In 2001, I was a doctoral student working with clients both at the university campus clinic and in a small private practice in a nearby community. The events of September, 2001 deeply shaped the experiences I had with clients during my early years as a therapist. In the aftermath of 9/11, I saw one specific trend in couples that made an especially lasting impression on me as a therapist. One spouse would say something along these lines: “Everything happening in the world right now made me wake up to the realization that I was so unhappy and needed to change my life”, “Life is too short to stay in a miserable marriage”, “I feel so alone in my life- I need to change it all right now because I can’t bear this feeling”. And after those statements, this person would then tell their shocked spouse they wanted a divorce.
The memory of working with these couples and families post-9/11 has come back to me in recent days, as I think about the couples who are currently living through a completely different kind of life-changing, anxiety-provoking event in our world. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting us all emotionally, financially, and potentially physically. The uncertainty that looms in the air, plus the extended time many are spending sharing space in their homes filled with tension or disconnection, will have ripple effects in families for months to come. I wanted to write some suggestions and encouragement to anyone who may currently be
~waking up to the realization that you are deeply unhappy and discontent in your life but had been too busy to sit with it before,
~working from home indefinitely with a spouse you “love but are not in love with” and the feelings of this are burning in your body,
~realizing how much you miss talking and having coffee with your coworker, whom you had previously convinced yourself was just an innocent work friendship.
If any of these are relevant for your current situation, the advice I would offer based on years of working with couples is this- Do not allow yourself to get to a place of certainty about leaving a marriage without giving your spouse the opportunity to be a part of the decision making process. What I saw after 9/11 was people who had sat alone for months with their feelings of discontent and disconnection, working it all out alone in their heads with only the information and meaning they could internally generate. They mentally replayed their own highlight reels of relational injuries, moments of disconnection, and examples of marital incompatibility—all blended with the collective grief and trauma of the world they were living in at the time. The problem is that stories we tell ourselves are always incomplete, and sometimes even incorrect, especially when our own version of the story is the only one we have heard. I have seen many other couples in this pattern in the past during my career, but there was something unique about collective trauma of 9/11, and quite likely the current COVID-19 crisis, that made relationships especially vulnerable to silent decision-making by one spouse.
What unfolds when you get to certainty alone and then announce it to your unsuspecting spouse (even if this announcement occurs in the presence of a good couples therapist) is fairly predictable. Your spouse feels blindsided and their world falls apart suddenly and traumatically, often bringing out their worse self in a constant fight or flight state toward you. What has taken you months, or even years, to wrestle through is laid on your spouse in a matter of minutes. They feel robbed of the opportunity to try to save their marriage, which complicates the grief they will experience for the marriage as it ends, and brings a great deal of anger and resentment toward you. It then becomes very difficult to make important decisions, like how to parent your children together, when you have suddenly become someone your spouse doesn’t understand or trust.
You also miss the opportunity to learn about yourself in the relationship and understand how you were part of what unfolded to get you where you were- including why it is so hard to talk to your spouse about your unhappiness. Which means you are highly likely to keep doing the same things and thinking the same ways… even in a new relationship.
What can happen instead, if you directly and vulnerably name your disconnection, loneliness, and questions about the future to your spouse? Hard conversations can bring about change that saves the marriage. Or hard conversations may lead to a decision to end the marriage. You can decide together to seek help for your relationship that brings connection and life back into your marriage. Or that help may ultimately result in making plans together to end the marriage and be the best parents you can be to your children through a divorce. The outcome is not guaranteed. What is certain is the difference in how your spouse will be able to understand and contribute to how the next path unfolds. And this makes a huge difference for how you are able to navigate that path yourself, too.
If you need help finding the words to take that first step of talking to your spouse, or if you need couples therapy or discernment counseling for you and your spouse, ICFE couples therapists are available to help, including via telehealth connection. Call us at 210-496-0100 or submit an appointment request form here.