Should I stay or should I go?

I need to crowd-source this decision; I can't make it on my own

By Cary Tennis

Published February 4, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am writing this because I don't know what to do and I need perspective. The core question: Should I stay in my 15-year relationship, or end it?

So I'm putting it out there, crowd-sourcing the question to someone I can trust to give an honest point of view simply because you don't know either of us and have no vested interest in the outcome. Also because I don't know what else to do.

I have read the books, tried the counseling, and searched my soul. I am tired of living in this awful limbo. When do you know it's time to pull the trigger, cut bait, get up and go, call in the lawyers?

The basics: (I am refraining from specifying gender here because I want to avoid all those tired gender-based tropes):

Me: reserved, analytical, bookish, professional, smart, like to think I'm fun. Traits that affect our relationship negatively: I withdraw, get resentful and snippy.

Spouse: outgoing, accomplished, energetic. Traits that affect our relationship negatively: critical, judgmental, overbearing, controlling, short fuse.

The main thing that keeps me from leaving: our beautiful, loving 7-year-old boy who is the light of both of our lives.

When I imagine life without my spouse I feel a sense of relief and peacefulness. I would worry about money (I work and enjoy my job but would be living on just my income) and would worry a lot about our son. But there is such an appeal to thinking about having my own space that is quiet and uncluttered and where I decide what happens and when, where the possibilities for life are wide open.

When I imagine the rest of my life with my spouse I feel tired and sad. The days would be filled, as they are now, with an undercurrent of resentment and criticism that comes out in small and large ways. I am so tired of the negative comments about how I do things, our various acquaintances, Congress, where we live, the guy who's driving in front of us, you name it.

As I reread this it sounds like I am seriously stacking the deck. So let's think about this: what would I miss about my spouse? I would miss those long hikes in the beautiful hills outside of town. I would miss the 15 years of shared history we have. I would miss the group hugs with our boy.

My spouse says we may be too different. I tell spouse it's not the differences, it's the judgment and criticism of those differences that is the issue for me. This is a conversation we've had several times.

I feel under-appreciated for what I believe are the good things I bring to the relationship. I do not want to waste the rest of my life with a person who does not appreciate and value who I am and who does not feel fortunate to be with me.

Spouse is trying. I am trying. We are seeing a good counselor (after seeing a bad one for over a year). We try to remember to tell each other something we appreciate about each other on a more regular basis, and there are those things. Spouse is responsible and hardworking. Spouse cares deeply about our boy.

I just can't shake this feeling that spouse is resigned to being with me rather than feeling fortunate we have each other. And if I am being honest, I feel the same way. Spouse deserves what I want for myself: a partner who feels glad to wake up with the other person every day. We are not that for each other, and I don't know if we can become that.

So, what do you say?


Dear Undecided,

My compassionate guess is that you have reached an impasse that is personal and that before you can answer questions about your relationship you must resolve this personal impasse. Perhaps there is some crucial element in the situation that you need help seeing. I suggest that you shift your focus from the relatively narrow question of whether to keep the marriage together to the larger question of your own path in life, your own responsibility and roles, and your own concrete set of emotional challenges.

It is good that you and your partner are seeing a counselor but I think that you need to see a depth psychologist on your own, someone with whom you can bond deeply, someone who can guide you to face specific events in your life and concerns rooted in your childhood. I don't know what those events and concerns are, but I can sense that they are there.

I sense that they are there because we do not live in abstractions and our life decisions cannot be made by algorithm or consensus. We live in a world of remembered events and pain and pleasure and desire. It is in how we manage our concrete desires, pleasures, memories and pains that the answers to larger questions are found. The mere fact that you think the answer can be found by disguising, or attempting to disguise, your gender is a key. It is a key to a kind of wish for a purity of solution that is, I fear, unattainable in this world, this world of culture and personal history and pain. It is, I think, an understandable but unhelpful wish; it is a wish for a bloodless solution, clear and logical and blessed by an almost mystical faith in the wisdom of numbers or the wisdom of the crowd. I say this wisdom does not exist outside yourself. I say, however, that the concrete act you have just completed, your act of writing this letter, is the first step. You brim over with concrete passions and pains, which you have attempted to distill into this question. I say un-distill them. Reverse-engineer. Work backward toward the primitive chaos and uncertainty of your authentic yearnings. There you may find some answers about what is driving you. Once you know that, you can begin making decisions. Put off making any decisions until you know more fully what is driving you, what is hidden.

As you do this, please keep in mind that you have responsibilities toward other people. You have made a pact to jointly raise and care for this boy. Breaking that pact will be a profoundly important act. It should not be taken without a correspondingly profound understanding of the personal forces that are urging you toward it.

Cary Tennis

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