The Unfairness Factor: One of the more profoundly emotional experiences in couples work is watching the demise of a Coupledom when only one of the partners is “done.” The spouse who wants to keep the marriage alive is outnumbered. Yes outnumbered because it only takes 50% of the vote to emotionally dissolve the marriage. How is this possible, asks the other half? How can you say we are done? I am calling this element of the uncoupling process the unfairness factor: the reality that one member alone can terminate a marriage of two. For their partner this is an impossibility — “How can you alone make a decision of such gravity for me? How can something that unfair be possible, condoned, permitted, done to me?” murmurs the incredulous other. Incredible. Yet true.
When Did I Become So Powerless? I have been a party to that moment when one member delivers the news and the other member acquires a stunned and devastated expression, emotionally thrashing about while drowning in the waters of an unbearable reality, often with the soon to be ex-partner looking on with disbelief: “I have been telling you this for years, that I was unhappy, something was wrong, something needed to change and you never heard me. I’m done.” Frequently the term “final straw” is thrown into the mix to explain what catapulted one of the pair to cross that divide to the ultimate conclusion, “We must divorce.” The impact of this news can stir up a variety of defenses: denial (this will pass, just a phase, a stage, I will win them back); aggression (I won’t let you. I can fight this. You will regret this); seduction (sexual seduction or promises of gifts, vacations, work schedule changes); manipulations of all kinds including guilt provocation (how can you do this to the children); blame (it’s your friend’s influence, your mother never liked me, who is she/he?) – all desperate attempts to reduce the terrible powerless emotion seeping into every pore of the person’s skin, every organ of their body, every atom making up the molecules of their existence. This is a hit like no other in our culture. “When did I become so powerless?” Now!
Can This Train Be Stopped? In my thirty-seven years as a psychotherapist it is the rare case where the decision to terminate a marriage was made casually, without a process over years that was both painful and wishful, and may have included couples therapy and/or attempts to communicate feelings of unhappiness, and even fear that divorce was possible if change did not occur. So how can one account for spousal reactions of disbelief and shock when that 50% tally comes in: “I’m done.” Clearly many of the defenses that get us into trouble as adults are at work, including a kind of defensive deafness (what we call “selective hearing”) where what is heard is marginalized by what one can tolerate hearing. The underpinning of all psychological defenses is fear, primitive, base fear. And fear is triggered by something “threatening”: words and feelings spoken by another that sound negative about ourselves or herald negative possibilities to our sense of security or self-worth. Words and feelings that describe negative reactions to our behaviors are asking us to make choices that create conflict: relinquish something that we want to preserve something that we have.
Common and Potentially Toxic: The prototypical conflict that I see countless times in my office is the choice between meeting career goals and ambitions and spending time and focus on the family and the spousal relationship. No other conflict of goals and desires presents themselves as frequently as this one does. The ambitious partner or simply the one who carries the major burden of funding family life, sees their responsibility as primarily financial in nature. Their spouse, who may also work, views their job as maintaining the family fortress. What is wrong with this picture? The process. Neither partner is wrong but the interpersonal transactions chosen to facilitate achieving the designated goals are seriously flawed. Can the train to divorce be stopped? Not if the process has proven so destructive to one of its members that nothing is left inside them to prevent the splintering of their marriage vows. Time and process are the keys to preventing the crash. Early intervention. And continuous intervention until a new and healthier process is put in place. With lots of check-ins and touch-ups even after folks think they are safe.
Addictions and Disorders: Another prototypical conflict that interferes with a genuine and effective process to prevent divorce is that occurring between a substance, pornography or gambling addicted partner or a partner with an emotional disorder (both groups refusing to acknowledge or get help for their disorder) and their spouse who recognizes the continuing negative effect on themselves and family members of these addictive behaviors. Denial of the destructive impact of the addiction or mental disturbance on one’s spouse provides the death knell, eventually, for the marriage. Even when confronted with that reality, the addicted partner is often shocked, discrediting or diminishing their partner’s sufferings and overwhelmed by a sense of unfairness and powerlessness while their spouse sits there in disbelief asking “What do you think I have been saying for years?”
Denial Is An Empathy Killer: What can the powerless partner do when rendered the “We’re done” verdict? Empower themselves by owning their part, perhaps for the first time minus the denial which blocks the ability to be in the other’s shoes. Denial destroys the possibility of empathy, the absence of which is at the root of a failed marriage; the failure to imagine what it is like to be one’s spouse, what it feels like to be your partner. Denial is an empathy killer and without an empathic connection to one’s partner enough of the time, your marriage is skating on emotionally thin ice. One more straw, and yes, even ice can break.
Prevention or Acceptance: Two choices here: for the marriage that is still alive, read what is written above and start the process. For the marriage that has 50% of the partners done, don’t make it ugly, messier or more damaging to you or your spouse. Sort out what went awry and learn from it; be brave, bold and honest first and foremost with yourself. That does not mean taking sole responsibility, though often that may sound like what your partner is saying. No it just means owning your piece, fairly, not drumming into the other what they did wrong. What good does that serve? It is a normal instinct to offset a sense of failure or guilt by pointing the finger of blame. But no one is listening but you. The other is too busy fending off the attack.
Shame Or Liberation: Yes, it takes two to make a marriage, but it truly only takes one to end it, though the process along the way involved both parties making choices. Ending a marriage with personal dignity is the healthy path. To do that takes courage and must include the acceptance of an existential reality that there are times when we are powerless to reverse another’s actions or decisions, no matter the impact on ourselves. There is no shame in acknowledging that universal human imperfection. We cannot control others, only ourselves. Embracing that concept can become quite liberating.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011
Jill – this article could not have come at a better time. For the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering how someone does accept when the relationship is over…now I get it. Thank you for writing this….
Michele, I am glad that this was useful. That is always my hope. Thank you for the feedback.