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To Succeed in Marriage, Clear the Decks

Do you have unfinished business? Most of us do. It’s important to gain a sense of closure about a past relationship in order to succeed in a new one.    

Closure, in the psychological sense, means “the state of experiencing an emotional conclusion to a difficult life event.” 1 Typical situations that call for closure are the loss of a romantic partner, spouse, or parent. Another can involve grieving the absence of a healthier home environment in which one was raised.  

Loss of a romantic partner

Are you still emotionally attached to someone who’s no longer in your life? Some people try to quickly replace a former partner who they thought was “the one” before grieving the loss. They may crave reassurance of their desirability, a companion, or something else. But they are still quite vulnerable because they haven’t yet “cleared the decks.” So their new relationship is not likely to be satisfying for long.

What if you loved him (or her) and still do, and you can’t believe it’s really over. Maybe you were more “into him” than he was into you, meaning you thought it was serious but to him it was casual.

If you rush into a new relationship before processing your thoughts and feelings about a previous one, you might come across as needy, tense, or controlling. Or you may choose someone who is not good for you. By first taking care of your unfinished business, you will be more confident, relaxed, and self-accepting.

Julie’s Pattern

Julie hoped to marry. A successful executive with a ready smile and engaging personality, she attracted men easily — when she was ready. Ready is the key word. She’d been in many relationships with men who weren’t interested in marriage. After each breakup, her self-esteem plummeted. She would feel miserable for months or longer. In this state, she wasn’t ready for a new relationship. Finally, she would return to her vibrant, confident state and attract a new man.  When that relationship fell apart, so she would she, and the cycle continued.

Grieving Ultimately Boosts Happiness

Happy people attract happy people. We need to finish grieving a significant past relationship before we’ll be ready for a good new one. By allowing ourselves to experience and accept all of our feelings around a loss, we clear out our insides. A sense of contentment returns.

Grieving a failed relationship can include learning from the past. Think “no mistakes; only lessons.”

Julie’s Lesson

Julie learned an important lesson from her short relationship with Hank, her final going nowhere one: she should learn a man’s reason for dating before allowing herself to get emotionally involved. Hank was romantic from the start. He seemed entranced by Julie. As he was leaving at the end of their fourth date, she asked him during their long goodnight embrace when she’d hear from him again. He’d tensed up, backed away, and said tersely, “I don’t like to be pressured. Don’t pressure me.” After he left she felt awful; she knew it was over, at least in Hank’s mind.

But she wasn’t ready to let him go. For two days Julie was miserable. She did some journaling to process her feelings.

She wrote him a letter saying how upset she felt about his pulling away. She wanted to get him back. But then she thought, “Why send the letter? I want marriage and he’s afraid to commit even to another date!”

Instead of sending the letter, she phoned him to say goodbye. She said she noticed that his pattern was to pull away when they were getting close and that she wasn’t interested in a casual relationship. After a stunned silence, he asked in a quiet voice if they could still be friends. “Of course,” Julie said, understanding this meant that they were agreeing to be polite if their paths crossed.

After ending the call, Julie felt a surge of relief. This is closure. She was amazed that it happened so quickly. She had finished grieving in two days; she was over him and ready for someone better for her. She now knew that she should date only one kind of man — the marrying kind.

Within a year, she was married.

Julie learned that she couldn’t be fully present with a new man until she had sufficiently freed herself from being emotionally attached to another one.

Grieving the loss of a spouse

After losing her husband through divorce or death, a woman is likely to feel devastated and overwhelmed. From moment to moment, she may feel angry, hurt, shocked, betrayed, numb, guilty, abandoned, lost, or bereft. She has lost her lover, companion, and a big piece of her identity, because she is no longer a wife.

The effects from such a loss are typically long lasting. There is no timetable for grieving. But the sooner you allow yourself to experience your uncensored thoughts and emotions, to yourself, a caring friend, a skilled therapist or grief counselor, or other empathic listener, the sooner you can expect to grieve satisfactorily. But again, there is no timetable. When you’re ready to move on, you will.

If you are still stuck in a mode of recrimination, guilt, or anger after a spouse’s death or after a divorce, an attempt to succeed in a new relationship is likely to be premature.  

Unprocessed Feelings after Divorce Cause Problems

I’m a speaker at an annual retreat for singles. Dina attends regularly. She is petite, smart, and charming. Men are drawn to her. Last year, I figured out why she keeps coming back instead of getting married. I happened to overhear her tell a man about what a louse her ex-husband was to both her and their teenage daughter, who was standing close enough to hear her.

How can Dina be fully present with a new man when she is so full of resentment toward her ex that she feels compelled to unload it on men she meets? My heart went out to both her and her daughter. When a mother airs her complaints about her ex-husband to their daughter, she drives a wedge between her and her father.  

Before she will be ready for a good relationship, Dina will need to find healthier ways to grieve, and to take responsibility for any part she may have played in the failure of her marriage.

Grieving the Loss of a Parent

Women who, during childhood, lost a father, or step-father or other father figure, through a divorce, abandonment, or death, and have sufficiently grieved their loss, will probably need to do so before they’ll be able to create a successful marriage.

I think that to a child, divorce is a huge betrayal of trust. In children’s minds, an implicit contract states that their parents will stay together and always be there for them.

Grieving is a clearing process. It makes it possible for our minds and hearts to be fully present for a current or future relationship.

How to Grieve

People find many ways to grieve. Journaling or talking with sensitive friends about your thoughts, feelings, and memories can be helpful. So can allowing yourself to release pent up feelings by crying for as long as you need to. Many people are helped via therapy, grief counseling, or a grief support group. By doing whatever it takes to process a loss, we make room for something wonderful to enter.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closure#Psychology
To Succeed in Marriage, Clear the Decks


Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), has a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California. She offers and workshops for couples and singles, and continuing education classes for therapists at NASW conferences and online. She has taught also at the UCSF School of Medicine, UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University. A former executive director of a family service agency, she earlier held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry.


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APA Reference
Berger, M. (2018). To Succeed in Marriage, Clear the Decks. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/to-succeed-in-marriage-clear-the-decks/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.