When you asked long-married couples why they are splitting up, the most common answer is “We just grew apart.” This is a little frightening to those of us who hope to have long, happy marriages. What exactly does this mean? And can it just happen to me too?
I believe that it can happen to any of us – if we’re not careful. But I don’t believe that it “just” happens. It’s the result of some critical choices we make along the way. And it’s sometimes oh-so difficult to choose well and wisely.
I think the three most common explanations for this growing apart phenomenon (based on no studies whatsoever!) are boredom, the development of separate lives and the way couples deal with life’s stressors.
Boredom: As Daniel Jones, the editor of the Modern Love column, writes in a recent NY Times piece, “…marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations.” Been there, done that. We all recognize the potential to turn our marriage into this type of experience.
How do we avoid it? Like everything else (and like last week’s blog), it can’t be emphasized often enough, that a successful marriage requires a lot of work. So too an exciting marriage. It’s easy to fall into the rut of habit, of soul-numbing boredom and mundane routine. But if we want to avoid that, it’s up to us to change it. No outside force is going to do it for us. We shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for a fairy godmother to wave her wand. We have a tendency to indulge in magical thinking and assume that some external factor will prompt change, spice up our routine or show us the way. This is fallacious reasoning. Change is up to us.
“You’re not bored; you’re boring.”
If we don’t want our marriage to be boring, we have to make it more interesting. (As Dennis Prager used to tell children who complained about this issue, “You’re not bored; you’re boring.”) Life is full of opportunities to learn and grow and expand our horizons and ourselves; we just need to take advantage of them. Read new books, take a cooking or photography or…. class together, learn Torah and share your ideas, invite over people outside your typical social circle, be creative in your career – all these will bring more excitement and interest to your marriage. Do productive things with your day, be involved in community work and charitable work – you will become a bigger and different person who your spouse will get to know all over again. We need to make ourselves interesting; no one is going to do that for you.
It should go without saying (but I know it doesn’t) that you also need to keep your intimate life fresh and interesting.
Separate Lives: We had dinner recently with a new widower. He was married for 50 years and he said they never took separate vacations. They always wanted to spend their free time together. Now I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with separate vacations. They sometimes even contribute to the excitement missing in those boring marriages. But they shouldn’t be the norm. There can be nights out with the guys and nights out with the girls. But they shouldn’t be every night. He can be busy with his job and she can be busy with hers, but they need to meet in the middle and share the details and experiences of their day.
Like the other issues here, growing apart is not imposed upon us by some mysterious outside malevolent force; we allow it to happen to us. We need to be proactive. We need to set aside regular time (daily time, date night) to check in. And we need to be interested. I don’t care if your wife is a tax lawyer or your husband an accountant (actually then the two of you have a lot in common!), ask about his or her day. Be interested in what they do. Share your joyful moments and your discouraging ones. You need to make this time to talk; it doesn’t happen naturally.
If one spouse or the other spends too much time at their job, paid or even volunteer, you need to call them on it. You need to let them know if you feel neglected, if you think their priorities are confused. Keep the issues current and don’t relax.
Stressors: No one’s life is without challenges, some big and some small. The accepted wisdom is that buying a new house and/or remodeling an old one is one of life’s greatest stresses on a marriage. This calls for a reality check, a refreshing of our perspective. If we are in this position, we are lucky and privileged and we should appreciate it and not fight with our spouse. It’s easy to snap at our mate when we are feeling pressured; it’s just silly to let this exciting opportunity become a source of tension.
Likewise, and more importantly, with the birth of a child. Not only is there a major emotional adjustment, not only are the demands on everyone’s time so much greater but both parents are usually absolutely and utterly exhausted. It’s important to be aware of this and try very hard not to say hurtful things that you don’t really mean but are the result of too little sleep and weakened defenses. Try to appreciate the blessing that has entered your lives and cut each other a little slack.
Unfortunately, sometimes life’s stressors are not positive, happy ones. Children can be seriously ill; they can face educational challenges or emotional challenges. They can have severe handicaps or have difficulty finding friends or mates. All of these issues can take a toll on a marriage. Many a marriage has actually foundered when dealing with an ill child, at a time when we think unity seems so crucial.
How does this happen? In certain cases, it could be that one spouse blames the other (“I told you we should have brought her to the doctor earlier”). Looking at our spouse may remind us of the pain. It’s easier to avoid contact that to constantly be vulnerable and hurting. When we go out together all we think about is this trying situation, so we choose not to go out together. And we drift apart.
Spouses frequently have different coping skills. One may be very emotional. One may be very business-like. One wants to be hugged and one wants to search the internet for possible solutions. We can get frustrated by the behavior of our partner or by their lack of sympathy with our position. Additionally, as with a new child, we are tired. When we are tired it is easy to be short-tempered with our husband or wife. The key is to recognize that this behavior can be attributed to the stress in our lives and is not really about some behavior in our spouse that is so annoying and frustrating and that we can no longer deal with. This requires self-awareness and self-control, two traits in short supply under these trying circumstances. But we have to stop ourselves when we descend into this negative behavior and we have to remind ourselves that it’s not about him or her; it’s about the situation.
Couples do grow apart, but it didn’t just happen. It was their choice, unwitting or not. And likewise, our choices (and hard work) can usually prevent this from happening. Take action now to make sure that it never does.