A cautionary tale of a failed marriage

There probably was a time when I assumed that people from failed marriages had no business giving advice to people trying to prevent the same fate. But then, not long ago, Gerald Rogers, recently divorced, wrote a beautiful post listing the marriage advice he wished he’d followed sooner. And then, soon after that, someone who comes to ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com regularly got the news from his wife; She was filing for divorce. He sent me the following email. I’m grateful that he’s allowing me to post it here:

A few years ago, when my wife and I were going through some rough times, my daughter, who is a therapist, gave us a copy of Project: Happily Ever After. We had read many “marriage fix-it” books already, but because it was recommended by my daughter, I knew my wife would read it.  And maybe heed the advice.  So I read the book and started following the blog and found a kinship with those who have posted over the years.  PHEA has been a source of solace, comfort and information. I can say that the lessons learned from Alisa and others have kept me going through times when it was nearly impossible to face the next day.

I had hoped and hoped and hoped that one day I would be able to write a glorious post about our triumphant “Happily Ever After” project, but alas, today I am writing with quite the opposite news. My wife filed for divorce last week, and it has been a whirlwind of confusion and sadness and 64 different emotions mixed in all at once as we told our 5 children and our closest friends and relatives.  It is so true how one goes through the stages of grief as they go back and forth from moment to moment.  I wish I could feel that numbness that some say they feel at these times, but I have been anything but numb.

My wife has been unhappy for many years since we had a major fight about what to do with the children’s schooling.  Some harsh and regrettable words were said, and it turns out that those words completely and forever changed her.  It was as if our love was a priceless crystal ball that we both cherished and carried together, always with both hands carefully holding it, and when those words were spoken, one or both of us let it fall to the ground and shatter.  Regardless that it did not shatter for me that night, it shattered for her.

So she never had enthusiasm for the counselors we saw, nor did any of the advice that we were given.  The first therapist didn’t get it at all, and he blamed me and patted me on the head and told me that when she recovered her self-esteem, everything would be fine.  My protestations to the contrary were ignored or passed off as uninformed, a pattern that unfortunately got repeated with every counselor we saw.  I knew her, and I knew that she tended to write people off after a major incident, and I feared that a husband could be written off as easily as had been some friends and relatives with whom she had severed contact.  I knew this woman, and I knew that our marriage needed intensive care, but all I was told was that it would take time, and it couldn’t be rushed.  That was the numbskull male way of trying to fix relationships, and if I were to just listen and be patient, all would be good again.  I am a medical person and they redoubled the advice–”this isn’t something you can cut out or take a pill for; it simply doesn’t work that way.”

So I waited and went to therapy and journaled.  I put love notes in our “Love Jar” with a ratio of about 20:1.  Mine were heartfelt and sought forgiveness and to show that our love mattered more than anything.  Hers were, “thanks for driving.”  No professional seemed to have a problem with this.  We were told to date and to do loving things together.  To go to a sensate focus therapy group.  She declined all of these.  Our only dates were on birthdays and our anniversary, because we were both “too busy” to arrange for any other times.  Trips away together were rare and mostly awkward.  When we tried to talk about our issues at home, she shut down and didn’t want to talk with the children around.  So when we went out, I wanted to talk about our problems at least a little bit…to get SOMEWHERE.  I knew that that was a bad idea from all the books, but I began to want and need to know where I stood.  She told me she was trying and asked for patience.  At times, I was better at that than others.  I worked 60 hour weeks and she was busy with kids and years passed.

I found a therapist who helped me immensely.  I began to understand my contributions to the demise of our marriage and I learned humility of spirit.  With this I was given the Gift of God of learning unconditional love for her.  As I went through this process, I was convinced that all we can control is our own response.  I learned self-forgiveness and forgiveness of her and others.  I wrote her heartfelt, soulful letters to see if she could open her heart again to me, to try to piece together that shattered glass that was our love.  Our family is extraordinarily loving and close, and it broke my heart that we might lose this gift.  I kept waiting.

Two years ago she said she was done.  Neither of us could muster the courage to tell our children and then several life events pushed away the inevitable until she could no longer live with her unhappiness.  And now we are going through this horrible process that is divorce.  Do not let anyone tell you anything to the contrary.  Even with the best of intentions, it is horrible. It is adversarial and full of contention, and the legal system that governs it promotes this contentiousness.  I have been asked to switch gears in my thinking about my wife, for whom I had every desire to save our marriage just one week ago.  I have been told to get over it, get on with my life, put this past me…you name it, any of the “wave your magic wand” over your emotions statements you could imagine.  All within one week!

So my advice to the professional counselors who may read this blog is, please listen to men.  We may not be as emotionally literate and we may seem to have the inability to grasp your concept of relationship healing, but we have a wisdom and an intuition all our own.  And to ignore that is to promote the demise of marriages, no question.  When my wife told the therapists she was done with the marriage, only one asked her why.  She never went back to her. With the others, when she said she no longer loved me, that was that, and the next recommendation was for divorce.

So my advice to you if you are unhappy or, even worse, considering divorce, get therapy.  Get INTENSIVE therapy.  Do NOT think that yours or your spouse’s unhappiness is their problem alone.  You are on a journey together.  Go to a divorce lawyer and let them scare the crap out of you about the process.  Then go to a good counselor who will listen to you AND your spouse and do what they say…and a lot more.  Guys, get off your asses and help around the house; think of the little things she likes and do them; show that you are thoughtful and how much you care for her.  Ladies, cut out the criticism and nagging and be appreciative, and learn to be sensual again if you have lost that part of yourself.

But most importantly, remember that you both, with both hands, are carrying around a most precious crystal ball, a Gift from God, and even one hand slipping away from either of you can cause it to fall and irrevocably shatter–with it go your dreams and aspirations to grow old together.  Believe me, that loss is more regrettable than any moment in your marriage, no matter how ugly, nor indelible it may seem.

So blessings to Alisa, and others like her, who have had the courage to make the journey, and commit to the life that keeps two people together.  I wish you all the peace and joy the Universe has to offer.

If you’ve survived a failed relationship, what did you learn from the experience? What marriage advice would you give your younger self? What advice would you give your children or grandchildren? What advice would you give this struggling reader now to help him move forward? If you are reading by email, click through to the blog to comment.

 If you’d like to read more about what it takes to have a great marriage, click over to Babble.com and check out this post about love being like a juice cleanse.

19 comments… add one

  • KimW September 4, 2013, 10:27 am

    Amazing! I feel like I should print this one out and frame it. The author is spot on about seeking intensive therapy as well as the facing the harsh,painful reality of the divorce process. I speak from experience that both are life/marriage savers! Wishing this author well is incredibly trite. I hope (and pray) he finds joy and unexpected blessings in the next chapter of his life. What sorrow!

  • Kathy September 4, 2013, 10:28 am

    Wow, what a heartfelt letter and such wonderful advice.

    I wish you well in your recovery.

  • Michelle S September 4, 2013, 11:02 am

    Thank you for sharing! I personally haven’t been thru anything like this, but one of my best friends is. How I connect with her, share with her, now has been a little bit of a struggle. I didn’t really “know” her husband that well anyway, but I have NO IDEA what she is going thru and I wish I could offer her some comfort. You have provided a bit more insight into that. Perhaps not saying anything is really the best advice.

  • Anon September 4, 2013, 12:55 pm

    Not wanting to invalidate the experience, but I wonder if there’s still a little bit of arrogance, that if only the therapists would have insisted on INTENSIVE therapy, if only the therapist would have listened to him, if only he would have helped more around the house, the marriage would have been saved.

    One of the reasons I’m on this site is that I believe in marriage and that people can work to have it saved. But it seems clear to me that this woman did not share her husband’s dreams of going old together, and I’m not sure that intensive care would have changed that, and neither is anyone else.

    Maybe it should have been tried anyway, since what happened obviously didn’t work. Or maybe it would have been even more painful for all involved, to go through the charade of “saving” something one person was clearly not interested in.

  • Anonymous September 4, 2013, 1:38 pm

    Finding the right kind of therapist can be challenging. A good therapist treats both partners with equal respect and takes each partner’s concerns equally seriously. For a marriage that is as seriously shattered as this one was, intense therapy would have been called for. Even then, though, if one partner won’t fully participate, won’t follow suggestions or do the homework, then it is going to be difficult to save the marriage. I suspect that one day this wife will regret having turned her back on the chance to repair the relationship. It’s heartbreaking that they went through so many sad and difficult years instead of reconnecting and building both a present and a future together.

  • Sarah Liz September 4, 2013, 4:18 pm

    I used to come on this blog a lot, but it has been years since I’ve been a regular visitor. During my own marriage, and subsequent divorce, this blog was definitely a place of comfort and solace. I’ve been quietly lurking around on here for about two weeks now, but wanted to finally make a comment on this post. Right now, I’m in school studying to be a Marriage & Family Therapist, and I’ve found my way back to Alisa’s incredible blog! Alisa continues to provide comfort, solace, support and community to all those involved in a relationship. I know the focus is marriage, but I find the advice on here applicable to all other relationships as well (even non-romantic ones).

    I agree that divorce is awful, painful, and inexplicably difficult, even if/when for the absolute right reasons. I never regret my divorce, but it was incredibly hard and without a doubt, one of the saddest chapters of my life. My ex-husband and I did everything in our power to save our marriage, we just did it in entirely different ways and he did it a little too late for my liking. There was simply no saving our marriage, but years later, we are both happier and healthier overall and see both our marriage and divorce as a blessing.

    I don’t ever want to be the therapist who tells couples “that’s it,” I want to help them work on themselves so that they can in turn, work on their relationships; however, in every case, it takes TWO people. Some people are just unwilling to look closely at themselves and that’s a lot of what saving a marriage entails, in my opinion. People want to blame others and hold the other responsible for their own stuff, which is just not cool. I’m not saying we are completely innocent all the time, but generally speaking, (short of adultery, addiction or abuse towards another), we are always responsible for our own happiness.

    Unfortunately, it sounds as if this man’s wife was not willing or able to continue the work that a marriage takes. She sounds like a very unhappy woman and two unhappy people can’t possibly be happy together. I’m generally a happy person and my ex-husband was generally unhappy. However, he had a lot of mental health issues that were not his fault and through my study of psychology I have begun to make sense of it all and have found a new sense of compassion for him as well as complete forgiveness; and for that, I’m most grateful.

    I do not feel that I failed at marriage. In fact, sometimes I think that those of us are divorced can offer better marriage advice precisely because we didn’t make it. When my best friend calls me about her marriage, I often find this coming out of my mouth: “Hey, I’m divorced. I did and/or did not do (fill in the blank), and look what happened? Seriously. Don’t be me.” I was not a terrific wife, but I did the best I could at the time. That’s all I could ask of myself. I think I highly succeeded in marriage given the circumstances and that just because a marriage ends, does not mean it failed.

    I don’t like the word or idea of failure, I truly believe that if you learn even one thing from an experience, then it can be called a success. I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I don’t believe I’ve failed. Failure begets guilt and guilt never helps anything.

    It’s been 2 and a 1/2 years since my divorce and I am just now in a place of true happiness and peace concerning that chapter of my life.

    It was a long and winding road, and it does come in waves, indeed. There’s sadness, shock, grief, denial, anger, etc, etc, etc. I think the most important thing is to just feel it all. Lean into it and go with it. As long as you’re not violent towards others or yourself, “the only way out is through.”

    I got through divorce with the help of a wonderful support system, reading a lot of self-help books, this blog, cooking up a storm, listening to a lot of music (crying/dying country song & empowering “I Will Survive” type songs!), meditation and inner-reflection. I survived my divorce because I USED it to better myself overall. I leaned into the pain and sadness and anger, yes, but I didn’t drown in it. I learned many valuable lessons during my marriage and divorce.

    And now, I realize that my ex-husband was indeed right about many things. I cherish those valuable lessons he taught me, the fun times, and the happy memories. For me, my divorce was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and will ever make, but that said, I do not regret getting married. If I had to be married and divorced, I am glad it was to him and that I got so much of out it.

    I think it’s important for therapists to really LISTEN to their clients, both men & women.We learn in Psychology school that the most important thing to maintain is a healthy therapist/client relationship, and that relationship is always the therapists responsibility. It is not wise or fair for therapists to play favorites, although it does happen and it’s natural to feel more bonded to some people over others. As therapists, though, we have to fight that inclination and be fair and square to each client.

    Men are not stupid or dense or emotionally unavailable. They really get things that oftentimes, women do not. Sorry, ladies. Women are smart, too, but the notion that “men are stupid,” just irritates me these days. They’re not. They’re just (sometimes) slower to respond, and I’ve found that although men may be harder to crack, once they do open up, they’re more honest about their feelings. And that’s very cool!

    In the end, I believe in a Higher Power that has a plan for everything and everyone. Some people are just not meant to stay married, despite all ideas to the contrary, and all the love, effort, personal responsibility and ingenuity that saving a marriage entails.

    I know for a fact that my ex-husband and I were meant to be divorced, but other couples are meant to be together. It really is such a personal choice. I believe in doing everything one can do to save a marriage, but like I said earlier, it always, always takes two. Period. Accepting that is inherently difficult, but ultimately healing.

    I wish this very wise man all the healing, love, and laughter in the world and admire his honesty and fortitude to keep going, despite an unwanted/unexpected outcome. His words are very true and very well stated. And, it’s good to be back at PHEA!

    Love & Light,
    -Sarah Liz :)

  • Cris September 4, 2013, 5:29 pm

    My only comment for the moment is that I have read it with tears in my eyes…. All my best wishes to this brave author

  • idris abubakar September 5, 2013, 12:06 am

    I feel for this fellow, you can’t get over what you work for and continuously try to make it work…just go ahead and find solace in other things that can keep you busy and maybe just maybe you will get out of the pain. My heartfelt…

  • The letter's author September 5, 2013, 9:19 am

    With heartfelt gratitude I thank Alisa for sharing my story, and I thank all of you for your comments. Even the ones that remind me of my failures are helpful. I was (am) a “married for life” guy, and the realization that I am not is as big an adjustment as any. My marriage and family were my most precious gifts, and now I know I must redefine my family. To keep it whole and healthy is the next challenge, and with support from you all I know I can make it so.
    Thank you all again.

  • Ron September 5, 2013, 11:15 am

    I really appreciate the article and comments especially from Sarah Liz. My wife and I have been married for thirty-five, sometimes rocky, years. We have been through a lot together and been through counseling several times. What we finally figured out is that while two people will never agree on everything it was more important to stay together than to be right. One comment the author of the article made struck me to be especially noteworthy. I will paraphrase. You can’t fix your spouse, but if you work really hard, and are determined enough, maybe you can fix yourself. A successful marriage always requires two people with this philosophy.

  • anon handle September 5, 2013, 5:37 pm

    I agree with Anon @ 12:55 and found this letter to be arrogant as well. It seems to me that rather than taking responsibility for his own actions, the letter writer is extremely focused on other people’s actions (his ex-wife’s, their marriage therapists’) that led to the divorce.

    Some people seem to believe that just people someone puts in effort, they deserve or should get the outcome that they want. Life just doesn’t work like that – and that is one of the biggest tenants of Buddhism. I’m actually surprised that this letter was posted because to me, it seems to violate some of the basic ideas on this blog and from PHEA (like the idea that you can only control your own actions, not other peoples’ actions. My feeling from the LW is that he is in pain because he couldn’t influence someone else’s actions the way he wanted to or that “should work” from books).

    I am glad that the letter-writer learned a lot from this blog and from PHEA. I pray that the letter-writer learns to let go of their expectations from others (including their children) in their future relationships.

    • Alisa September 6, 2013, 7:37 am

      Anons 1 & 2: It’s really fascinating that you are seeing arrogance. When I read the letter, I just saw sadness, loss, regret and suffering. Perhaps that’s because I’m familiar with the letter writer’s comments on the site. He’s offered wonderful advice to so many people here. I can tell from his comments that he is kind, insightful, and generous. I know you don’t have that background because he choose to remain anonymous. All I can say is that, from what I know, he’s one of the least arrogant people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting virtually.

      That said I mostly want to address your questions about Buddhism. Yes, you’re right. I’m often saying that you can’t change others; you can only change yourself. That is very true. But I posted the letter because a big part of Buddhism is compassion: seeing the suffering in others and wishing to help relieve it. The person who wrote the letter is suffering. He’s a part of the PHEA community. He’s our friend, and he’s reading the comments here. I wanted to do what I could to help him relieve his suffering, by connecting him with this wonderful community of loving people who can offer support and advice and remind him that he’s not alone.

      Another teaching of Buddhism is that we project our minds onto the world–that nothing that we see “out there” exists in the way we think it does. What we see as “negative” comes from a negative mind. A completely pure mind sees only pure beings and only experiences pure experiences. It’s pretty deep, but something to think about. It made me wonder if there was something about the letter that relates to your own marriage or experiences that was causing you both to react the way you have. Just something to ponder. Whenever I ponder my own negative reactions to things like this, it results in some very helpful insights.

    • Anon September 6, 2013, 12:42 pm

      Perhaps “arrogance” wasn’t the right term. I may be more applying stereotypes of the medical professionals unfairly. But the letter writer seemed to have the mindset that if only everyone put their nose to the grindstone and worked harder, there would have been a better outcome.

      I don’t think this is true. I don’t think outcomes are a pure function of the effort we put into them. And I’m not sure the other therapists were completely wrong to give up when his ex-wife said she was done.

      Again, he was there and I was not, so it’s not likely that my insight into the situation is superior to his. I’m just not convinced that intensive marital therapy is the silver bullet that could solve all problems.

  • The letter's author September 8, 2013, 4:07 pm

    If anyone will revisit this post, I just want to add that I hoped that I indicated that I did and do accept my contributions to the demise of our marriage. To live with the knowledge that something I said so long ago can continue to cause another human being pain, especially one who has given me so much–my wife, is my cross to bear. To get over that mistake so that I could love myself again took a very long time and the help of a very good therapist. I do not blame others, I only wish to point out my very real experience in several therapists’ offices. It was not their fault that we had the struggles, nor that my wife could not find a reason to persevere in our marriage.
    So I can assure you that I am humbled beyond measure by this experience and if any men are out there who will still read this post, please heed my advice. Do NOT let your masculine pride get in the way of saving your marriage and keeping your family together. There is no greater price to pay, and nothing is as valuable to you, I can guarantee you that.

    • John October 1, 2013, 2:12 pm

      Sir, with the greatest respect to your wifes positive humanity which you and your family obviously recognise, you were simply dealing with a pattern of her behaviour. It was simply your turn not to be forgiven. What someone does to someone else they will do to you, and what someone does to you they will do to others. None of us will get special treatment.You would have approached your marriage with anyone they way you approached it. That came from within you. How she approached your marriage was consistent with how she approaches other relationships in her life. So yes, move on. Find people who do things differently to your ex wife and are more in line with how you approach relationships.

  • Sheila Fox September 9, 2013, 5:10 am

    I would like to greatly acknowledge the author of the email. I came from a broken family and after which I started not believing in marriage. And I also thought that men could never make a move to make things work in a relationship. But you have changed my perception about that. And I applaud you for that. Thank you for sharing this very touching and insightful story of yours. May you find happiness and strength to move on.

  • Camilla September 10, 2013, 4:36 pm

    Succumb autonomy

    I command the author for all his efforts to mend the wounds and heal his wife’s heart. And to the author, I’m sorry you are going through this. If you truly love your wife then let her go. She might come back to you she might not. Either way, that is the most loving thing you can give her at this time. I believe that she needs to find her autonomy and assert herself and she certainly is scared of trusting you only to face the unappreciative side of you yet again. She needs to feel like she matters and her opinions not only count but are of great value. I hope you do not succumb to all the bad and most likely cruel advice you have been given by lawyers and what not during the divorce proceedings. I hope you can take some time off, go to a remote area and just be. The serenity will bring some peace to your heart and quiet your mind. Take the time to take good care of yourself. And when you come back, I hope you would have left your pride and ego in the remote place and brought back your humility and compassion. Tell your wife that you will give her the divorce and make it as easy as possible only if that’s what she really really wants. And if she chooses divorce (she already did!) Be kind, respectful, generous, modest, and mostly compassionate during the entire process and after. And don’t forget to always remain dignified. Do not be needy, accusatory, blaming, projecting, trying to guilt her into staying or this or that. I have great faith in love and in life, and this is my motto in broken love; If she truly loved you once then she can and will love you again. Perhaps differently but let’s face it, neither one of you is the same person you initially fell in love with so it’s only natural. But give her what she needs and at the worst case scenario you will find a very good friend in her for the rest of your lives (I suspect more than just friends :)) Time is your best friend and worst enemy. I hope you can find the right intuition to use it wisely and to your advantage. Best of luck!

    • The author September 13, 2013, 11:14 pm

      It is with gratitude that I read Camilla’s words. You have great advice about letting go. It is at the same time the most difficult and the most necessary thing to do. Time is indeed my best friend and worst enemy-you nailed it!
      But a large part of your post also gets to the heart of my frustration at those giving advice. Great assumptions are made about my being unappreciative and dismissive. I can assure you that was at least a 2-way street and since I learned how I hurt her, I have essentially devoted my inner life and my actions to changing my part of the dance.
      And you list my behavioral recommendations during the process of divorce; what are her responsibilities to me–as the one who wanted to work it out and must deal with the rejection part of the equation? Would you have given the same advice to a woman?
      This has been my experience during this process with the professional advice givers (with rare exception):
      Women are assumed to have virtuous motives as the background of their behavior and decisions in relationships and men are assumed to have less than virtuous motives.
      It is a bias and a stereotype that must change if we are to make any progress in the evolution of female:male relationships and if caregivers in charge of helping people through difficult times in marriages will have a real impact in fundamentally changing that dynamic.

      • John October 1, 2013, 2:50 pm

        Love women but don’t look for your self worth in theirs. Love marriage buy don’t look for your self worth in it. Find it in the fine way you love all the people that you love, in all the ways you love them. Some people in their comments have said you are arrogant and proud. All of us are arrogant. (I find someone saying someone else is arrogant particularly arrogant lol). Be proud you loved your wife and your marriage, and that you still love your family. Look forward to the enjoyment of the love of another woman. In that you will find the forgiveness your wife denied you. I won’t say good luck, because you don’t need it. Simply relax and enjoy.

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