Empowered Sex asks: When does one know that it’s time to leave a marriage or a long-term committed relationship?

Empowered Sex asks: When does one know that it’s time to leave a marriage or a long-term committed relationship? When is it time to say goodbye? The way I was raised, marriage was ‘till death do us part’ and the only grounds for leaving your husband were if he was beating you, or was a raging alcoholic. Ok, maybe if he was a well known philanderer, you’d have an acceptable excuse. On a recent episode of “Mad Men” which takes place in the 60’s, Betsy was told that if she got a divorce she would lose everything unless she could undeniably prove that her husband was cheating on her. I don’t know for sure if these were cultural or economic issues, maybe a sign of the times for women, or if these were the only reasons the Catholic Church would accept for annulment.

Wedding Glasses
Image by Rennett Stowe via Flickr

Annulment – this is where the church dissolves your marriage as though it never took place, so that the next time you get the urge to sleep with someone, you can come back and marry in the Catholic Church again, so you don’t end up in hell. When I was planning my wedding, I wanted to have it on the east coast where all of our relatives were. I remember asking my mother’s parish priest to perform the ceremony at a nearby university chapel which we had chosen together for its historic significance, ease of access for our guests who were traveling long distances , and the fact that since my fiancé was not Catholic, it provided ‘neutral turf’. The priest told us that he could not perform the ceremony there because it was not my ‘parish church’. Of course, neither was my mother’s church, as I’d left for Denver years before. He said that if we got married in the university church (a church where mass was said every Sunday), even by him, we would not be considered married in the eyes of the church and we’d technically be ‘living in sin’. So I said, “If we get married at the university chapel, and get a divorce in five years, and I wish to marry someone else in the Catholic Church, then what?” “You would have to ask the Catholic Church for an annulment first”, he said. “And an annulment costs a lot of money, right Father?” I replied. “So I then have to pay the church hundreds of dollars to annul the marriage they didn’t recognize in the first place.” He confirmed and I walked out.
And now, that I am going through a divorce, I ask myself why anyone would want to ‘annul’ a marriage anyway, aside from the politics of the Catholic Church. Every time you say you are going through a divorce you get the same response – I’m sorry. Yes, as stressful as wedding planning can be, divorce, no matter how amicable it is, is definitely much worse. But why is it that our society still views divorce as a blatant failure?

When things aren’t working in the marriage anymore and you’re both unhappy, what’s wrong with recognizing it, celebrating the good run you had, parting in love, and moving on? In this day and age, there aren’t a lot of people who can meet someone in their early 20’s, and remain blissfully, monogamously married till they die 75 years later. What we really practice in our society is serial monogamy. When the divorce rate is over 50%, why do we keep buying into the ‘happily ever after’ fairytale anyway? A friend who was recently divorced said that before couples are granted a marriage license, they should have to sit through a class on divorce. I think this is a great idea, since it appears that even our trend of living together before marriage is not changing our divorce statistics. Perhaps it should be some sort of boot camp. Know what your odds are before you turn into bridezilla and drop 20 or 30 grand on a party and the perfect dress you’ll only wear once. After all, if you were investing $30K in an IRA, would you sign on the dotted line if in fact you were told that you had a 51% chance that you’d lose all your money?

divorce cake 1One day I was talking with a single friend who hasn’t been in a committed relationship as long as I’ve known her. I suggested that perhaps she should let go of some of her rigid requirements and predefined notions and give a guy a chance. I used an example of a major issue that my husband and I were at odds about when we met and how we overcame it. Her response was, “Well, where did it get you? You’re still getting a divorce.” Wow. That’s like refusing a free vacation in Tahiti, because eventually it will be over, and you’ll have to return to the drudgery of that job you hate but that you just can’t quit. It makes me wonder why we can’t seem to let go of things that aren’t working for us until we are absolutely miserable. Are we all really just that afraid of change, or is it too hard? Are we, as a society that risk averse? Have women simply been bred to ‘play it safe’? What’s so terrible about leaving a good thing while it’s still good, and moving on for the purpose of our own growth? I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t put effort into sticking to our commitments, or live in a state of dissatisfaction with our lives always looking for the next job, next house, next car, or next spouse. But for the love of God, if it’s just not working, stop being a martyr or wallowing around in self-pity and move on with your life. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Besides, you’re not making the world a better place until you are fully living a joyful existence.

It’s interesting to see the reactions when you tell people you’re getting a divorce. Especially if one of the above criteria for leaving has not been met and become obvious, or when you look really cute together, still manage to function as a couple, or are still cohabitating (as many splitting couples are forced to do in this economy). Typical responses: “I don’t get it. You seem to get along just like me and my wife do. You seem so great together. You have this great life style and you throw amazing parties.” I tell people that when you are on the outside looking in, it’s like dining in a five-star restaurant. You are having a beautiful experience and everything looks perfect out in the dining room, but you have no idea of the chaos that’s going on in the kitchen – just watch an episode of “Hell’s Kitchen” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sometimes when I’d get these reactions, I’d think that it was really fear that was surfacing. “Oh my God, if they can’t make it, and they like all the same food, never argue about home furnishings, and have actually agreed on keeping the toilet seat AND LID closed, how will we survive?” Other times I’d think it was the ‘misery loves company’ syndrome. “I’m married and miserable damn it, and you should be too, and like it!” In fact, I once had a friend of my husband’s say to me, “I don’t get it. Neither of you has anyone else waiting in the wings, so if you’re miserable together and you’re going to be alone and miserable, why not just be miserable together?” Holy shit – I never thought of it that way.

divorce cake 2People asked me why my divorce was taking so long. Well, I didn’t rush into marriage so why would I get a ‘quickie’ divorce? An eighteen year commitment is not to be taken lightly. I see long term commitment as two plants that were put in the same pot. Over the years their roots intertwine beneath the soil and the vines become entangled above, until there is no telling one from the other. Once they have become root bound in the pot however, they must be separated and transplanted or they will die. If you try to quickly pull apart the vines or rip the roots from each other, the plants may not survive. However, if you gently separate the roots and the vines with as little trauma as possible, each plant can be re-potted in fertile soil where they can thrive and grow.

Interestingly enough I found that none of my friends were really surprised to hear of my divorce plans, and most of my husband’s friends were. I have heard countless stories of men who say that one day, with absolutely no warning whatsoever, their wife came home and said, “I’m not happy and I want a divorce.” Blew them out of the water. They were perfectly happy, why wasn’t she? Hmmm. One has to wonder – if women are ‘emotional’ creatures and typically good communicators, how could these men not have seen any of the signs? In fact, most of these stories came to me from other men and had nothing to do with the age of the woman either (so no mid-life crisis theme here). So it leaves me wondering, are women all going crazy? Are there more of us who finally have the courage to stop ‘settling’ for relationships that are no longer fulfilling? And are there way too many men in relationships who have turned into ostriches? Or because we are still tied into traditionally conventional roles for men and women in marriage, is the whole arrangement just better for a man? Statistics show that it is more often the woman who files for divorce and that women are not only happier than men after the split, but are less likely to rebound quickly to another marriage. Makes sense to me. Hell, who couldn’t use a ‘wife’? I wish I could have one. If I did, she’d probably be cooking me scrambled eggs right now, be out earning the rent money, balancing my budget, or reconfiguring my computer network. In fact, I could use 3 or 4 wives. But that’s another topic.

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4 comments to Empowered Sex asks: When does one know that it’s time to leave a marriage or a long-term committed relationship?

  • Spectacular writing on this subject. Can’t wait to read your next article.

  • Yvonne

    Well said.

    I’m a woman who loves both men and women. I once had a girlfriend who bordered on a wife. It was awesome and terrible at the same time. So awesome I didn’t handle it well. I got too comfortable being taken care of all the time, and paused growing in some ways personally. As a blessing in disguise, our personalities generated enough conflict between us that I had to walk away and cut myself free of animosity-ridden codependence. I’m sure I did her a favor too, as she didn’t need me to turn into a parasite.

    These days I contemplate relationship terms more than ever. I always feared being said ‘wife’ to a man, seeing it as a path to restless unhappiness and pointless self-sacrifice. But I truly love serial monogamy. I love having one close friend and lover. At the same time I don’t believe lifelong monogamy is a natural, or realistic state.

    I want to hear more women speaking honestly about this. Especially where children become involved, as the potential of having children is an inherent factor in female sexuality. A woman’s reproductive life cycle needs to be liberated not just by having control over lack of pregnancy, but also by liberated choices made in child-rearing and how that relates to mate-pairing.

    I will likely never be anyone’s ‘wife.’ But I would like one day to be a mother. I often wonder, can this be done without denying children their fathers? More difficultly, as a working-class female, how liberated will motherhood ever be if mothers remain economically dependent upon the fathers?

  • admin

    Thanks for your thoughtful & honest comment Yvonne. Lucky you, to have had the experience of having ‘a wife’! Perhaps when we can eliminate the wage disparity between men & women, it will become easier for the single mother. That said, I think it is healthy for a child to have both male & female role models in their upbringing, regardless of the sex of the child. However, that can be achieved in a variety of ways. I believe that more damage can be done to children who are raised in homes where the love between the parents is gone, and they think they should stay together for the sake of the kids, rather than being raised in two single-parent households where both parties are happier than if they’d stayed in an unfulfilling marriage.

  • Loved your viewpoints and your analogies to explain them!

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