In The Beginning There Was A Bond: When the Coupledom, the domicile of the couples’ relationship, splinters, what can be preserved and what must be discarded? These are daunting questions that deserve deep search and time. Here are a few guidelines for both spouses to use as they engage in the art of uncoupling.
Respecting The Process: Thirty five years as a psychotherapist have shown me that couples fight hard to stay together. To the best of their ability. Few treat divorce lightly. The reasons for a “failed marriage’ are complex, personal and unique. No two couples are the same. Similarities lie in the hard choices and the deep divisions leading to the demise of a marriage. Divorcing carries a taint, a sense of personal failure and a great need to blame another. But there is something important that each spouse should remember: There is an integrity to the effort that went into staying together, even if it ultimately failed.
Integrity to The Effort: Though each partner may be encumbered by “psychological baggage”, defenses that impair attempts at intimacy, or even fidelity, unrealistic expectations, unarticulated needs, triangles with in-laws, and careers, or challenges of raising children, most people work in their own way to keep the marriage going for a significant time. Couples who stagger into therapy after decades of trying to reach across the emotional chasm that has grown between them, carry layers of scar tissue from hurts. Despite all that, they are still trying, for the children and for the notion of family, to heal the marriage. It is rare in my experience that giving up “the family unit” comes easily to anyone. Each partner, in an attempt to handle their hurt and rage, may point to the other as not caring about the “family”, the marital bond or even the children, but my experience tells me differently. In the often bitter and excruciating throes of divorcing, the defense against the pain through unrelenting blame is a very costly one.
Bashing the Coupledom: Couples sign the marriage contract often with unspoken and unconscious motivations: the yin and the yang of opposites attracting; getting out of an unhappy home; lust, fun and chemistry; cultural, societal and economic pressures; a real friendship; similar traumatic histories. There are endless and numerous incentives to tie the knot. And many seem to come back to “bite you”.
The Allure of Difference: The common attraction to someone different from oneself often can reverse itself into hating those very differences. The extrovert and the introvert, the pairing of the scatterbrain but easy going partner with the obsessive detailed oriented “control freak”; the one who allows space becomes the one who is cold and indifferent. The one who is passionate and touchy feely seems too needy or too embracing of others. The ambitious partner becomes the one who abandons you for “career”. The domestic earthy partner is “no fun”, wants to stay home and cook. The shared traumatic histories that led to immediate empathy, and identification, ultimately became hobbling. The irony is that couples over time can grow further apart for the very reasons they initially chose to be together. Coupledom Bashing ignores these variables, demeans both partners and frankly their children as well. Though it might seem healing and necessary for “separation”, coupledom bashing carries a heavy toll and amputates a part of the self that chose this person years ago. There are good reasons why two people find themselves together, as good as the reasons that ultimately may led them to choose to live their lives apart. Both sets of reasons deserve life, expression and respect.
Mourning the Bond: “What We Had” or “What We Thought We Had” is worthy of mourning. Whether it makes sense in the context of one’s history, or a shared illusion, the bond served a purpose. Mourning the demise of the bond rather than cutting it off as one would a gangrenous limb, eases the bitterness, the bilious need to blame or excoriate the other in one’s memory or to friends. Most importantly it prevents the passing down of an ugly legacy to the children, the legacy that the only way to end a relationship is to “hate and denigrate the bond”, and often the partner as well. Understanding and modeling for children that the termination of a partnership though painful and unwanted, is actually a normal though undesired human experience, reduces the shame and the taint. Look at the statistics, divorce is common now and with variations, throughout history. Death is in nature and in relationships. Mortality is not just in the flesh but in feelings as well.
Forgiving The Failure of The Coupledom: Calibrating who tried harder is a normal though fruitless and bitter preoccupation for divorcing couples. Letting go of the illusion that one can measure effort in human relationships as one measures poundage of fruit on a supermarket scale is liberating. We Tried. Each in our own way. Forgive the failure, forgive oneself most of all, and forgive the other. Over time, wisdom will settle in next to the healing heart, and those two words, We Tried, can say it all.
©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.