By Sharadha Bain @DearSharadha
Many women hang on to their marriage long after the relationship has broken down, believing this is their best option in life. Writer Sharadha Bain explains why this could actually be the most dangerous choice they could make.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line
Sometimes the death of a marriage arrives with a sharp clap of emotional thunder – violence, infidelity, the first episode of alcoholism or emotional abuse that shatters the hope of love. The stable ground of life has vanished; what is left is a war zone.
Many long and harrowing years can pass before a woman finds the will to leave. Many do not leave at all except through death. Less spectacularly, other marriages suffer a slow and lingering death, beaten down by a steady drip of disappointments big and small.
The couple find themselves on opposite sides of an ever-widening chasm filled with resentment and rejection, anger and hurt. The routine of domestic chores papers over the cracks. The couple might barely converse; the relationship might alternate between a chilly nothingness and sharp-edged comments that are in truth thinly veiled attacks. Yet the pretence of marriage continues.
A recent article from MySahana spoke of the phenomenon of ‘the invisible divorce’ and offered deep insights into the mechanics of such relationships. Here, I want to use my clinical practice of the emotional experience of women in such relationships to shed light on this subject.
The invisible divorce is essentially a state of perpetual limbo. It is an emotional wasteland where love and intimacy have long departed; hopelessness reigns instead. Marriage has become a life sentence instead of a commitment of the heart.
How does a person survive such an existence?
Or we could ask:
How does a person live day after day with the most intensely difficult emotions – resentment, rage, hurt, rejection, bitterness, disappointment?
What must it be like to waken every morning with the burden of bitterness, the taste of ashes in one’s mouth?
When these questions are avoided, the stage is set for a plague of ills ranging from eating disorders to psychotic illnesses and physical illnesses that are psychosomatic in origin.
It is shocking and heartbreaking to see that many women prefer illness, insanity and death over addressing the problems in their marriage. The reasons for choosing to live in the limbo of an invisible divorce are depressingly simple and obvious: A woman without a strong sense of self gains her identity from things outside herself – from being “a Mrs”, from the status of a certain lifestyle, from adherence to cultural norms, from living out the family’s expectations.
The sense of self is created and maintained through playing out a series of roles. Without a stable ground of innate value as a creative and capable human being, a threat to any of these external reference points is experienced as a direct threat to one’s sense of self.
If one isn’t ‘a Mrs’, one is nothing.
When leaving a marriage is not a viable option, a woman can only go so far in negotiating change within the relationship. She has no leverage against a partner who is resistant to discussion or unwilling to work things through. If the husband has been raised in a family where the wife does all the compromising, he will view therapy as an admission of weakness or failure, or as an attack on his masculinity. If the wife is powerless to insist the husband come to therapy, and she is also powerless to strike out on her own, there is a claustrophobic closing off of options.
For a while, the couple might try in vain to be heard and understood by each other, but with limited emotional skills, they devolve into pointless arguments filled with condemnation:
“You are such a type of person.”
Such absolute statements are closed doors against deeper understanding.
It becomes all about who is right and who is wrong, who can score the most points; there is no willing to see the other person’s point of view. Thus begins the invisible divorce with the couple seeing each other as the source of attack and misery, rather than a source of support and love. The verbal arguments might peter out; but the attacks continue in other forms – a tape runs inside the mind cataloguing the other’s faults; passive-aggressive behaviours emerge as the battle rages on silently.
When the wife chooses to remain in an invisible divorce, she is creating an emotional pressure cooker within herself. The human being was designed to seek wholeness and meaning, creative expression and fulfillment. Suffering as part of the natural movement of life is inevitable and enriching; mature adults often choose suffering in the service of love – such suffering has meaning and purpose and leads to evolution of our spirit.
However, prolonged periods of uncreative and futile suffering are not healthy for either the body or the soul.
To escape the feeling of emotional claustrophobia, many women take flight into manic behaviours – frenetic shopping or comfort eating, trying to whip up feelings of joy or pleasure in a desperate attempt to break out from under the dead weight of despair. Unbearable feelings of powerlessness lead many women into anorexic behaviours – denial of hunger can create the illusion that all needs can be denied.
“If I am so thin that I barely exist, my rage and bitterness do not exist either.” “I have no control over anything else in my life; so I will control my food intake.”
Frightened by their own rage, some women become psychotic, escaping into a reality of their own making. Here, they are omnipotent and beyond the reach of ordinary life. Another option is to put the rage into the body setting off psychosomatic illnesses ranging from fibromyalgia, acid reflux, Multiple Sclerosis, diabetes, cardiac problems and various auto-immune conditions.
It is a tragic paradox that a wife who is prepared to leave a bad marriage actually has the best chance of creating a happy marriage. If she respects and trusts herself, she will stand her ground and insist that she deserves a healthy and fulfilling relationship. Such self-respect naturally invites respect from the husband and can inspire a willingness to enter therapy.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen.
Men immersed in deeply orthodox environments tend to be extremely avoidant of change.
If such is the case, the woman still needs to not deceive herself into thinking that staying in a dysfunctional marriage is an acceptable solution. The cost of an invisible divorce is simply too high. If couples therapy is not an option, the woman will gain tremendous relief and support from entering therapy on her own.
As she locates her identity within herself rather than in a role she plays, it will begin to feel less terrifying to end a dysfunctional marriage and deal with the fall-out from the family. She can move from claustrophobia and helplessness to a sense of confidence and trust in herself and what life can offer her.
This is possible for every woman if she is willing to get support and give herself a chance
About the Author
Sharadha Bain has helped people for more than 20 years drawing on psychodynamics and spiritual healing. She has an international private practice working with clients from around the world via Skype. She is also an advice columnist through her website: dearsharadha.com
In the next article, she will explore the experience of children raised in the midst of an invisible divorce.
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