Note: Names have been changed
I'll never forget the counseling session with Al and Olivia. They had been high school sweethearts and, now in their mid-50s, had been married almost 35 years. Al was about to retire after 25 years at a paper mill. Olivia was a registered nurse. They had three grown children and six grandchildren.
Al sat stone-faced in the corner chair in my office. Olivia fought back tears as she explained why they were there. "Al says he doesn't love me anymore. He's found someone else."
"Al, is this the situation?" I asked.
He cleared his throat and spoke softly, "Yeah, I guess it's so."
I listened as they both explained how they put so much energy into raising kids and building careers that they forgot to love each other and nurture their marriage. After the kids moved out, Al and Olivia never discovered how to reconnect and fill the gap of an empty nest.
Olivia recounted the wasted years of living two separate lives. She confessed that she had neglected Al sexually and domestically. "He poured himself into his job. I poured myself into the kids and my nursing career," Olivia said.
Al added, "We kept drifting apart. I knew what I was doing was wrong; I was too proud to ask for help."
After a brief pause, I quietly asked, "So are you guys going to call it quits after 35 years? Is this the best answer?" Al stared out the window, and Olivia looked at the floor. "You are both believers. Is this what God wants?"
I continued to ask pointed, painful questions over the next three hours. I knew this couple was on the brink of divorce, and I probably had only one shot at helping them.
At one point, tears rolled down Al's rough face as he said, "I think I have gone too far. I don't think I can pull it back together. I don't think Olivia can forgive me. I don't think I can forgive myself. It's too late."
I looked at Al and said, "Al, it's never too late to do the right thing. You and Olivia have too much to give up. God loves you but dislikes the way you are trying to solve your marriage problems — especially when they can be corrected and prevented."
Toward the end of the session, we had made some progress but not enough. Al had to be challenged to make a decision. So did Olivia. Would she take Al back after he had been emotionally unfaithful?
I handed them two pieces of paper. "Al, Olivia, I haven't heard either of you make a strong commitment to work on your marriage. So what I'm asking you to do right now is write a letter to your children and to your grandchildren explaining that you are going to divorce. Be assured that they will want to know why. They have a right; this affects them as well."
I walked out, leaving them to face the truth, and I prayed earnestly. When I walked back into the room 10 minutes later, Al sat with his head in his hands. Olivia sat quietly with her paper in her lap.
"I can't do it," Al said. Olivia shook her head in agreement. The reality that 35 years of irretrievable investments was about to be lost had set in.
For four months, I worked with Olivia and Al, teaching them how to make changes that would bring back intimacy and purpose to their marriage. One of the things that led them to the point of desperation is that they had stopped doing the things that brought them together in the first place.
They had to reconnect with each other by going back to their dating days from the '60s: pizza and a movie every Friday night. Then they learned how to forgive each other for unfaithfulness in similar but different ways. They stopped keeping score of wrongdoings. They connected daily, even when they didn't feel like it.
They began to study God's Word together for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead of fighting to solve problems, they got on their knees and asked God to help them. They resumed intimacy in the bedroom after sleeping in separate rooms for 10 years. They rediscovered the value of touching, listening and walking together.
Two years ago I received a Christmas card with no return address. There was no writing inside, only a picture of Al and Olivia's large family: several young couples, numerous kids and a balding man and a beautiful, mature lady with gleaming eyes that said, "We did it!"
With the right spirit and actions, any marriage can be restored.