were. This included everything from what kind of work they did, to how they spent their leisure time, to where they lived and whom they socialized with. Something inspirational and unexpected occurred: their relationship became a place that cherished both of them and nourished their authenticity and autonomy while deepening their connectedness. To our surprise and delight, it was not really over.