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Why is that one step forward often means two steps back when you’re trying to fix big marriage problems?

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This week on the blog we’re going to be looking at how to tackle big things in your marriage. And one thing I’ve noticed is that often when you start healing, marriage suddenly gets worse. It seems almost counterintuitive. But that’s what this woman found, who recently reached out to me about her marriage. She writes:

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Reader Question

We have been married for 5 years and blessed with a little one this past April. We’ve gone through many struggles the past 5 years, most of which has been healed. We both had sex before marriage and had a rocky start to our relationship, ending up with infidelity a little over a year ago. We’ve grown, forgiven, healed.Changing my mindset has been the hardest- years of destruction in behavior, confronting how I was raised. So recently I started reading more from you about how to improve our sex life and grow and hopefully repair some of the damage that many years have caused. I got excited about it, but now my husband feels inadequate. He’s crushed and I’m crushed. We’re even sleeping so far apart now! I still can’t talk to my husband about what I want! It’s frustrating. But through all of this, I can’t keep but wondering “why?”, why did I want to change something that was working and now is not?
That is a really common dynamic, and I want to explain what often happens. I don’t know more about this woman’s marriage, so I’ll just talk in general generic terms. But here goes!

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Every marriage has an equilibrium. When you disrupt it, life gets messy.

Why would marriage get more difficult AFTER progress has been made and right when you’re trying to improve it?

Because you’re upsetting the apple cart.

Every marriage has an equilibrium, a balance where you each know what’s expected of you. That balance isn’t necessarily healthy. Your habits aren’t necessarily good ones. But they are your “normal”. When you decide that you want a new normal, that puts a lot of pressure on your spouse, because now they don’t know what’s expected of them. They were used to a certain way of doing life (even if it wasn’t a good way), and now it’s like they’re dropped out of a plane without a parachute. They don’t know what’s happening.

Any time you don’t know what’s happening is scary, even if the change is good. Why do families self-destruct after they win millions in a lottery? Because their whole way of life is gone and they’re at a loss as to what to do now.

Progress and healing inevitably bring a lot of confusion. It’s like how life often gets more complicated right after you become a Christian. Sure, that’s a great decision to make, but now nobody knows how to relate to you. You don’t know how to do life anymore. You need to learn a bunch of new habits. It may be an exciting time, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one.

When you heal, you walk into truth. But some people are not used to living in truth.

There’s another element to this, too. All healing, of any type, comes down to this:

You choose to see your life in the same way that God sees it.

You line your vision up with God’s, and you decide to walk in truth.

That’s healing. That’s maturity. That gives you the ability to move forward.

But walking in truth can also be very intimidating, and not everyone is ready for it. I talked before Christmas about the situation where family members are estranged from one another. I talked about why siblings will often choose a dysfunctional relationship with a parent over a loving relationship with a sibling. Because they have unmet needs for acceptance from a parent, and they haven’t been able to take that need to God yet, then they will keep living the lie that their parents demand they do rather than admit that the parental relationship is destructive as the sibling wants them to. They will choose the lie over truth because it allows them to preserve the illusion that they may one day get the acceptance they yearn for from parents.

It doesn’t work, of course. But living in truth means understanding that some of these things our inmost selves desperately yearn for–like love from parents, acceptance from others, praise from important people–may never happen. That’s hard to face up to. Instead, many people continue to live a shame-based or illusion-based life rather than a truth-based life.

What that may mean is that you may have been able to walk forward in truth, but your husband may not be there yet. And you can’t force him to face up to truth. Just because you have healed doesn’t mean that your husband has, and so you wanting to improve things may be making him go faster than he’s emotionally ready for.

Sometimes our healing isn’t as simultaneous as it may seem.

You may feel as if you’ve come a long way in your marriage. You’ve dealt with baggage from the past. You’ve dealt with the infidelity.

And so now you don’t just want to get rid of the crud; you want to build some new stuff!

But it could be that your spouse just hasn’t come as far down that road as you have. It may not just be emotional issues either; especially where infidelity is concerned, there could be some major trust issues. In this woman’s letter, she said that there was infidelity last year, but she didn’t lay out who had the affair. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was her. She cheated on him. And they’ve obviously worked through that and had counseling. If she’s the one who has cheated, I’m sure she’d like nothing better than to look forward and move forward!

Infidelity, though, can be very hard to get past. And if you’re the one who has cheated, and you regret it and you’re now super motivated to build a great marriage, and you come to your husband and say, “I’ve got all these great ideas on how we can improve our sex life!”, that really can be very intimidating. He may still not be completely over the affair, and you saying, “I want to fix our sex life” can easily sound like, “the fact that our sex life was lousy is why I had an affair, and if you don’t step up, I may again.” This obviously is not what she means. But can you see how that may be the message he’s hearing?

Even if he’s the one who has had the affair, she still may be miles ahead in healing. He still may not have completely dealt with the intimacy issues (not necessarily sex issues, but intimacy issues) that caused him to stray in the first place. If someone is not used to living in complete intimacy with another person, then the thought of trying to create a great sex life can sound scary.

Yes, you may have gone over the ways that you were hurt as a child, and you may have worked through the infidelity. But just remember that your spouse may not be at the same place, and give him grace to keep growing.

Be careful of insecurities!

And especially give him grace in areas that he may be insecure. If you’ve suddenly decided that your sex life could be much better, and you study how to make it better (by buying The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, for instance, or reading a ton of posts on this blog), that can make it sound like you don’t think he’s a good lover. Or if you finally realize that the reason you guys are in debt is because you don’t have a plan, and you go overboard with Dave Ramsey and build a super detailed budget, he can feel like you think he’s irresponsible.

If he has insecurities in an area, just recognize that before you barge straight in. And that leaves me my last point:

Remember the goal: Keep connecting. Then you can address other things!

Look, when you’ve had a really messed up past, and you finally admit it to yourself and realize that you don’t have to live that way, it’s exhilirating.

You can make all these plans for how to fix every area of your life. You’re going to fix your sex life. You’re going to fix your finances. You’re going to eat better. EVERYTHING is going to be awesome!

But the problem with this approach is that the goal becomes I am going to fix my life. Because you’re so excited about it, you want your husband to jump on board too, and start fixing his life with you.

When your goal is to fix your life, though, then it makes it sound like you’re saying:

I don’t like my life the way it is now.

And your husband is a huge part of your life now! So it can seem like it’s a rejection of him.

I have found, though, that a simple switch in how you frame things can turn the whole thing around.

Instead of the goal being, “I want to fix my life“, the goal can become: “I love you so much that I want to grow closer to you in this way…” The goal becomes closer connection and intimacy with your husband, not fixing your life.

Can you see how that’s an easier thing to get on board with?

If it’s your sex life, for instance, instead of saying something like:

I know sex can get better. I’ve got all these ideas! Let’s try them!

you can say,
I want us to feel so intimate sexually, and I’d love to grow even closer to you. I’ve got some ideas. Can we talk about them?

One sounds like a veiled rejection or insult. The other sounds like a bid to connect.

Do you find it hard to talk about SEX?

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One of the most exciting times in your life and periods of the biggest growth is when you realize how counterproductive and toxic much of your approach to your life and marriage has been, and how it doesn’t have to be like that. But that time has a lot of dangers, too. So just be careful that in your enthusiasm you don’t inadvertently push your spouse away. Keep the focus on connecting. And you’ll likely find that’s much easier for everyone to handle!

What do you think? Has your marriage ever been in the situation where you thought it was getting better–and then your husband (or wife) pulled away? Let’s talk in the comments!

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - Reader Question: Why Are We Feeling Distant AFTER Dealing with our Problems? Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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