On marriage, and how it sometimes feels really, really crap

A very real marriage in summer.
A very real marriage in summer.

There’s a lot of bollocks we’re taught about relationships, but to my mind the cruelest assumption we’re allowed to nurture is that when you’re married things are nearly always going to go great. Yes, there’ll be arguments about who sees whose friends more and which of you didn’t unpack the dishwasher, and maybe even fights about bigger, more important stuff like money and religion, but nothing that won’t blow over within a few hours or, at worst, a few days. And the danger in not telling couples the truth – that, when the bad times come, they don’t always go away quickly; sometimes, they settle in and hang around for quite a while – is that people panic. They didn’t expect this. Why is it so hard? We ask ourselves. It shouldn’t feel like this. Did I marry the wrong person? Maybe we shouldn’t be together?

If only we got warned early on, we wouldn’t feel quite so bewildered when the day comes that you sit across a dinner table from your partner and the distance between you is so immense you’d need an aeroplane to traverse it. You look over at each other over dinner plates and you simply have nothing to say. You see these couples in restaurants all the time – scanning the menu after they’ve ordered; looking up at the ceiling. Because somehow amidst the maelstrom of life and the pressures of raising children, earning money, owning a house, going on holiday, getting to gym, paying parking fines, buying the groceries and doing what needs to be done to survive, you can lose one another. And, with that, the map to find your way back.

An older, wiser divorcee I worked with when I was in my twenties once said to me, ‘there’s nothing quite as lonely as the loneliness you can feel in a relationship,’ and I had no reference at the time, but later I remembered her words and understood exactly what she meant. But, here’s the rub. Barring serious problems where there is no other solution but to part company, if you can muster the courage, the mettle and the good, old-fashioned self-discipline not to bring up the ‘d’ word too often; not to succumb to easy ways out (they’re not easy in reality) and the next hopeful singleton who promises to ‘understand’ you – if you can just take a deep breath and wait this shitty time out – and it can go on foreeeeeever – I promise you with all my heart that the love almost always comes back again, better than it was before.

I’m not saying things can’t get beyond the point of no return, or that there aren’t people who try really hard not to separate and for whom parting ways is the absolute last resort, but I encounter too many who make this move without understanding the ramifications and how painful and devastating this process really is. The end of a marriage isn’t the end of the world, but you have to earn your way out of the relationship, especially when there are children involved. You are allowed to make this move only when there is no other conceivable solution. Because marriage is not going to make you happy; it’s just going to make you married. The happy thing is your responsibility, and all about how much you’re prepared to work at stuff and stick around when times get rough. As they will, without a shadow of a doubt.

Marriages have seasons, and sometimes winter stretches on. But time will pass, things will change, and stuff will happen that will bring you closer to where you were before. And, often without even trying, one day you’ll find yourselves sitting across from each other at that same table with loads of things to say. And your bond will be better and you’ll feel safer and more solid than you ever have because you survived, and you’re a team and in the end it’s the two of you against the world. It’s not better on the other side. It’s a battle of a different kind; plus you have the added complications of blended families, less money, pissed off exes and other peoples’ children. Suffice to say, that grass might look a bit different, but it aint any greener. There are enough divorced people around to testify to this. Just ask them how they’re doing.

That guy you hate with such venom at 9am on an arb Saturday morning that you’d happily put an axe in his head before going out for brunch with your friends? There was a time you wanted him so badly you could barely breathe. That feeling was real, and it hasn’t gone away, it’s just got gotten a buried beneath the crap of everyday life. Wait this period out because, more often than not, what comes at the end of it will be richer and more rewarding than you imagine now. Plus, it’s the best gift you can ever give your children. Ever. Trust me on this. Hanging in there is the better option.

23 thoughts on “On marriage, and how it sometimes feels really, really crap

  1. Hmmm, I know some people ‘hanging in there’ who are definitely not giving their kids the best gift ever by doing so. But I totally hear what you’re saying and agree for the most part.
    Funny though, my husband and I RELISH complete silence. We’re that couple who go out for a meal and sit across from each other reading the paper/people watching or even sometimes staring at the ceiling. And loving it. Companionable silence is one of our favourite things, and something we never get with 2 smalls around. That’s when we have long conversations over their heads to try and drown them out!
    I often think people are seeing us out and imagining we’ve run out of things to say to one another. Ag shame :)

  2. I agree, Susan. Relationships definitely have seasons and we need to weather them, unless there’s something totally unacceptable that requires an exit. I remember my parents going through a long and stormy winter. I, a snotty, arrogant teen, urged my mom to up sticks. She didn’t and a serious illness reset the meter a few years later, so their last few years together were a golden summer, with a few short squalls, it has to be said (Yikes! apologies for the extended metaphor). If she’d listened to me that never would have happened. I think our generation has an unrealistic expectation of a-right-to-unalloyed-happiness-all-the-time. But it seems to me life’s more about savouring the happy highlights in the daily humdrum. If we laugh a lot and learn patience and perseverance, we may just get there in the end.

    1. Thanks, Dan, for your very wise words. My parents also had a rocky few years, but then found an amazing peace and love and acceptance in their older age. They hold hands now and wouldn’t know what to do without each other :-) xxxx

  3. I think the key to whether or not you can work on it and find your way back is dependent on the people involved and BOTH of their willingness to work on it with honesty and humility without a pile of ego and selfishness. My parents divorced long after they had destroyed each other. I think for my sake as a child and theirs if they had separated earlier their lives now would have been healthier and happier and I might still be talking to them. I think the problem with marriage is people think it is the wedding and then happy ever after. But whether you are married or living together, although people will argue the validity of the latter, that being in a relationship is hard work period. It is very much about being true to yourself and reevaluating what that means without disrespecting and imposing on your partner. It’s about saying sorry when your wrong even if that hurts, truly listening and setting healthy boundaries. Being open to talking about and openheartedly listening to the inner transformations we all go through through out life. It’s also about listening how you speak to each other something I have to really work on especially as perimenopause kicks in and my frustration levels increase. It’s not a it’s about ME experience.

  4. You are an amazing writer Susan, I am enjoying it all, being married for almost 20 years….I can relate…hugs and love and KEEP WRITING!!!!!

    1. Wow, thank you so much, Candy! My husband hated this post, it really freaked him out because we’re actually really happy, but even the best marriages have those wth moments, and that’s what people have responded to I think. We’re all in the same boat and those hard times hit everyone at some point. Thank you for getting in touch, and for your lovely words! :-)

  5. This is a wonderful post, but I am nonetheless going to disagree with you on one point. I grew up in a home where my parents weren’t in love. And still aren’t. They simply coexist. There is fighting, but it’s not all that often and it’s not (I imagine) all that different to how happy couples fight. There isn’t any passion, though. No hand-holding, no kissing. No loving glances or stolen moments in the kitchen. My parents are fun, sociable and great people. But I learnt about relationships from the only relationship I knew, one which was functional only. And I genuinely belief it has a huge (negative) impact on the way I approach love. I know, from friends and boyfriends, that growing up in a broken home is awful. But take it from me, growing up with unhappy parents is awful too. The threat of divorce hung over our family my entire childhood. I firmly believe that the best gift you can give your child, is your own happiness.

  6. Just recently found your blog. I have to say I love my marriage and I hate it in equal measure. I told a colleague who was about to be married that marriage is hard work. Honestly, what does that mean? People used to tell me that shit when I was looking for the perfect wedding shoe – my relationship was easy! What hard work, you cynical old cow – was my thought and probably what my colleague thought of me. But it’s bloody true isn’t it. You really do have to work daily to make your partner a priority – to remember him as something more than tea-maker, kid-fetcher, lightbulb-changer. And it’s so damned hard when you have children. I have days where I feel guilty that I am not in a fireworks display marriage every day – I have a son and a daughter, what are they thinking? But then I calm down, put my rom-com DVD collection away and realise that I guess I am teaching them that life, love and everything inbetween is ordinary, average, peaceful – and that is okay too!

  7. My parents got divorced when I was quite young, for years I wanted them together, but realised as I got older, that they did the right thing. We never saw them fighting & in fact now 40years after their divorce, they still speak about each other with affection & have dinner together when they can. That showed us that even if things don’t work out in the marriage, it can outside of it. I can see that had they worked on the marriage as they did after, they’d still be together. My husband & I work on it. With the downs comes the ups, sometimes hard, but mostly easy. Thank you for a great post.

  8. Hi Susan. I just found your blog and I am loving it. I’ve spend most of the day reading all of your posts. I can relate to every one of them. I too am a mother of 2 stunning little girls. (A single, divorced mother). While I don’t, for one minute, regret being divorced, I will agree and testify to the fact that the grass is NOT greener on the other side. Divorce is HARD guys! Harder than marriage itself. Raising two kids alone ain’t a walk in the park either. Especially when you have a full time job because you live in a mono income household. Then there is the misconception that, before the ink on your divorce contact is dry, Mr rich-handsome-upgrade is going to come and sweep you off your feet on his white horse, love your children, accept your ex and live happily ever after. That shit don’t happen! Thought I’d give a quick share :) thanks for your posts xxx

  9. I was in a bad marriage for six years. It was so bad it affected my health. I have been divorced a year, and although I am single, I am much, much happier than I ever was in the marriage. Some marriages are not meant to be, no matter how much you want them to work. In all honesty, I married in haste and for the wrong reasons, I should never have married him in the first place. The marriage started to sour from the honeymoon onwards,but I stuck it out despite the emotional angst this caused me, and it took a psychiatrist to show me my health issues were marriage related and a life coach to make me see that leaving was the right thing to do.
    Yet, I agree with everything you write here. If you marry someone who is right for you, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a perfect life from thereon, but at least you have something to work with.

  10. I was in a relationship for 31 years, 26 of those married, and I tried, for every single one of those years, to work on myself and the relationship because I didn’t want to put my children or myself through divorce. He, however, felt he was perfect and blamed me for every single issue in the relationship. Eventually I grew up and changed and came to realise that he would never take responsibility for his life while he had a scapegoat. So I left. And then I learnt what I had taught my children – how to sacrifice yourself for another selfish person and how to stay in dysfunctional relationships. I’m so sorry I stayed that long, so sorry I taught my children all these wrong things about relationships. I’m happy by myself, but I’ve also met someone who is truly the other soul to mine. I know that is a rare thing, so I am overcoming my fear to allow,love a chance. And I’ve learnt that unless you have common goals and a common vision for your future and your lives then you shouldn’t get married, I’ve learnt that love does not overcome everything and can in fact turn to bitter hate if you are in an unequal relationship, because he came to hate me when he couldn’t break me. And I’ve learnt that healthy boundaries and a healthy sense of self should be respected otherwise you should run as fast as your legs can carry you away from the relationship.

    I’m not bitter about marriage or afraid. That’s not why I won’t get married again. I just won’t do he marriage thing again because in South Africa there is cultural thing which tries to force you into a mold once you get married. There are expectations of how you will and will not behave, what you will and will not do. The culture of marriage is what keeps me away, because I’m not interested in being a “married woman” at all. I want to be me, to be loved for who I am and what I do, independent of any cultural expectations. For me this is true freedom.

  11. I wish I could find a way to say this which portrays the gratitude I feel, and not sound like a self-righteous know-it-all. But I do want to add that what you describe is not everyone’s story. Marriage can be a safe place without the lengthy episodes of disconnection or distant feelings. 17 years, three kids and a string of traumatic events later, we’ve yet to feel “crap” when it comes to our relationship. No, there is no formula, aside from the basics : being very good forgivers and considering each others’ interests above our own. Yes, it involves lots of selfless effort. But the joy of it all is worth it a million times over. Don’t settle for less, or accept that it just is this way. Love and humility turns even the darkness into light.

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