I was saddened recently when speaking with an old friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in quite some time. We met so very long ago and our lives were entwined in our young adulthood until she decided to move her family to a quieter, more peaceful setting than NYC. After the first few years of occasional visits our lives became connected solely through the happy images of Facebook. Within this rose-colored lens I watched her children grow up, graduate college, family vacations abroad and their local summer retreats. So when we finally did speak, the shock of her first words hit me hard, “I’m going to ask my husband for a divorce. He has no idea.”
What?! Sometimes the boundaries of my role as friend vs. relationship therapist remain blurry, so I did my best to maintain my role as friend and provide a supportive ear. I discovered that they had not been relating to each other in an intimate way for years. Each time her resentment and unhappiness arose, she pushed it away and got busy with other things. Raising the children, work, exercise, art projects, and community events – so many ways to avoid. He on the other hand was too self-involved to notice. His work, his anxiety and the fact that she took care of him in other ways seemed to keep him from noticing her slipping away.
The first question is the easiest to answer is “why is she leaving now, at this time”? Of course, it’s the old empty nest syndrome – her career is stable and her kids are out of the house. The distractions are fewer and she has time to look at the state of her relationship. And she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s motivated by the joylessness in her life – the pain and emptiness are now overwhelming.
The less obvious question is “what kept her from telling him sooner”? Strangely, the same mechanism is at work here – the avoidance of pain.
She never spoke to him about her discontent, because she could not even bear the possibility that her feelings might be dismissed, denied, or neglected. She does know a thing or two about her husband of many years – her complaints and unhappiness will be hard for him to hear. Let’s face it; he hasn’t noticed her withdrawal all along. Or if he had noticed, he’d been too busy avoiding for his own reasons. We expose ourselves when we confront – it is at this point that we are at our most vulnerable. The overwhelming fear of not being affirmed by her partner when she put herself on the line was unbearable. The odds of a heartfelt response, she perceived, were not in her favor and the risk felt too great.
By nature we are averse to loss, and it is well known that we feel the pain of our losses twice as hard as we enjoy the thrill of our gains. Loss aversion explains risk aversion, and it follows why so many of us are afraid to tell our partners our true feelings. As bad as we feel with the status quo, we are sure as hell not willing to risk being rejected.
But, now that things have changed for my friend – the children are grown and they are financially stable – the pain of leaving at this point is actually less than the pain of staying. In her mind, they’ve been living separate emotional lives for so long that the odds are in her favor to go.
And yet, I wonder. As a relationship therapist, I’m not in the business of helping people stay together if they really should not – if there is abuse, differing values, addiction, or other un-resolvable misery, I’m all in for moving on and I will help these couples do that as well. In this case, I see something else. I see a lifetime of avoidance (probably on both sides) that will follow them to the next relationship – whether it’s a new partner, a work relationship or the other folks in the retirement community. I see real loss and real pain in not having spoken your truth, tolerated your partner’s truth and negotiating the mess in between.