Relationships, You & Your Family

Before the bridge is burnt

To “burn one’s bridges” is a commonly-used phrase for a situation of no turning back from one’s commitment. For instance, when a general orders his troops to burn or demolish a bridge that they had just crossed, he is saying that there is no retreat—they have no choice but to fight the enemy or die.

The phrase came to mind as I reflected on two men who came to me over the last month. Already separated from their families, both had been told by their respective spouses to prepare for divorce and that mediation was not an option.

As I listened separately to these men, I realised that their wives had laboured over their decision for years and they had tried for some time to get their husband’s attention and response. After failing repeatedly, they had all but given up. When we tried to schedule sessions with the wives, one attended just to reiterate her intention to divorce while the other refused to come.

Have these bridges truly been burnt? Or have the disappointed spouses hardened their hearts so as not to hope and be hurt again? What these men did or could have done earlier to avoid arriving at this point, apparently of no return, is what I want to examine.

As you might have guessed, they were not too attentive to their wives and family. To be fair, both men were not indulging in their own recreational pursuits. They were mainly busy with work commitments. So absorbed were they with their work and maybe, in their mission to provide for the family, that other priorities were over-shadowed. Besides year-end holidays, there was no time to give to the family. Their families reported that even when time was spent with them, their fathers seemed distant and emotionally unavailable.

In both cases, I focused less on what went wrong (there is a time and place for this) and more on what should now be attempted. My advice was to “leave no stone unturned” to make it clear that they got the message from their wives and children. To communicate this, they would have to use various channels such as other family members, close friends, pastors, etc, making sure these emissaries are acceptable to the other and supportive of both parties. The time for “saving face” and shame was over.

Look at Jacob when he was about to meet Esau, his brother whom he had offended (Gen 32:20). Unsure if his brother was going to kill him in revenge, Jacob sent gifts ahead, not so much to “bribe” his way out but to show his contrition.

I advised the men that, while doing all this, they had to persist and pray. Their wives and children may have heard many unfulfilled promises before and thus be sceptical as to whether anything would change.

I have a word for those in the spouses’ position. I hope and pray that they will not harden their hearts. It is possible that in the depths of their disappointment, bitterness has choked off any remaining goodwill or feelings for their offending spouses.

Finally, should the couple consider giving reconciliation a chance, I recommend working with a third party for support, guidance and accountability. Both sides need to know that real change can and indeed must follow to get through the crisis.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.