Monthly Archives: July 2011

how dare you

Not too long ago, I was randomly blog-surfing, and what I found amazed me:  blog after blog written by a divorced person, full of vitriol and hatred for their former spouse.  It wasn’t the anger that surprised me — I understand and accept that divorce breeds a lot of anger — it was the intensity, the duration, and most of all, the basis for it:  most of these posts to which I am referring could be summed up as “How dare you stop loving me?!”

As I read one after another, I was first amazed and then saddened by how summarily and brutally these writers labeled their former spouses as “evil” or “ruthless” or (my personal favorite) “demonic.”  Several times, I took a step back and tried to uncover the cardinal sins committed by these damned husbands and wives, but rarely was it one of the obvious Unforgivables.  Most often it was the more common and intangible “drifting apart,” “feeling unappreciated,” “unhappiness with the marriage,” or “feeling like she lost her identity.”  These reasons were universally dismissed by the writers as being insufficient grounds for leaving the marriage.  No, they insisted, their former spouses are simply evil.

Hmmmm……

I used to work with families whose children had been abducted, usually for sexual purposes.  I don’t need to be educated on the presence and power of evil.  I’ve seen it and felt it and know how real it is.  So let’s get a little perspective, shall we?

But I can forgive the hyperbole.  Love — and hate — makes people crazy.  Emotions are powerful and we are all their slave at one time or another. Anger is a completely natural expression of pain, and expressing it is the only way to purge it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is staying crazy, wallowing in it, embracing it as your actual reality for months or years.  That part is incomprehensible to me.

What I hear when I read these diatribes is this:  I don’t care if you (my husband or wife) was unhappy or miserable or even suicidal (don’t laugh; I’ve had several women confide to me that their thoughts of desperation and hopelessness went that far, and I was nearly there in my own marriage…).  I don’t care if I wasn’t meeting your needs or if you told me so a million times or if you did seven years of couples counseling with me (again, don’t laugh; one poor blogger did exactly that).  All I care about is that you dared to take your love away from me after you promised that you wouldn’t.

I don’t mean to be a complete bitch, but to that I have to say:  So sad, too bad.

The marriage contract is not indentured servitude.  You aren’t stuck until the other person decides that you’ve earned the right to leave.  None of us is entitled to another person’s love or physical companionship, but that’s really what so many of these rants sound like to me.  They honestly and genuinely sound as though the departed partners should have stayed, no matter their feelings, no matter the state of the marriage, no matter what.

I understand that marriage used to be exactly that — you stayed no matter what.  But then society evolved and most people began to agree that a physically abused spouse should not be required to remain in such a marriage…nor should a spouse who has been cheated on…or one who is saddled with their partner’s addiction issues.  And so, gradually, more and more acceptable reasons for divorcing emerged, and the concept of the “no-fault” divorce arrived when it became clear that most of the time, marriages did not end because one party was a “victim” and the other was “evil.”  Most of the time, it was just a long, sad road to Irreconcilable Differences.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in the abstract, most reasonable people can agree on the wisdom of these premises.  They can nod sagely and agree that a person who feels stuck in a sad or loveless marriage for many years should not be expected to serve a life sentence.  They can be supportive of friends who leave their marriages because the love was no longer was there.  But when it is applied to their own relationships, the polarizing categories of “good” and “evil” are resurrected.

This form of hypocrisy was evident to me from a very young age.  When I was growing up, my mother had many divorced friends and she was always accepting and non-judgmental of their reasons for having left their marriages. But when my father left, after spending four years explaining to her that he simply didn’t love her anymore and couldn’t stay in the marriage, she was furious beyond all reason or sense.  And she stayed furious for many, many years.  Even now, more than 20 years later, she still can barely say his name without clenching her teeth.  By her calculations, he had no right to stop loving her after he promised he wouldn’t.  He broke that promise, and so he is an awful person.

My friend Annie’s husband is another fine example of this.  Even though Annie worked really hard to stay in her marriage — marriage and individual counseling, self-help books, the support of family and friends, and various attempts to reconnect with him emotionally and physically — he told her recently that he would never forgive her for leaving.  Apparently she was supposed to simply suck it up and swallow her sadness and hopelessness and carry on for his sake?

Is that really the deal we strike when we marry?  Am I really to believe that because I promise to love you always, I must do so no matter how you treat me or make me feel?  Am I required to accept whatever efforts you make and just assume that is your best and highest effort at saving our marriage, or am I — like you — permitted to judge those efforts and find them insufficient?  Why are you allowed to say that I didn’t try hard enough to save our marriage but I am not permitted to level the same accusation at you?

I think that it is precisely this ability — perhaps even propensity — to embrace such a self-righteous posture that may be a common denominator among many failed marriages.  What I mean is this:  maybe people who are capable of and willing to villify their exes are more likely to be left.  Would that really be so surprising?

In my dating life, I gradually developed a rule about not dating men who’d been left by their wives unless there was a really good reason (e.g. she was mentally ill or unstable) or the circumstances giving rise to the marriage’s demise had changed (e.g. he used to be a workaholic and has since created a better work/life balance).  This wasn’t a rule based on prejudice or a lack of empathy, but of too many dates listening to men rail against their exes and slowly reveal to me her very good justifications in leaving him.  And of course there are huge and important exceptions — there always are.  But in my experience, they are exactly that — exceptions.

Hate blogging someone is human.  It’s simply the latest version of what has gone on after break-ups for eons.  But hate blogging someone for eternity is not human.  It might just be evil.

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grieving before leaving

Last night I spent some time with my friend Lindsay, who is in town visiting.  A few months ago, she moved 1500 miles away from here to take an amazing job opportunity in the Pacific Northwest.  At the time, she was incredibly frightened about what the move would mean for she and Gray, her husband, but she was also hopeful that it would be the fresh start that they so desperately needed.  I wrote about my sadness in watching her go in I already miss her.

Seeing her last night was wonderful.  She looked amazing and her new job is everything she wanted and deserves and more.   We talked as if the time and distance between us did not exist, and I was so very grateful to be in her presence again.

But it was also very sad.  Because she is very sad.  Her marriage is crumbling around her and she is awash in the myriad of emotions that accompany that experience.  She vacillates between wanting — truly and completely — to save her marriage, and feeling almost certain that it is too late.  We sat at a cafe in the twilight by the creek, and I watched the candlelight play off her face and listened to her voice crack as she struggled to get the words out, and my heart broke for her.  I don’t know what her outcome will be, but I know that she is miserable and desperate for change and feeling hopeless, and those are all feelings I know all too well.

She has tried to reach her husband.  They have had some heart-wrenching, honest, no-holds-barred talks and each time she comes away convinced — certain! — that her marriage can be saved and they have finally turned a corner.  But within a week, the momentum is lost and their relationship has backslid into complacency and despair and silence.

Lindsay is grieving, and she’s only partly aware of it.  She is grieving her marriage and the end of all their mutual hopes and dreams.  She is processing the past and contemplating the future and considering her options.  Her heart and mind are engaged and attentive to their situation.  She is not passively awaiting some conclusion or resolution of their problem.

But Gray? As best she can tell, he has resigned himself.  She is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to see what is happening to them, that he is resigned to their situation and appears willing to live in that dismal space forever.

A few years ago I would have been puzzled and unconvinced by Gray’s apparent attitude toward their problems.  He couldn’t possibly not see it, could he??  He must realize what’s happening, mustn’t he???

Now I know better.

Between the work I’ve done in therapy and lots of reading on relationship ambivalence and my own observations,  I have realized that men and women face the end of relationships differently.  This is especially true of men and women over the age of 40.  Most women are proactive about examining their relationships, whereas most men are passive.  Men seem to mostly assume that things will be fine, or at least stay the same, while most women seem to think that things will have to change and get better or else they will leave.  I think this is why most men I know are surprised and stunned by the end of their marriages, while their wives report feeling like they were shouting at the top of their lungs for years before it ended.

I was one such wife.  I — quite literally and sincerely — informed my husband during our first year of marriage that if he continued to tell me I was stupid and treat me as such, I would be gone 10 years from then.  I loved him enough to want to work it out, but I made it clear that I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t live like that forever.  Over the course of our 11-year marriage, I reminded him.  Each time he apologized and acknowledged it and then…. nothing changed.

I think he, and many of my male friends, assume that the wedding contract is non-negotiable.  You signed on, you’re in it, the rest is just details.  Including whatever misery you might be in.

The best example of this is a man I used to be friends with named John.  John cheated on his wife throughout their 14-year marriage and spent considerable energy detailing her every failing. The space between them gradually opened to form an enormous emotional chasm, but he was basically okay with things and, although he talked about leaving, it was clear he never would.  Then his wife, Heidi, came home from a trip to visit family and announced that she was leaving him.  From that moment onward, Heidi seemed to lighten.  Her depressed state lifted and she moved forward, and out of their marriage.  Meanwhile, John was stunned.  Truly speechless and in utter disbelief.  And I was stunned that he was stunned.  Their marriage had been a mess for many, many years.  Heidi’s needs and feelings had played second fiddle to everything else in their lives for ages, and yet he was shocked that she was leaving.  I hardly knew what to say to him.

Someone once told me that when a man in his 40’s says he wants a divorce, you need to call a marriage counselor; but when a woman in her 40’s says she wants a divorce, you need to call a lawyer.  Because when we say we’re done, we’re really and truly done.

Every divorced woman I know spent months if not years being unhappy and grieving her marriage before she finally left.  I don’t know a single woman who made the decision impulsively or without enormous angst.  I also don’t know a single woman who regrets that decision.

Granted, my survey is by no means scientific, and it absolutely can apply in the reverse — there are women who feel blindsided while their husbands feel like it was years in coming, too.   But my point — and one that is borne out in psychological literature on divorce — is that 40-something women who leave tend to process quite a bit of their divorce before they leave.   To a very large extent, much of their grieving and pain occurs while they are still in the marriage.  Which is why, I think, so many men feel like their wives simply stroll out of the marriage without a glance back or a tear shed.  What they are missing is the simple and sad fact that she is already months ahead of him in her grief process, while he is only just beginning.  The pain and reality is fresh and new and harsh to him.  It is accepted and familiar and well-worn to her.

This is not a scientific white paper on divorce psychology, so I am necessarily making gross generalizations, but I think they are useful as a jumping off point when considering why men and women experience the demise of their marriages so differently.  Lindsay is lost in a morass of “what next?” s, while Gray is sitting with sad resignation.  Their experiences of this moment in their marriage are very different.

Sadly, I think that Lindsay will ultimately leave, because Gray has made it fairly clear that he is not interested in working on their marriage.  But she’s not ready yet.  She has a lot of processing and feeling and grieving to do before she’s going to be able to take that step away from him.  In the meantime, he is likely to continue assuming that their marriage, while far from good, is perfectly stable.  And when she finally goes to him and enumerates her reasons for leaving, he will be shocked.

And I will be sad for both of them.

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jinx

I can be very superstitious.  Especially about dating.  There are certain things that, if I do them, seem to doom the relationship.  I know it sounds silly, but it’s uncannily consistent, and I suspect I’m not the only one to whom these things happen.

I’ve written before of the diabolical effects that food has on my relationships — if I provide a man a meal, either by cooking it myself or dropping large coin on the dinner tab, the night will inevitably end with me in tears.  I used to think that perhaps it was my less-than-fabulous culinary skills, but I’ve since realized that it extends to the best chefs in Boulder, so apparently it’s not my cooking.  And before you go thinking that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, let me assure you that several times I have forgotten this particular jinx, found myself crying at the end of the evening, and had to back-track to figure out what went wrong.  “Ah!  You stupid idiot!  You bought him oysters again! Duh!”

Perhaps the most annoying jinx — due to the sheer inconvenience of it — is that I cannot put a man I am romantically interested in into my list of favorites in my phone.  I have no idea why the fates insist that I dial his number every single time, but there you have it.  If I favorite his number, the relationship will most definitely fall apart with a day or two.  Guaranteed.  Don’t believe me?   I offer as exhibit A the time I favorited the guy I’d been dating for months, only to have him take off the next day for a weekend getaway with a stripper.  And, no, I’m not kidding.  Exhibit B:  the guy who surprised me with the unexpected declaration that he loved me and wanted to have babies with me and live happily ever after?  The next day I put his number on my favorites list and didn’t hear from him again for a year.   Seriously.

I have put James’ number on my favorites list twice; and we have broken up — twice.  You do the math.  I almost put James’ number on my favorites list last week and then thought the better of it…. which certainly explains the recent near-miss we had.

But the one jinx that I really hate the most is the jinx on acknowledging my own happiness in a relationship.  I don’t know why, but as soon as I begin to think that a relationship truly has legs and might not crumble at the slightest difficulty, as soon as I really trust that it’s real, that’s when it disappears.  Poof!  Gone.  And so I am guarded.  Afraid to really embrace my own contentment and joy.  My good friends know this and mostly shrug it off.  “How are things going with James?”  they say.  “Pretty good, I guess,” I say.  “Oh my gosh!” they laugh, “Will you just enjoy it, already?!”  Uh huh.  They don’t have the jinx….

The jinx holds me back.  I have been hesitant to write too much about James… fearful that the moment I wax poetic about how he makes me laugh or how I love kissing him or how safe I feel in his arms…. Poof!  Gone.  But I am all too aware of my jinx and how quickly this might disappear.  So I will continue dialing his number and trying to avoid buying him food and exercising only cautious optimism around our relationship.  Because I really, really don’t want this one to disappear.

Really, really.

Oh, and by the way, this is the second time I have had to write this particular post.  The first time?  I hit “Save Draft” and my computer crashed immediately.  Coincidence?  I think not…..

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