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The Power of Holding Space in a Relationship Crisis


Women at sunset with birds

Samuel recently discovered that his wife, Erika, has been having an affair with a colleague at work. The news shattered his world, bringing all the usual turmoil and heartache. However, to Erika's surprise, Samuel doesn't want to leave her. Instead, he wants to fight for their marriage. He is committed to making changes, seeing a therapist, and doing the hard work of forgiveness. But Erika is stuck. She is not ready to leave her affair partner or make any definitive decisions about their marriage. Like many people caught in the throes of an affair, she is in a state of confusion.


This situation is all too common. One partner wants to work on the relationship, while the other is uncertain or resistant. It can be excruciatingly painful, especially for the partner ready to fight for the marriage. So, how do you fight for your relationship in crisis when your partner is not prepared or willing to do the same? The answer lies in the concept of holding space.


What Does It Mean to Hold Space?


Holding space means giving your partner the freedom to choose. This may feel counterintuitive. You might want to demand that they come back, attend therapy, break contact with the affair partner, and show affection. We often believe these actions are how we should fight for our relationship. However, these demands can have the opposite effect. Instead of inviting your partner back, they can reinforce feelings of 'stuckness', control, manipulation, and a lack of freedom.

 

Love has always been a free choice. That's how your relationship started—you chose each other. Now, amid pain and trauma, it cannot be different. We need the freedom to choose, even if that choice feels like giving up. But it’s not giving up; it’s respecting your partner enough to give them the freedom to make their own decisions.


The Art of Holding Space

 

In the past 17 years, I have seen how mastering the art of holding space can transform relationships. The freedom of choice creates a psychological space where the other partner can reengage with a sense of autonomy and independence. This space allows them to observe themselves and the relationship from a place of discernment, often leading to change. When your partner reengages, they choose to, not because they were forced.

 

Holding space also brings an essential balance to the relationship. The freedom of choice honours your partner's pain. Fighting for your marriage in a way that feels like you are trying to control the situation can create the impression that you still don’t understand how much they have been hurt. It can undermine the trauma they are experiencing.

 

By saying, "I understand that this marriage has hurt you so much that you don’t want it anymore. It must be excruciating for you to get to this point. I want you to want it, but I can’t force you. I want to give you a new experience. I also dream of a new future, but you need to want it with me," you acknowledge their pain and give them the respect they deserve.


Practical Advice on Holding Space

 

While holding space is essential, it is also crucial to ensure that the mental well-being of the person giving space is not compromised. Here are some practical steps to achieve this balance:


1. Seek Support

Find a therapist or support group to help you navigate your emotions and provide guidance. It’s essential to have someone to talk to who can offer a different perspective and support you in your journey. This support can come from friends, family, or professionals who understand the complexities of relationship dynamics and can offer practical advice and emotional support.

 

2. Set Boundaries

Clearly define what is acceptable and what is not in your relationship during this period of uncertainty. Boundaries are essential for your emotional health and the health of the relationship. They help protect you from further emotional harm and provide a structure for your partner to operate. This might include agreeing on how to communicate, how often to meet, and what topics are off-limits for discussion.

 

3. Communicate Openly

Keep lines of communication open with your partner, expressing your feelings without pressuring them. Open communication helps maintain a connection and allows you to understand each other’s perspectives. It’s important to express your feelings honestly but without blame or demand. Use “I” statements to share how you feel and what you need, and be prepared to listen to your partner’s feelings.

 

4. Take Care of Yourself

Prioritise self-care to maintain emotional and physical health. This can include engaging in activities that bring you joy, practicing mindfulness or meditation, exercising, and ensuring you get enough rest. Self-care helps you stay grounded and resilient, enabling you to navigate this challenging time easily.

 

5. Be Patient

Understand that healing and decision-making take time. Allow your partner the space they need to come to their conclusions. Patience is vital in holding space. It’s natural to want immediate answers or actions, but true healing and decision-making cannot be rushed. Trust that by giving your partner time and space, you are fostering an environment where genuine reflection and meaningful decisions can take place.

 

6. Avoid Using Children as Leverage

It's crucial to avoid using children as a threat or leverage to force your partner to make a decision. This tactic can cause immense emotional harm to both your partner and your children. Using children in this way can create additional trauma and resentment, making the situation even more complicated and painful. Children should never be put in the middle of marital conflicts. Instead, focus on creating a safe and supportive environment for them, regardless of the outcome of your relationship. This ensures their well-being is prioritised and they feel secure despite the turmoil.


The Importance of Respect and Compassion

 

Respect and compassion are at the core of holding space. You create a safe environment where healing and reconciliation can occur by respecting your partner’s need for space and showing compassion for their journey. This does not mean you ignore your needs or sacrifice your well-being; instead, you approach the situation with empathy and understanding, recognising the complexity of the emotions involved.

 

The Potential for Transformation

 

When you hold space for your partner, you also hold space for transformation. This process can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and your partner, fostering growth and change in ways you might not have anticipated. It can strengthen your relationship, even if the outcome is not what you initially hoped for. By allowing each other the freedom to choose, you create the possibility for a renewed and more authentic connection.

 

A Poem I wrote in 2020 out of compassion for all the couples I have journeyed within the confusion, pain, and hope of Holding Space:


In morning light, I recall our choice, 

A moment where love found its voice. 

Now shadows fall, pain's whisper near, 

The ache of not being chosen clear. 

 

I hold this space, a fragile grace, 

Fear grips me as I stand in place. 

Hoping you'll return, love's tender flight, 

Yet fearing you'll nest beyond my sight. 

 

Abandonment, a wound so deep, 

But in this space, I gently keep 

The dream of love returning true, 

Yet, honour the path you chose.


Holding space is not about giving up on your marriage. It’s about fighting for it in a way that respects both your partner’s autonomy and the deep, often painful emotions involved. It is an art that, when practiced with compassion and patience, can lead to profound healing and transformation in your relationship.

 

Embrace the journey with an open heart, knowing that the love you hold space for may transform unexpectedly and beautifully.


Helping Couples with holding space when a Relationship is in Crisis


My greatest joy is to see relationships and “impossible” situations restored to childlike wholeness. Here are a few ways that I can assist:


  • If you are worried about your marriage, or simply want more from your current situation, I have a self-paced course that you can look into The Art of Loving - take a look here.

  • The way you handle conflict is a testament to the love and understanding you share. Want to deepen your connection? Learn to master conflict resolution with my online course Hearing each other AGAIN. This is a short course, but packed with helpful resources and practical exercises to help you get started with learning together.

  • Affairs are messy, heart breaking and emotionally taxing on all parties. There is hope beyond the pain, that is the message of my practice. To help more couples, I have developed an online course Repair After Affair.

  • If you prefer intensive couples therapy, please get in touch to book a session virtually or at my office in Johannesburg.

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