Once upon a time, I believed marriage should be forever. Unless one partner was mistreating the other, a couple should try to work at their relationship. Rough patches are normal, and couples can expect to fall in and out of love. This is all part of the natural wear and tear of a lifetime commitment. That was before I got divorced.
My partner and I were together for ten years. I was devastated when things ended — at his instigation — but very quickly saw that it was absolutely the right thing for us both. In fact, I am eternally grateful that he was brave enough to walk away.
It wasn’t a bad relationship. It was an enviously good one for many years. But there came a time when staying together meant being stifled. We were not the same people at twenty-nine as we had been at nineteen.
If we had done what I thought we should do then — seek counselling, attempt to restore our lustful spark, reconnect — I would have missed out on all the enriching experiences that came after. I would have continued to live a lie, denying and suppressing my sexuality, putting all my energy and focus into building our domestic nest, while remaining stifled, slightly deadened, always yearning for something more, if only I could work out what it was.
Now when I hear from one half of a couple struggling to stuff their square peg relationship into a round hole, I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I know what it is like to want to hang on to everything you have built together, to recall feeling cherished and desperately in love, if only you could reignite your passion and grow. On the other, I wonder what experiences, what connections, each partner might be missing out on by clinging to something that may have run its course. I’m not just talking about the other people they might encounter by parting ways, but the person they might be when they are with someone else; what they might discover about themselves by not being in a relationship.
I have also studied enough about human behaviour to question society’s default ‘monogamy’ setting. Very few couples are actually monogamous, and many who are, struggle with it. For some, long-term monogamy and familiarity can act like an off-switch for your libido. Add to this that men ‘are sold sex and more sex, while women are sold motherhood and washing detergent’ and we have created a dynamic where couples can find it incredibly difficult to separate what is happening biologically from what they are experiencing emotionally, and to measure the actual temperature of their relationship.
Exploring alternatives to monogamy is one option, but it’s not for everyone, and it may exacerbate underlying relationship problems. For couples who want to try to reconnect and make things work for the long-haul, monogamously or otherwise, there are proven techniques to help them, provided they are brave enough to admit they might need help. I can only imagine what it is like being with someone from early adulthood to old age, to have children and grandchildren together, and how special that shared experience must feel.
Opening up my relationship or seeking professional help might have reignited the spark between my ex and me, and prolonged our relationship — maybe even into old age. It may also have cost me everything I have learned about myself since. Before our relationship, I never really had the chance to be on my own, to know that I can be on my own, and be okay.
After our divorce, I learned how to put myself out there and meet complete strangers with no security blanket waiting for me at home, which has helped me professionally as well as socially. It wasn’t an easy journey, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way, including some bad relationship decisions. It also forced me to face my underlying fears, to learn how to look after myself, and to really know what I value and who I am.
So when I hear that someone has been with their partner since they were a teen and they are struggling to make things work, I reflect on the ways in which people learn and grow over decades. I ask what they might be missing out on by staying, but also what they might miss out on by walking away.
The end of my marriage was one of the best things to happen to me, but it might not be for them. All I can do is present the options as I see them, and help tease out the risks and benefits of each, trying as much as possible to keep my own experiences and bias in check.