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by Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin MS, LGPC

On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your relationship? Is it what you had imagined when you first got married? Years go by, and while couples are still technically married, they have unconsciously filed for an ‘invisible divorce'. How do couples rededicate themselves to their relationship and move towards the relationship they originally envisioned?

In order to rededicate our homes, our relationships, we must first close our ‘exits'. Before a couple can refocus themselves on the energy between them, they must make sure that no energy is leaking outside. An exit is an energy leak. It is essentially any behavior we take when we don't know how to talk about our uncomfortable feelings with our spouse. These behaviors are conscious or unconscious ways to avoid dealing with each other. We either withdraw inside ourselves or we go elsewhere looking to get our needs met. Whatever we choose, we drain the relationship of its energy until it becomes lifeless. We, in effect, have filed for an ‘invisible divorce'.

There are varying degrees of exits. Some are terminal such as divorce, which permanently ends the relationship. Others are catastrophic, exits which seriously damage a relationship to a degree which is often irreparable. The remaining exits are less severe but are so insidious and parasitical that they can do equal damage in the long run. These exits can be intentional, a feeling expressed as a behavior with the clear motivation to avoid involvement with your spouse, or they can be functional, a behavior you enjoy but your involvement in the activity clearly takes energy and time away from the relationship.

While some of the latter are essential activities or valid forms of recreation, if one of the reasons you are doing this activity is to avoid spending time with your spouse, it is considered an exit.

Here is a list of thirteen common exits that I imagine many of us do:

1) Work
2) Overeating
3) Community service
4) Exercise
5) Internet/Email
6) TV/Entertainment
7) Housework
8) Hobbies
9) Taking care of the kids
10) Sleeping
11) Talking on the phone with friends
12) Reading
13) Avoiding eye contact

There are surely other exits that do not appear on this list. Whatever your exits are, it is important to recognize them and understand that these are forms of "acting out" your frustrations about your marriage. Just as our children may "act out" when they are hungry or not getting enough attention, adults react similarly when their needs are not being met. When we feel unloved, ignored, or unappreciated we go everywhere but to our spouse to get those needs met. We find others and/or other activities that will meet those needs or we withdraw within ourselves, feeling hopeless about ever possibly getting what we want.

It makes sense why we would exit our relationship when the going gets tough. We are mandated by our call to survive to get our needs met. When they are not met we either become angry or afraid, and avoid intimacy. Without the proper communication skills, it is often too threatening to share our frustrations about these unmet needs with our spouse. It is a lot safer to call a friend and complain about your husband or to do the dishes when you are upset with your wife. While the mechanics of a safe and productive dialogue is material for another article, what must be stressed here is that we can only begin to close our exits when we verbalize our concerns to our spouse and transform our feelings into constructive communication. When we do this, we keep the energy that belongs in the relationship where it needs to be.

When I work with couples, I have them compile their list of exits and I facilitate a dialogue about them. If you have never done the Imago intentional/couple's dialogue with a coach, please do not try this at home. I feel strongly that if you do not know how to discuss these sensitive issues in a safe way, then you may do more harm than help. Imagine if your husband told you that the reason he works long hours is in order to avoid you. While it is great that your husband is conscious about his behavior, you probably won't be too happy to hear it. Therefore, what I advise is to do the following exercise on your own to gain awareness and become conscious of your exits.

Make a list of your exits. Place a check by those you are willing to change and an x by those that are difficult to change. Then pick one of the exits that are difficult for you to change, such as staying late at work, and complete the following sentences:

1) The feeling I am avoiding by doing this activity is ….
2) When I take this exit, how it affects my relationship . . .
3) And if in the future I continue to take this exit what I expect to have in my relationship is …
4) One thing I could do differently than take this exit is….
5) And if I tried to do this new behavior I would probably feel. . .

This is a great way to become more aware of the behaviors you engage in to avoid being in relationship. While in this home exercise you will not be sharing your findings with your spouse, it may motivate you to start putting more energy back into your relationship.
Through this rededication to the sacred space between you, may you begin to see miracles in your marriage.

Rabbi Slatkin is a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor and Certified IMAGO Relationship Therapist private practice with the Pastoral Counseling and Consultation Centers of Greater Washington, serving clients in the Baltimore metropolitan area. He specializes in working with couples and families and is available for lectures and seminars on the spiritual journey of relationships. For more information go to: www.baltimoremarriagecounseling.com or call 202-449-3789 x706

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