“Where did I go wrong?” Says the woman across from me, her husband’s chair, the third point in our triangle. “I mean, at what point did I screw up so badly that my marriage turned into a roommate situation.”
Susan’s been married to Tony for 11 years. They have two children, two healthcare careers, two cars, and two dogs. At age 40, her relationship with Tony is at 100% stalemate.
“He wants nothing to do with me sexually,” she says. “When I try to talk to him, he shuts down.” Her eyes fill like little tide pools.
“We’re here to talk about your affair,” says Tony, distress in the lines around his bloodshot eyes, his voice tight with trapped tears. “Don’t shift the focus to me.”
This is the third major crisis of their relationship.
The first happened just three weeks before their wedding when Susan discovered Tony emailing with one of his old girlfriends from college. No rendezvous, no talk of sex, but a decided flirtiness in the exchanges that Susan found one day when Tony left his email open.
“I almost called off the wedding,” she said. “But he apologized and and stopped all contact with the woman. We went to counseling and I figured out that he really did love me.” The couple renewed their commitment and enjoyed a juicy marriage for the first couple of years.
The second crisis arrived with the birth of their first child. “I blamed myself,” she said, “I was fat and completely absorbed in mommy-hood.” But poor Tony was the one in trouble again. He took a demanding job that kept him away from home most of the time. When he was at home, he stayed glued to the TV screen, nursing a beer. “I begged him to take more interest in our son, but he left all the child care to me.” At one point, Susan moved out with their baby and lived with her mother for about six weeks. Tony was devastated, the couple returned to therapy, and equilibrium was restored.
“There were little things around my second pregnancy,” Susan said. She remembered feeling unattractive again, Tony’s sexual distance from her, typical quarrels about work-life balance, child-care balance, parenting disagreements, and the like. “But we were happy for the most part and we loved doing things as a family.” Susan felt confident in their bond . . . until her children were about eight and ten years old.
“I don’t know what happened to push us apart the last few years,” she said. “I’ve felt lonely and unlovable for a while.” Susan recalled how a colleague at work, Charlie, started showing her attention. “I looked forward to work. I started exercising and wearing makeup again.” Conversations with Charlie soon extended beyond the workday. Text messages flowed back and forth between them. Susan thought about Charlie when she wasn’t with him – so much that she became distracted in her parenting and more distant with Tony.
Tony found out about the emotional affair his wife was having. He picked up Susan’s phone one day from the kitchen counter. “I think she wanted me to find those messages,” he said. “But I still can’t believe she would do this.” The couple came to see me in the crisis of Tony’s discovery. He felt the shock, anger, and crushing sadness Susan experienced years earlier when the reverse situation took place.
As we worked through their feelings, Susan revealed that she never recovered from Tony’s email affair some twelve years before. “I know it’s silly,” she said. “But it never completely left my mind. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t good enough or attractive enough for Tony.” Susan enjoyed Charlie’s attentions because they restored her feelings of attractiveness and worth.
Okay, short quiz. Which of the following is true?
- Susan and Tony are incompatible and should probably split up now and look for mates that better suit their needs.
- Susan and Tony have serious issues that indicate they’re not healthy enough for a committed relationship.
- Susan and Tony are experiencing the normal vicissitudes of long-term commitment.
- Tony is emotionally abusive, so Susan should break her addiction to him.
- Susan is codependent, so Tony should step away from her neediness.
If you guessed “3,” you’re right. Susan and Tony’s story illustrates what I call the Life Cycle of Long-Term Love, or the Many Necessary Breakups of a Healthy Marriage. In short, Susan and Tony are normal. Neither partner is perfect – but neither Tony nor Susan have defective personalities. Are they hurting? You bet. Do they have a trauma history to untangle? Absolutely. Did they both bring baggage into their relationship. Yes, of course! Just like the rest of us.
But these facets make up their relational curriculum, the lesson plan they each brought into the relationship, not at all by accident. Susan and Tony, like the rest of us, found the perfect mates for creating the perfect love laboratory in which to study themselves and evolve into higher beings. This curriculum will take them through the stages of marriage.
Harville Hendrix, a noted relationship expert, says we begin our romantic attachments by transferring all our unmet childhood needs and wants onto our new partner. We feel sublime union with our new lover because we can temporarily fuse ourselves to them and believe our old hurts will be healed, our longings will be fulfilled, and we will live happily ever after. This process is completely necessary and normal.
Tony fused with Susan, believing she would be the accepting, uncritical partner his heart needed, after being raised by high achieving parents for whom his grades, his baseball performance, his mood and demeanor, the organization of his closet, were never good enough.
But at some point, fairly early in each relationship, disappointment cut in like seismic shocks, to disrupt their cozy garden of love. For Tony and Susan, reality bit their sweet romance in the butt while they planned their wedding. Susan became more possessive of Tony’s time – and Tony pulled back from her in response. For Susan, Tony was supposed to provide the unfailing attentiveness she so missed growing up in a family with seven children.
This whole debacle comes from absolute necessity. Why?
We yearn for closeness – but also need separateness. One part of us craves the womb-like warmth of complete union with another person. And . . . another part pushes outward toward individual freedom. Yin and yang, Apollonian and Dionysian, Sun and Moon. One dynamic system with complementary sides.
Tony and Susan both push in together and out toward separateness, alternately. Both want each other near – both dread too much nearness. Only on the surface does Tony appear to be the distant one. In reality, when he leans in for intimacy, Susan panics (though she doesn’t fully realize it) and throws herself into her children’s activities.
Like the ocean’s tide, couples will merge and separate, over and over, throughout the course of a lifetime together. In a forty-year marriage, seven or eight emotional divorces will upset the system the partners have created. Some will be subtle, but some will be fierce and painful . . . and yes, absolutely necessary.