What “Responsible Separation” Means

WHOLE-sondad

Laura A. Munson has written an amazing book about a crisis of heart she and her husband suffered. Well, actually her husband suffered some sort of mid-life crisis and she was along for the ride. When he said he didn’t love her she didn’t buy it. When he suggested divorce she refused.

She was determined to stand by her husband and her family come hell or high water. And the flood was all around rushing through her house, her bedroom, her life, but she stayed with it. It’s an amazing story, and it made me a bit sad when I first read about it in the New York Times.

This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say “I don’t love you anymore” and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result. – Laura A. Munson

What? Amazing. How did I not deserve this same resolve. Even when I was fighting to stay in my marriage the entire time. How did I not have a fighting wife?

Her husband kept falling down his own mid-life rabbit hole of despair and she kept holding strong to her house, her family, her marriage.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t. – ibid

And this was only in the short article about the transformation that occurred when she took on her husband’s depression with her own fury and calm resolve to never give up on him.

The article is a bit more inspiring than the actual book, but I’ll let  you go through the entire story on your own. (book: A Season of Unlikely Happiness )

She keeps coming back to the idea of the responsible separation. Over and over again her husband just wants out, wants something else, wants an apartment in the city. And she gives him some conditions if he wants his responsible separation.

And actually in my marriage, my ex-wife stood by me with great resolve and strength as I went through my own version of a mid-life crisis and major depression. It’s hard to admit to REAL DEPRESSION, but that’s what it was. I needed counseling and medication to get up off the floor of confusing and sad ideas that were clouding my head, much like Mrs. Munson’s husband.

I wanted her to be something different. She wanted me to be something different. We didn’t agree to a separation, we got a divorce. BUT, we tried, and continue to try, to make it a responsible separation.

We weathered huge storms, and we came through it. But something, some wounding, happened in the process that weakened our marriage. Some element of trust became threatened, and for her it broke. For me, I was so grateful to have survived both the depression/crisis and the potential divorce, that I was hopeful and energetic at the rebuilding of our life and love together.

We came through the trauma as a family, but the lover in my wife had exited the stage. She was here for the family, and no longer hid the anger she felt towards me. It’s okay. She had a right to be angry. For a while.

When anger becomes constant and unyielding, it becomes toxic. Probably more toxic to the angry person than those around them, but it makes everyday life a lot more difficult and dramatic. And the shift was gradual, almost unnoticeable until the flares would should out sideways with a casually thrown curse. It was painful and different. We both reacted the first time she shouted at me. Ouch.

And the anger didn’t subside. I woke up each morning with a positive approach to things, difficult and easy. She didn’t. She was unhappy.

Some of our difficulties in life are participatory. And often our partners are the triggers for our anger. BUT when the anger lasts longer than a few hours, or cannot be discharged, the deeper hurt and anger is with someone else. The core anger is related to our family of origin. And we cannot resolve it with our partners. That work is done outside of our relationships. But it must be done. Or we bring this unresolved BS into all of our relationships.

And I can’t pass judgement or claim to know what she talked about in therapy, but something was not getting processed. And in some form of the story, I was the cause of her hurt and anger. It’s not an uncommon story. I know, but here the roles in the Munson story were reversed.

Even after my wife had consulted a lawyer and had told me she wanted a divorce I was unsure that this was the right course for us and our family. I fought her. I fought our couple’s therapist who suggested maybe I should just leave the house and let things cool down.

What?

The concept of separation was proposed, but I was not able to see the value of leaving my house. I was not willing to leave my kids and family two months before the end of the school year. (Kids 7 and 9.) No way.

Somewhere along the hard path the issue had become trust. When one partner begins to lose trust, the recovery is difficult.

The school counselor was actually the one who convinced my wife to wait, if indeed we were going to divorce, until Summer break.

And that’s what we did. I stayed in the house, as a roommate. I still got everyone ready for school each morning, and made breakfasts. And during the day, I worked from my home office trying to figure out 1. how to make more money, and 2. how to convince my wife that divorce was not the answer.

I failed on both of those objectives, but I succeeded in keeping my kid’s lives relatively stable for the remainder of their 2nd and 4th grade years. It sucked. And ultimately I did not do a very good job at proving myself to be a great partner. I was a great father. But that wasn’t the issue.

Somewhere along the hard path the issue had become trust. When one partner begins to lose trust, the recovery is difficult. And if the distrusting partner is not willing to do the work, the process is doomed. We sat in the last few sessions with our counsellor and recounted our two different positions.

ME: We’ve had a crisis. We’re in a great position to rebuild around the core issues that were not working.

HER: I had showed yet again how I could not be trusted. And it was more of the same. I was obviously never going to change.

And in fact I too was waiting for her to change. And that’s never a winning proposition. I knew this already. But I was willing to sublimate my desire for a “touch-centered” love in the name of keeping the family together.

I wanted her to be something different. She wanted me to be something different. We didn’t agree to a separation, we got a divorce. BUT, we tried, and continue to try, to make it a responsible separation. We do our best every day as co-parents. That’s as good as it gets, once the decision has been made to separate.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: true color of love, keoni cabral, creative commons usage

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