How To Turn a Bad Marriage Into Personal Growth

Not too many years ago, psychologist Wendy Mogel wrote a book that became quite popular, The Blessing of A Skinned Knee. She’d been working with children who were miserable and their parents were also miserable. She realized that, according to the famous phrase, if life gives you a lemon, then make lemonade.

In other words the bad things of this world are really clay in our hands. It’s up to us to shape them into something good. My last blog post did just that. The hurricane ripped up the lives of many people but many blessings came out of it: We realized and felt the love and care of the community; we were embraced in the loving arms of our families; we learned that we could let go of stuff after all; we discovered strengths and flexibilities in ourselves that we didn’t know we had. We even came face-to-face with characteristics about our loved ones that we would rather not have seen but which were necessary to know about in order to cope.

This all got me thinking as I continued to see people stream into my office: Is personal growth possible from a bad marriage? If so, how?

See, that question moves you from looking at the situation as either good or bad to how you deal with it. But there’s more. The real issue is that if you deal with it well, will you later be able to look back on it and say that it made you a better, stronger, smarter, or whatever person?

Rob's a Bad Guy; Can Betty Gain Anything from the Relationship?

Betty sat there shaking her head. She could not imagine how a person could be as bad as her husband, Rob. Sure, he could be worse: He hadn’t killed anybody after all. But looking back at her past history, he had cheated others in business – although he could always justify his actions – and went after those who he thought wronged him with great venom. He had gotten into quarrels with his children and his business partner. He had few friends although there were one or two. 

He woke up angry; he seemed to be a bitter man. He was always short of money and always believed that it was due to someone else’s mistreatment. Betty remembered the many times he would be yelling at someone over a business deal that went awry.

And what did she do throughout all these ordeals? Betty would ask him gently to tone it down; she would point out the many blessings in their lives and ask him to focus on those instead; she took a part time job to help with the bills although that was extremely difficult to do as they had three children and someone had to be there for them.

Now, years later and more upheavals later, Betty was sitting there, wondering what else she could do. She was not going to get a divorce. First of all, they could barely afford the upkeep on one home, let alone two places to live. Furthermore, she felt sorry for Rob. With all of these negatives, for some reason, he loved her and did not want a divorce. Unfortunately, he also didn’t make any efforts to change no matter how patiently and how often Betty asked for those changes.

Looking deeply into herself, Betty also realized that she is timid; she abhors a battle. She didn’t have it in her to grandstand her demands “or else.” The “or else” frightened her; it’s one thing to be assertive – and she was – but it’s another to tie her requests to a contingency.

Betty Tackles Her Weak Point

Taking a deep breath, Betty decided that her timidity is the very thing she needed to overcome in her life. We each have some purpose here on Earth if only to make ourselves better. It’s altogether possible, Betty reasoned, that had she not been married to Rob and not had these terrible challenges, she would not have known that this one thing, her timidity, may have been the very thing she was created to fix.

This was the hardest thing on Earth for Betty. She’d been working on herself for years: She’d completed college at night while raising the children who were now grown; she’d gotten out into the world and been appreciated at work; and she’d even been able to make her own needs known to Rob. But this was not enough. Their finances were in shambles and a part-time job would not be sufficient to make up for a lost lifetime.

Betty was happy that she had a job at all and planned to hold onto it, but more was required. She needed to bring in more income without sacrificing her current job – or money. What could she do?

Are Finances Part of Marriage Counseling?

You may be wondering why I am even addressing this. After all, I’m a Marriage & Family Therapist, not a financial person. However, there are three aspects to Betty’s problem that apply:

1. Clearly, the pickle she is in originated in her marriage and it has badly impacted her relationship with her husband.

2. The calamity may actually be a gift in disguise as I have been saying in this post; it may be a starting point for tremendous personal growth for Betty, something that, in the long run, she will be grateful was a part of her life.

3. Finances are a major source of stress in marriages in general, whether the problem came about because of mishandling of money by one person or the other or it was simply because of the economic bust of the times. Dealing with financial problems is really no different than dealing with other sources of family stress: They need to be addressed in order for the family to function well.

Not only do finances need to be addressed, but how they are addressed can become a template for handling all of life’s challenges. We have left off watching Betty trying to figure out what to do to solve her problems. This in and of itself is a great template for handling problems in general. Do you try to figure out a solution or do you point fingers of blame at the other people in your life? Do you take responsibility for the solution even if you didn’t cause the problem or do you shift it back to someone who has had a poor track record of finding solutions?

With a deep sigh, Betty gathered up her potting soil, a spade and a few other gardening tools. The weather was gorgeous and as long as she had to deal with a terrible economy and a difficult marriage, at least she could sink her knees into the earth and lose herself in her flower arrangements. Some time went by and she realized that she had given her mind a nice rest. She’d been so involved in figuring which plants to put where, she’d lost herself, a gift indeed.

“Well that’s nice!” Betty heard a voice call from the street. She looked up and it was her neighbor, Emma. “You have a real knack for that, Betty,” Emma continued.

“And I won’t rip you off, either,” Betty said with a smile.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were in business,” Emma replied.

Betty brushed off her pants and got up, still smiling. “I wasn’t,” she answered, “until you just gave me the idea!”

“No kidding,” Emma said as her mind started going full speed ahead. She didn’t want to tell this to Betty who was a dear friend, but ever since her husband Harry had died three years ago, her house was just too big, too empty, and too lonely. She’d been told to spruce it up and put it on the market. What better way to spruce a house than with a pretty garden? She'd be sad to leave Betty and knew the feeling was mutual, but what better way to soften the blow than to give Betty some business?

“Well,” Emma continued, “if you were to plant a garden for me, how much would you charge anyway?”

And so began Betty’s foray into self-employment. She didn’t give up her job; she just added a new income stream, and one she loved. What a great idea!

When our video camera finds Betty a year later, she has attracted a number of regular customers and has approached some regular lawn maintenance crews for mutual referrals. She recently enrolled herself in a course on how to use some of the mobile apps that could bring her more customers. She was happy and proud of herself for initiating so many plans for growing her new business.

Although Rob’s own money management skills never did improve, Betty started to feel like she could breathe a little easier. More than that, Betty realized that she had blossomed into a more confident, assured person. For that she had to recognize that the awful situation created by her husband was the impetus for her transformation. Yes, the bad marriage did lead to her personal growth.

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