“In sickness and in health till death do us part.”
Couples would like to live up to this or similar vows, and many do. They develop a life together with mutual understanding and respect. While all marriages encounter difficulties, the underlying strong, positive feelings of both partners toward each other make it possible to be faithful to their commitment.
Still, for some couples it is impossible to stay married for life, despite their best intentions to love one another and survive adversity. The partners may come to this conclusion together, or one may decide it alone. Either way, uncoupling is likely to be very painful for both partners in a marriage. When this occurs it is important to know that with time each may again find serenity.
Often, their difficulties have been a secret, hidden from each other, as well as from family, friends and associates. The spouse who initiates the separation may have avoided broaching the issue for fear of causing pain. When he or she finally announces, “I want a divorce,” the other spouse may feel the news is abrupt and unexpected.
How well the individuals recover emotionally depends on several factors. Strong feelings of love may prevent taking steps towards separation; the process is affected also by personality, coping mechanisms, and any previous experience of separation in childhood.
Typically, lovers have their own interests and personality traits, until as a couple, they develop a “shared way of being”. One of the difficulties in separation is learning once again to act independently. The process is comparable to removing layers of the shared being until a self-sufficient, individual personality steps out. Resistance often accompanies this stage of uncoupling.
Uncoupled people tend also to feel shameful. They may sense personal failure and feel that others see them as flawed. Anger and depression can be overwhelming. Excessive alcohol or substance abuse may offer temporary escape. Either partner can become emotionally dependent on the children. Some uncoupled adults think of finding support back home with their parents. Others remain in denial and do not want to accept their new status. As a result, they may isolate themselves from former friends, preferring loneliness to shame. At such times a therapist who is caring but neutral and objective may be helpful.
Both parties suffer the pain of the separation. Often the initiator appears to have a less difficult time in a separation, seeming to have more control of the situation. However this partner has long ruminated about his or her dissatisfaction while keeping it secret. The loneliness of living with dissatisfaction, and having to keeping it secret can be quite painful. The unsuspecting partner on the other hand tends to feel powerless. He or she may feel startled not to have seen the problem all along, and may insist on trying to repair the relation. The process may lead to a state of despair in which the will to live evaporates.
At times, it is worthwhile to attempt to save the relationship by trying to improve communication, looking at realistic changes that may bring back the positive feelings. But often this does not take place. Instead a couple may take desperate steps, such as having a baby to rescue the relationship, which make matters worse.
As the couple avoids constructive communication, the dissatisfied partner is on the lookout for undiscovered negative qualities in the other, which will reinforce the decision to uncouple. This process may destroy positive memories of the relationship as each partner begins to believe that “the marriage was never any good in the first place.”
Is the marriage lost at this point? Not necessarily. A rocky marriage may continue as the couple relies on ingrained patterns to get along. They may stay together from a sense of commitment to the marriage, the children or their extended family. They may fear that they will never find someone else, or the need to separate may come second to overriding financial, legal or religious issues.
It is critical for each to regain self-esteem by focusing on what was good in the relationship and starting the process of individual redefinition. To be able to mourn the lost relationship, and to be angry about its failure is important. However one should not generalize “all men are cheats,” “all women are selfish,” or “I’ll never get into another committed relationship.”
Emerging from a relationship, an individual should attempt to rekindle forgotten interest and personality traits that he or she had when still single and dare to take new initiatives. This will assist the process of regaining new confidence and hope in oneself. Not every difficulty in a relationship has to lead to uncoupling, but if this happens, there may be a road to feeling good again.
Marta Aizenman has a doctorate in counseling. She is the director of the Cook College Counseling Center at Rutgers University and also has a private practice.
(If you are looking for a therapist and would like a referral, you can find help through a friend or through your family physician.
You may also call the referral service at the New Jersey Psychological Association: 1-800-281-6572.)