I realize this is dangerous territory. If the demise of my marriage taught me anything, it’s that there are no rules, and one couple’s Sign Of Doom can be another couple’s Wee Marital Spat. But I have had so many people email me asking whether it’s possible to TELL if your marriage is in trouble, and wondering at what point, exactly, I knew we would get divorced.
I apologize in advance for my inability to answer the question decisively. There was no one point. There was no way to tell. Ending a relationship is as complicated (and impossible to quantify) as beginning one. You can hardly wax eloquent on just what drew you to the person you ended up with, as a million hackneyed self-authored wedding vows attest. (“Jennifer, you’re not just my lover, you’re my BEST FRIEND.”) What attracts people to each other is always a mystery; what drives them apart is similarly ineffable. I make no claims that my particular observations are universal or even symptomatic. I’m just answering, as best I can, the dozens of readers who’ve wondered if there were specific tip-offs.
Looking back, of course there were. They won’t be yours, necessarily, but the following bullet list describes, in brutal outline, and in emotion-avoiding hyperbolic stabs at humor, the demise of my particular once delightful marriage.
Scratch That Whole “Best Friend” Thing
Many successful relationships aren’t predicated on chumminess. But mine was. My ex-husband and I were college pals before we started going out, before we lived together, got married, bought a house, got a puppy, had babies and so forth. In my mind, we were co-conspirators; there was no one I would rather have spent time with. Until the end, when I realized there were about five people I would rather spend time with. Somehow, “You’re not just my lover, you’re my SIXTH BEST FRIEND!” is not a particularly convincing testament to undying affection.
There Are Outbursts
Say you’re a bit tipsy. Say you’re at a restaurant. Say you, or your spouse, suddenly blurts out “I feel we’ve had no connection for years!” No matter how horrified he/she looks afterward, no matter how sincere or lengthy the apology, there’s something there. Ignore it at your peril.
You Are No Longer…Romantic
I stole the above line from my favorite college boyfriend’s mother, who was not at all sure I was good news. One morning at his parents’ house, after I had snuck into his room from mine at night and then snuck back at dawn, she cornered him and said, “I saw two headprints on your pillow this morning. Were you…(long pause)…ROMANTIC last night?”
My favorite college boyfriend claims he dimpled cutely under pressure and said, “Awww, Mom. You know I’m ALWAYS romantic.” But his mom was a fairly formidable person, so somehow I doubt he was quite so composed. I’m getting off topic. My point is simply this: if you are not having sex with your spouse, and neither of you has a sex drive, please disregard the above. But if you want to have sex, and your spouse does not, or if your spouse wants to have sex, and you do not? I hate to be so primal about things, but trouble is on the way.
Look, for most of us, sex is a crucial part of marriage. Sexual rejection– a terrible, terrible thing–wreaks havoc on your psyche. And being physically indifferent to (or repulsed by) your bedmate is no small thing, either.
This sounds extremely politically incorrect, and maybe it is. Let me see if I can find a different way to put it. How about this: if your sex drive matches your mate’s, all’s well, fret not, carry on. If not–well, someone will have to do some serious compensating, or else the relationship will eventually founder.
You Fantasize About An Affair
Not for you, though. For your spouse. It’s the chicken’s way out of marriage–I want to leave, but I’m loath to begin the process–wouldn’t it be great if HE left? And what better, cleaner way than an affair? I had elaborate scenarios worked out in my head. How understanding I’d be! How kind the terms of our split! How nobly I’d bear my tragic burden in public! Meanwhile, I’d be off the hook scot-free.
It didn’t happen for me, but oh, how I wanted it to. I also cursed myself for refusing to go on the academic job market way back when, thereby closing forever the door that might have led to a commuter marriage. If I only had to see him two days a week I could cope, I’d lie awake thinking. Or what if he just came home on the weekends, like all those Cheever stories?
There Is Dread
I couldn’t wait for him to leave in the morning. And I began to feel sick when I knew he was due to come home. Bizarrely, he left later and later, and came home earlier and earlier–this after years of begging, on my part, that he try to limit his hours at the lab. Ultimately, the dread led me to hit the bottle earlier in the day, to take the edge off before his arrival. Which led to another troublesome development….
There Is Too Much Drink
So I’d innoculate myself with a gin and tonic, and when my husband came home he’d immediately mix up a shaker of Suburbans. Then another. Then there would be wine with dinner. When I look back at how much we drank, every single night, I’m amazed. The evenings passed in a merciful blur. And I can no longer drink gin without gagging. And I can no longer drink much of anything without unpleasant results.
You Are Watched…
Hiding your journal, your email, your cell phone, lying about your whereabouts (even if you are not having an affair, because your spouse is convinced that you are) is no fun, no fun at all.
Snooping in your spouse’s journal, email, cell phone, tracking his or her whereabouts (even if he or she is not having an affair, because you are convinced that he or she is) is perhaps even less fun.
There Is Frequent Rolling of the Eyes
Years before our divorce, my ex-husband began to act as if everything I said was the stupidest thing ever said by any human being who ever lived, anywhere, on any topic whatsoever. It became so obvious that other people commented: my mother, who’d been the primary target of his eye-rolling for years, was among them. Finally, I cut an article out of a dopey magazine and stuck it to the icebox. The article claimed that some large percentage of marriages broke up in some reasonably short period of time if spousal eye-rolling was common. By taping it up, I was trying to make a joke. (I am far too sophisticated to believe everything I read in magazines.)
Well within the time frame specified by the article–was it two years? Three?–we split up.
One Of You Is Unhappy
If one of you is unhappy, you are both unhappy. Take my godforsaken word for it.