Sudden Marital Separation Syndrome
"I was stunned. He told me that he hasn't been happy with our marriage for five years! How could I not know? How could he not say something? Now he wants a divorce. Says it's too late, he doesn't even want to try."
"We had been married for seven years. Oh sure, the passion had subsided but I thought that was normal. I couldn't believe it when she told me that she had never really felt in love with me. Then I found out she was having an affair. I just had no idea we had drifted so far apart."
"Every few years I would try to explain to him that I felt unimportant in the marriage and he would make an effort to be more involved and it would last about two months. Finally I said I was tired of being the one to try to make this marriage work and I wanted a divorce. He was shocked. Angry. Of course he promised he would change but how could I believe him anymore?"
Often couples know when their marriage is in trouble. But I am surprised at the frequency with which couples arrive at my office where only one partner seemed to realize there was a serious problem. At the heart of this is always a poor pattern of communication. Sometimes efforts are made by one spouse to express the dissatisfaction and their partner just doesn't listen. Not listening - not wanting to face a problem in the relationship - is more commonly, but not exclusively, a male issue.
Often the husband thinks his job is to simply be a good provider and that sacrificing time with one's family is part of the price men have to pay as their part of their expected role. This is believed even when the wife is a significant financial contributor. But, underlying this is also a discomfort with issues of intimacy. Men typically see women as more skilled in dealing with feelings. Since men tend to approach most situations as win/lose events, they often try to avoid confrontations about the relationship because they feel they are on "thin ice" and likely to "lose". Men usually have more difficulty expressing emotions, other than anger, whereas women can usually be very articulate about their feelings. So exchanges about feelings in the marriage typically consist of very brief comments by husbands interspersed among very lengthy statements by wives.
This apparent inequality of emotional expressiveness is partially dealt with by men labeling their wives as too emotional and seeing that as a weakness, placing women in a no-win bind. This is part of a larger issue of the husband/strong - wife/weak role-playing that exists in many marriages. It is burned into the subconscious minds of both sexes regardless of efforts to create a more egalitarian model of marriage. Most women, regardless of their own accomplishments, want a "strong" husband who fulfills some sort of provider/protector fantasy and men reciprocate this with their own sense that they are supposed to protect their wives, whatever that actually means in today's world. The bottom line is that these roles get in the way of more open and honest communication which is what paves the way for the "surprise" announcements that a marriage is in serious trouble.
There are many signs of serious marital problems. Most common is the experience of certain issues coming up over and over with no resolution. Open hostility usually allows both partners to realize something is wrong but withdrawal, especially in today's busy lives, is often missed as a sign of trouble. Reduced time together as a couple, a shrinking circle of friends, a reduced amount of physical affection and related drop in frequency of sexual relations are all important signs that something is wrong. My impression is that in the time-shortage experienced by most couples, marriage is made the last priority because there is an expectation that it will be there tomorrow and then the couple will do something about it. But, too often, it is suddenly not there any more and it is too late. It takes two people to make a marriage work but only one to end it.
Couples need to recognize when their marriage is in trouble. If one spouse says there is a problem, then there IS a problem and disagreeing with the issue doesn't make it go away. There are few sadder people in my office that the spouse who had no idea the marriage had died.
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