A blogger friend recently wrote a poignant post about the examination of a marriage, as seen through the rear view mirror, receding into the distance. Part of his post was about his on-going confusion and frustration stemming from his “runaway wife’s” refusal or inability to provide him with any solid reasons for her seemingly abrupt departure from the family.
Because I was suffering from terrible insomnia one evening, I posted a comment to his post that was so long that (as he later joked), I should have just written my own post and been done with it. He was right, as he often is, and so I am now taking that comment and expanding on it here.
If you read enough about divorce, you quickly discover that many left-behind spouses feel that they have been summarily abandoned by their former husbands or wives, with little or no explanation provided. Even when reasons are offered, they are frequently labeled too mundane to have prompted such a grave move as divorce, and the abandoning spouse is seen as avoiding or withholding the “truth.” The left-behind spouse feels certain that if he or she could simply get at the truth of why they have been left behind, somehow the whole predicament will make more sense and hurt much less.
I have watched friends and acquaintances who have filled the dismal role of the left-behind spouse grapple with their feelings and attempt to move on. Indeed, I can see the obvious benefit attached to discovering a truth that suddenly removes the nagging uncertainty and deadens the raging imagination of horrors that plague the mind when it does not have a solid answer that screams “TRUTH!”
But there are a ton of assumptions built into that concept that the truth will set the mind free and ease the heart’s pain. And not all of them hold up under closer examination….
Assumption #1. Their truth will make sense and have value to me.
When I talk to people who feel that their spouses have suddenly and unjustly abandoned the relationship, I frequently hear them insist that they want to hear the “real reasons” for their spouse’s departure. Digging a bit further, I usually discover that reasons have actually been provided, but they don’t seem serious enough to justify the departing spouse’s behavior or, most commonly, they “just don’t make sense.”
I would argue that most departing spouses likely have provided some or most of the truthful reasons for their leaving. I keep waiting to hear a left-behind spouse explicitly say, “I don’t want those reasons; I want the real reasons,” because I’ve heard so many variations on this theme. The idea here is that the departing spouse likely has shared most of her reasons for leaving, but they aren’t good enough or grave enough to register with the left-behind spouse.
I, for one, can say with complete confidence and incredulity that I told my ex-husband as early as the first two years of our marriage that if he continued treating me the way he had begun to, I would be “gone in ten years.” At the time, I was pulling that time frame out of thin air, but I did, in fact, end up leaving just before our 11th anniversary. Despite repeated warnings and tearful pleadings on my part throughout the years, he maintained his condescending nature and dismissive attitude, and then proclaimed loudly (and to anyone who would listen) that I had “left suddenly, and without warning or explanation.” I still cannot fathom how he has fashioned his truth from the reality we shared, but he has. So, I have to suspect that lots of other folks do something similar, too. I suspect there are a plethora of marriages out there in which the departing spouse complained to the left-behind spouse of things over the years that the left-behind spouse dismissed or overlooked at the time. Maybe she displayed patterns of disappointment over things in her life or their marriage that seemed to the left-behind spouse (and probably to lots of others who knew her) to be trivial and therefore not something he need really worry about. Meantime, her fatigue, disillusionment, and frustration was building.
I also do not doubt that most departing spouses hold something back. I suspect that the biggest reason that they don’t ‘fess up to their complete and true list of reasons for leaving is that they are fully aware that those reasons will be judged, deemed insufficient, and the grounds for a debate with the spouse they have already decided to leave. This is probably a reasonable expectation on their part, as the party left behind usually does think that the reasons for the split are not valid or justifiable. (Admittedly, it is the rare instance when one spouse comes home and says, “I think we should divorce and here are my reasons,” and the other spouse says, “Yes, you make some excellent points. I agree. Let’s get on with it.”)
It’s entirely understandable that the departing spouses aren’t eager to engage in a game of To Tell the Truth with their left-behind spouse when it is likely to result in their reasons being diminished or mischaracterized. After all, we all know that “truth is relative” in some regards. I think it’s interesting how individuals — and sometimes even couples jointly — massage the truth to help it fit their personal constructs. An interesting and obvious example of this is an affair: when an affair has been discovered, but the couple is still working on the marriage, the truth of the affair is typically minimalized as “a symptom of a much bigger problem.” But, when a marriage ends and an affair is part of it, the left-behind spouse frequently blames the affair (and the other adulterer) as the whole problem. I don’t quite understand the logic: why is it merely a symptom if you’re working on the marriage, but the “obvious” or “clear” (and presumably complete) reason for the marriage’s collapse if you’re not? But again, truth is relative…
In the age of no-fault divorce, a spouse can obtain a divorce over his or her partner’s objections, essentially making a unilateral decision to end the marriage. The other party has absolutely no say in the matter. Given that I don’t believe that marriage should constitute ownership or control of another person, I find myself having to support this notion, despite its obvious pitfalls.
But here’s the crux of it: the departing spouse does not have to prove his or her case. He does not have to convince anyone that his reasons are good enough. Indeed those very reasons — the entire truth of them, if known — might not be good enough for his left-behind spouse, his extended family, their mutual friends, or anyone else, but they don’t have to be. They only have to be good enough for him. Is that sad and frustrating and bewildering to the left-behind spouse? Yes, of course. But in the end, that might be preferable to the whole truth…
Assumption #2: I want the whole truth.
When a left-behind spouse imagines the reasons that her departing spouse is actually leaving, she usually focuses on things she can change and not things that are inherent in who she is. I think this is a very natural way for our brain to protect us from potential pain. It is so much easier to imagine that he is leaving because he hates that you leave your towel on the bathroom floor, than to think that it’s because he’s decided you’re not actually that smart. So when left-behind spouses are aggressively seeking the truth, they are understandably doing so from a posture that the truth will be things they can work on and will want to change; most people do not imagine that it’s going to be some harsh truth that they cannot, in fact, change.
I think that sometimes the reasons, if provided in a forthright and honest fashion, would be so brutal, so painful to inflict, that common decency holds the departing spouse back. We all think we want the truth, but some truths are so terribly difficult to recover from that the damage caused would be arguably worse than the vague uncertainty. For example, how many people would truly want to hear, “I realized that I married you for the wrong reasons” or “I was never physically attracted to you and was just a really, really good faker” or “I’ve completely lost respect for you as a person and can’t love someone I don’t respect”? I’ve heard these reasons from people who’ve left and who have chosen not to reveal them to their exes. Revelations such as these could positively devastate the left-behind spouse’s sense of self and self-worth, which seems a cruel parting shot. They also could make the divorce proceedings far nastier than they need to be, and the irreparable damage could undermine any attempts at future co-parenting.
Indeed, it might be the long-term effects of those words that prompt the departing spouse to be so circumspect….
Assumption #3: I can handle the truth.
So, let’s say that, for argument’s sake, the departing spouse chooses to ignore her therapist’s advice and reveal to the left-behind spouse that she is leaving because he is the world’s worst lover and she’s decided to finally have an orgasm after 40 years on this planet.
[Anyone who thinks he’s going to receive that truth with maturity and aplomb should contact me about some lovely Florida real estate I have to sell. It’s not swamp. Really. I swear.]
Exes understandably believe and insist that they would ultimately benefit from the cold, hard truth, and I’m quite sure some (like my blogger friend who inspired this post) probably could. But I don’t think most people could actually handle a truth such as these examples with any degree of grace or retention of self-confidence. And it’s really not so surprising. Divorce is gutting for so many reasons, but when you discover that the love of your life thinks something so terrible of you, it’s capable of smashing your self-confidence to levels from which it may never fully recover.
Take my parents, for instance: In the face of her constant and abject pleas, my departing step-father had the fortitude to explain to my mother that he realized he’d married her hastily and based on lust more than love. (This was, to be honest, a truth evident to all of us — including me, at age 13 — when they first married.) My mother repaid him for his honesty by hating him viciously for almost 15 years. His words haunted her in ways that I’m sure he hadn’t expected, and he paid dearly for them.
Certainly there are some people who are mature enough and confident enough and objective enough to stomach even the worst realizations about their own marriage. But I must argue that most people would not. Most people would be more like my mother — furious and hurt and determined to make the divorce even nastier than if the truth had not been revealed. She wanted the truth, she was sure she could handle the truth, but it nearly destroyed her. And the damage it did to me and our family is a whole post on its own.
No doubt the truth is a dicey thing. Most of us have this tenuous love/hate relationship with it. All of us like to think that we can handle it and benefit from it and be better for it. But can we? Really?
Being left with your heart shattered positively, absolutely sucks. It feels horrible and unfair and devastating. I have often said that during a divorce, people become their basest, worst selves, and some of those selves are pretty terrible. Is it any wonder, under those circumstances, that some people faced with harsh truths handle them imperfectly? And is it any wonder, under those circumstances, that some people guard them so carefully? Very few people are at their best in the midst of pain at its worst.
I think the bottom line is that we all say we want the truth. We all think we can handle the truth, but in actuality, not everyone who claims to want the truth really wants the actual truth. Sometimes we only want a truth we can live with.