We had gone through our communication process in painstaking detail. Joe and Kelsey, a couple who had flown in from New York the previous day, had rehearsed how to speak with sensitivity and openness. They knew the importance of not speaking from a place of anger and accusation, but respect and dignity.
“Can you be with me?” Joe said to his wife of seventeen years, Kelsey, as he prepared to talk about some of his hurts.
“I guess so,” she said solemnly, barely looking at him. She appeared shaken and withdrawn.
I glanced over at my co-therapist, wondering if Kelsey was really open to hearing from her husband. I decided to double-check.
“Kelsey,” I said. “You are sending double messages right now. You’ve agreed to listen to your husband, but by saying ‘I guess so,’ and appearing to be withdrawn, he is not likely to feel free to share what is on his heart.
“Look,” she said firmly and seeming irritated. “I’m not thrilled about being here. I’ve been so hurt by him that I’m not really excited about listening to his concerns. I don’t know if I really care about his hurts.”
“Just as I thought,” Joe muttered sarcastically.
“See,” Kelsey said. “That doesn’t make me warm up to him.”
There was obvious tension between Joe and Kelsey, and they seemed ready to have a fight. While they had agreed to listen to each other, knew the importance of hearing each other and coming to agreements that would propel their relationship in a new direction, their wounds were simply too great.
“Kelsey,” I continued, “you are going to need to find a place within yourself that cares for Joe and his hurts. You’re going to need to bracket your painful feelings so that you can attend to his concerns. You will have an opportunity in a bit to share your hurts.”
I then turned to Joe.
“Joe,” I said. “The same goes for you. You can’t be sarcastic and biting in your responses. Kelsey is hurting just as much as you.”
I shared more about how one person’s wounds can create a barrier to listening to another’s wounds. We talked about their hurts, making special note of how they were struggling to listen to each other. We discussed the importance of having compassion for each other, even in the midst of how hurt they felt from what their mate had said and done to them.
I paused and let my words sink in. Both still appeared sullen and withholding in the position toward each other. I reminded them of a scriptural truth---“You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6: 36)
Here are some additional strategies we offered to rebuild a marriage marred by hurt and bitterness:
First, both needed to see the other as hurting and desperate for compassion. While it is tempting to see your mate as the one who has wounded you, you must find ways to set aside those feelings to allow compassion to come through. This can be done as you see your mate as a person who is hurting, and whom you have hurt, and who needs compassion.
Second, take responsibility for the wounds you have caused. While it is tempting to focus on your own wounds, and how you’ve been wounded, you must see the wounds of your mate. This may take work and special focus. This will require you to get out of your own skin and into the skin of your mate.
Third, ask forgiveness for how you’ve wounded your mate. Taking responsibility for your actions, you must acknowledge your wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness from your mate. This doesn’t mean you wait until they have ‘owned their stuff,’ but rather you focus on your part in the wounding equation.
Fourth, create opportunities to share your pain with each other in healthy ways. There are times when being able to fully listen means having experienced being listened to and understood. Someone has to lead the way. Don’t let your ego and pride stand in the way of being emotionally available to your mate to help alleviate their pain. This will lead to them being emotionally available to you.
Finally, offer forgiveness. Scripture encourages us to offer forgiveness even before it is asked. Just as the Father freely offers forgiveness to us, we can offer it to others even if they don’t fully own up to their wrongdoing. This is the message of grace—unmerited favor—and we can offer it to our mate.