So, if you’ve lost your way, how did you get there and what can you do?
Our traditions tell us a lot about freedom, second chances; and that out of winter can come renewal.
Let’s see how this works in the natural course of a marriage.
The Hope of Marriage: Marriage almost always starts with an idealization. You look at him and believe that he will make you happy, take care of you, and complete you forever (and those children will be so beautiful and smart). True love truly has something going for it. You look in her inviting eyes and see a universe of fulfilled longing and promise. Indeed, you have all you will ever need right next to you.
These moments are embedded in the happily ever after stories of childhood. Disney (bless their hearts) has made a fortune on the hopes and dreams of generations. Think of Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, and Sleeping Beauty. These are among the many fairy tales that speak to the young heart with a promise of a Prince Charming or of a Princess who will complete your dreams. Stories like these are both ancient and modern, for romantic love preceded Disney by hundreds of years. Today it may be Ryan Reynolds saving some woman, yesterday it was a gallant knight and his damsel in distress.
Oh, we love saving and being saved.
The Trap of Marriage: A joyous wedding carries culture’s great mythic hope. Weddings are grand, sweet, fun, and joyous and a statement of what society really believes; that marriage is our greatest institution and deserves to be celebrated again and again.
But with a divorce rate of 49% and with many more marriages surviving on life support, this celebration is as much a reaction formation as anything else.
What is reaction formation? It is a defensive style that denies what you are frightened of: in this case, that in reality, a marriage can be a precursor to a divorce. Reaction formation asserts the positive with extra vigor so you can avoid negative thoughts. To understand this better, just imagine a person who has a fear of heights. So, what does he do? He becomes a mountain climber!
Who doesn’t love a wedding? But, despite the pomp and circumstance, marriage carries risks. This is because the idealization inherent in romantic love can lead some to a trap that can feel like being a slave in the land of ancient Egypt.
The Starter Marriage: Recently I interview James Hollis, the prolific Jungian scholar, about marriage and divorce. He brought up the notion that every marriage is really a starter marriage. What does this mean? When you buy a starter home, you know next to nothing about what’s really involved: like caring for the home, decorating it, having neighbors, handling a mortgage and dealing with the umpteen million problems inherent in home ownership.
We learn a lot from that starter home and then, many of us move up, and buy place to settle down. By then, we know what it takes to deal with the grand project of home ownership. We also know ourselves better. Do you like to tinker or will you hire someone to fix things? Who will take care of the lawn or the endless cleanups? Are you confident or simply overwhelmed every time something goes wrong? How will you furnish it? You learn a lot about yourself from this experience.
Imagine the learning curve four or five years into your marriage. You begin to really know her family, how she spends money, or how she gets annoyed with your habits. Perhaps, you come home irritated anticipating one of her moods—which simply ruins everything. With considerable dismay, you begin to notice that raising kids has caused the marriage to shift from a love affair - into a partnership. And you are not crazy about her parenting choices either—does she really need to yell so much?
Or, you look at your husband and find yourself judged all the time, criticized for what you say and HOW you say it. You just can’t be a goody two shoes all the time, having to tolerate his every wish for validation even when you are dead tired taking care of his children (and sometimes working as well). The sex may have been great, but who has the energy? And, anyway, “why would I want to be intimate with a person who makes things harder than they have to be?”
Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming, or you name your fantasy – STOPS WORKING. And, what you are left with is a partnership.
This is where the real work of love takes place. This partnership is necessary. You must give up the fantasy, because, whether you like it or not, you are in love with a flesh and blood person and not the fulfillment of your dream. For this, there will be a crash. For some, the marriage ends right there. For others, their marriage segues into the low hum of a productive partnership, with the pleasure of being with each other mixing with the day to day work of raising kids, supporting a family and dealing with all the problems – health, friends, family, business, schools, and more that will almost certainly come your way.
Resentment is the poison of love: A business like partnership can work, but it’s dry. As the reality of an arid marriage dawns on them, many begin to nurse resentment; like this is not what I signed up for. Resentment is palpable and in the air. You slowly but surely start withholding from each other. “Why should I do anything for him when he’s only about himself?” This is the negative feedback cycle of resentment.
It goes something like this. The more I withhold from you, the more you will withhold from me. Soon, you stop talking about your marital problems—it’s too dangerous. Marriage becomes a job. You get the kids to school, help them with their homework, go to work, and deal with money issues—with home life becoming increasingly unhappy.
When you feel like a prisoner in your marriage, you’re vulnerable to all the addictive ills of our world ; they fill a void. Eating is number one; but drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex and pornography, gambling (legal and illegal), and violence can take over as well. An unhappy marriage can lead to unhappy behavior.
Love is that important.
If you fight, the resentment’s right under the surface and each of you has a lot to say about past wrongs and hurts. A small sample: “If only you cared more about our son, maybe he wouldn’t have these problems.” Or, “if you didn’t yell so much I’d come home earlier.” Or, “you are always criticizing me!” Or, “if you don’t like it, leave!”
In a marriage that's going wrong, it’s easy to get triggered. And, no one can hurt you like someone you love. Some couples fight with words that cut deep; for others with more serious psychological problems, fights can get violent.
This is often a turning point. Too much damage can thwart any attempt to repair. Get help if you think you are about to become violent or if you are afraid that he or she is going there.
Resentment is handled in other ways as well. Some people come from a background where fighting is off limits, so the marriage gets colder and colder with resentment poisoning things from the inside out. You both know there’s a world of hurt and blame, yet you carry on as if nothing is wrong. Humpty Dumpty has fallen, but no one wants to look.
The human spirit yearns to be free: It’s healthy to think about emancipation when you feel trapped. Some may have an affair. Some secretly hope that their spouse leaves. Some harbor the most terrible of thoughts; “maybe she will die? Then I won’t have to do anything to be free.” Some decide that a divorce will be necessary and plan for it—either now or when the kids are older.
Human beings require freedom—it’s in our genes, and so is our great myth of redemption.
Two plus Two Equals Three: There’s another option, and it is how many marriages can flourish despite the project’s perils. You have to accept the death of the marriage that you wanted; the one that was based on mutual childish fantasies. Then, you must replace your old marriage with a new project; love between two adults.
A dying marriage can start over. It’s true and it’s what real freedom and redemption is all about. James Hollis is onto something here. You see, a renewal from a bad place is the natural course of many successful marriages. As strange that sounds, I think it’s pretty normal—and I’ve seen it happen.
You love her as the very person she is; no more and no less. You accept the simple humanity of your husband, because he is yours to love. You forgive him and you forgive yourself. This is a form of radical acceptance and requires a conscious change; maybe even renewed vows.
But, what about our human need to be cared for and adored by our partner? This becomes easier when we are less resentful. The adult project is to learn that our longings are best handled by taking care of ourselves—doing the therapy work to fulfill or dreams or the grief work of letting go of our childhood hurts. You can leave resentment behind, when you realize that you had a starter marriage with your husband or wife—and now it’s time to move into the real thing.
Slowly but surely, two plus two equals three. Your world is expanded by her and not constricted. You see her loving your children and you love her for loving them so well. You see him taking care of your father and you love him for loving your Dad. You learn about a baseball team or become a dog person, despite yourself. Instead of resentment, you create the blessing of a positive feedback loop.
With a positive feedback loop moving forward, the good stuff comes back in a new way. You spend more time with each other. You relearn being playful and silly. You find times for intimacy, away from the kids. Your house becomes a home again.
Conscious Love: If your marriage was too damaged to continue, don’t despair. Learn the lessons of your failed starter experience and don’t be one of those fools who just repeat the same mistakes again and again. Don’t fall into the statistics of failed second and third marriages—because no one can really save you – but you.
The study of divorce teaches us about love. You see, divorce shows us how love dies, slowly, quickly, passively or violently. This knowledge tells us how marriage is a living entity. And, even though it’s hurting, it doesn’t need to die.
For many, the life of a marriage is predictable. It has its joyful beginning, with its inevitable disappointments—but it carries an opportunity that is deeper and more wondrous than poetry. Our traditions teach us that the birth of something special can require a moment of hopelessness.
I have seen new love work.
It requires grieving what’s been done to you and what you never got (which often has little to do with your spouse). It requires an embrace of the blessing of living this life and wanted the best that it has to offer (and giving up victimhood and unnecessary anger). You must understand that not everything is fair in life, but your experience can be used to learn how to be more self sufficient and happy. And, while there are many exceptions, going through the dark night of a marriage’s soul can enable you to learn what’s required to freely establish a new and better partnership.
It requires two people to wake up. Perhaps it’s your time.
Summing it all up:
- Marriages can die—and be reborn.
- We can be stuck in slavery—and find our way to freedom.
- And, be thankful that things are not as simple—or as stuck—as you may think.
Enjoy this season of hope. Tomorrow may surprise you.
Online Parenting Course: www.FamilyStabilizationCourse.com
Radio Show: www.divorcesourceradio.com/category/audio-podcast/the-intelligent-divorce
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