The other day I had lunch with a long married girlfriend who was bemoaning the fact that, for fifteen years, she and her husband hardly ever fought, and now, in the last five, they frequently do, which she mostly attributes to the strain of having young children. I've always thought of Miranda and Felix as one of the very few, truly happily married couples I know, so I was pretty surprised when she came out and asked "is the best part of being divorced that you get to stop endlessly contemplating getting divorced?" She was sort of joking, but not really. Even though she thinks her marriage is still pretty solid, the possibility of divorce occurs to Miranda with increasing frequency these days, and she wonders what it might take to get them to the breaking point.
To answer her question, yes, that is one of the best parts of being divorced! Our conversation brought me back to those days (years, actually) when I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about leaving, wondering if I could muster the strength, if it would kill my children, if I was a fool to do it, and mostly, more often than not, if I was justified. Did I have enough of a reason?
My husband didn't drink too much or have a gambling addiction. He was faithful, I think. He worked hard, paid the bills, came home most nights in time for dinner with me and the kids. He was (and still is) a loving and devoted father. Regular sex was definitely not a problem. He didn't even smoke pot obsessively the way so many middle-aged men do.
But even without any of the conditions under which most people would be forgiven, or at least understood, for leaving a marriage, I can assure you that we were very unhappy. We fought frequently (and what's worse, it was always the same fight), and we each felt lonely, unloved, unappreciated, and disconnected.
At some point I went out and bought a helpful book with the brilliant title "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay," by Mira Kirshenbaum, and it was while reading this book that I came up with the germs of my personal measurements, or maxims, nurtured over the years since, about why one might have to leave a marriage that, while it might appear otherwise to the outside, just isn't working. So here they are, a few reliable, if not hard and fast, rules about how to figure out if you should stay or if you should go:
On one of the days that I now think of as a breaking point moment, I was sitting in a Brooklyn Starbucks nursing a soy decaf latte and it dawned on me that if I stayed married to X, I could easily predict what the rest of my life would be like. Not the events of my life as they might play out, which no one of us knows, but the emotional tenor. I knew what was in store -- how I would feel day in and day out, because I'd been feeling it for years -- and it wasn't pretty. But I didn't know, couldn't possibly know, what might happen if I left, and I realized that if I left, at the very least I'd have the possibility of something better, the hope that I could feel happier, feel loved, actually like myself again. This I think of as The Dare to Hope For a Better Life Rule. If you already like your life enough, this jumping off a cliff notion won't appeal to you, and perhaps you should stay.
Are you getting enough of what you need? A subjective, but effective, measurement that always seems to work. Marriage and relationships are never perfect and rarely easy, but in the good ones you generally should feel like the trade-offs are worth it. He hates your mother, but he makes you laugh like no one ever has. He has revolting table manners, but you love his three sisters as if they were your own. The sex may have been hotter with your last boyfriend, but this one offers up the perfect amount of affection and always just when you need it. And so on. Trouble comes when the list of what's wrong starts to noticeably outweigh the list of what's right.
The Joy Issue. My last and final test. How much joy do you experience together? Or are you at least capable of experiencing together? When you go away alone, just the two of you, is it fun? Do you try new tricks in bed and laugh a lot? Can you talk about interesting things other than your children? Do you appreciate beauty in the same way, or want to ride bikes together, or ski, all without the kids? Or do you wind up using the romantic weekend at an inn to rehash the same old fight, precious babysitting hours gobbled up by age-old resentments? My theory is, that if you can still genuinely enjoy each other, there's still a lot of possibility between you. But if you can't, if that ability to see each other like you once did is gone, it may well be too late.
The truth is, my conversation with Miranda was not the first one like that I've had. It's not even the tenth, or the fifteenth. Marriage is a tough business and the old saw remains: that no one outside a marriage can ever really understand what goes on between the two people inside one, and everyone has issues. Whether it works or doesn't work, whether one is better off jumping ship, who knows? But these measures make sense to me and I hope they offer some guidance.