Five years ago I married for the second time, to my second husband. This was the marriage that was going to be right. We were equipped with the correct pieces which we arranged at the correct time. He was a vast improvement from my ex-husband: caring and thoughtful and responsible. He wanted to get married, and in an expected series of events, that’s exactly what we did.
And now we are separating.
The logical question that follows is why did it end? What happened?
I’ve been unsure of how to write about the dissolution of my marriage for some time now, which is both surprising and frustrating in light of the time and research I’ve put into the decision. I spent years in couples counseling, individual therapy, self-reflection paired with the inability to think about anything else (for those who have ever considered a separation, you know about this weight and how insidious it is). With all that work behind me, it seems like I should have a neatly packaged answer. An abstract or a lab report.
My other studies have told me that humans have a strong desire to be similar, to imitate. I followed suit, engaging in the same marriage experiment as those around me. Until the raw yearning to go and be alone, the one living in my blood and saliva and brain cells, crushed out the desire to be the same.
What do people want to hear? What’s the truth of it? What should I say?
No one cheated. No one abused. Our stances on religion, politics, and money are not wildly different. The socially acceptable answers do not exist for me. I can point to nothing easily because nothing about this is easy.
How do I tell my parents, married for 34 years and practicing Catholics, that another marriage is coming to an end?
How do I describe the collection of fibers twisting quietly in my gut, despite the pieces of what we’ve built that bring some moments of happiness?
How do I explain the pain of asking for something I want, even though the thing I want has also broken me into a million tiny pieces?
It doesn’t matter why a marriage ended, only that it did and that you must accept the truth of the person living it.
I seek comfort in familiarity. There have to be others that have been where I am now, that understand the complexities of ending a marriage for reasons that cannot be nicely explained.
And there are others, of course. There are also many people who are quick to paint my experience as a failure. If I can’t point to an acceptable reason for ending a marriage, then I have failed. Perhaps it’s the aromantic in me, but I will never understand this as a failure.
It was an experiment with a result that differed from my hypothesis, but not a failure. It was a business endeavor that made sense at the time of creation, but is no longer profitable. Instead of filling our emotional bank accounts, it began draining them. It is a disbandment and equitable splitting of proceeds, but it is not a failure.
And if this were my failure, I want to know what success looks like to those who know what’s up. In their narrative, successful marriages necessitate the complete erasure of self and individuality. You must ignore individual needs in favor of the we. Autonomy, agency, and independence? No, there’s no room for anything like that in a “successful” marriage.
Look man, that is bullshit.
Make no mistake: individuality and personal autonomy are basic needs. To quote Will Wilkinson, “Individuality matters. As a generalization, it’s pretty safe to say that freedom of choice and a sense of autonomy have a powerful positive effect on happiness.”
Different studies suggest that the need for autonomy is hardwired into most humans. In consideration of this intrinsic need and how it informs our interpersonal activities, Alex Lickerman, M.D. writes:
“ All of which has recently led me to wonder how often relationships fail because of compromised autonomy: how often the microcompromises we must all make to keep our relationships healthy paradoxically sow the seeds of their destruction by compromising our sense of autonomy.”
It is possible for two individuals to engage in a committed, long-term relationship (sometimes called marriage) while maintaining autonomy, but it’s not possible for every one and every situation. I know this is true because I’m living it. My need for independence is not a failure, not by any stretch of the imagination. While my future ex-husband’s needs compromise that autonomy, it is also not a failure on his part.
Needs are needs. Not good or bad, not successes or failures. They are simply obligations we have to ourselves.
Like opposing muscles that stretch as the other contracts, fears work simultaneously with needs. As needs stretch without being met, fears tighten under pressure. I began an experiment with a man and identified that his core fear existed in direct opposition of my own. Where he feared scarcity (not enough), I feared suffocation (too much). When his fear extended and pulled my needs into a shape like a black hole, my fear constricted around me in something very much like suffocation.
For us, in our moment and space of time, happiness in marriage was impossible.
And that’s not a failure.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some messages to share.
To those individuals in the world that casually call ending marriage a failure— I will not allow you to put your own failures and perception of failure on to me, nor will I allow you to label me as a failure for having the constitution to initiate a difficult change for the better. It doesn’t matter why a marriage ended, only that it did and that you must accept the truth of the person living it.
Not every separation or divorce is defeat, they are not solely indicative of a mistake or lack of skill or effort. There is still pain involved, because we’re humans. It is so hard to be human with another human. You can’t know in detail why relationships end, and so again I say, it doesn’t matter. If the human going through it is someone you care about, then it shouldn’t matter to you, either.
To those who worry they have failed because they ended a relationship in which two people could not both be happy — I see you, I believe you, and you are not a failure in any sense of the word. You are stronger than you know. There is no easy explanation, and that is alright. Everything is temporary and nothing lasts. It will be okay. Not everyone understands, they don’t need to. Do not tie yourself in knots searching for an explanation that will appease them.
I don’t know everything but I know a few things:
Everything is temporary and nothing lasts.
Impermanence is not failure.