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.