We all know the statistic: around 50% of marriages end in divorce. But did you know 66% of second marriages and a staggering 74% of third marriages also fail? Is this pattern trying to tell us something? If the odds of getting it right second or third time round are so against us, shouldn’t we be focusing on breaking through with our partners, instead of simply breaking up?
I’ve made all the mistakes you can make in a relationship and I could fill a book on what not to do. But as I only have a few hundred words, I’ll narrow it all down to one essential thing.
According to experienced psychologists, in around 80% of cases, divorce isn’t even necessary (assuming of course you’re not in a relationship that’s physically abusive.) But the reason so many of us end up breaking up is not because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the marriage itself or our choice of partner. It’s simply because we’re terrified of confronting pain. Emotional pain based on things which happened in our early lives. The cause of that pain is rarely the reason we find for it (eg when we scapegoat our partner) but usually because we are not being faithful to something deep inside ourselves.
What no one ever told us (especially not our parents who belonged to a generation which mastered the art of living disconnected lives) is that acknowledging and allowing ourselves to feel this pain is essential for personal growth and personal growth is essential for a relationship to flourish and prosper.
You know the expression: if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking? It’s absolutely true and it applies to everything. Especially your marriage.
If you and your partner are not growing together, chances are you’re coexisting where you’re both occupying your particular comfort zone and just leading pretty much parallel lives. With none of the stimulation of your early days together (lust!), the heartbeat of love ends up beating weaker and weaker till in many cases it stops altogether.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me give you an example. One of the reasons I was attracted to my husband, though I didn’t realise it at the time, is he was and always will be a confronter. If I was ever distracted or not 100% with him, he would call me out on it.
“Janno”, he would say, “Every time I sit down to talk with you, I feel you can’t wait to get up and go back to your office.” (Did I mention I was a workaholic?...a classic example of pain avoidance! )
At night, in bed, he would want to confront me about something (“Hey, why did you spend the entire party chatting up that drop-kick journalist?!”) and I would roll myself up in my doona, face the other way, wishing he would just turn off the light and leave it till morning, by which time I would have found a very good reason why I didn’t have time to talk.
What I thought I was doing was making sure I was keeping things just the way they were, nice and comfortable, what I was really doing was slowly but surely strangling the essential core of honesty in our relationship.
I had an excellent role model in my dad, who was a wonderful man and highly respected surgeon by day, but a serial playboy by night. When my mum would confront him about the Mickey Mauve lipstick in the back seat of his Jaguar, he would simply deflect her questions with the deftness of a seasoned politician: “Let’s not rock the boat. Everything’s just fine the way it is.” Sound familiar? We inherit so much from our parents, it’s scary.
He, like me, without knowing it, was terrified of the pain that he would feel if he was forced to confront the truth; in his case, the emptiness of a life focused entirely on the false god of achievement and social recognition. So instead, he lived in a constant and no doubt agonizing state of self-deceit, where his actions were not congruent with his words.
Living in a world that’s allergic to pain, we’re all vulnerable to the same disease. Did you know that in the US drug companies deliberately place ads for pain killers in the very first slot straight after the news? This is because the news focuses on the negative: terrorism, mass shootings, fires, floods, plunging stock markets, starving millions, all keeping us in a state of fear. Fear manifests in our bodies as pain and disease which has us reaching for the nearest bottle of pills. Curing the symptom, but never addressing the cause.
Of course in a relationship we take our pills in the form of distraction. We may not physically leave our partner, but we absent ourselves from them by gluing ourselves to our iphones, reaching for another drink, immersing ourselves in work, or worst of all, lusting after someone else to start the cycle all over again.
All we are really doing is running away from our particular residue of pain.
So what should we be doing when the heat in the kitchen gets too hot? The very thing we don’t want to do: face the fire and walk right into it. “I would sooner dive into a pool of piranhas”, I hear you say. Well, it’s just a matter of breaking a very bad habit. Instead of leaving the room to check out your facebook when things start to get uncomfortable, be present, be accountable. Confront and be confronted. If you’re a suppressor, let it out. Shout, scream, throw a plate if you need to. Just don’t do what I did one night when I hurled Ralph’s tub of Chinese takeaway at him. I missed of course then realised that in my fury I’d grabbed the wrong one. So I had to watch him smirkingly devour his crispy skin chicken as I cleaned my veggie Chow Mein off the walls!
When the shit hits the fan, don’t walk away.
Be your big self and take it. Look your partner in the eye and start talking even if you don’t know where it’s going. Be truthful. This way you are honouring them and staying connected. And remember to allow your partner to change. Both of you will discover things about yourself which are quite different from what you believed and how you’d sold yourself to the other in the beginning. Be open.
What next? Well, believe it or not, you’ll come out the other side no doubt crying, possibly laughing and feeling more alive than you’ve felt before. You’ll have established a new threshold. Surprise, surprise, you can be absolutely, totally yourself and your partner will still be there, loving you all the more for the simple fact that the real you had the guts to “show up.”
Most importantly, you’ll start to see pain not as a bad thing to be avoided but as a good thing to be embraced. It’s a actually sign that your marriage is working.
If you run away from pain and into the divorce court, you’re simply condemning yourself to more of the same, with a whole new partner.
A bit like ground hog day, except you’ve lost half your assets and now count your lawyer as your best friend or worst enemy, depending on the outcome.
Remember, when things get tough, it’s not your partner you have to change, it’s you. And the fastest way to do that is embrace the pain. If you’re prepared to go there, you’ll find out what it is, and preferably together. Just as a snake sheds its skin, something has to crack open first for a shiny, new version of you to emerge at the end of it.