“The worst marriages are the ones that aren’t bad enough to end.”
I’m pretty sure we were at a cocktail party of some sort when a friend of ours, who’s a therapist, uttered that ominous phrase.
Neither my husband nor I looked at each other. I think we both probably looked at our own feet, or toward some safe and seductive horizon.
But who were we kidding? Our adamant avoidance bore through each other’s souls, nonetheless.
We were neither happy, nor unhappy. Neither in love, nor in hate. We had neither joy nor anger. The fibers of habit that kept us together were in a slow decay that looked admirable from the outside…and outright terrifying in the deepest parts of our souls. The parts we couldn’t look at even with an obtuse gaze.
We were in a marriage that was not bad enough to end.
Don’t get me wrong.
We were genuinely fond of each other. Loved each other dearly. Respected each other enormously. Still, the absence of passion, desire, and shared interests grated on both of us daily. Like a microplaner contributes the subtle addition of flavor to an otherwise bland but palatable dish.
She didn’t know she was talking about us.
But we both did.
One of our problems was that neither one of us were the type to do anything that would make it bad enough to end. Neither one of us are particularly cruel, or selfish, or manipulative. While we both fight our demons and bad habits, we truly did put our family—and certainly our daughter—first. We had no idea how to end a basically good marriage that neither one of us wanted to be in any more.
We both wanted really different things than we did when we got married. And than each other wanted.
We had simply grown in different directions.
In some ways, I see that as the hallmark of a good relationship. We did indeed nourish each other’s growth as individuals. But we grew in different ways. Even as we grew, the relationship itself stagnated.
A few things did happen that made it obvious that something had to give.
Nothing to write a film about or anything, but we both started taking jabs at the relationship to see if we could kill it. Still not at each other. Petulant peccadillos like not doing what we said we would, or agreeing to do things we didn’t want to so that we could later hold it against the other person. But really, it was the relationship we were trying to kill. Trying to make it bad enough to end.
Anyone versed in microagressions will recognize this as the common pattern of people who are unhappy and don’t know why. I mean, what did we have to be unhappy about? We had a nice house, a great kid, ostensibly great spouses.
But we were unhappy, because we were doing everything we thought we were supposed to, we were doing everything right, and still didn’t feel that thing. That thing that makes you greet each day with excitement and curiosity. That thing that makes you want to tear off each other’s clothes and see what new treasure awaits you that wasn’t there the last time you explored the topography of a lover’s flesh.
We had checked every box on the “This is the Good Life” checklist, and were not happy. We felt cheated by the myth of Happily Ever After. Ever After was seeming like a very long time without the “Happily” part. Longevity, which is the thing we celebrate in this culture, was starting to seem like a sentence more than a celebration.
I didn’t want him to touch me when we slept. I didn’t want to touch the underwear that landed somewhere near, but not in, the laundry basket. I didn’t want him to see me naked in case he would want to touch me, which I didn’t want. And I felt terrible about it because I loved him, I wanted to make him happy.
But I wasn’t in love anymore, and knew that I was making him miserable. He knew the same things about himself.
Eventually things added up. It was bad enough to end.
It took us a few years to get there. But we successfully killed the relationship, slowly. And for the most part we did it without hating each other. We agreed it had to end, and the moment we said that, things got better. We actually smiled at each other, a lot.
We also fought a little bit, not much. At one point, in one of our more fighty moments, he came as close as he ever did to yelling at me and basically said, “What took you so long? Why didn’t you leave me years ago?”
Because I loved him. I was selfish. I didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t realize, in the fog of a dying relationship, that I could love him, let the relationship change, and still not lose him.
The only break-ups I had seen modeled for me had been bitter and angry and filled with loss and then great distance. I didn’t want that.
Also, I didn’t want to hurt him. I let myself believe that leaving him would hurt him. That he would be sad to see me go. I managed to not see the much more obvious truth, which is that losing something that makes you unhappy is not a loss to mourn. It is, rather, an opportunity to freely find happiness. If we loved each other as much as we thought we did, we should want that for each other.
We were both sad. Really, we were. But during a long walk along Lake Washington I told him that I had realized there is nothing sad about getting rid of something that hurts you. Maybe we ought to try and look at this as a very positive thing.
That worked. Not easily, but it did work.
It was tough to sell that to outsiders, however, even though we meant it. We came to truly see it that way. But still, we would tell people that we were divorcing and they would step away, as if it was contagious, and utter a low and slow “I’m so sorry.” “Don’t be,” we’d say. “We got rid of something that was hurting us, now we can go find happiness.”
They would step away slowly. That was five years ago.
I learned more about marriage in the process of divorcing him than I did from being married.
It makes me think that maybe we need to get divorced first, in order to know how to be married.
Or at least go through the process.
In the state of Washington, getting divorced is quite a process. They make you define every tiny detail of your divorce, of how your relationship will work once you’re no longer married. And if you have kids, every tiny detail has to be accounted for and etched in stone.
Why did no one make us do this before we got married? Before we had a kid? Honestly, that might have changed everything. The process of getting divorced is a perfect how-to guide for marriage. It forces you to think about the things that we don’t think about.
We like to think that marriage is about love. After all, that’s why many—if not most—of us do it. We fall in love, get high on love and, in that totally high state, embark on a lifelong contract that will dictate our every move, whether we see that as benevolent or not. We get married for love, but marriage is about dealing with one concrete reality after another. Divorce does a fabulous job of making that crystal clear.
First order of business was dividing up assets.
Whatever. This was easy for us. But I couldn’t help but think about the many ways this could be used before you get married to make sure you’re on the same page about how to spend money. Do you both agree that a big-screen TV is important? Why? How do you plan to use it? Do you both agree that a $20,000 ring set is important? Why? What else could you do with that money? How about cars? Is it important to you to have new cars, or just cars that run?
I think about the fact that my ex-husband and I shared a car until we split up, because he rode a bike everywhere and having two cars seemed wasteful. My future husband drives a 25-year-old Subaru that’s held together with magical thinking and duct tape. I fell in love with him, in part, for that car. We have the same values.
Next in the divorce process, dividing up debt.
Super easy for us—we have none. We shared that value as well. But across the country, people are drowning in consumer debt. I don’t mean mortgages, student loans and medical debt (which are hideous in their own right, but marginally more legit than debt from buying “stuff” you don’t really need). Are you and your future spouse on the same page when it comes to how much debt is acceptable? And for what?
Money is the largest source of strife in most marriages. And to a large degree, I personally believe that you can tell what a person values by how they choose to spend their money. Talking about how you agree to spend your communal cash is a great way to find out if your value systems are aligned. Write it up, before you get divorced.
Then there’s the future.
Getting divorced also means you look at things like retirement savings, and how they get divided. We never even really talked about this. When we met and married, we were both working. I made as much, and eventually more, than he did. But when we had a baby, I stopped working and cared for a child full time, largely because putting her in daycare cost almost as much as I was making. But we didn’t necessarily think about the fact that, as a result, all of “our” retirement money was being made by him.
When you get divorced, this gets divided up too. So, talking about it when you’re still planning a future together makes way more sense than just ignoring it. Again, are you on the same page? Does this division of responsibility work for both of you?
And then, there’s the kids.
The process of divorce in Washington State means planning out every single (goddamned) carpool between now and the time your kid leaves home. We had to divide up hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the year.
We had to submit a parenting plan that made my head hurt to show who was responsible for what and how we were each making sure that the other parent got their needs met. Looking at in that kind of scientific light made crystal clear the work that is parenting.
I’ll admit, we just wrote something down to make the judge happy. We hated doing it because we get along so damned well, and are so committed to our daughter having solid relationships with both of us that the whole thing seemed silly. I mean, who needs this?
The answer came when we took the court-ordered parenting seminar that’s required if you have kids and want to get divorced. One tale after another of parents using their children as weapons against their spouse. As punishment and reward for conforming to their expectations. As proof of one thing or another.
When all they were really proving was that they had no idea how to have a functional relationship with each other.
What if they had to do this seminar, and fill out a parenting plan, before having kids, and not after.
I know, it makes no sense to say we need to get divorced before we get married, but….
I don’t know.
If I were in charge, I just might make people do it anyway. Make people go through the piles of paperwork that force you to look at what it really takes to be married. To run a household together. To build a future together. To raise children together.
Even if you did all of that before getting married, it’s still a fraction of the planning that goes into planning a wedding, and that only lasts one day.
And I need to get on that, because now that I’ve gone through this divorce, I’m getting married again, very soon.
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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger