Should I stay in my marriage?

I suspect I got married for the wrong reasons -- am I supposed to remain miserable for the sake of the kids?

Published May 8, 2007 10:40AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Among your readers you have many lurkers like me who read your columns somewhat regularly, never comment on them and have never interacted with you in any way, yet who hold you in our minds as exemplifying very specific values when we carry on our internal debates about the matters most important to our hearts and lives.

One value you espouse repeatedly is that of keeping a marriage together at extraordinary costs if there are children involved. Extraordinary costs for a marriage are, I suppose, agreeing to stay when something powerful in you wants to withdraw, is alienated, seems lost, and doing so for the sake of the children, for an extended period of time -- two decades, you are asking of these people, after which they will presumably have given up on whatever was calling them away.

Anyhow, between the lines, I think you can grasp my dilemma. At the root of it is the question, how do I know if my heart isn't in my marriage or if I'm actually selfishly withdrawing my heart from my marriage? Doesn't my marriage need my heart? Can I somehow insert it, seemingly against its will? Is it possible to have simply married for the wrong reasons, or is it possible to make any marriage work, even if it was quite possibly founded on a friendship and empathy about some fucked-up, yet shared life challenges more than ever actually falling in love (which had proved so disastrous in the past)? What if you can't avoid the arguments, the bickering, even though you can see the dreaded effect on the children, can see in spite of everything your parents' legacy leaking through?

What if the only time the man in question was ever medicated for depression was in the weeks leading up to the wedding? What of the drama of the artistic soul -- and that of a full-time working artist, compromising for money -- more or less blocked from its real art by the need to provide for the family, not just money, but body, soul and spare time? Are we just talking about some completely selfish bastard here? Why blindly -- or is it willingly -- insert oneself in such a drama? Can he pay nature's debt to his children's well-being, especially with a bunch of money to do it, or are they guaranteed to suffer and resent me -- um, him -- no matter what? Is it all just going on in my mind, a self-centered little rathole, with real life standing by?

I know -- seek therapy, another value you espouse, and I'm getting there, but I've had several mediocre to outright bad experiences with it. Or was I just not ready to be helped?

Sleepless (and Joyless) in San Francisco

Dear Sleepless,

I am not categorically opposed to divorce.

But it has frequently been the case that in thinking through a situation in which two people are married and kids are involved, I could not escape the feeling that it would be best for them to stay together.

That does not mean that it would be best in your case. Each instance is unique. There is no rule to apply. There are probably many, many couples with children for whom divorce is the best thing. Yours may be one of those couples.

You simply must decide. That is the crucial point. You must decide consciously and then take steps to do what your decision requires. Your decision will have consequences for which you are responsible.

Deciding is hard. It is not my job. It is yours. It is hard, but it can be done. There are things you can do to increase your strength so that you can decide. In order to decide, you may need certain things -- quietness of mind, sufficient energy, ability to concentrate and weigh likely outcomes. So it would be advisable to seek those things in your life, prior to making your decision. If it is possible to take some days off, to go to a retreat or camp out or change your scenery to clear your mind, that might help. If you have tried counseling or therapy and that has not worked, then I would not depend on that. I would look for things that actually work. Inquire of yourself: "What helps me make decisions? What works for me? What has worked in the past? What good decisions have I made and how did I make them?"

Whatever it takes, you must make a decision. Why? Because you are miserable now.

You must make a decision and then you must take responsibility for it.

It's that simple.

While I do not believe it is a general truth that people should stay married, I do believe in certain general truths about life. I think, for instance, that you, like me, are essentially alone in the universe and are burdened with freedom and the responsibility for your own choices.

This has certain implications.

So I urge you to act in consciousness of this paradox: Because you are free, you must have faith. Not in the religious sense, necessarily, but in some nonrational, nonempirical way. That is, you are free but not omnipotent or omniscient, so you must at some point abandon yourself to the unknown and the uncontrollable -- to the future, to the world. You must simply choose. You must simply jump.

You cannot know for certain that you will land safely. So your lack of faith is to some extent rational. But you cannot know for certain that if you stay where you are you will remain safe, either. You may be run down where you stand. Something may fall on you. You are not safe whether you move or stay still. Your life is passing by you at the same speed whether you stand still or take some risks.

So why is a decision better than a nondecision? That's a good question!

I think it is better because it is in accord with our animal nature; as animals, as occasions of life, we are essentially patterns of movement and transformation of energy. Only when we die does this movement stop. So it is in our nature to move, to change, to act. When we are stuck, then we are miserable because we are not living.

If you were not free, then you could reasonably wait for your jailer or your boss to come and make the decision for you. But that is not going to happen. And if you did not have an intellect, you would probably just move on out of animal instinct. But that is not the situation either. If you make no decision, nothing is going to happen. You will be like a statue. People will sit on you and eat their lunch.

What keeps you from making the decision? I think it is probably fear of the outcome. This fear is rational: Indeed you cannot know with certainty the outcome. So you need this rudimentary faith, this willingness to abandon yourself to the unknowable. Even the most rudimentary faith that tomorrow we are going to wake up and the world is still going to be here may be enough. That is sometimes all you've got.

OK, so regarding the specific choice before you, here is another general belief: Children, if kept safe and generally cared for, can be extremely resilient. No matter what the gender and number of their caregivers, they can learn to lead happy lives if they are given what they need. Whether you stay together or separate, there is much you can continue to do to support your kids.

(It's not a simple matter, however, to divine what children need from us. They often do not tell us. One thing a unified household provides is the opportunity to closely observe children day to day so that we can learn to intuit what they need by their reactions. So if you absent yourself it can be harder to provide them what they need because you don't know what they need. That's not a veiled attempt to talk you into staying in an unhappy marriage. It's just an observation.)

To reiterate: There are no set rules for you to follow. Therapy doesn't help everyone. Sometimes very simple things are all you need. It is sometimes the case, for instance, that the world seems utterly meaningless and life is bleak. Then I eat a good meal and get some sleep and the world improves. Matters that seemed vastly complex can turn out to be rather simple.

On simple facts such as that, a fairly decent life can be constructed, day by day -- not always, but sometimes. We live in the particulars. We live moment to moment. We live in a vast river of paradox.

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