Julie's mother had cared for her bedridden husband for nearly a year. One day, as Julie* watched her mother suction her father's breathing tube, she had a moment of searing clarity:
Julie wanted a divorce.
After three decades of marriage, Julie and Ben* had fallen into a rhythm of chilly household détente, their routine punctuated by sarcastic asides and unhappy silence. Julie could endure the sad reality of daily life with Ben, but the thought of someday having to provide him with intimate care made her stomach roil.
I was shaken by Julie's announcement, and shared her story with another long-married friend who said, "Oh, yeah; as soon as the kids leave for college, I am so out of here." Her husband was a good father, she said, so she didn't want to separate and deny her children daily contact with their dad, but she'd fallen out of love with him years ago.
Another woman I know said that she couldn't imagine getting a divorce, because that would mean she couldn't afford to keep her house. Yet another felt it would be too complicated to leave her husband after all these years, but otherwise she probably would. A third acquaintance said the only thing that sounded worse than staying married was starting to date again.
And so it goes. Many 40- and 50-something women I know seem at best indifferent, and at worst unhappy, in their marriages.
What gives? How do people fall out of love?
First, let's acknowledge that the last several years have been especially tough ones. The economic downturn, coupled with the rising cost of living, has put extra stress on many marriages. Workplace "right-sizing" and the never-ending demands of technology have left many of us emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention the end of the week. Plus, new family responsibilities have overwhelmed an aging population that is quickly becoming the club sandwich generation: I know more than one working mom who helps care for one or more parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately, bills and bedpans are hardly the stuff romance is made of-but sometimes they are the very things relationships are built upon. The challenge lies in how we handle these unending, and sometimes very unglamorous, demands on our emotional and physical resources.
I suspect that some people cope by turning to their spouses, while others of us have the tendency to turn on them. It is so easy to focus on what's wrong with our lives instead of what's right. The trick is figuring out how to improve the former without screwing up the latter.
And do you know why that's so hard? Because for most people, our weaknesses are the flip sides of our strengths. There is a point at which the spouse whose assertiveness you admire becomes combative and the one with the giving nature you adore acts like a doormat; the hyper-organized partner might over-plan a vacation and the laid-back one might be over-drawn at the bank. Perhaps the key to marital happiness and longevity is to try to remember that the trait you hate (in yourself and/or your beloved) is just the flip side to the trait you love.
Every summer, my dad took his kids and grandkids to Cubs games. On the way out of the ballpark, without fail, he would purchase a bag of neon-colored cotton candy to bring home to my mom, who loves the stuff. It always made me smile to see that Dad was as intent on expressing his love as he was on expressing his opinion. My mom saw that, too.
I suspect it's why they were married for nearly 54 years.
*Names have been changed