Unconventional Wisdom: Stop This Divorce!

Divorce and unrealistic expectations in love.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 4, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

My spouse and I are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. We have adult children, and the split is amicable with no complications. There is no outside party involved, but due to issues that could not be resolved, we are going our separate ways. If we both agree that there are no strings attached, what is your opinion of our maintaining a sexual relationship? Neither of us wants to date, and to be honest, sex is one of the areas in which we are most compatible. What do you think?

I think you should call the divorce lawyer, thank him/her for his/her efforts, pay your bill in full, then call off the divorce. Let’s review the facts. You and your almost-ex are still attracted enough to one another to enjoy sex. You’re comfortable being with one another. You have 25 years of history together—something that will only grow in importance. Your kids are grown, but not all that grown; divorce coming when offspring are on the threshold of adulthood, launching their own relationship lives, is confusing and undermines all that they thought they knew about love. So it all comes down to unresolved issues. I’m unimpressed. Every couple has “unresolved issues,” one or two core problems—relationship researcher John Gottman calls them “unresolvable perpetual problems”—on which they never see eye to eye or get what they want, and about which they fight over and over. The problems arise from having different personalities, different histories, different perspectives, different metabolisms. Change your partner and you only change the specific unresolvable issues between you and your next partner. The matter is not whether you have differences, but how you manage them. First, it’s essential to recognize that some problems are simply not resolvable; sorry, I know that’s contrary to the love-conquers-all message implicit in the idealized view of love that gets most of the air time in this country. Second, you have to find a way to keep the recurring problems from overwhelming what’s good about the marriage. A sense of humor helps. Think of your unresolvable problems as annoying but necessary members of the family. Third, there are ways to complain and fight that preserve the relationship, and while you can’t take back words said in the heat of battle, you can—and must—engage in relationship-repair efforts so that you don’t emotionally disengage from one another. If you and your almost-ex can’t find a way to see your problems as inevitable annoyances, then get to a good family therapist who can help you develop ways to accept imperfection so that it doesn’t shred the goodwill and love in the process.

Wanted: A Magical Mate

I’m different from others. I want my partner to do what I want without my having to tell her to do so. If my partner doesn’t do what I want, I get disappointed. My philosophy of life is, whoever loves me should know what I want and then do it. If I have to tell her what to do then maybe her love isn’t that strong. What is possible when you are devoted to someone?

Different is fine. Expecting mind-reading is not. Differences don’t kill relationships. Impossible expectations do. You are destined for a lifetime of disappointment because it is simply not humanly possible—or desirable—for one person to always know what another wants (or to do it). As adults, part of what makes us attractive to others is our responsibility for knowing who we are and what our needs are and our virtuosity in articulating them to worthy contenders. If we can’t do that, we tend to end up choosing partners who aren’t remotely interested in servicing our particular set of needs, even if they could divine them. I’m assuming you know enough not to take the same set of expectations into the workplace; not only will that not get you very far, it won’t win you too many raises. It’s time to grow up and assume responsibility for knowing and asking—charmingly—for what you want.