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Why The End Of My Marriage Really Isn’t About You

The news of our split rocked the foundation of everyone else's relationship.

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AARP, The Girlfriend, Divorce, Marriage
Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive
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When my husband and I were on the verge of separating in 2013, we slowly shared the news with friends. Many people seemed sympathetic and, thankfully, my two best girlfriends instantly became my emotional rocks. But I wasn’t prepared for the barrage of weird responses that came my way. Sure, I expected a few people might be slightly judgmental (mostly for religious reasons) or worried about how our kids would fare. But I was taken aback when some friends and acquaintances said things like, “OMG — I’m shocked! I never thought it would happen to you guys.” Or, “How come I had no idea? I thought we were good friends.” Or, “This is so upsetting. If you two can’t make it, who can?!” Or, “I don’t understand. Why are you doing this?” The unstated question underlying all of these responses seemed to be: What did our decision say about them?

My ex and I are fairly private people, so neither of us had been airing our dirty laundry or wearing our conjugal unhappiness on our sleeves. We’d been married for more than 20 years and a long, slow decline in the quality of our relationship left us living like bad roommates. The connection and intimacy between us was gone. Our styles had become incompatible. Disappointments and resentments had built up. Let me assure you: We didn’t take the decision to separate lightly. In an effort to rediscover and rekindle what had initially brought us together, twice during our marriage we’d spent months in couples’ counseling, and we’d tried everything we could think of to repair what was broken. But at a certain point, we both realized it was time to try something different.

While I’d anticipated that some friends might be worried they’d have to choose between us, that didn’t happen. It seemed more like the news of our split rocked the foundation of their relationships. Suddenly I found myself in the extremely odd position of trying to make friends feel better about the demise of my marriage. I’d try to console them and reassure them that the decision was mutual, we were parting as friends, hopefully we’d both be happier . . . blah, blah, blah. (All of which turned out to be true, BTW.)

But that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Instead, they’d dance around questions like: What did this say about the quality of their marriage? Were they content enough? Were they settling for too little? It was as if the floodgates had opened, and people I really wasn’t that close to started telling me about their own marital frustrations or times they'd been on the brink of calling it quits. Others seemed to want the assurance that the end of my marriage didn’t mean theirs was sh*t, or to hear that their situation was so much better than ours and they should keep going. (A bizarre form of social comparison, if you ask me.) Still others fessed up about how envious they felt that we were brave enough to make a change.

It was all a bit surreal — and exhausting. At a time when I could have used a hefty dose of compassion from everyone around me, some people took the end of my marriage personally. That’s when I began to realize how many people are unhappily married (or not happily married) and just treading water to get by. As the news sunk in, some people asked me point-blank: How do you know when to call it quits? How do you know when you’ve had enough? How do you know when you can't stand it anymore? I found myself assuming the role of on-the-spot therapist, which I really didn’t want (and am totally unqualified) to be. In a few instances, it almost seemed like they wanted to relinquish responsibility for making difficult decisions for themselves — by having me decide for them.

So I’d say things like: That’s an incredibly personal decision and the tipping point is different for everyone. You’ll know if or when you’re ready to make a change. You can’t use my experience as a guide. I really do believe all of this. Just as marrying someone is an incredibly personal decision, so is deciding whether to split up. From the outside, a marriage is a bit of a black box: You can’t see inside it, and there’s no way to know how two people treat each other when no one else is watching. So it’s a mistake to gauge the quality of your marriage or your needs based on someone else’s. It really isn’t about you.