Kathie (34) and Robert Mitchell* (38) thought their marriage was doomed. So they were shocked when their last desperate attempt to fix it worked -- and now they're happier than ever. Kathie shares their story with YOU.
"I grew up in rather a dysfunctional and chaotic household. There were four children, and I was the third, two boys and two girls.
My younger brother, who was five years younger, was born with intellectual and physical disabilities. He was also prone to frequent seizures and often required hospitalisation. This put greater stress on what was already a fairly stressed out situation. My father, who suffered from a mental illness, did not feel compelled to work or provide for his family. As a result, we were very poor and often did not know where the next meal was coming from.
At heart, he was a kind and gentle man but also very disengaged and absent. He spent a lot of time tinkering around in the shed, although there was never anything much to show for his efforts.
My mother in many ways was the exact opposite, she responded to the stresses with a lot of screaming and yelling. She was emotionally abusive, easily angered and very sharp with her tongue. Many of my childhood memories were of my parents fighting and of my mother driving off in the car in a rage.
The relationship between my older brother and my mother was also quite volatile as he also had a very reactive temperament. I felt very much caught in the middle, often acting as the peacemaker and go-between, trying to reconcile the warring parties.
Many times I too felt like screaming and yelling about my frustration, but that space was already filled, and so I kept it to myself.
Fast forward a few years, I had managed to escape that environment and was able to enjoy my varsity years away from home and in a digs. After finishing my first degree I wanted to travel and my first job was a long way from home, and that’s when I met Robert.
At the time I wasn’t really looking for romance or anything serious, but I was somewhat lonely and taken by the attention he was giving me. I remember a conversation when we were first getting to know each other, I had told him about my difficult childhood and the tragedies that I had experienced (by this stage two of my siblings had passed away) and his reaction was “well, we’ll have to look after you then”, and that was the line that had me hooked.
I had spent most of my life looking after other people and trying to accommodate their needs, and for the first time I meet someone who wanted to look after me!! Well, we chased each other around the world, working and travelling in various locations, and three years later we were married.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take too long into the marriage for the tensions to appear. We seemed to disagree about everything, usually stuff that actually wasn’t that important.
I found that as Robert become more stressed with his work he became withdrawn and unavailable. Over time my frustrations and disappointments would turn in to anger which in turn grew into a seething resentment.
We went and saw marriage counsellors on a few different occasions and it definitely helped, mostly with getting us communicating again. But things were on a gradual decline and we developed some really unhelpful ways of relating to each other.
Certain things would trigger a deep anger within me, mostly feeling that he was neglectful around the house, not taking care of things or even noticing what needed to be fixed. I would pounce on him as soon as he walked in the door, especially if he was late, by even five minutes. He would retreat and become even more disengaged which would trigger even greater anger and reaction from me.
Then one day an event happened that triggered everything to come completely undone. He had an accident and had to be rushed to hospital. And in the moment I realised how little I did care for him, and he realised how little he wanted me to be by his side.
We both agreed that we needed to go back to counselling, but unfortunately it didn’t have the desired outcome. It was like one step forward, two steps back. I realise now, looking back, that the line of therapy we were taking wasn’t really dealing with the underlying root causes of our tensions and frustrations.
Robert also had a lot of deep anger, mostly from his childhood and the bullying he faced at school and the lack of nurturing he received at home. All that anger then come flooding out and it felt like I was to blame for everything that was wrong in our marriage.
He told me that I was a bully and that he couldn’t handle my aggressiveness. Then, a few days before my 40th birthday, he told me he was leaving me. It was devastating and heart breaking. We kept seeing the counsellor, but still wasn’t getting anywhere, so we called quits on that and Robert said the marriage was over and he had no hope for salvaging it.
The next six months were a rollercoaster of hellish proportions. I didn’t want the marriage to end, I didn’t see divorce as a solution to anything and I was desperate for our two boys not to be raised in a broken home.
I kept telling him I didn’t want to end, but I also kept jeopardising any chance of reconciliation with my angry outbursts. All he wanted was for someone to be gentle with him, and it was the last thing I felt I was capable of doing.
Then we both heard independently from different friends about the Imago weekend couples workshop and we decided to give it a go, as one last ditch effort. I will never forget the morning of the course; we were the only couple to arrive separately.
Robert was late and I was stressing that he wouldn’t arrive at all. We started the course with a huge amount of hurt and anger and hopelessness and as a couple on the brink of divorce.
It is difficult to explain the transformation that took place in the course of just two days, but by the end we were a couple again and we had hope that our marriage could be restored and could be better than it ever had been.
We had arrived with little hope, Robert was very sceptical and reluctant to be there, but by Sunday evening we both experienced a deep intimate connection and profound understanding of each other.
I realised from the course that I had brought many unmet needs with me from my childhood, and that I was expecting my husband to meet them, and when it turned out he wasn’t able too, that is when the tensions and frustrations begun.
I realised that I interpreted his lack of interest in our home as the same neglect as my father had shown for his family. When Robert withdrew and become distant (mostly in response to my aggressiveness) it reminded me of my father’s disengagement.
And unfortunately his behaviour, which triggered negative responses from me, further reminded him of the harshness and lack of nurturing he missed from his childhood. We both learned from Imago that conflict is growth wanting to happen, and that our partner was there to help facilitate that growth and to help us to heal.
It seemed an impossible ideal, but somehow, during the various exercises we undertook both during the Imago weekend as well as for a few sessions with an Imago therapist afterwards, I saw this starting to unfold.
We now finally had the tools to deal with the heart and core of the conflict in our marriage and resolve them once and for all.
The course encouraged us to move beyond reactivity and into a place of consciousness. With our spouses we have a very intimate relationship, like we have with no-one else.
Living with someone so closely and for so long, it can seem like they really know how to push our buttons. There are certain things our spouses do that can rile us up like nothing else, whilst other behaviours we might find a bit irritating, but it don’t illicit the same response.
You can see how for other people, their spouses habits that really annoy them, wouldn’t both you nearly as much. Imago teaches you to really stop and think about those behaviours and actions that really trigger a deep and negative response and how that knee-jerk reaction is actually more strongly linked to your unmet childhood needs, than your spouse’s actions (which are actually sometimes quite minor).
The main dialogue tool that you are taught is incredible powerful and enables you to be properly heard (sometimes for the very first time) and helps you to understand more about your own negative responses, and even one step further, it helps you find healing.
In our two-day Imago course I found more healing and personal growth than I had from many many years of counselling and therapy. My greatest regret is that we hadn’t heard of it and gone many years earlier, and even as a pre-marriage course. It certainly would have saved us many years of pain and anguish.
But I am of course so grateful that we came across it in enough time to save our marriage. It has also helped us to reflect on how we raise our children and their own personal development.
There is an Imago course for singles, and when our children are old enough, I would certainly encourage them to go on it, and most definitely the couples course before they get married.
Whatever way you look at it, marriage is hard work and will always require effort and energy if you want it to be a success. Your marriage or relationship does not have to be in dire straits to attend the course, every single marriage could benefit from the course, it can only help any marriage to become stronger, deeper and more rewarding."
*Not their real names