“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you already know everything about [them], [they] will slowly die.” THICH NHAT HANH, O Magazine, Feb. 2007
This is the story of my marriage, as told by yours truly at a weekend retreat of Codependents Anonymous. The theme of the retreat was The Big R: Relationship with Higher Power, Self, Others. The title of my topic meeting was ‘Growing is Forever: Avoiding the Slow Death’.
I had thought that I would ‘wing it,’ instead of planning or writing anything in advance; but when I arrived at the retreat, I found myself writing out our story, in a way I had never done before. I wrote all afternoon, and was up late that night continuing to write. I handed out a sheet with the quote above, a collage of wedding photos I had done up after our wedding, and on the other side of the sheet, our last email dialogue this year. Then I shared my story:
When the planning committee decided on the theme of Relationships for this retreat, my heart sank a little. I was not interested in a relationship, and I felt like I’d been there, done that. The next response in me said, “What’s the point?” How could there be a point if a relationship like me and my Ex’s ended so sadly? Our relationship never had the obsessive, addictive quality that so many other romantic relationships in my life have had. He wasn’t exciting like a shot of heroin — a bottle of liquor, a project to feed the work addiction, etc. etc. etc.
When I met Ex, I thought I was done with all that. Our love felt calm and deep and genuine, born out of vulnerability and a sense of going against the grain, being ourselves, authentically, at all costs.
We said our vows in a grave yard, on our 3rd date. We promised to let it be a choice to be with each other — a choice renewed at the beginning of each day. We promised not to leave the relationship without a thorough and common understanding of why our relationship was ending. In essence, we promised to let each other go with love.
We moved in together a month later. Our decision to get married came as a surprise to my Mother and close friends. My parents had not married, and I had never been the marrying type.
Still to this day, I don’t regret loving someone genuinely so fully as to want to gather our families for 3 days and celebrate it. I believe those moments have value not for how long they last, but for even getting to them at all. I am forever grateful.
For various reasons, the time we were together before it all went South were some of the happiest years of my adult life so far.
The first breakdown in communication came after my best friend had split up with her husband and stopped speaking to our mutual friend. The break up of my self-identified family was deeply distressing to me. In a state of irrational panic and desperation, I responded by taking a trip across the country to visit the friend who had left.
The breakdown in communication was that Ex did not understand the depth of my emotion around this trip, and neither of us recognized this lack. I returned from my travels to a house of the greatest chaos I had ever seen. There were dirty dishes, clothing, random objects, slips of paper, and garbage covering every surface of the house and most of the floors.
The second breakdown in communication was that Ex told me the house had gotten this way because he’d been really busy with work. And I’d believed him. The truth I later learned was that he had had a relapse into a video game addiction, and had played the game solidly at the expense of all else for much of the time I had been away.
From there, it was a slow decline of intimacy. We had become estranged from ourselves and each other, without knowing it.
When we bought a house, it seemed to be another turning point in our relationship. Ex became deeply unhappy as a lawyer with his own practice, which he began to neglect, while communicating less and less with me. He couldn’t admit even to himself that he was unhappy, because he saw no way out. He became a chronic pot smoker. I became a chronic workaholic.
All we did together was smoke weed and watch movies. The state of our house declined — things were left unfinished and undone, and our self-care also declined. Our fights and our distance from each other escalated.
Two power trips were present:
- I wanted emotional intimacy before sex; he wanted sex before emotional intimacy. Neither of us got either.
- I wanted him to tell me how he was feeling and what he needed; he wanted me to “have a heart” and read between the lines, anticipate and empathize with his feelings and needs. Not need them spoken all the time. Neither of us got our needs met.
The disparity between our public image and our home life widened with my (our?) sense of shame.
Our car broke down.
Our deck had no railings for most of our time there.
Our tub was rust coloured from the minerals in our water.
Our entire property was repeatedly covered in 6 feet of snow and we had no snow blower.
Our dog ran away to live with the neighbours 6 blocks away.
Our fights continued to escalate. There were screaming matches, objects thrown, doors slamming in the middle of the night, many lonely nights in heartbreaking despair, confusion, hopelessness and isolation.
I began riding in the back seat of the car in the mornings into town. Then I began staying on friends’ couches. In and out, in and out. Each time, it would feel as if he would break open, and I would finally be able to SEE him, so I would move back in.
The moving out and back in dynamic went on for 2 years. Each leaving felt more final than the last; each return more earnest and hopeful, but with the voice of doom in my head that I was ignoring growing louder.
Many people told me when I got married that the relationship would ebb and flow. That there would be times we would not love each other, but that the return to love would grow deeper each time.
I waited and waited. And waited, to fall in love again. I gave my all, bent over backwards and turned my life upside down for two years to survive the mean time, and STAY IN.
It took me those 2 years to know without a single doubt in my mind that we had reached an end, not an ebb. By then, I had already grieved. The day of clarity came, and I ended it with peacefulness.
When I read the Tich Nhat Hanh quote that I have shared with you, I thought of all the hours I spent in the car with Ex, when we shared a car and drove 20 minutes into town and back every day. I remembered the first time we ever drove in a car together. I saw how our car rides had gone from awkward shyness, through great connection and joy, to a peaceful, contented silence, to a bored and restless silence, and arrived finally in the bone chilling silence, filled with anger, resentment and clenched teeth.
In retrospect, I wonder what would have become of us if, in those 1st 2 breakdowns in communication, we had tried harder to truly understand each other and be understood. Now, I understand how important that is. How one place of disconnect leads to another, and the whole thing dies a painful, agonizing, slow and gruesome death.
This is a great gift to take with me into my next relationship. We can never know all there is to know about another because we are always — in each and every moment — changing. Connection, patience and curiosity must never be lost. I am grateful. I grieve, honour and give thanks to this part of my life by sharing it with all of you.
Here is what became the theme song for our wedding: