When my husband and I were newlyweds we lived in a neighborhood filled with other young couples and starter families. One weekend afternoon I went to the local home improvement store with one of the neighbors who was also recently married to her husband. On the drive to the store we shared our stories of newlywed life which included tales of the normal bickering between two people living together—who left the cap off of the toothpaste, the repeated pleading to lower the toilet seat, whose turn it is to cook, etc.—when my friend confided to me that when she married her husband she thought they were never going to fight. I of course thought she was being sarcastic so I laughed out loud. When I didn’t hear her joining in I glanced in her direction and realized she was being dead serious. I nearly drove off the road. When I came home after shopping and my husband asked me how the trip was I replied, “The Smith’s are going to get divorced.” (Names changed to protect the divorced). I am not psychic but several years later they did.
So the baseline for our discussion today is the fact that if you are going to spend the rest of your life together you will in fact argue. That is normal and nothing to be afraid of. But what is scary as hell is the fact that if you are married or in a relationship for any significant length of time you should prepare yourself for the fact that at some point shit is going to get real. In my personal experience and totally unscientific research (girl talk over wine is a legitimate focus group for purposes of this discussion) I’ve discovered that at some point in every long time relationship couples will get to a point where they are at their absolute breaking point. I’d like to be perfectly clear that there are deal breakers every healthy person should walk away from. For instance if your partner is a serial cheater, a pathological liar, or hits you (even once, my friend, even just one single time), it’s time to move on. This is by no means a comprehensive list but you get the idea—some relationships are broken beyond repair. But for most other long-term relationships it’s the little things that go unchecked and over time and fester to the point that the relationship seems poisoned and beyond repair. It’s death by a thousand cuts. It is these relationships that I encourage you to put on your big girl panties and work like hell to save.
My marriage’s breaking point happened in 2010. I refer to it as my “bad time.” This God awful time in my marriage came after seven years of dating, nine years of marriage and two kids. My story is pretty cliché: unexpected unemployment, financial trouble, the pressures of raising two young children led to me living virtually a separate and disconnected life from my husband who was battling his own demons while I tried to pretend everything was fine. Fine. I was just fine, thank you. Truth be told we had been heading in this direction for a couple of years before things became “really bad.” But I was so focused on birthing and raising babies and keeping my career running that I felt I didn’t have time to focus on what I knew was incremental deterioration in my marriage. Surely my husband would be able to get himself back on track. I just needed to give him time. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Because eventually it got to the point where I could no longer ignore it. The toxicity that had built up in our marriage and the vast space between us finally brought me to the point where I was willing to accept the failure of the thing I had cherished and worked tirelessly to create for sixteen years: our family. I was utterly devastated.
Fortunately my story has a happy ending. My husband and I were able to battle our way back from the edge. And in the hope of helping anyone out there on their own slippery slope or currently in the darkest time of your relationship I’m going to share the best advice I learned on my own long tough journey.
1. Men are village idiots when it comes to emotions. As the mother of two sons I don’t know if the blame rests with society and the crappy tough guy images our culture feeds boys from their earliest days, or it is just Mother Nature who hard wired boys to be emotionally stunted individuals but try as I might talking about feelings is not something that comes easily to boys and most certainly not to men. Unfortunately, a critical component for making it through your “bad time”—or even better yet heading it off before your relationship is in the toilet—is communication. Yet most men are incapable of having regular open discussions about their emotions. So the nasty voices in their heads telling them they are inadequate, or overwhelmed, or helpless have no release valve. They just build and build until it comes out in destructive ways and then they still don’t have any real way to talk through it because most men have the emotional IQ of a gnat. This is where we as women have to take the lead. We need to trust our instincts and push our partners to do the thing they hate—talk about their feelings. Because let’s face it most women can talk it to death (in the best away possible) an emotion or a feeling. It is one of our super powers. And don’t have just one conversation and think your problem is solved. Start the conversation and keep having it until that pit in your stomach is gone and you know you two are back on track.
2. Sometimes you need to bring in outside help like a therapist, a pastor, or a rabbi. Put it into “man-terms” to help them understand. For instance football couldn’t be played without officals and marriage is exactly the same. Officials weigh in on how the game is being played to make sure it is fair. They aren’t there to help one team over the other. Merely to make sure the best game possible is being played. I’m sure there are holes in that analogy but you get the gist of it. I’ve found most men (and by most men I mean every single man I know) feel therapy is a total waste of time, that it won’t help anything, or (my personal favorite) that the therapist is on “the woman’s side.” Of course they do. If men hate talking about emotions with their life partner they certainly don’t want to be forced to do it with a total stranger. But ladies, make them get to a therapist or counselor by any means necessary. You very likely might not be able to get out of your marriages dark place without professional help. So cajole him, push him, shame him, force him whatever it takes to get him talking to a person who can help you have to do it. Your marriage might depend on it.
3. Most importantly, remember you are not alone. You are not some freak experiencing things no one else has every experienced. This doesn’t have to break you. And even more importantly getting through it can lay the foundation for an amazing rock solid relationship for the rest of your life.