Sam Tielemans is a marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas, NV. He has spent thousands of hours working with people struggling with depression, anxiety, addictions, or challenges in marriage. He’s certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy and loves working with people! He is one of the professional therapists on the Advisory Board for Leading Saints and has been a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’s been married for 6 years and has a sweet 3-year-old daughter who loves to greet him in the garage when he gets home.

Enter Sam…

It’s no secret that divorce is commonplace in our day and age now. The Church has and will continue to take a stand for families and emphasize the critical role it plays not only in the eternities but on Earth as well. Notwithstanding the spiritual, societal, and doctrinal foundation we have, members of the Church are still going through a divorce, albeit at a lower rate than the national average.

If divorcing and finding a new partner was the answer to the challenges that we inevitably face in our marriages, then you’d see divorce rates of second, third, and fourth marriages go down, but they actually go up (to above 80%). It’s not just a matter of finding somebody who is more compatible than your current spouse, as these statistics demonstrate, rather it’s about learning how to work together through the challenges that we will inevitably face as we try to build a life with someone who is completely different than us.

Then Why Do People Actually Get Divorced?

There are many reasons, ranging from addiction and abuse to “incompatibility” and a lack of commitment. The bridge that leads to divorce that I want to focus on comes from the research done at the University of Texas, which says that when marriages fail, it is not due to increasing conflict, but decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.

Emotional connection is the oxygen of a marriage. Without it, the marriage becomes unsustainable unless hopes of happiness and fulfillment are sacrificed for the good of keeping the family together. The difficulty is that many people who are struggling in their marriage don’t actually understand the core of why. They’ll often cite an inability to communicate, lack of passion, incompatibility, falling out of love, not equally yoked spiritually, or any other peripheral reasons. In reality, often times the difference between a marriage that thrives and a marriage that dies comes down to a lack of emotional connection, which precipitates the cascade of symptoms I just mentioned.

When couples are emotionally connected – in other words, if they are attuned to each other’s needs, emotionally responsive and present – then that couple can successfully navigate any of the challenges that they’ll experience in their marriage. Emotional connection is the superglue that bonds people together, which then creates room for differences in personality, interests, hobbies, level of spiritual commitment, or any other the often-cited reasons why people take steps towards divorce.

Understanding the Core Leads to Solutions That Work

As a leader, if a member of your auxiliary or ward is struggling in their marriage, understanding the core of why they are struggling can help you offer the support necessary and guide them towards solutions that work. There are three different stages of the process of repairing and healing a relationship.

Stage 1: Disconnected, Fighting or Avoidance

Couples who often get caught in negative cycles of interacting are in the first stage of the process, which is to say that there is consistent tension, fighting or distance in the marriage. It’s crucial that there is an intervention at this point and a referral to counseling to head off these cycles because they usually don’t course correct on their own. It’s a slow erosion of that emotional connection, which leads to the eventual denial of individual needs or dissolution of the relationship.

If the spiritual advice that a leader is giving a couple isn’t fully turning things around for them, then it’s important to refer the couple to a professional and work in conjunction with that trained therapist who uses an effective model for treating couples. The best research-based outcome studies come from Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and there are therapists all across the nation who are trained (shown to have a 93% improvement rate).

Stage 2: The Absences of Fighting or Detachment

The second stage consists of the lack or absence of fighting and withdrawing or avoiding negative interactions. Many couples who find themselves in this stage are able to communicate a bit more effectively and can manage conflicts without them resulting in blowups or the silent treatment. Many couples here are able to navigate the logistical aspects of family life, however, this is still not the ideal place for a couple to be.

Even though it can feel good to not be actively fighting with your spouse, the relationship in this stage still doesn’t provide the longed-for level of support, connection, and fulfillment that most people want. The analogy that I often use is that of a boxing match. The first stage of a couple’s journey back to being healthy is just like the boxers fighting during the round – there is active fighting, attacking or attempts to escape. When the bell rings and each person goes to their corner, that is like the second stage of a couple’s journey – they are no longer consistently getting stuck and fighting, but they are instead just more neutral. We want more for our relationships than this though and taking steps to correct or interrupt these patterns of neutrality are important.

Stage 3: Active Connection, Love, and Getting Needs Met

The third stage consists of actively being engaged in the relationship, being emotionally present, loving, and each person meeting the other’s needs. This is the stage that brings the most fulfillment and satisfaction to both people. Relationships like these are a massive resource for us individually to recharge and get the strength that we need to shoulder the responsibilities we all have in life. Decades of research tells us that we are stronger in pairs, and when we have the connection that we crave, we feel more confident, optimistic, and capable of handling life’s challenges.

The KEY to creating this type of marriage hinges on our ability to be vulnerable with our spouse and share with them the things that are going on for us on an emotional level. When we open up and share when we are sad, afraid, or get our feelings hurt, instead of getting mad, frustrated, or shutting down, it gives our spouse a chance to reassure and comfort us, support and help us to center emotionally.

As leaders, it helps us to better understand the process and stages through which a couple passes so we can have a sense of what kind of support and help they may need. Working with trained therapists in conjunction to the love and help we can provide is critical, and all parties can work together towards creating a harmonious family life and marriage, just as the Lord intended for it to be.

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