One of the main premises of my blog is, although each relationship is unique there are often common problems and issues affecting many of us.
So by looking at those “common problems”, in theory there will be many people out there who will be able to relate to what I’m trying to say. Some of what I write is from experience while some is from things I have read or even just from personal observation. But in my writing I try to look at things in terms of ideas, or beliefs. I try not to write about me or my experiences directly.
In that regard, today’s post is a bit different.
Like many, my marriage was challenged; and that became the flashpoint event that caused me to turn to writing.
When I found out my wife was unhappy in our marriage; I wanted to understand, and to make things better. I knew there was a lot of good, and I believed that if we could go back and find that good our life could be great again and we could have the “forever” we once promised each other.
So I fought for us.
I tried to grow to be a better person, and in that regard I would like to think I’ve succeeded. But even though I grew personally, I still failed and our marriage failed.
Today I hope to share lessons I learned, painfully.
Every situation is different and what is right for me isn’t necessarily what is right for others, so everyone needs to judge for themselves what is right in their own situation.
But for me, these are “truths” I wish I had learned earlier.
A number of years ago my wife told me she was no longer happy in our marriage. She didn’t feel she loved me anymore, questioned if she ever “truly” loved me, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore. I’ll guess she felt that way for a while, but it was over 4 years ago when she finally told me those things.
“Why” doesn’t really matter, and honestly I don’t actually know if she or I will ever really understand it.
I was caught off guard, as I hadn’t seen it coming. To me, marriage was forever. We had been together a long time and had a young family; so I didn’t want her to do anything rash.
I wanted to understand what was wrong, thinking if we could identify the problems we could improve them. After all, isn’t that what you do? Try to be there for each other and try to be better?
She told me she didn’t want “us” anymore, and further she didn’t even want to try because “what was the point”. She had never communicated this to me before, but apparently for her she had been feeling this way for a while.
I was able to convince her to stay, but it was only ever in body.
She never seemed to buy in to the notion we could still be happy, and she never seemed to *want it* the way I did.
It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be married anymore, so her effort was sporadic, and never sustained. And not putting in consistent effort undermined our ability to ever improve.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and after that day we really never were.
I continued to love her, but she didn’t seem to love me back. Instead, we were in this limbo state where we were a bit more than roommates who co-parent, but not really a couple. Any passion she once had for me or for us had long been gone.
In that situation, it was a struggle to remain positive and stay strong, holding on to hope things would get better. But I tried.
Occasionally things would improve for a day or two; sometimes even weeks at a time. During these moments I would feel connected again, and get a glimpse of what our life once was and what I felt it could be again.
But these moments were always fleeting, then her body language would change and the walls would come back up. Emotional walls, where I could feel her holding back. She either didn’t love me, was unable to express it, or didn’t believe she should have to. But in the end it amounted to the same – my perception had been one of a number of years in a relationship where my love was not returned.
John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) said a successful marriage needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction. I disagree. Tension and negative interactions may be bad; but apathy is worse. Living in limbo, without expressions of love and affection was a slow death, and in some ways I think a major issue or incident would have been better.
Limbo is defined as:
“an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”.
And that’s what my life had become.
A life where I was married, but not. I was with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, but was also unable to let me go.
In those early months and years, I thought I was doing the right thing. I stayed with her, and accepted the lack of reciprocation of my love.
I told myself she just needed time. I knew what we had, and I knew how great our life could be. So all I had to do was stay positive and I would be able to get her to come back to me. I could be the light that would bring her out of whatever dark place she was in.
So I waited.
I had visions of those romantic stories where people are separated by circumstance, and eventually they are reunited in their love.
I told myself that would be us.
One day she would see me again with fresh eyes, and she would love me again. I even imagined us one day renewing our vows together.
I was an idiot.
What I failed to see was, this was different. We weren’t separated by circumstance, this was choice. This was someone who knew me, and knew everything about me. She had every opportunity to be there and to choose me. But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
She was a priority to me, but for her I wasn’t a priority anymore. For whatever reason, I was just an option. She wanted time to “figure stuff out”, to figure out what she wanted out of life.
And while she figured stuff out I was supposed to sit there and wait; and be there IF and when she decided she wanted us again, no matter how long that took.
In staying with her I thought I was doing “the right thing” for us and our family. I thought I was respecting my vows, and being there for her in good times and in bad. After all, marriage was supposed to be for life.
But the reality is, I wasn’t doing the right thing.
I wasn’t respecting myself.
By allowing us to stay in this limbo state where I wanted things but she didn’t, I was enabling this. I was saying “this is alright, it’s okay for you to feel this way. It’s okay for you to treat me this way”.
I needed her to make a decision.
I needed her to recommit to us. To work on improving whatever was wrong, and to choose me, each and every day.
And if she couldn’t, I needed her to let me go.
What does a relationship mean to you? What do you need from your partner? What behaviors from them are acceptable, and what aren’t?
I don’t think most of us know that. I don’t think we understand what those things mean to us.
I know I didn’t.
I believed I loved someone, and she loved me, and that should be enough. With that, everything else would just fall into place.
But I was wrong.
Living in limbo was difficult, but the one positive is it allowed me to try and understand those things. I didn’t just mope at how sad my home life had become. I took the time to understand who I really am, and what I need out of life and love.
There are things we want, and there are things we need. Learning what these are is part of understanding ourselves, and establishing our own boundaries. And once we’ve established them, we need to enforce them.
But nothing is either/or. Everything exists on a spectrum.
Love, affection, kindness.
All of these things exist on a sliding scale. Some days you will have more, other days less.
You can always have more, but at what point do you have enough?
My broken marriage was an awful experience, but it allowed me to learned what enough looks like for me. I’ve learned what things I need, and what things I can’t and won’t do without ever again.
In the investment world, people talk about how property is one of the safest investments you can make because there’s a finite amount of it.
And that’s true.
But there’s another thing there’s a finite amount of.
We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and each day should be precious. Things aren’t always easy, they aren’t always fun, and that’s alright. Getting through the hard times with someone you love is part of what makes a couple stronger.
But you have to believe in what you are doing. You have to WANT it – even when it’s hard. And if you DON’T want it? That’s when you fail.
When things start to fall apart, it doesn’t mean you need to bail right away (if people did, I doubt ANY marriage would last). When you have history together, it’s always good to give things a bit of time to turn around.
So the question becomes, when things aren’t working how long do you hold on?
I think that’s a question there’s no right answer for. Initially I told myself I was going to give things 6 months. That became a year, and then two. Eventually we hit four years in this limbo state, where we were more roommates that co-parented then we were a couple.
And other than a handful of little moments, there was no real sign we would ever be able to find middle ground which would allow us to both be happy.
If we were actively working on things together, that time would have been an investment in a better future. That’s not what happened though. She just wanted more and more time to “figure things out”. Her way. At her pace.
Me, and my needs ceased to matter. And I never got the sense that she actually wanted US. She would “say” she wanted us, but her actions never reflected her words.
And as time passed, nothing changed.
Maybe it would have come had I waited another year. Another 6 months? Another week? Who knows.
That’s the thing, you never know. You can only ask yourself if you’ve done “enough”. To that I can definitely look my children in the eye and tell them yes. Their daddy did everything he could to keep his family together and hold on to his dream of forever.
But my best wasn’t enough.
I’ve learned you can’t make someone else love you. And you can’t make someone else want something they no longer want.
But you CAN make it clear that certain things aren’t acceptable, and that you matter too. You CAN stand up for yourself, and what you need out of life.
To the woman who was once my wife, and anyone out there in the same situation I say:
No one is entitled to a relationship. If someone isn’t sure about what they want, they need to make a choice.
Commit, or get out. Don’t hold people lives hostage because of your own uncertainty.
Because time wasted is time you will never get back.