Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s Power editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
I’m a guy in my mid-30s, married to a woman two years younger. Two months ago, shortly after our 10th wedding anniversary, my wife admitted that she’s profoundly unhappy and doesn’t know if she wants to be married any more. This came completely out of the blue for me, even though I’ve been aware of several fault lines in our relationship, on which we’ve both been working.
The initial years of our relationship were upended by addiction, depression, infidelity, financial irresponsibility, and dishonesty, all emanating from her side, though not all of them her fault. I held things together pretty much single-handedly during this time, but have been left anxious and distrustful as a result, even as our life has stabilized. At times, I’ve been overly controlling, terrified that if I let go our marriage will hurtle off a cliff.
And now it has, ironically, in part because my anxieties have pushed my wife away. She’s moved out, saying she needs space, and has refused to work on or talk about our relationship in more detail. I can understand why, but it feels like she’s allowing things to crumble rather than trying to fix them. When I discussed my unhappiness during the more chaotic phase of our relationship, she threatened to kill herself if I left. Now that she’s got her own life on track, it seems like she can’t be bothered.
I’m aware that placing these kinds of expectations on her and deciding on the “correct” path for us to follow is precisely what she’s recoiling from. I know I should respect her autonomy, give her the freedom to decide what she wants, and that sometimes people just stop wanting certain things. I’m aware that by pushing her to act, I’m just making it worse, or that even in trying we might not be able to fix things.
But I’m also terrified that if I just let go, she’s going to blow our entire life up without knowing if it could have been saved. I know I need to relinquish control over my marriage and my life, and allow whatever’s going to happen to happen. But how do I do that when every atom in my body is screaming at me not to, and the process of doing so feels so unbearably painful?
Live And Let Go
A few columns back I wrote about how closure is a myth; that it is fundamentally an attempt to shape the chaos of other people’s choices into something with a semblance of meaning. The advice I’m going to give you is not all that different, Live. Your marriage is not officially over yet, but I suspect that is a matter of paperwork and deep down you know this too.
For that I am sincerely sorry. You want to feel okay about it but you don’t. That’s a perfectly reasonable response to the end of a marriage, as is confusion and anger and grief. You are simply going to feel these things until you don’t, so my advice is going to focus on making sure that you do not make things unnecessarily worse through your actions in the immediate future. Being sad about the end of a relationship is burden enough, but over time your relationship to that sadness changes — what is truly unbearable is feeling guilt and shame over how you behaved as it ended.
Trust me, I am basically an expert on how to take something bad and make it worse. I have tended to sour endings with petulance and pettiness, ensuring that a few people out there think of me less than fondly. It is, as the most boring people on earth like to say, “not a good look.”
I think you are starting to do the same — that already you are beginning to curdle a little bit when you generously offer that depression and addiction were not her fault, as though they could be. Or when you note that she was once so attached she threatened suicide, as though that itself is not an argument for stepping away from each other. You feel it’s unfair for her to have needed you during a time of perpetual crisis, only to throw you aside now that you’ve helped her get better. Maybe that is unfair, but no more than wanting her to stay out of obligation. You say you know you should “give her the freedom to decide” but this is simply not a matter of permission. She has decided, and is continuing to decide, and you have to do the same. Decide against bitterness; decide against rendering relationships in terms of debt; decide against letting this bad thing make you worse.
You ask how to relinquish control over your marriage and life but in truth you have never had it. You can’t really let go of another person, only opt not to hold on to the idea that they are not allowed to leave.
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