John McElhenney describes the final minutes of his marriage … and the epiphany that came five years later.
In our last couples therapy session, before my wife and I parted ways with our therapist, he asked each of us to offer closing summaries of the process and where we stood with one another.
Sitting in his comfortable office, with our marriage in piles of flaming rubble all around us, I naively spoke of hope, rebuilding, commitment. This is where I come from. Even in the face of failing odds and all indications to the contrary, I can formulate a hopefulness.
What my wife said in her summary statement was also revealing. Something along the lines of, you’re never going to change, you’re never going to be honest in the way I need you to be honest, and I don’t see a future together. It’s time for us to move on.
Today, in reflection, what she meant became clear to me.
ME: I am always looking for the positive angle. I believe there is a way, even when the person across from me is saying no. I keep working my angle. I keep trying new things. I try to be better. I try to listen and respond with more compassion and caring. I carry this bull-headed optimism with me, sometimes to my detriment, as I smash around the china shop in search of my fix.
HER: She was done. Finished. Dis-invested. And for a split second, today, I could see, through the fog of my own perspective, that she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about herself.
Something snapped together like an epiphany. She didn’t see a future for us, because she didn’t see the changes in herself necessary to accept me for who I was. She didn’t have the hope. She didn’t believe, as I did, that we were at a perfect moment to work together to understand what we wanted. And in that blink of an eye, the entire marriage and “frame” of our relationship passed into history rather than future.
I didn’t recognize what had happened in the moment. I was too devastated. Some part of me still hoped she would have an epiphany and want to keep trying. Or perhaps, that our therapist would say something, anything, to reflect back to her, what she’d said. Nothing happened. He wasn’t that kind of therapist. And in that moment, I’m sure I began to release and accept the fact that I was now in the process of getting a divorce. Sure, I thrashed and struggled to recapture her love. I didn’t truly hear her. Even in that defining moment in my life, a pivot point out of life as I had known it, I wasn’t fully hearing. I missed her message.
It was a message I didn’t want to hear. I would have to accept the failure of my optimism and aggressive positivism. I could not will or convince my marriage back into existence.
Today, nearly five years later, I am just understanding what she said. I am, only now, able to feel deeply into her truth, rather than my projected ideas about her truth. For this whole time, up until today, I believed she had exited the relationship at this point. What I believe, what I hear today, when I listen for the truth of the 13+ year relationship with my wife (2 years courtship, 11 years of marriage) is that she wanted something different. SHE was unhappy. And the failure, while prolonged and protracted due to the fact that we had children to think about, was really the long process of hearing and accepting our differences.
We can hold on, we can fight/struggle/counsel to make things work. We can sacrifice so many aspects of our lives to try and keep the marriage together. And in this sublimation we can become separated from our own inner truth, our own listening and responding heart, as we try and compromise and grow and hope for the eventual LOVE we believe will heal us. We all need healing. As a couple (in the we) we begin to seek that healing with/through another person. As individuals, the struggle and healing is 100% up to us. I could not heal my wife. I could not negotiate and navigate her disappointments. I could only hold and handle my own struggles and healing.
In this moment of searing hot white light, as if we were on the examining table in a hospital, I saw my own hopefulness still in play, still fully committed, and fully willing to do whatever it takes, to be IN this marriage. Start from scratch. Rebuild. Reconnect. Heal the we.
What I didn’t understand at the moment, is we were doing an autopsy. She had already given a cause of death. Unfortunately, even in this moment, I feel she made an error in her coroner’s report. I was not the cause.
back to Positive Divorce
- Holding Your Dream Together When Other’s Have Lost Theirs
- Coming Full Circle: A Dad’s Experience of the Divorce Recovery Cycle
- Blameless Divorce: I Had a Dream Where You Apologized
- Stop Thinking: The Lost Art of Deep Listening
image: house fire, joseph krawiec, creative commons usage