Lynn Beisner examines evidence of a pattern of behavior in unhappy marriages that is almost never discussed.
“This has never been a real marriage because I never really loved you. I married you because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.”
Those were the words that Todd, my first husband, used to end our marriage. They hit me like a physical blow, shattered me into a million little pieces of jagged pain. After the first raw wave of grief passed, I was hit by shame so intense that it felt like burning ink in my veins. How horrible must I be if my own husband, the father of my children had never been able to love me?
I begged Todd to stay with me. I tried to convince him—and myself—that I could become a person he would love. He responded as if I were crazy to have believed our marriage and his love were ever genuine, and he made it clear that me thinking so was simply an indicator of how out of touch I was with reality. He insisted that any sane person would have recognized our marriage as a sham from the start.
It took only a couple of days for the grief and shame to transform into white hot rage. I realized that if he had never loved me and had only married me out of a sense of duty, he had been lying to me our entire marriage. I wondered what kind of person lies about such a thing. How could he take wedding vows and deliberately conceive children all while lying about something as fundamental as love?
After weeks of desperately trying to make some sense out of it, I concluded that I had never really known him at all. He had to be sociopathic or just plain evil to lie about something so basic and to do it so convincingly. I lost all trust in my ability to distinguish safe people from unsafe and wondered if I would ever be able to give my heart to another person.
In time, I healed – mostly. Eventually I came to not only accept the divorce, but to be grateful for it. I was glad that Todd had the courage to put a dying marriage out of our misery. I eventually found love again in my husband Pete. Still, it seemed that no amount of time or love could heal that raw corner of my heart that still remembered those five horrible words: “I never really loved you.”
About a year ago, I stumbled across a study by sociologist Joseph Hopper that made sense of that entire dark chapter of my life. He identified a distinctive pattern in the stories that people tell themselves, their spouses, and other people during a divorce. What Hooper observed was that a spouse who initiates divorce creates a narrative in which the marriage was never valid to begin with, while the “dumpee” spouses copes by holding the initiator responsible for the deception that ultimately doomed the marriage. From both perspectives, those narratives serve to protect the institution of marriage from being maligned or abandoned, since a marriage that can be cognitively annulled doesn’t count toward one’s opinion of marriage in general.
In the narrative constructed by the divorce initiator, the marriage was flawed from the beginning in a way which makes it invalid. In constructing what Hopper calls the narrative of the “marriage that never was”, individuals begin by focusing on the negative aspects of the relationship to the exclusion of anything positive. This negative frame is then applied to memories of the relationship going back to its inception. This negative rewriting of history causes them to see the marriage not as something that was once good but now is broken, but something so flawed at its beginning as to have never been a real marriage at all. This cognitive annulment frames the marriage as having been created under some delusion or falsehood which the initiator has just become aware of. The divorce is not just inevitable for this person; it is a requirement for correcting a serious error.
The initiator invariably shares his or her insight with the partner, and no matter how gently phrased, the pronouncement that one’s marriage has been a sham is painful to hear. The dumpee reacts by taking a reflexive oppositional role. They will almost always oppose the divorce even if they were convinced moments before that the marriage was terminally troubled. Initiators are generally convinced that divorce is the “obvious, natural, fated and logical outcome of the past” and so are baffled when non-initiators offer resistance. This opposition seems to be either an inability to come to grips with reality (craziness) or vindictive obstinacy.
Once the non-initiators come to understand that divorce is inevitable, they are faced with same task as initiators: they must construct narratives which justify ending their marriage without calling into question the cultural ideal of marriage. Therefore most non-initiators construct a narrative in which a valid marriage was rendered invalid by the deception of the initiating spouse. With this narrative, which Hopper calls “the Big Lie”, non-initiators account for why they did not initiate divorce themselves if it was as irretrievably broken, as they claim, or fraudulent all along as their partner claims.
Hopper concludes that the need to construct narratives which dissolve a marriage without maligning the entire institution of marriage sets in motion a course of events which makes conflict almost inevitable. His idea is that if we hope to reduce the conflict of divorce, particularly for the sake of children, we should reconsider how sacred we hold marriage.
I find it ironic that the reason some divorces are so contentious and painful is because our society still considers marriage sacred. No matter what the moral nags of our age would have us believe, the value of marriage in our society is not dramatically decreasing. Even for secular people who do not see it as a covenant with spiritual implications, it is still sacred in that it has great cultural and symbolic importance and is generally considered inviolable. Most people, even those who are in horrible marriages, still believe in the institution and believe that marriage should be for life. Therefore, a person ending the marriage must be able to tell him or herself a story in which his or her marriage is no longer viable, without calling into doubt the validity or viability of the institution of marriage.
As I read this study, I wished these coping patterns were as familiar as more well-worn varieties like denial and projection, so at least my therapist or divorce lawyer could have warned me. It would have been easier had someone said to me, “Yep, you are right on schedule. And here is what you should expect next. But first let me tell you how this ends.”
So let me tell you how this ends. Divorce is a process, and as we go through that process, the stories that we tell ourselves and others change. They change because feelings abate and because divorce is nothing if not a hideously painful growth opportunity. And they change because eventually both parties come to the realization that how the marriage looks when you are in the process of divorcing is not 20/20 hindsight and it does not tell the truth about your marriage as a whole.
As it turns out, those Five Awful Words were not about me, and they were not reflective of the truth of my marriage with Todd. They were nothing more than the first steps of a dance that most divorcing couples do.
Photo: Flickr/ joshwept