How would we behave differently in our marriages if we knew divorce was always just a click away? An easy "opt-out" button that all our partners have to do is tick a box if they decide it is no longer working for them? How would our marriages be different if we viewed them less as ownership contracts and more as leases? What if each year, our relationships were up for renewal- but our partners got to decide if they wanted to renew? How much would our behavior change?
This entry today isn't about encouraging divorce (as the title may suggest) but more about encouraging us to view marriage as a verb. More of a continual concerted effort toward renewal vs. a stagnating, binding contract.
If divorce was as easy as opting-out, would we still leave the bathroom door open? Would we boorishly belch apathetically? Would we still roam around in our PJs for the third day in a row? Would we recklessly let criticism, contempt, and negativity drip from our tongues? Or would we start to take more care in what we said to each other? Would we put on a bit of lipstick before our partner walked through the door? Would we spritz on a bit of perfume/cologne and brush our teeth? Would we be more diligent in protecting how our partners saw us, how our partners saw themselves, and more importantly, the narrative that shapes how we see our partners?
Somewhere along the way, we were falsely led to believe that our relationships should provide us with this notion of unconditional love. Really? You want your partner to just love you no matter what? What then keeps them from loving anyone else no matter what? Isn't it more about them needing to be married vs. needing to be married to YOU? If it is unconditional love you want, what separates your partners love for you from any other warm body with a heart beat? Didn't you guys vow to love and honor each other 'til death do you part because at some point each of you decided each other had unique conditions that no one else offered?
Would your partner decided to renew his/her contract with you if you said "In this coming year, I plan to make our relationship devoid of any physical or emotional intimacy, I plan to say whatever comes to my mind and want you to unconditionally agree, and I also plan to dress/act however I want and want you to continue to stroke my ego and tell me that I don't need to change a thing. In return, I will criticize you when I feel that you aren't making me happy, I will tell you that you are a failure at everything you do, and whenever I feel unhappy, I will make sure you know you had something to do with it."
As an aside: Unfortunately, so many of us proudly march under the banner of "divorce is not an option for us," and then take an even weasle-ier approach and cheat (emotionally or physically). Over time, after we are banged up, isolated, criticized, ignored, and beaten down, we may find a way to let off the steam without disrupting the system. We find someone who will listen. Maybe it becomes a co-worker that all of a sudden makes us feel like the brilliant, funny, unique person our partners once saw us to be. Maybe they listen intently as we tell the same joke for the hundredth time. Maybe they look in our eyes as we describe how lonely we feel and they seem to just "really get it."
In any event, the worst part of ourselves can spin a yarn that goes something like "atleast we aren't getting divorced," and "these are innocent little lunches with my co-worker, nothing more." We can carry on under the distorted guise that we are the "good ones," because we are sticking together. "Atleast our kids won't grow up in a broken home." But in actuality it is the strongest of us, the ones with the most integrity that stand up and say "I won't be in a relationship I can't be proud of, no matter what that looks like on the outside."
When couples come to me, they both usually think they have reached the end of their rope. It is actually a healthy milestone when you reach gridlock with each other. Yes, I'll say it again- it is healthy for us to come to a place where it feels like we just can't get past it and we might be in the wrong relationship. This is why David Schnarch calls relationships "people growing machines."
If we can hold on to ourselves psychologically enough to stand up and say "divorce is an option," then we can begin to have a dialogue with each other that puts both of our needs in the here and now, back on the map. When we take the conversation to the point of "this marriage isn't always guaranteed," it becomes the vital catalyst that incites the change needed to evolve both as a couple and as individuals.
If you had an opt-out button today, what more would you demand from your relationship to stay? More importantly, if your partner had an opt-out, what would they demand from you?
Dr. Colleen Long is the author of Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E; What We Know Now About Happiness as well as Meditation Medication. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and couples therapist with practices in Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach, California. You can follow her on twitter or facebook, or visit her website.