“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 Pulling “weeds”
o Accessing shared meaning
o Dreaming together about a better future