I’m awake again in the middle of the night while everyone in my house is quietly dreaming. I toss and turn in tangled sheets, unable to fall back asleep, head full of questions, heart full of anxiety.
Having a marriage that is on the brink of divorce will do that to you.
My mind races with doubts about the future, replaying conversations and hurtful words hurled like rapid-fire, and I’m bombarded with one overwhelming puzzle to solve: where do I go from here?
For years, we were blissfully married. People congratulated us on anniversary after anniversary and major life milestones: finishing graduate school, paying off the last of the debt, purchasing our first home (and then our second), having our first child (and then another). Financially, we’re in exactly the place we have always dreamed of being. I no longer break into a sweat when I purchase the week’s groceries, praying that my debit card won’t be declined. We’ve finally made it!
But we haven’t. Because somewhere along the way, we lost each other.
It unraveled with such painstaking slowness that I didn’t even recognize it. I didn’t see that our connection was fading. But there’s nothing like a months-long quarantine to make you take a good, long look at the emotional temperature of your house. Once we peeled away the facade of busy schedules and meetings and practices and parties and playdates, there was literally nothing left. In the words of William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.”
Sometimes it’s not even the fighting that signals a sinking ship. Silence and apathy are the quiet killers of a marriage. The man who once seemed so enamored with my wit and my idiosyncrasies now rolls his eyes and gives a derisive snort at the things that matter most to me. The man who used to be my safety net, the one who would hold me in his arms and tell me everything would be okay, is now the one threatening to leave unless something changes. Though I would be lying if I tried to claim that the word “divorce” had never presented itself as a possible solution in the midst of my troubled thoughts.
Sometimes the idea takes hold of me, in a ridiculous fantasy type of way. I imagine striking out on my own, finding my own place to live (perfectly decorated in the downtown area of a bustling city), and eating take-out as often as I want, letting the scene play out in my mind like a movie. I would meet someone new, someone who understands me in a way that he never had, someone who would vow to be the man of my dreams and the doting stepfather of my children, and we would ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.
Except I know deep down that happily ever after is a delusion.
The new relationship would have problems of its own, perhaps even worse issues than I’ve ever had to deal with before. We would fight, just like all couples do. The strain of blending families together might threaten to break us. Chasing after a perfect person or an effortless relationship is ultimately a pipedream. All relationships require work.
I saw a social media post being passed around recently that said, “Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard.” It echoed what I already knew: there is no such thing as finding something easy or simple. It was always destined to be hard. The only thing left is for me to choose.
It’s still the middle of the night as I type this, just past 1am. I sneak into my kids’ room and look at their little angelic faces, their chests rising and falling peacefully. No matter how nightmarish their behavior has been during the day, they never fail to woo me with their sweet, dreaming faces. I look at their faces and I try to imagine sitting them down on the sofa and telling them that Daddy and I are getting divorced. I can picture their confusion, the puzzled looks on their faces as I try to explain grown-up matters in layman’s terms, and try to really sell the upsides to them like it will be a fun vacation. I try to imagine their once-perfect smiles, cracked with the pain of heartache. Their sense of innocence shattered as they realize for the first time that a family can actually intentionally decide to tear itself into two. I look at their sleeping faces, and I make my choice.
I’m going to stay. I’m going to fight for my marriage.
I’m not even totally sure what the “fighting” will look like in this scenario (because there’s been a whole lot of fighting already, and none of it looks promising). But I think just making the choice, making the mental shift to invest myself here is the first step. Just deciding to stop indulging in nonsensical fantasies about an imaginary boyfriend coming to rescue me from my failing marriage is a step in the right direction. If this is truly going to work, then my goal will have to be reconciliation. I can’t hope for divorce in the back of my mind, even a little bit. I’ve got to decide. I can make the choice.
And my motivation, my reason why, are those sweet sleeping faces upstairs. I’m not talking about half-heartedly settling to “stay together for the kids,” because that never helped anyone. I’m talking about “let’s reconcile with each other for the kids.” “Let’s do the work and fight for each other for the sake of these kids.” Until eventually, hanging onto my husband as the love of my life is the only motivation that I need.
In Liane Moriarity’s novel Nine Perfect Strangers, one of the characters was asked about the secret to his successful marriage, and he shockingly responded, “I could find a million reasons to hate my wife if I decided to look for them.” It confirms the idea that marriage requires a conscious choice to look for the good, even when there is a lot of bad. To see the whole person standing in front of you, rather than just a list of their failings. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson, I’ve been listening to the “demon dialogues” for far too long. I’ve built up this image of my husband as a villain in my mind. Working on our marriage will require me to toss that notion aside, and see my husband for who he actually is. I’ll need to go beyond single-mindedly listening to his words in search of another fault to add to his ever-growing list. I’ll need to recognize that his anger and cutting words are coming from a place of hurt and rejection, and figure out a way to extend the olive branch.
He was my best friend and closest confidant for years. Even though lately he feels like a stranger, I need to believe in my heart of hearts that we can become best friends again.