Are we a statistic? A starter marriage? A slow decline into misery?
July 21, 2009 3:07 PM   Subscribe

No abuse. No affairs. No kids. How long do you keep trying to fix a broken marriage?

Been together 10+ years, married for 5+. The problems we have now are the same problems we had before we got married, but now with years of festering bitterness and resentment mixed in. The details don't really matter all that much, actually -- all that matters is that we fight a lot over stupid, pointless crap. It's a testament to how much we love each other that we're still together at all.

We've spent virtually our entire marriage trying to identify and work on these issues, and it always seems to improve for a little while, then fall back into the same or worse patterns. I've read the usual self-help books recommended here, but he is not a fan and isn't particularly keen on therapy, either, although he would go if I made him. But I don't really want to go if I'm dragging him, because I think that's probably a waste of time.

A couple of months ago, I first mentioned the possibility of divorce, in a kind of "if we can't be happy together, maybe we should be apart, because we both deserve to be happy" context. He agreed with that, but he wasn't ready to give up. We came up with some concrete steps to take (e.g. date nights) over the next few months to see if we can get back to an ok place. He's trying really hard right now, and it's clear he really loves me. I love him too. Things are a little bit better than they were, but it's clear that the steps we're taking are only addressing some of our problems, not all. Also, there's so much fighty, bickery history to overcome. Basically, I'm just not sure what we're doing is enough -- it might be too little too late. We have to work awfully, awfully hard to be happy together.

So why stay? When things are good, they're great. He's sweet, stable (emotionally and financially), and caring. We have odd interests and odd senses of humor that mesh well. In the bedroom we used to be mindblowing, before we got weighed down with all this baggage. We could maybe get back to that if we could fix everything else.

I've looked at other divorcefilter posts, but there always seems to be other factors that alter the calculus... kids, emotional abuse, affairs, etc. What about two people (early 30s) who love each other but have spent more of their marriage bickering over stupid crap than not? Comments in other relationship posts talk about marriage as a refuge... mine is not, at least not right now. How much more time do you invest in trying to fix things before you just part friends and move on? I've always believed that marriage is hard work... but maybe it's not supposed to be quite this hard? Or am I just tired and need to muster up the strength to recommit to fixing this (again)?

Please, no "see a therapist" answers, unless accompanied by a thoughtful explanation of how dragging someone who really doesn't want to go will produce a useful result.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (43 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Please, no "see a therapist" answers, unless accompanied by a thoughtful explanation of how dragging someone who really doesn't want to go will produce a useful result.

You can't seem to identify the problem, despite everything being generally fine. That's exactly what a therapist is for. Something big with one of you is causing this--and causing the bickering. Finding out what that is is exactly what a therapist does. If you are really going to try to make this work you guys owe each other that.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:13 PM on July 21, 2009 [28 favorites]

Totally agree with Ironmouth. Sorry to deny your request, but see a therapist. Alone or with him.
posted by Rykey at 3:17 PM on July 21, 2009

Being unwilling to go to therapy alludes to a general unwillingness to go the extra mile. If I were you I would test him, make him go. If he doesn't fully participate, that says a lot. If he does fully participate maybe you can sort things out. It sounds like the two of you on your own have been going in circles.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2009

3rding Ironmouth. You guys are the perfect candidates for marital therapy.
posted by shrabster at 3:21 PM on July 21, 2009

The details don't really matter all that much, actually

I'm going to kindly disagree with you here and say the details are extremely important, especially if you're continually fighting over stupid, pointless crap. To me that sounds like two people with different expectations/views/outlooks/something that constantly clash. Example, your seeming uncaring about details could be part of the problem (without you being wrong per se) if he someone who cares about details.

That said, no marriage shouldn't be this hard and I can't image sticking with someone for 5-10 years of constant bickering. It's entirely possible to love someone and still not be able to long term relationship with them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:23 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I remember reading a statistic once that people in broken relationships wait 6 years on average before seeking outside help.

Right now neither of you wants to give up on this. Both of you admit you're all out of ideas on how to fix things. A relationship counsellor can't fix your marriage for you, but they can provide you with tools which may help you fix it yourselves - or help you to separate with minimum trauma if the relationship really is irretrievable.

If you had the tools to fix this yourselves you'd have done so by now - go get an expert to teach you those skills. If this was a medical issue, you wouldn't think twice about calling in expert help. If this was a career issue, you wouldn't think twice about professional development. Do this for yourselves and each other, if only to spare yourselves wondering down the track whether it might have made a difference.
posted by Lolie at 3:24 PM on July 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Please, no "see a therapist" answers, unless accompanied by a thoughtful explanation of how dragging someone who really doesn't want to go will produce a useful result.

You're already seeing a therapist. Its name is AskMetafilter, and it argues with itself a lot and gives inconsistent and sometimes horrible advice. Unless you, yourself, are the "someone who really doesn't want to go," at least drag yourself to a therapist so that you can get good advice from a professional rather inconsistent advice from us.
posted by The World Famous at 3:25 PM on July 21, 2009 [14 favorites]

get your box of tissues ready and watch "the story of us" and "playing by heart". a movie night won't fix your problems, but i found both of these movies helpful in getting me to think about long term relationships in different ways.
posted by nadawi at 3:29 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

But I don't really want to go if I'm dragging him, because I think that's probably a waste of time.

From my experience I would say that you're wrong. Sometimes people don't know what's good for them, and need to be dragged into it. Sometimes they figure out that hey, this is actually doing some good. Sounds like you guys are wasting plenty of time anyway with all the bickering and fighting.
posted by desjardins at 3:32 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

You two sound like you could make it work if you wanted to. You could live the rest of your lives together, and it would be okay, and it would be manageable, and it might even get better and you might even look back and laugh at the days where things were so rocky.

Or you might just be putting up with something that's okay and manageable for the rest of your lives. You don't have to. "Nothing's wrong" is not really a sufficient reason for maintaining a relationship--just because you're lacking the drama of kids, abuse, infidelity or whatever does not mean you two have a great relationship or even that you're well-matched.

Before damning the marriage, though, you probably should go into some counseling. If neither of you are sure you want a divorce then you shouldn't get divorced. On the other side of that, though, is that if one of you doesn't want to be "dragged to therapy" then that seems fairly indicative of not really wanting to work on the marriage. Your marriage isn't going to succeed without a lot of work. If that's too much bother for one or both of you, then it's definitely time to move on. Your relationship isn't easy or natural, so it is going to take a hell of a lot of effort to sustain. Marriages can be hard work, but not all relationships are equal and some are a lot less work than others. It's up to you two to decide whether it's worth it; constant daily battles and struggles are not typical of a good marriage.
posted by Polychrome at 3:33 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


posted by kmennie at 3:34 PM on July 21, 2009

a thoughtful explanation of how dragging someone who really doesn't want to go will produce a useful result

I'll take a crack at this: You've said that he would go if you "made him," but that you think that would probably be a waste of time. But you've also said that he isn't ready to give up, is trying really hard, and clearly loves you. If this is the case, then I don't think it has to be a waste of time. Reluctance to go isn't the key, it's willingness to participate honestly in finding a solution once he's there. It sounds to me like he might be willing to put in the necessary honesty if you can convince him that it matters enough to you. Does it?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:40 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some people bicker. The problem is the resentment and bitterness. Think of a way to address THAT, using the all-important "feeling words" ("When you X, I feel Y.")

(The easiest solution is through seeing a therapist, an impartial 3rd party, to help guide discussion, refocus the subject when necessary to prevent it from being derailed or hijacked into into blame territory.)
posted by parilous at 3:46 PM on July 21, 2009

I think what you need are some methods of coping with disagreements about stupid, pointless crap. Laughing helps.

Some relationships are just intrinsically tense. How do you know you won't divorce, meet someone you get along perfectly with, and be bored to tears?
posted by milinar at 3:48 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

When things are good, they're great. He's sweet, stable (emotionally and financially), and caring. We have odd interests and odd senses of humor that mesh well.

You could probably find all this with someone else, without the drama of being with a guy who doesn't want to work at your relationship. Date nights are a sticking plaster. Unless they're curing the problem, which they apparently aren't.

We have to work awfully, awfully hard to be happy together.

Marriages are hard. Ask anyone who is married, and they'll tell you that. Everyone goes through rough patches. But not for 5+ years. That's not a "patch". That's an entire quilt.

This guy either needs to get his act together and go all out to solve the problems that you have (instead of doing whatever he is doing right now, such as not doing something that might actually help - seeing a marriage counsellor), or you are going to spend the rest of your married lives together being miserable and working awfully, awfully hard at being happy.

Save yourself the drama and the misery that comes from being around people you dislike just because of a piece of paper with your names on it. Life is too short to married to someone who doesn't want to save that marriage.
posted by Solomon at 3:49 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

we fight a lot over stupid, pointless crap. It's a testament to how much we love each other that we're still together at all.

It's a testament to how masochistic you both are that you're still together at all. Honestly, and I don't mean this to sound as harsh as it'll probably come out, if he's not willing to be in therapy, just end it. Why keep fighting the same old fights and being angry all the time? End it now and move on with your respective lives.

When things are good, they're great.

So if that's the case make it a simple math question. Are things good more often than they're bad? If not, are the good times more frequent now than they were, say, three months ago? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then things are not good and are not going to get better any time soon, without the aforementioned therapeutic assistance.

I really don't mean to oversimplify or sound like I'm being callous, but there's so many "if only" and "could maybe someday" statements in your post it sounds like you're more trying to justify staying, when that may not in fact be what you really want. For the sake of your own happiness, make a decision soon one way or the other - and if that decision is to stay, also decide to go to therapy. I know that's not what you want to hear but it's the only step left.

I wish you luck.
posted by pdb at 3:54 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have to second pdb: you've exhausted everything else BUT therapy. Either choose to give up now, or try therapy and THEN decided whether or not to give up, but I just can't think of anything else y'all might do short of therapy if you want to try to stay together without fighting.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:13 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what little you've given us, this sounds like a situation where 50% of the problem in this relationship is you and your patterns of behavior. (The other 50% is his.) If you don't go to marriage counselling to try to fix this now you're just going to have similar problems in your next relationship, and your next, and your next... (This is based on your description that he is a good man who you love, but the fights are over the "little things". Those problems of interaction will tend to come back to bite you in the ass no matter who you're with.)
posted by MsMolly at 4:22 PM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, going against majority opinion here, but it doesn't sound like you necessarily need therapy. It might be helpful. Nothing wrong with it. Could give you insight. Could help you fight with more kindness. Probably won't do much about the bitterness and resentment.

My guess it that you already have insight into why you argue about piddly crap. Marriage partners often choose each other (unconsciously) to work out all that piddly crap. By now, after 10 years of being together, you know that.

(quote filter)

As relationship therapist Gay Hendricks has said: "One of the first things a relationship therapist learns is that couples argue to burn up energy that could be used for something else. In fact, arguments often serve the purpose of using up energy, so that the couple do not have to take the courageous, creative leap into an unknown they fear. Arguing serves the function of being a zone of familiarity into which you can retreat when you are afraid of making a creative breakthrough."

Or, as Geo. Bernard Shaw said, "Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open. "

Or, as Mignon McLaughlin said: "If you made a list of the reasons why any couple got married, and another list of the reasons for their divorce, you'd have a hell of a lot of overlapping."

(end quote filter)

In other words, you sound like a good, roughly equal match. Channel all that sniping energy (with or without therapist). Change your view of things: you're not just bickering over stupid crap -- you're building a mystery, deconstructing your lives, exploring the scary underside of your emotional souls, together.
posted by mmw at 4:23 PM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just three quick thoughts for you, from my personal experience:

1. For my marriage, I found that many of our issues are best resolved when I get my own act together first, without worrying about the other person as my primary focus. Many times arguments feed off the participants in a reciprocal way, as buttons are being pushed on both sides in way that are both fed by and incite the other person. When one person isn't playing, it not only short circuits the infinite feedback loop, but it mirrors the other's behavior back to them in a pretty efficient way. When you aren't playing, the other person loses their justification for feeling like they can be a jerk back. Getting over my defensiveness and insecurities that often fueled my half of an argument really did tone everything down quite a bit and improved our marriage greatly, even though I knew that we both have stuff to work on. I do believe that many issues (especially when it comes to quibbling and such) can be resolved significantly through the efforts of one person.

2. I've heard it said that love can be represented in relationships significantly in one of two ways, and I think it's true: some marriages are easy, and compassion and tenderness flow easily. Some relationships are hard, and love is reflected through the effort to make it work. Sometimes it really is worth the effort, especially if that breakthrough finally arrives. And speaking of determining if it's worth the effort:

3. Sometimes you need to take a step away to see the value of the relationship underneith the tension that exists. There are tensions in my marriage that we are often working on, but one of the things that helps us is to spend some time apart when needed. Nothing huge, maybe a few days or so occasionally. When my wife occasionally travels out of town, it's a great time to let the issues of insignificant squabbles melt away for awhile so that I can view our relationship through a more accurate lens. Perspective can be huge, and sometimes space is needed to gain this perspective. Space isn't always the cure-all, but it can often give clarity regarding the true status of the relationship, and also what steps might need to be taken next, without the emotional tension being ever present.

It's not all this simple, of course, but being aware of these three variables have greatly benefited my marriage.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:25 PM on July 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

I should probably qualify the above statement:

I'm not sure it's a good thing to always be separating for a few days at a time, especially if kids are in the picture. But when one of us does travel alone, for business or family or personal vacation or whatever, I find that it's a great time to be introspective about important things.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:30 PM on July 21, 2009

I remember reading somewhere that the way people respond to each other over the long term can be established very early in the relationship, because people tend to respond in the way they are being addressed. This creates cycles and can direct the course of a relationship.

For example, if you break something and I am accusatory, "I can't believe you did that! You're so careless, always breaking things," then when I break something the next time you are going to respond in the same way. But if you broke something and I laughed about it, that sets the tone: when someone breaks something, we laugh about it. You get home from work late without telling me where you were and I react with jealousy and hostility, then you will respond the same way to me when I go missing without explanation. If I am instead delighted to see you and express worry about you being gone, you will too.

This seems stupidly obvious, but it's a fundamental way that humans create relationships and establish communities. It sounds like you guys have established some negative cycles, and negative cycles are extremely hard to break. I am not speaking from much experience here, but I bet you can break the negative cycles. I think it would take a long, difficult discussion about the times and contexts in which you tend to cycle down into negativity and bickering, and making resolutions to try to respond differently to those contexts. Maybe if you start with just one situation? Like if you bicker every morning because you're rushed and end up leaving the house late and he misplaced your laundry and you used all the hot water, etc., consciously change your interactions just in the mornings. Try that for a month and see if you notice a difference. If that seems to be working, add a different context where you notice that you tend to always bicker (maybe in the car he drives a little recklessly and you end up tense and yelling? Have him consciously work on driving more carefully and being more patient with you, you work on not saying anything/making jokes instead of being accusatory/whatever).

You also have positive cycles, clearly, because you say that there are some good times. Those good times stem from the positive cycles you have managed to establish. If you succeed in undoing some of the negative interactions cycles you've gotten into, you might have more good times.

This is not to say you shouldn't try therapy- I don't know anything about therapy but I bet it'd help. But if I were in this situation, this would be one of the things I would do to try to stop the bickering.
posted by ohio at 4:33 PM on July 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

I can think of two reasons to try marriage counseling:

1. My father once told me that when people spend a disproportionate amount of energy fighting over pointless, useless crap, they're not really fighting about the crap. They're fighting about something deeper that the pointless crap is standing in for. To paraphrase The Matrix, there is no crap.

A corollary to this is that there can't be a single generic strategy for avoiding pointless-crap fighting: you have to be able to figure out what the real issues are. Someone who has an outside perspective can help you uncover the real issues.

2. In my own experience, I've found that relationship counseling has taught me strategies for communicating with my partner, both how to listen to them more effectively, and how to express my needs without triggering them to anger.

I don't know why your husband isn't interested in counseling, but maybe if he had a better idea of what the goals of it are, he would be less reticent.
posted by sesquipedalian at 4:46 PM on July 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

we fight a lot over stupid, pointless crap.

If it's stupid and pointless, why fight over it? Why not just give in? Because the fight isn't really about the ostensible topic but about something(s) else. E.g. about not feeling your point of view on stupid pointless crap is respected. Or feeling controlled. One way to find out what the arguments are really about if you can't figure it out on your own, is (surprise!) therapy.

Obligatory disclaimer: I am a therapist.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:47 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Please, no "see a therapist" answers, unless accompanied by a thoughtful explanation of how dragging someone who really doesn't want to go will produce a useful result.

Adding to the pile-on, but people refuse therapy because they don't believe it will do any good. Sometimes when they're actually in it they discover it can. People get forced into things like therapy and treatment all the time, and sometimes it takes.

Another justification is that if you can't work things out you will know that you tried everything you could.

It sounds like you both would really wish for it to work. After ten years of the state you describe you have to acknowledge that you are unlikely to work these issues out on your own. It obviously hasn't been for lack of trying.
posted by nanojath at 5:09 PM on July 21, 2009

I agree. You both may need longterm therapy, and then have the conversation about divorce possibly there.
posted by scunning at 5:18 PM on July 21, 2009

I went to therapy by myself and learned some things that helped in several relationships, including my marriage. I changed the way I communicated with important people in my life; I learned to pay more attention to my own feelings and intuition; I resisted letting other people frame the problems to be solved.

Try therapy for yourself. It's not your responsibility to fix the marriage by yourself, but therapy can help you focus on what you want, and allow you to see patterns that you're contributing to.
posted by wryly at 5:19 PM on July 21, 2009

I loved it when I read, "Most marital arguments cannot be resolved" in John Gottman and Nan Silver's The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Scientific research on why most marriage therapy fails and plenty of other excellent information. The book is about 10 years old, but still on Amazon. WAY cheaper than even one $100+ therapy session.
posted by sugarbx19 at 5:44 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of really good advice here, but because so many people are telling you to try therapy, I will say this, purely from personal experience: When my husband and I hit a huge "snag" which could not be ignored in our relationship a couple of years ago and went to a therapist together, it made things worse, not better. I will cut to the end to say that we resolved our problems ourselves, and are well and truly over them, but the therapist situation will go down in history with us as one of the most sad and stressful experiences of our lives.

The reasons were many: It was expensive - breathtakingly so. This meant we couldn't really afford to shop around, and in our country at least, there was no way to weigh up the various specialisations and approaches so that we could assess whether a therapist was right for us and our situation. What this resulted in was an hour long session (tickticktickticktick...) every two weeks which were used up almost entirely with a tearful, accusatory rehash of what had gone wrong with us in the intervening weeks since therapist had seen us last. She asked comically bland questions "And how did this affect you?" and "what does this look like to you?" all the while glancing over our shoulders at the clock, and never once noticed the mental health issues which seem so plain in retrospect. The most she did was recommend a book for us to read. She allowed the things we said about how we felt about each other at that point to be the last thing mentioned, without any way for us to find a way to talk with each other on the car ride home. We left every session feeling worse than when we arrived - empty and depleted as though our souls had been removed via ventouse. It was a horrible, hopeless-seeming experience, and we can't even bring ourselves to talk about it now in a joking way now that things are all good between us.

I'm not saying this will happen to you, but I will say that if you can get on the same page about therapy, find the right person, get recommendations, go often, ask for what you want out of the sessions, and jettison the therapist and find a new one if it isn't working out, because you don't really have time to waste.

I wonder too, if there aren't different avenues for impartial disclosure of your situation which might help too - pastor/priest (no good for us, we are both Godless), social worker?

So, what worked for us? A brief separation was a sad and good thing and reminded us of how much we missed being together, and how much we took for granted. Lots of talking, resolve to look into ourselves to make the necessary changes and trusting that process, rather than insisting on change in each other, and finally a vacation getaway to re-set the clock and mark deadline to stop the navel-gazing and misery and a clear point to start afresh, without blame, accusation, resentment. We decided to talk the thing to death, then leave all the crap and hardship and sadness at the door and not mention it again after that holiday. It was our personal responsibility to get all the things said that needed to be said. The one thing we really needed was to have fun together again - to re-start seeing each other as allies, and to break the pattern of being adversaries.

The way I saw it, it was like building an imaginary fence around our relationship where we both committed to say to the whole world around us "This is sacred turf. No trespassing." So for us that meant no threats of leaving, re-committing in a meaningful way, mutual decisions to be honest and forthright with each other (no dishonesty by ommission), and a serious, hardcore devotion to enjoying each other's company again. The last point cannot be under-stated: I would say if you have no living memories of these good times, it may be time to move on, because we re-built our whole scene around the love and laughter that had been the main currency before we lost our shit.

None of this can work unless you're both wanting it to work, by the way. I don't think you can drag a partner's ass to the party - that may be separation time.

We certainly weren't more "clever" than a therapist about this issue, but at the core, we knew what our issues were, not a stranger who needed a full, miserable re-cap. We just had to be honest with ourselves and each other. I think we may have been lucky that we both wanted to do that at the same time, and took an attitude of love and forgiveness, so as always YMMV. Just wanted to give you the perspective of someone who has been through it and not found a pro listener to be the magic bullet.

The best of luck to you.
posted by lottie at 8:18 PM on July 21, 2009 [19 favorites]

I just wanted to add, briefly, as data to the above, that had you asked me back then if I had any hope for my relationship, I would have given it a 5% chance of survival. It was in the critical care section of the hospital, for reals, but not in the hospice. I just wrote that big long thing to let you know that we gave therapy about a three month run before ditching it, and solving the problem ourselves, just by way of saying that nose-dives can be self corrected without professional intervention. It has been known to happen.
posted by lottie at 8:26 PM on July 21, 2009

It doesn't make sense to predetermine that a therapist would be a "waste of time" and too much divorce is the answer? A divorce is going to waste more of both of your time (and money) than you can possibly conceive, complicate matters for you the rest of your life, and be a lot of trouble. You don't have to live in this misery, but you're not finding your way out on your own. Someone else, who is trained to arbitrate and move your conversation forward, who is not caught up in your history and has seen people in your fix before, can really help.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I feel like nit-picking about my husband, who by all standards is a wonderful man, yet there are times when things build up as in any relationship,....I find that if we have more sex that my mood and caring and loving him improves a lot. It is as though going through the moves of loving makes me more loving, and all those things that I want to nag about become less important. I have found that the longer I keep my distance or do not get intimate with him, the worse I feel about our relationship. Upping the times we have sex, despite the fact that kids won't go to bed and I am tired or stressed and any host of other reasons, still results in a better relationship.

This may sound way too easy, and perhaps it is and I am deluding myself, but my husband seems to appreciate it much more than the nagging and arguing! And hey, it can't hurt your relationship to try, even though you go on to do therapy or other things as well.

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 8:42 PM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

what I don't see in your question is whether you really want to stay with him. I realize he wishes to stay married (unless he has to go to therapy? huh?) but you sound like you want to be talked into doing the reasonably right (=moral) thing over your heart. thing is - your heart is what matters. either you want to give it another shot or you don't. only you can know and you'll only be happy if you act upon that wish.
posted by krautland at 2:42 AM on July 22, 2009

Despite what some people in miserable marriages tell you, they really don't have to be a grueling drudging slog through endless bickering. Happy, healthy relationships are mostly good times in which partners face problems together rather than against each-other, and don't lie in bed every night convincing themselves silently not to pack their shit and slip off to Bulgaria to become a croupier for the Polish Mafia.

Since you didn't give any details I'm assuming you want a rubberstamp: So, DTMFA! Most divorces have this moment when one partner looks at the uncertainty and chaos of a new life without the other and goes, "Sure, why not!" If you've reached that stage, you're probably done.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:25 AM on July 22, 2009

It's posts like this that make me wish therapeutic use of MDMA was still legal. In the early days, "ecstasy" was used by therapists to break down walls built with "years of festering bitterness and resentment." I have no idea where you and your husband stand on drug use issues, and don't hold MDMA out as a panacea - it's clearly not - but there have been many folks who've used it in similar situations to break through the kind of emotional cement you describe.

Almost certainly best in coordination with a therapist, sorry.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on July 22, 2009

I think the details of one of your common arguments might prove insightful. But I'd guess that it's along the lines of "we love each other, but have different expectations for a lot of things."

The solution is to give up on the love, or give up on (some) of the expectations.

One of the things that I notice about people with successful marriages is that they have figured out what the other partner CAN give, and what they can't. And they find a way to get that elsewhere. If boring ol' partner doesn't like going out Friday nights, find someone else to go out with. For example.

Another example I though of is accidental projection. Partner A likes Maxwell House coffee. Makes no excuse for it, that's just what they like. But Partner B likes to try different coffees and continues to buy different ones. A doesn't care what B likes to drink or try, A just wants B to buy the damn Maxwell House when B does the shopping. B simply does not understand the fascination, and does not respect it, and thinks A should try different things. The solution is for A to just go buy their own Maxwell House and let go of the gripe. And for B to understand that A may well like to try other things, but also that A wants to have the reliable favorite in the house. And to buy both kinds when it's their turn to do the shopping.
posted by gjc at 6:26 AM on July 22, 2009

Therapists aren't magicians or faith healers, they're just people who are trained to recognize common problems and help you understand them.

posted by General Tonic at 7:23 AM on July 22, 2009

There's research on successful marriage that may help you assess whether you should stay or go.

- Ten Important Research Findings on Marriage and Choosing a Marriage Partner

- New research is revealing some of the hidden ingredients of happy marriages

- the Gottman Institute

I'm divorced. We fought a lot. One summer I decided that I wanted to have a great summer and not fight. Fight brewing? I'd leave the room/apartment. I'd tell him we could talk about the issue the next day. I planned a bunch of fun activities. We both agreed that it was a great summer, and we were enjoying not fighting. He left in October.

I changed the problem situation to meet my need to not fight. Whatever he needed from fighting, he didn't get. This is a drastic over-simplification, but if you change your behavior, a resolution will happen.

We went to a therapist for a year. The therapist was very skilled, and helped sort some things out for both of us. The most important thing is that, as certain things became clear, I realized that the marriage was not salvageable. Partly for some of the reasons discussed in the links.

The therapy was extremely helpful, because the therapist was very good. There are many, many, sub-adequate therapists.

I am so very glad we are no longer married.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on July 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Those are wonderful links. From the second one: happy a couple were before marriage was unrelated to how long the marriage lasted. ''What counts in making a happy marriage,'' said George Levinger of the University of Massachusetts, ''is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.'
posted by Miko at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2009

follow-up from the OP
My SO also reads the site, so too many details will make the whole anonymous thing kinda pointless. But since several people wanted more detail on why we fight, here's one generic example:

We have different priorities in terms of chores. We both do housework, but he cares less about whether chore x gets done than chore y (even though both must be done on a regular basis). So I'm busting my ass on chore x, thinking that if I'm doing chore x and he's doing chore y, that's equitable. Meanwhile, he's silently seething over the fact that he has to do chore y all the time, because the only thing that "counts" in his mind (he's a scorekeeper) is whatever chore matters most to him. So we'll have little bickery stupid fights over the fact that he's slamming things around and could-you-please-be-more-careful-with-that or whatever, when the issue is actually him thinking that I don't do enough. Or him thinking he shouldn't have to ask for something (meaning chore y) to get done. Meanwhile I'm wondering why nothing that I'm actually doing "counts" in his tally, and how I'm expected to read minds. Fast forward several years and you have a resentful man, a bitter woman (vice versa?) and a relationship slowly collapsing in on itself, until one person finally says ENOUGH... WTF? Which is what happened a couple of months ago. (Please don't think our marriage is collapsing over housework -- as I said, this was just one example).

He acknowledged that he should have been forthcoming with what he wanted a lot earlier, and I committed (in this example) to address some of the specific things that are higher on his priority list. And now we are trying to do things, as lottie said, that demonstrate a "serious, hardcore devotion to enjoying each other's company again." Date night was one example of a longer list, where the details really don't matter because the point is to try to spend time with each other and BE together, rather than just inhabiting the same geographic location, which is what we've been doing for a long time.

What still scares me is that these problems that we're attempting to fix are clearly not our only problems (because I can see where our "fixes" are working and where they're not). And in the example mentioned above, to my mind, it's kind of a one-sided fix, because his side of the fix is "hey could you maybe relax and be a little less scorekeeper-y" whereas my side of the fix is pretty much "do the dishes, Cinderelly." I'm trying not to look at it that way, because, as I said in the question, right now I can tell that he's really trying.

All this being said, I understand all the recommendations for therapy, and I will maybe revisit the idea with him again. At the very least, I will probably find someone to talk to myself. There's a lot of good advice here, and I sincerely appreciate it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:36 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going to therapy on your own is also likely to be helpful, again, if the therapist is good. You can only change your own behavior and attitude, but any change you make will cause ripples.
posted by theora55 at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2009

OP: I think a practical thing you could do then, at least, is to try and remove some of the day-to-day obstacles to happiness like the example you gave, while you're in the process of trying to find a new way to relate to one another through good times. Get a cleaner. Send things out to be fixed. Eat out. Make a commitement not to talk over one another, even by methods of dorky "talking stick", if need be.

All may seem like shakey scaffolding, but I think you have to avoid the sources of conflict while you're getting back on side with one another. You can recalibrate the dailies of your life later, but this is crisis mode, and I really think it's best to try and take yourself out of habits and routines which reinforce old habits and routines of relating. Once you see yourselves as part of a team who cares about the happiness of the other person, and genuinely like each other again, then I think you're less likely to quietly resent each other over the smaller things.

Also... I think your SO needs to learn very quickly to state exactly what's bothering him. I don't think sulky silence really has a healthy place in this process. You really have a right to know when he's upset about something. It shows respect to you for him to state calmly the things that are pissing him off - that's his responsibility to you. That sounds like a place where he really needs to learn a thing or two, and I think you have a right to ask him to just speak his mind, and not make you guess what's bothering him. You could even say that if he doesn't feel like talking about it right then and there, that's OK. He just has to stop with the cranky bustling around, go away, and come back when he's ready to say what's up his nose.

Be prepared to graciously change the way you relate too. Fair's fair.

Again, all from very painful personal experience.
posted by lottie at 5:19 PM on July 22, 2009


There has certainly been a lot of great advice here.

I will share that there has been a lot of times when I think I have been hanging on to my marriage simply because I love my kids and don't want to put them through the drama. Of course that is usually when I have hit my breaking point.

80% of the time, I'm just trying to love my wife because it is what I'm supposed to. Understanding that 'love' is an action and not a feeling.

My wife and I don't have much in common as far as interests are concerned, and there are some real relationship problems and family baggage that we bring along to our circumstance.

I'm sure not all men are like this, but speaking for myself I HATE talking about deep issues with my spouse. So I echo what some have already said.

1. He needs some help reflecting on his own feelings and learning to talk about them (therapy).

2. You may need to learn to change your approach on how you communicate with him.

As for myself... my wife and I have therapy session scheduled in a couple of days. It took a long time for her to agree to go with me. Now, as a result of some recent issues, and my own selfish pride, I don't even want to go.

However, based on the advice here, I am trying to convince myself that it is necessary and important to fight for my marriage and see the counselor, despite feeling like I could crawl into hole and hangout there for a week.

So, fight fight fight for your marriage.... and see a therapist, by yourself if need be!
posted by nelak at 11:44 AM on August 4, 2009

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