Case study 8 – Unilateral decision to end a marriage
This couple sought my help over the internet, after the husband Angus, had unilaterally decided on separation.
Angela, his partner wanted a chance to address the issues that led to his decision, and to shield the children no matter what transpired. They lived on a large remote sheep and cattle station in western Queensland. They did not have an urban set of choices to deal with this.
This example has fundamental lessons about the ordinariness of our exits from intimacy. Relationship disconnects are banal and without any mystery at all. Marriages that seem so perfect on the outside hide these disconnects.
Angus and Angela were in the 15th year of their relationship. There had been little or no overt conflict in the relationship. However, four or five years before I worked with them, he had studied a book about whether to stay or leave a relationship. He kept it hidden in a drawer in his office on the station.
He didn’t tell Angela that he was reading it or what was on his mind. That was quite a feat for a couple who live and work so closely on a remote property, where being able to rely on each other was the difference between life and death.
One morning on the way out, he declared that he ‘couldn’t keep doing this’. ‘Doing what’, she asked. ‘The marriage’, he said.
Angela was flabbergasted. That he had been thinking about leaving for the last five years without her knowing was ‘beyond belief’, she said. There was no one else in his head or in his bed except perhaps the idea of how it could be.
He had not shared that dream either.
They were both busy, generous hearted people living with deep commitments to social justice, animal welfare and the land.
Angela told me she was furious with herself (and with him) for not having known the state of her marriage. ‘It was like something had died’ in her hands without her noticing it, she said.
She could hardly find the words to describe the shock and anger – it was so out of left field. She said she felt ‘outraged and completely heartbroken’.
On his side he was wracked with shame because he couldn’t make his heart do what he wanted it to do. Could not avoid the pain of either leaving or staying. He could not make himself feel in love with her. He wasn’t even sure if he liked her.
He even thought he may not ever have loved her.
From the start he remembered he had hoped love would grow once they were married. A kind of love grew, that of good friends but not that passionate kind that irresistibly makes lovers of friends.
Shame is a primary emotion that can physically and psychologically freeze the person to the point where they feel “I don’t have a self anymore”, or they just don’t feel anything anymore, and it is from this place that he may say, “I don’t love her anymore”, or “I’m not attracted to her anymore”, or “I never was attracted to her.” Sheila Rubin
He hated his predicament but couldn’t go on denying it. She knew little of this over the years preceding his announcement. She had thought he was just absorbed in his work, maybe a little depressed or men’s mid-life stuff.
Angela wanted to be given a chance to right it, feeling that she was owed that in the sense of natural justice.
However, it was too late for him, and in retrospect it was too late for me to turn it around. I might have been able to help him unpack this shame if indeed that was the problem – explaining it as a physiological freezing that protected him.
I might have suggested that in the grip of shame one feels like they can’t think and can’t feel – as if the sense of self is frozen. That then one feels shame about being in this frozen state.
In not knowing what it is, many conclude there must be something wrong with them or in Angus’ case that he didn’t love her anymore or that he never loved her. (This freezing can feed the negative interaction cycle of shame and blame, which I find at the heart of many couples who feel they don’t love each other any more.)
Alternatively, I might have worked on the basis that Angus had grown and changed over the years and had, by a process of honest self-reflection, woken up to how and why he chose Angela and she him in the first place.
He may have begun the relationship without truly giving himself to it. Comfort may have been enough at the start. He may not ever have cherished her, he may have become completely uninspired by the essential Angela, and he didn’t now enjoy being with her.
He couldn’t make his self feel something that wasn’t there. He couldn’t create the missing feelings that would keep them together. To continue without them was a lie.
I think that was the harsh truth of his situation, one he didn’t reveal but which Angela felt and I guessed at. For Angela to be so unwanted was a daily, hourly torture for her. To think that she had been unloved from day one ‘made a sham of the whole relationship’, she said. It left her feeling profoundly disorientated and nauseous.
A sham is an empty pretence. It is as if Angus had assumed a false character. Sham is just one letter short of shame. The situation in effect, shamed her. It felt degrading to continue, and retrospectively damaging to have even begun a relationship on that basis.
However, she still wanted to be given a chance to recover her dignity, and spare the kids if she could from something they had no choice in. She felt she had promised them something she could not now deliver – a stable family like she had come from.
It was not to be. He had decided by himself to leave, probably ages ago. It was either death or divorce for him.
He had tried anti-depressants but that wasn’t the problem in his heart. He had tossed suicide around in his head but said he was too much of a coward to do it, and had seen the devastation during the worst droughts rought by suicide.
They had tried a separation in the house to see if that would help but the courtship didn’t begin anew.
He just didn’t want her. He couldn’t want her.