“Marriage is Not a Love Affair”: The Shadow Side of Committing

This was the worst moment:

After telling the kids we are going on a date night, Jamey and I sit in our car staring out at the Olentangy River glistening in the dark.  I am trying to hand him a very long letter; he doesn’t want to take it.

He reads part of the first page and crumples the papers in his hand, “I can’t read this.  You are making the worst mistake of you life.”

The letter tells him I want a divorce.

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This was another bad moment:

A week before, I sit in another parking lot, this time by myself. I am in the middle of panic attack.  My head might explode, so I hold it between my knees and try to remember my meditative practice.  My hands are shaking.  I felt like I might be going crazy.  I feel like I might die.  How am I going to do this, and why?  How did it come to this?

I need to get out.  I need to breath.  I just want it all to be over.

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This was the antecedent to these other two very bad moments:

I am sitting in my therapist’s office and I am telling her: “I feel very clear about this.  Things are not changing.  My feelings are not changing.  I have to make a change.”

“Sounds like you know what you need to do.  Our next appointment is in two weeks.  Why don’t you tell him before we meet next?  You are ready.”

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Marriage is one of the most profound and deeply complicated commitments one can make.  I believe firmly that regardless of who you are, it is impossible to know and comprehend the truth of it until many years into the experience.

Before I go to into what I mean by this, what I think I have learned after a decade of marriage, I think its important to tell part of our story, my husband’s and mine.

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I met Jamey a month before my twenty-first birthday, and I remember my first real impressions of him were over the phone: Smart and funny.  A good conversationalist.  Quick witted and interesting.

He traveled for work, but we would hang out on the weekends and occasionally go on trips together.  As we got to know one another, my list built: smart and funny- check, but also, kind, responsible, honest, sweet.

Our mind-to-mind connection was immediate and intoxicating, filled with repartee and wit, our phone conversations left me feeling like I had met an equal, possibly a better.  At the same time, unlike other men I had dated (artists of various types) he was also grounded, stable, dependable.

The other reasons we connected were a little harder to identify; in many ways, we seemed really different.  He was a former fraternity president and young Republican from Montana.  I was a hippy(ish) chick with short purple hair- not to mention a single mother of a two-year-old son.

Regardless, six months into our relationship I was sitting in my parked car listening to a country song (not my genre of choice) when it swept through me like a hot wind.  My eyes filled with tears of disbelief.  Wow.  So I guess this is happening now.  I was in love.

From there our courtship and eventual engagement all seemed like slipping into the warmth of a comfortable bed at the end of a long day: easy, welcome, relieving and natural.

There were signs of trouble, when I look back. The first three times we said I love you, we were both drinking. The words always came forth from my own lips first, which I always regretted, and we kept promising one another a “do-over” that would create a proper story for our children and friends someday. This never happened, and I became more uncomfortable as to why it didn’t. We talked about it one night in bed after I pressed him, and our first sober, “I love you” came in that same conversation- certainly not grudgingly, but not of his own volition either. The “right time” never came.

This was the beginnings of a “pursuer-distancer dynamic” that continued for many years into our relationship, a term used in couple’s therapy and family counseling.  From what I have learned from my own experiences and talking to others, this is a very common pattern in relationships. To take a more clinical look at what it means, according to North Berkeley Couple’s Therapy,

“…once the couple’s shifts past the honeymoon stage, the individual relating styles, behaviors and communication patterns reemerge. This transition may trigger the distancing and pursuing behaviors in some couples.  This occurs when one partner, seeking security and to relieve anxiety, metaphorically reaches for the other (wanting more contact) and in response the second partner may feel overwhelmed and relieve anxiety by withdrawing. Once the withdrawn partner distances, the other partner often pursues even more, perhaps with criticism and anger. The cycle is then born.”

This cycle was probably born quite early in our dynamic.  It began to have visible features that were troubling to me about two and a half years into our relationship- six months before we were married.  It started to look like a problem I wasn’t sure I could handle within the first year of our marriage and built from there.

It looked like this: I wanted more connection, and I acted out in resentment and anger when I didn’t get it.  He felt unsafe, so he withdrew from the relationship.  Before I knew what was going on, I had lost him.  I remember crying many times over this; he was here, but he wasn’t- an almost impossible thing to describe.

I loved, have always loved, my husband.  Realizing that I had chased him away was devastating.  By the time I tried fix it, it was too late.  A naturally introverted person, the emotional risks of engaging with me just seemed too high.  I became lonely.  He became resentful, though he was not ready to see he felt that way.

He told me I was looking for trouble where there was none.  I was silently screamed for help.  During all of this, we stayed together, and to most people (even ourselves) we seemed happy most of the time.

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Skipping forward to eight years into our marriage: I had a deep need to connect with others, and it seemed like he just wasn’t available for that type of connection.  Conversely, my negative reactions to our relationship issues had left him leery; he viewed me as untrustworthy and volatile.

My way of coping with this was to begin individual therapy, which helped. I also began to build connections outside of my marriage to fill my emotional needs. This worked for awhile, but when I became less needy, it didn’t solve our lack of connection.  In fact, the distance had grown, and I began to feel like the ways in which we each saw the world and one another contained huge discrepancies that felt like lies we told every day.

Then, one day, I opened by eyes and awakened to the realization that my heart had built a life without him. The rejection I had felt for so long was too painful, and in response I had built walls I didn’t think I could break down.

I told him I wasn’t sure our relationship was working.

The next two years were filled with turmoil and pain for us both.  We went to couple’s therapy.  It helped. At the same time, I wasn’t committed to our relationship.  My other emotional connections had become too important to my safety, and I was resentful of his withholding for so long and didn’t know if I could trust him to be an emotional support for me.  In addition, he still never seemed to be seeing what I was seeing.  He knew I was unhappy, but he didn’t think our marriage had the serious issues I seemed to be describing.  He saw me as ungrateful and unappreciative.

There was a breaking point, and I told him I wanted a divorce.  We had been talking in earnest for almost two years about our issues, we had gone to couple’s counseling; it just wasn’t working.

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So back to the beginning of this post: sitting in a car with my husband waiting for my life as I knew it to end. There is much that happened after this moment, and I will share a lot of it, but first I just want to acknowledge that this is what marriage is sometimes. It is the heartbreak of trying everything within your imagination and realizing that it wasn’t enough. It is hopelessness. It is loneliness.

As women especially (but men too), we are conditioned to believe that marriage is the beginning of the happy ending.  When you find “the one” you become fulfilled.  But actually, it can feel like the opposite.

I cannot remember whose sentiment this is, but I think perhaps it might have been either Elizabeth Gilbert or Cheryl Strayed (I looked long and hard but couldn’t find it).  The essence was this: When one decides to say yes to marriage, he or she is also deciding to say no to every other possibility.  Many doors close, and there is a grieving process.

I have never heard anyone talk about this, but I think it is true.  And for me, the grief I felt upon realizing it was very deep- a well of sorrow unacknowledged by the world.  A secret shame and a mystery.

This came on full force when the intoxication of limerence faded away.  Limerence is defined by in the book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love by Dorothy Tennov as, “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”

Limerence is a common experience, a part of being human, and it is intoxicating and overwhelming; it is also beautiful and natural.  A Psychology Today article by Dr. Stephanie Sarkis describes the effects of limerence in this way, “You can’t get any work done.  You’ve forgotten how to tie your shoes.  All you can think about is him/her.  You’re on a high from the endorphins in your brain. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep.”

Or, in the words of a journal entry written by someone in limerence and quoted by Tennov in her book, “Every thought winds back to you no matter how hard I try to direct its course in other directions.”

Limerence is emphasized by “the chase” so often characterizing the pursuer-distancer dynamic, and it is a temporary state. At the same time, it is the phase of the relationship most extrapolated upon by every romantic comedy and pop song.  “I love you. I can’t live without you.  Do to me what you will.  You are my soul.”

Unhealthy?  Maybe.  Dangerous?  Oh, yes.  Yes it is.  It is dangerous to our hearts and our souls to believe that this is the state of perpetual love.  It is dangerous to our society to create the illusion that this is always “the beginning of the happy ending.”  Limerence can lead to long-lasting love, it is not, however a perpetual state.

According to the recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope, the reality of marriage post-limerence is like this,

“Researchers determined that 23 percent of the couples were in supportive marriages with low levels of negativity. The remaining 77 percent of couples gave mixed responses, suggesting their marriages were more ambivalent in terms of positive and negative feelings toward each other.”

Confirming this, in The Atlantic article “Masters of Love” by Emily Esfahani Smith, it cites that according to research by psychologist Ty Tashiro, “Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages.” This doesn’t mean all those couples get divorced (the divorce rate for happy marriages is about 50%), but it means that for many people, even marriages that last are not always life-giving.

For some, marriage can be one of the hardest things they have ever done.

I am one of those people.

So is marriage a failure?  A social construct that is past its time?  Something that worked when we lived to age 30 but is irrelevant now that we live into our 70s and beyond?

I don’t think so.  But does it need to be reframed?  It feels that way to me, and there is a lot of evidence there to support my feeling.

For marriage to feed individual growth, humanity and the building of best selves, it takes a lot of conscious and concerted “right” effort.  Many of us are working very hard at marriage.  This hard work, however, is a lost cause if it means chasing or distancing.  Some of us may not have even seen the pattern yet.  Others see it but have no clue what to possibly do about it.

What I want to say on this topic right now, though, is that there is no shame in having a marriage that is difficult, or even dark and scary at times. This is most people at least some of the time. What I want to say about marriage right now is that you are not alone- man or woman.  And if you are feeling like you can’t talk about it because of shame and guilt, I know how you feel- but you are not a failure.

I will say a lot more about marriage in the coming weeks and months.  My own marriage has undergone a transformation that at times feels like magic; I know it wasn’t.  It was a lot of pain, difficulty and hard work.  It was also a lot of love, commitment, growth and vulnerability.  I am glad we made it through, and my life is the better for it.

For now, however, this is a start to talking honestly about one of the most complex issues to the modern human condition.

Here are some words from Joseph Campbell (slightly modified) to ponder until next time,

“Marriage is not a love affair… [it] is a commitment to that which [we] are.”

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This post is the first in a series on marriage where I explore the topic as a personal journey and a social issue.  Click here to read post 2 in the series.  

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Reflections?  

Please share.

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