Emotional divorce. It happens slowly, subtly, in a relationship - usually without the awareness of the two people involved. As the marriage unravels, partners feel more and more distant from each other.
"I felt hollow inside," says one emotionally divorced woman. "There was nothing between us - no bonding, no communication, no sharing, nothing. I felt helpless, trapped, and disappointed. Nothing was left of those wonderful feelings we shared when we were first married."Emotional divorce leaves "two people who share the same last name, the same house, the same children, the same bed, living in two separate emotional worlds," says John Lund, the author of a book on the subject. Physical and legal divorce, he emphasizes, is always preceded by emotional divorce - a period of estrangement that occurs long before lawyers are consulted.
The burnout process leading to emotional divorce has many symptoms that, if recognized, can often be reversed. As a matter of fact, couples who have the courage to really face "where it hurts" in a marriage can often end up with better marriages than if they had not experienced burnout symptoms at all.
How do you recognize the early warning signs of a marriage going wrong? Alan Loy McGinnis, author of an article called "Are You Neglecting Your Marriage?" (Redbook, January, l987), targets these symptoms:
- You no longer laugh together.
- You confide in other people more than you confide in each other.
- Your sex life has become stale.
- You dread going home to your partner.
- You no longer surprise one another.
- Disagreements always escalate into fights.
- You no longer care about looking nice for your partner.
- You are infuriated by one another's idiosyncrasies.
- You never reminisce about your shared history.
- You no longer engage in philosophical discussions.
- Your partner seems to bring out the worst in you.
- You resent spending money on each other.
- You've stopped cultivating common interests.
- You no longer introduce new friends to your partner.
- You feel you know everything there is to know about your mate.
- You fantasize more and more about having an affair.
- The prospect of spending your future together depresses you.
Reading this list and taking stock of your marriage could be one of the best things you ever do. Partners in neglected marriages tend to feel chronically emotionally depleted and unhappy. And their relationships, left unattended, are extremely vulnerable to falling apart.
Don't panic if your marriage fits some items on the list - just take action from this day forward to put your relationship in good repair. Marriage is an edifice that needs to be rebuilt every day. In every other aspect of your life you do maintenance - on cars, houses, clothes, jobs.
Now think of your marriage as needing continual restoration and revitalization. The investment you make will come back to you.
So how do you start? Here are basics to consider:
-Take a hard look at your own attitude toward the marriage. Are you experiencing a chronic low burn toward your partner because you feel your needs aren't being met? Do you feel it's your partner's fault? Before we marry, most of us are able to take life's lumps in stride. If things go well, we attribute our well being to our own effective choices. And if things go awry, we understand this is the result of our own actions and decisions.
"We may shake our fists angrily at fate, or blame our weaknesses on the less-than-perfect treatment we received as children, but we don't attempt to pin our disappointment, frustration and hurt on some one other person," say Connell Cowan and Melvyn Kinder, authors of the article: "Wise Women, Wonderful Marriages."
But marriage changes all that, these authors observe.
Dismayed that the relationship doesn't fulfill all our expectations, we can make our partners convenient scapegoats and the focus of blame and accusation. "It's much easier to find fault with what `he' or `she' is doing, or not doing, than to examine how we have created our own unhappiness."
-Redefine yourself as an actor who can take charge of your life and your marriage. And, now, sit down for a serious talk with your partner. Be ready to hear and accept some things you don't like - without blame! Before a mechanic overhauls a car, he has to do an assessment. Before you can improve your marriage, you need to find out what needs to be fixed.
-Ask what things you can do to improve the relationship. What would help? What would feel good to your partner? You may not agree to all the changes, but merely having the courage to ask begins to put the marriage on different footing. After your partner has fully explained his or her needs, be clear and specific about what changes would feel good to you. Once you've had your talk, go to work on finding new ways of improving the relationship.
Next week: Tips for revitalizing your marriage.
Note: Enhance your relationship with a Valentine's seminar, to be held Friday night and Saturday, February l0th and llth. Call 263-3147 for a brochure.