Monday, March 14, 2016

Out with the Old

I saw a thing on PBS the other day about “Gray Divorces” – people who have been married more than 20 years who decide to split up and get divorced. They give a lot of reasons why it happens and some things to do to keep it from happening. It hit home for me in a really current and personal way. I personally know three couples – friends for decades, all of them – who are in the process of divorcing.  It can be a bit unsettling to watch. In many ways, the long-term friendships we form as couple are as strong as any family bond, and watching those bonds unravel can cause really significant distress and grief for more than just the couple involved. I can't judge the people who choose to divorce -- if you don't see a way forward, sometimes the better way is out. But importantly for the rest of us, it does raise the question of “why stay together?” when so many around you are splitting apart. In a lot of cases, it seems that the stresses that push one marriage over the edge are so close to the ones the rest of us face in our own relationships.

Mr. and I have certainly teetered along that edge more than once.  Sometimes more than once a month.  Makes me question sometimes why we haven’t split up the way so many others have, especially when you look at the statistics on what usually breaks up a marriage and we pretty much have 8 of the top 10 in our wheelhouse. 

So it begs the question: what DOES make some couples stay together? 

I think the answer is super-simple, at its root:  They choose to. 

The implementation of that choice can be a more complicated matter, to be certain.

The secret to a good marriage is, at its core, simply choosing to put the relationship first: in cases when the needs of one partner tread on the needs of another, it’s a choice to talk, to compromise, to find a place where both parties can feel satisfied and nurtured. 

In short: it’s a matter of a lot of really, really fucking hard work.

But more importantly, it’s a matter of being really, really aware of who you are and liking that person enough to be fully present and a little vulnerable and willing to do a lot of communicating.  It’s about not shutting down or walking away when it gets hard (and it does…sometimes several times a day).  It’s about keeping your mind and body healthy.  Really healthy, inside and out.  It’s about putting yourself in the place of your partner and thinking about how he/she feels when things get tough.  All of these things require understanding ourselves and liking the person we come to understand.  It requires forgiving yourself for all the stupid shit you’ve done in the past and making the decision to let yourself do it differently from now on. 

Because if you hate yourself, guaranteed you won’t be able to love your partner.

I think a lot of us, as we head into our 50’s especially, are in a place where we are making a critical assessment about how we have lived our lives thus far, and many of us find that assessment wanting.  And I think that often times, we are trapped in the mode of “I live this way because I live this way and there’s not a lot I can do about it” until we become so suffocated by our own inertia that we feel like we have to blow the whole thing up and start over. 

I’m not sure it has to be like that.  

With some mindful introspection, each of us has it within us to find those things that, if we changed them, would boost that self-love score a lot.  And here’s a hint: if you’re looking outside yourself for the sources of your unhappiness and inertia, you’re probably not focusing in the right place.  Look inside:  how do you spend your free time? If most of it is in front of a screen, that might be a really good place to start making changes. How much do you reach out with loving intent to others? There are a bunch of studies (and I mean a BUNCH) that indicate that if we are conscientiously nice to other people -- like, way nicer than we have to be -- we feel happier and more satisfied with ourselves. How about the way you talk to yourself? Have you ever taken time to really forgive yourself for all the selfish crap you did as a 20-something? If we can make a determined effort to give some attention and affection to that most important relationship -- the one we have with ourselves -- it can’t help but strengthen each and every other relationship we have, including with our life partners.

This is not to say that liking yourself is enough.  If your partner is in active self-loathing over the long haul, or suffers from uncontrolled behavioral illness or is otherwise an abusive douchebag, then you can like yourself all you want and it’s not going to work. Get out before you get damaged. But assuming all that stuff isn’t true, the best way to stay married is, in my opinion, to spend some quality time nurturing and loving the person in the mirror.

Because you both deserve it.


Steady Lynn said...

As you know, I am a gray divorcee -- and looking forward to it. Sometimes with a partner you have to make compromises that negatively affect you, which means it affects you both. At some part of the process of loving yourself you ask: what am I getting out of this and can I do better, even if it's only not daily aggravation. When you reach that point it's time to leave for both partners' sake because, lo and behold, you want different things. Important clue!

A3hourtour said...

Maybe it's often a cost/ benefits issue. In my own case it was more painful to stay than to go. So I left. Over time I gradually became aware of how narrow and limiting our situation had become. I came to see that, in my case, I had been sitting in a pot of water over a low flame. It had gradually become painfully hot but so slowly that I could deny things were that bad for a very long time. When I finally realized I was being par-boiled I was driving home and had a random thought: maybe he would die first and then I would feel better. IT was such a shocking thought that I was forced to view the situation realistically and that examination took months. As my situation became clear it was also clear that there was no actual basis for 'working on the relationship'.
Is my situation unique? I doubt it. I suppose there are many reasons for splitting up after a long marriage. Mine was only 16 years.. short of the two decade mark. But it was also longer than it should have been.