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There's nothing frivolous or selfish-sounding about this woman: She isn't looking for a perfect life. She doesn't expect every day of her marriage to feel like her honeymoon. She doesn't cry into her pillow at night because her husband didn't buy her a diamond for their anniversary, or because she found a grey hair in her brush this morning. The pain and disappointment about which she writes concerns something far more basic that's missing from her life: a sense of well-being in her marriage.
"I'm unhappy much of the time," she writes. "My husband and I are different in ways that I am finding very hard to live with. I have not given up on my marriage, but I also know that there are ways in which my marriage is inhibiting my growth, my quest to become my best, days when my insides scream, 'No, this isn't right! I can't live this way!' So I need to ask you: When do you know that enough is enough? When can you say that you've done everything you could to save your marriage? When do you decide that living without your husband is ultimately better than living with him? When does your self cry out so loudly that you can't avoid its cries any longer?"
In the same mail that brought this woman's letter came another one, from a very angry reader, writing (also in response to columns about my separation ) to say that once you have children, it's their needs that are paramount, and not those of some spoiled, whining "self" crying out for growth. Many days the mail also brings me thoughtful, concerned letters from people who have also known hard times in their marriages, but ones they managed to overcome without resorting to divorce.
I believe those people's stories -- believe that a marriage is not something to be given up on without deep examination of the alternatives. I believe that many difficult marriages are salvageable. I believe that many marriages can be rescued, through counselling, through organizations like AA and Al-Anon, through prayer, and sometimes through simple, honest, communication.
But I also believe that there are marriages which belong to another category. The marriage could continue. Nobody would die if the couple stayed together. Life would go on. The children might appear to flourish. But to the people living in those marriages, the fit would simply never be right. And when that's the way you live your life, it's more than your own self that suffers. A person who is profoundly unhappy in a marriage is also depriving his or her partner of the experience of being wholly loved and accepted, rather than endured. A person who silently cries out, as the woman who wrote me this letter does, "I can't live this way" -- and then does live this way, despite her cries -- is also quietly teaching her children to ignore their own inner voices, and failing to convey to them what may be the most important lessons we can teach them: To be true to one's self, and celebrate the extraordinary gift of being alive. To live one's life to the fullest. To be the best person we can be.
We need to teach our children something else, too, I believe: that along with the obligation to help others in this life, our children also have the right to be happy.
Back to the question this reader asked me: When do you know that enough is enough? How can you tell the difference between a marriage of rough edges, imperfect fits, occasional pain and regular disagreement (which is to say, a marriage like virtually every marriage I know, including some very good ones) and one of "irreconcilable differences"?
Two partners in the same marriage may not necessarily agree on just where their own marriage stands. In my husband's and my case, the same marriage that had come to feel unbearably painful to me felt at least endurable to him. In the end though, it was my husband who said, "Enough." My husband told me he wouldn't stay married to me any longer -- because it was not endurable to him to stay married to an unhappy woman. Fearful as I was for our children, I'm not sure I would have found the strength to leave, on my own. I'm deeply grateful to him for his wisdom in recognizing that fact and making the decision for me.
Three years later I know it was the right one. I miss so many comforts of marriage: someone to share my coffee with in the morning, someone to sleep with at night. I miss sitting in the front passenger seat of the car and letting my head rest on his shoulder on a long drive. I miss having someone walk in the door at the end of a long day to ask me how mine went. More than anything, I miss talking about and sharing our children.
I said my husband was the one who recognized that enough was enough. But there was another crucial factor contributing to my recognition of that fact. It was the death of my mother, a woman who had relished and celebrated life more than anyone I've ever known. Her death taught me to recognize the preciousness of my days. The model she gave me, of a woman who had left an unhappy marriage well into her fifties to forge a good new life on her own (something my father ultimately did too) gave me the courage to believe that all of us -- my husband, my children and I -- would not only survive the pain of our family breakup, but emerge stronger and better for it.
I came to feel that life is too precious to spend crying. Too precious to spend arguing. Childhood is too precious to spend with unhappy parents. Adulthood his too precious to spend crying out, "This isn't right. I can't live this way." If you feel that way, you need to change your life. Maybe you can change your life and still stay married, and if so, that's the best of all. In the end, for me, the only way to change my old way of life was to leave. And so I did.
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