Separation seems to help. Should we divorce?

I was raised by a single mom. At least that made sense. Marriage was a big surprise

By Cary Tennis

Published August 8, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've admired your column (long-form questions! lovely, thoughtful answers!) for years. Now it's my turn to ask, because I just do not know what to do.

I am trying to decide whether or not to end my marriage. My husband and I have been together for 18 years, and married for 13 of those. We have two kids in elementary school.

I was never a girl who wanted to get married, who dreamed of the white wedding and the husband and the kids. In fact, quite the opposite. All the women in my family in my mom's generation were single mothers and, though everyone pulled together and survived more or less OK, I thought, this marriage and child-rearing thing is for the birds and I never wanted to do it myself.

It was only after long, thoughtful consideration and learning as much as I could about marriage and how it worked that I decided to marry the man who is my husband. He is a smart, gentle, honest, kind man, and I was surprised and delighted to realize, after we'd married, that I trusted him in a way that I had never trusted another human being. It gave me faith that I could face the challenge of parenthood and our first daughter was born two years after we were married.

That was the beginning of a long decline. Long story short, and with hindsight, my husband reacted to the demands of parenthood by dutifully gutting out his responsibilities, and retreating into his shell and withdrawing from intimacy with me, emotionally, physically.

In time, and with hindsight and some individual and joint therapy, it has become clear that the way my husband learned to deal with stress and conflict is to avoid and deny it. There are so many consequences of this. One biggie: I have always been left completely unsupported on those rare occasions when good ol' strong, capable me is really emotionally wrung out (say, upon learning of a friend's brush with cancer, or when I have faced terrible career struggles, and even more so when there is marital conflict). Another major problem: Almost all major family/finance/career responsibilities have been left to me because he just can't or won't deal. I tried to make connection, solve these problems, make headway for years, with no success; he just tuned me out.

These issues came to a head about a year ago, after we'd moved the whole family clear across the country to follow a golden career opportunity for me. The weight of it all was too much: having to become the breadwinner because he wouldn't step up (this is a man with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience in the field; not a slacker, just afraid); his unwillingness to participate in figuring out where we should settle long-term in a new state; my loneliness because he never wanted to talk to me, spend time with me, have sex with me, which had been awful for years but was so much more stark because my entire social network was now absent.

I blew up. We went to counseling, individually and together. Both of us have learned some things. He wants to stay married and is beginning to understand the consequences of his checking out of the marriage for so long. There is some progress in our communication, which has been great. But he is still very closed and very passive and and is fatalistic and pessimistic about ever "getting to where he needs to be."

My pain, anger, frustration are so great. I put so much effort into trying to solve these problems and was shut out so thoroughly for so long that I am exhausted and want to give up. We separated in April and in many ways it has been a relief.

And yet, and yet. In practical terms we always have been and still are a very good team. He's a very involved and loving father and we share kid and money responsibilities remarkably smoothly even though we're apart. With counseling he has made significant changes in the past several months, though indeed I feel like there is still a long way to go until we would really be in a healthy dynamic.

Also, importantly, I see how his interpersonal skills reflect the dynamics of his family of origin -- and these are front and center as his parents are in ill health and their isolation and denial are making everything much harder. I think he is getting some real perspective on the dynamics that I have been talking about, now that he is seeing them from a different position, with some heavy introspection.

I am still really in pain about the state and fate of our marriage, and am just so tired. I want to put it behind me and just move on. Our kids are doing just fine in the separation. But I am not cruel and I don't want to make this time in his life harder than it already is. I wonder if going through the crucible of marriage crisis and parent crisis will really effect the personal growth he needs to be engaged, open, intimate, responsible. And if so, how long it will take. I think, the practical stuff and the rock-solid trust I have in him about those matters is also rare and important and if we could get the emotional stuff sorted out this could still be a good marriage in the long run. But I do not know how to find the compassion and faith and patience to keep going, to wait for healing, to survive continuing disappointments, which are many.

What to Do?

Dear What to Do,

You know, one of the pleasures of writing this column is reading your letters like a literary critic or a detective -- or, not to overstate my capabilities, let's say just like a reasonably intelligent, engaged reader. Another pleasure comes in using that attention to reflect back things I notice, knowing that occasionally -- not always, but sometimes -- my reflecting back results in the letter writer truly seeing what she is saying.

There are two steps to what happens here. One, people write and just the act of writing is an act of new cognition. That alone, so people tell me, is often helpful. The next thing is actually seeing what you have written with surprise, or seeing it in a new way, or seeing the part you didn't notice when you wrote it. Often we ourselves cannot see what we have written. Someone must point it out to us and then we see it.

So I'm reading your letter with interest, thinking of my own mother, whose relationship to my father had similarities to your relationship to your husband, and I'm almost hearing her voice when you speak of your frustration and reaching the end of your rope.

And then I come to this strikingly upbeat sentence: "In practical terms we always have been and still are a very good team. He's a very involved and loving father and we share kid and money responsibilities remarkably smoothly even though we're apart."

It's a remarkable shift from your description of this man who has been "gutting out" his responsibilities. But this, we note, is how things are going since you have separated. Instantaneously, I substitute "because we're apart" for "even though we're apart," and everything makes sense.

You are functioning well precisely because you are separated. That's what it seems like to me.

You don't know how to be married. But you know how to do this. You know how to be a single parent. You learned very well from your own mom.

It's funny how this works. Like when we stop doing something and things get better. Do we think, wow, things sure are better since I stopped doing that thing? No. Instead, we think, wow, now that things are going so much better, I think I'll go back and do that thing that was making me miserable!  We think that somehow, by not doing that thing that was making us miserable, we've learned how to do it better. Like when we stop drinking and we think, wow, I feel great now, I'll bet I can go drink some more!

No. You haven't learned anything. You're just doing the thing that works. If you go back to the thing before, things will be bad again.

So I think you have hit on the solution: Live separately.

You don't have to get divorced, necessarily. Just live separately.

Living separately has not taught you how to be a married couple living together. It's just allowed you to live in a way that you know how to do. So it is working. So don't mess it up.

It's possible that the reason you would like to go back to living a married life is that you still want to prove you can do it. I know how it is. You grow up in a family that can't do certain things right, and you think, when I become an adult, I'm going to show them how it's done. You have this big dream of getting it right. It's powerful. It's the wish for the right kind of childhood, the right kind of parents. It's a powerful thing. It will show up in all kinds of ways. It will never announce itself, saying, "I am your powerful but futile wish to redo the past!" No, it will just creep up in ways like, "Wow, I suddenly really, really want that house with the picket fence."

That dream of getting it right, the way other people have done it, it's the dream of correcting the past, and it's powerful and seductive but futile. We must learn to fall in love with how we are today instead.

There will probably be some sadness as you realize that this dream of finally getting it right is not to be. But my bet is that if you stay separated you can do just fine. It's sad that it didn't work out, but it's probably better.

Why not accept your good fortune and let it work? To others it may seem unconventional. But this is your normal. This is what you know how to do. You were raised this way. Your kids don't seem to mind. I think you may have hit on the solution.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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