Subtitle: A funny thing happened on the way to the separation.
It’s been an interesting few weeks.
Back in May, I wrote about defining success in marriage. The upshot of that post was that there’s really no such thing as a successful marriage because all standards of success are completely subjective.
Since then, I’ve been busy working on renovating the house I’ve chosen. It needed quite a bit of fixing-up, as we say down here. The kitchen needed to be gutted. There was a pretty good-sized water leak going into the second-floor bathroom. Power outlets needed to be added throughout the house. The AC still needs some work, and most recently, we’ve discovered active termites. Loads of fun, this has not been.
It takes a lot of work to fix years of neglect.
June was a difficult time for me. I was starting to become more…comfortable?…with the idea of separating. I still didn’t like it. But it seemed to be the new normal, so I’d better start getting used to it. Right?
I told Alec, my therapist, one day that even weeks after announcing our separation, I still wanted to fix the marriage. I’d always wanted to fix it, if it were fixable. That’s what we told Crystal during our intake meeting: we were there to find out if the marriage was fixable, and to fix it if it was. After eighteen months of therapy, we had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t.
But by the end of June, all we had done toward actually ending the marriage was to decide who was going to live where, and what furniture was going with them. It didn’t help my emotional state that almost three-quarters of the furniture we own came from my family. I was prepared to leave a few things with Diana, but she said, “This was all yours to begin with. You should have it.” I still felt like a heel, because I was going to be taking so much. But I tucked that away in my soul and drove on.
Our church runs a fireworks stand every summer. There’s a big regional fireworks company that will work with organizations to do fundraisers. TNT gives you the stand, the fireworks, and almost all of the marketing material you’ll need (signs and such). They also coordinate the locations for you. You receive a shipment a couple of weeks before the 4th of July, then return anything you’ve got left the day after. TNT writes you a check for 20% of the total sales. They’re a great company to work with for fundraising.
This year, we had the opportunity to take two locations instead of one. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to this, as I thought we were taking on more than we could handle. Our congregation hasn’t grown at all since last year, and we felt pretty short-handed last year. Still, we pushed on with it.
Aside from the stress of taking on an extra location, Diana was going to be out of town at the end of June, in the middle of the season. She was attending the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, held every four years. She probably wouldn’t have gone this year but our youngest daughter qualified for the World Bible Quiz event, and this could have been the last chance for her to attend as a quizzer. Two other adults from the church attended as well, so the stands were really shorthanded.
I worked several midnight shifts to help out, and one of those early mornings helped me write this post a few weeks ago.
I’d been struggling badly. Last year around this time, I’d felt we were on the mend, starting to make a lot of progress. The bottom seemed to drop out during fireworks season last year though, and neither one of us could explain why. Since then, it’s just been damage control as the relationship slowly bottomed out and lurched to a halt.
The anger was starting to churn as well. I was angry that we hadn’t been able to fix things. We’d held each other one night in the dark after a particularly painful argument and tearfully pledged to fix whatever was wrong with our relationship, and now we were giving up. I was as angry with myself as I was with Diana. That manifested itself through me snapping at her far too much, and staying in a general funk for much of my waking hours.
I was confused too about how to act around her. We were still living together, and sleeping in the same bed. But we’d decided to end the marriage. So how are you supposed to behave around your spouse when you’re in that twilight zone? You’re married, but it’s over. You’re living together, but you’ve decided to separate. Are you allowed to hug each other? To kiss? To hold them the way you used to?
That somehow all changed the night she came home from General Assembly.
We stayed up later than we usually did, talking about everything they’d seen and heard and done in Indianapolis, then headed for bed. As we settled, I did something I hadn’t done in weeks.
I reached over and held her hand.
She was as surprised as I was. “When did you decide it was okay to touch me again?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” That led to more questions, and more answers.
We talked late into the night.
It happened again the next night.
And the next.
We covered some rocky, dangerous, and scary ground over those hours, whispering in the dark.
She shared that she’d realized that part of our problem during therapy was that we had been trying to “fix” the marriage, to fix the relationship, and that you can’t do that. A marriage is an organic thing. It’s not to be fixed or mended or patched. It can be healed. It can be made healthy or unhealthy. But it can’t be fixed.
And healing isn’t the same thing as fixing. When you repair something, you sometimes have to remove damaged parts and replace them with new ones. Our van’s engine failed because of a leak in the oil cooler, which allowed all of the oil to drain out, causing internal damage that wasn’t economically repairable. Rather than tear it open and examine each individual piston and cylinder and valve for damage, it was more feasible to put a new engine in the van. But there’s no equivalent in a relationship. There’s nothing to remove and replace, because if you remove someone’s feelings or thoughts or memories, you’re changing them, not fixing them. You’re fundamentally changing the person at that point, which completely changes the dynamics of the relationship.
But even if you do that, the things that made the relationship healthy or unhealthy are probably still there. They likely haven’t changed.
Change like that though can seem like it’s taking eons to effect. And if you’re focused on “fixing” the relationship, and focused on that repair metaphor, one (or both) of you likely will get frustrated about the progress you don’t appear to be making, and then things will really head south.
That’s the kind of stuff we slogged and tiptoed through during those midnight conversations.
And as we made our way through that emotional valley, we began to realize something.
Neither one of us really wanted to get divorced.
We still loved each other. We just couldn’t see how to fix our marriage.
Over those evening conversations, we discovered together that we couldn’t fix our marriage.
But we could work on healing it, and making it healthier than it ever was.
All of this was happening right before we doubled our staffing needs at the fireworks stands. We were heading into the most stressful time of the selling season, and it was just a year since everything went down the tubes. So we decided that before we said anything to anyone—even the kids—we’d see how we got through the rest of fireworks season. If we could get through those next five days, we probably had a chance.
And we did make it through. We were more attentive to each other’s emotions and actions, and how our own actions and words affected the other. It was a daunting time, for me. I worried that I’d be too distant or not reserved enough.
We weren’t trying to hide what was happening, but we weren’t trying to broadcast it, either.
Heck, it took us over a week to decide what we were calling it.
But we finally concluded that yes, we want to continue the work we began on healing our marriage, and so we’ve resumed that path. This thing we’re doing—reconciliation—is a process and a journey, not a destination. I’m not sure when we’ll say we’re done. We both know that it’s not going to be an easy trip, or always a fun one. But we’ve recommitted to our marriage.
Just don’t say we’re fixing it.
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