Last week, I talked to a close friend of mine, Jenny. Jenny’s husband, Chris, just left her and, while she knows it’s for the best, she in deep emotional pain. Chris and Jenny have had a tough marriage pretty much from the beginning. He struggles with chronic migraines, has a stressful job, and at times, drinks too much. He yells, has put a few holes in the wall, and almost harasses her when they have really huge arguments. He will show up at her work, text and call her, and follow her when she run errands to yell at her some more. At other times, he emotionally shuts down, ignoring her, and refusing to be part of the relationship or to parent the children. It has been quite the rollercoaster ride.
What makes this all the more confusing for Jenny is that Chris appears to be a really nice guy to everyone else. He is funny, helpful, engaging and outgoing when they are around their friends or they are out socializing. No one would guess how Chris behaves without an audience. At times, Jenny wonders if everything is all her fault and if their huge marriage issues are not as bad as they seem. Plus (and this is the kicker) she feels sorry for him. With the migraines and job and other stressors, maybe it’s not really his fault, she says. Maybe she needs to be more understanding, right? (Wrong!)
Last week, Chris and Jenny got in a huge argument. Chris punched a hole in their bedroom door, threw a vase that was on their dining room table and shattered it (Jennny cleaned up the mess, not Chris, big surprise), and then packed a bag and left. It was official, they were separated. Jenny said that as soon as Chris left, she felt relief and peace. She spent her first night lying in bed without a tear. Instead of feeling sorrow, she felt happy. But that emotion was short lived.
It took a week but Contrite Chris has arrived in full force. He wants to come home. One of the text messages reads: “I need help and you don’t deserve this. You are the love of my life. Please forgive me. I want to come home. The kids need their dad. We need each other. This won’t happen again. I’ll get help.”
Jenny isn’t sleeping much these days. She’s also having a hard time concentrating at work. She’s lost weight and she’s an emotional wreck. “Should I let him come home? I love him but I hate him. What am I supposed to do?”
Having been there myself, I can vouch that it’s a horrible cycle. The fights, the reconciliation, the giddy phase following a huge fight, makeup sex… and waiting for the next fight to happen again. And it all comes down to one powerful emotion that keeps this cycle going for years: Hope.
Hope is powerful. Hope gives us the strength and encouragement to overcome odds, to work harder, to carry on and move forward. But hope can also keep us stagnant and holding on to relationships that are toxic and dangerous. And when that happens, hope can become a personal prison.
Arguments in such relationships are so typical. At least in my marriage to Rob (who was a highly functioning but raging alcoholic), the cycle went like this:
Big huge argument
Two days of back-and-forth accusatory follow-up argument (Rob: “It’s your fault! You make me drink. You’re my trigger!” Me: “You’re an alcoholic. You’re mean and a bully and you are not a partner. I want a divorce. Don’t come home.”)
Apologies (“I’m sorry. I am an alcoholic. I went to AA today. I get it now. It will never happen again. I love you. Please give me one more chance. You’ll see how it’ll be different this time.” At some point, I would begin to feel sadness and it was, at times, heartbreaking.)
Forgiveness (When the white hot anger dissipated, forgiveness settled in and it felt good. And it was a relief. Maybe this can work, I would think. Maybe we can heal and be happy. Maybe I should try one more time.)
Reconciliation (Rob would move home, argument was over. A period of calm and, dare I say, happiness settled in. Sometimes, I even felt a greater sense of love and empathy for Rob. I could help him. Together, we could heal him. I was needed.)
Big huge argument (Pattern begins again)
Before I ever got married, I had a mindset that divorce was wrong. Unless there was physical abuse, mental illness or infidelity, you make your marriage work no matter what. That was before I got into a terrible marriage. That was before I came to the realization that there are far worse things than divorce and a bad marriage was one of them.
When I was in the midst of my marriage and struggling to keep it together (or not), I would admire those who had the strength to end the marriage early on. A friend, Stephanie, had done just that. After leaving her husband, Mark, she was so matter-of-fact about it. “It sucks, Lizzy,” she told me. “I cry every night. But I’d rather cry a lot now and get it over with than to stay in this dead end marriage for a decade or lifetime. It’s awful but that’s the way it is.” And despite Mark’s attempts to repair the relationship, Stephanie was done. Why couldn’t I be strong like that? Because it all boiled down to Hope.
Hope is incredibly powerful. It keeps us strong and resilient, and those are great traits. (Hey, Hope has helped me fight cancer, so I’m a big fan of Hope!). But Hope also keeps us in unhealthy relationships. Hope can prevent us from thinking clearly and making rational decisions. Every time I felt Hope, it was just one more bar in the prison that I was constructing around me. And that prison got smaller and more confining than ever until it was choking me.
Going back to Jenny and Chris, I want to scream: DON’T DO IT! Do not let him come home. Do not believe the promises. Do not have HOPE that it will be different this time. Be STRONG.
Jenny knows that her marriage is terrible and it needs to end. Chris might be sick but she cannot heal him. Jenny knows all of this in her gut as much as I knew it in mine. It took a diagnosis of cancer before I finally walked away from my marriage. I pray that it doesn’t take something as drastic as that before Jenny walks away (or before Chris finds a reason not to go back to Jenny).