Last week, I met with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while and was shocked to hear that she’d filed for divorce. Kara had been married to her husband for close to 20 years and was ready to call it quits.
When I asked what prompted her decision to divorce, she explained that despite their 20-year history together, she and her spouse had little in common now that the kids were older. She and her husband were strangers traveling down separate paths with very different goals in mind for the future. For my friend, this meant starting a new chapter in her life, a time to rediscover her identity as an independent woman—something she felt she’d lost during the early child-rearing years.
In my friend’s situation, intimacy and romance had fallen by the wayside during the most hectic years of their marriage. While she and her husband were busy building their careers, rushing around to PTA meetings, soccer practice and pediatrician appointments, there was little time left in their schedules to reconnect on an intimate level. Their children were the glue that kept them together, and once the kids grew up and became independent, there was little worth saving from their loveless marriage.
I drove home that night with a heavy heart for my friend and reflected on all the marriages I’d seen implode over the past few years—marriages that I thought would last a lifetime. How did a couple go from marital bliss to throwing emotional barbs at one another until the wreckage was beyond repair? How did they call it quits after investing 20, 30 or even 40 years together?
I thought long and hard about what keeps a marriage from falling apart, and why my own relationship has stayed afloat despite the rough seas we’ve encountered. There were plenty of times when it was difficult to keep our heads above water, but counseling kept our relationship on track when disappointment and anger threatened to drown us. During that stormy period of our lives, we were always able to find our way back to one another, to the center of where our love first began.
What’s the secret that has kept our marriage intact all these years?
It’s hope. Hope is what binds us. It is the common denominator that has gotten us through some of our worst times together. Five years into our marriage, we lost our twin son shortly after his birth. Although his death devastated us, the experience bought us closer because we grieved together rather than apart, unlike so many couples in our grief support group who ended up divorced. In an odd way, our son’s death prepared us for the heartbreak of losing some of our other family members in later years, and each time, we were there to comfort and hold one another up during the critical months of grief after their deaths.
The same was true after my husband lost his job. We had four young children at home and no clue as to how we were going to pay the mortgage or keep the family fed. I was resentful and wanted so badly to blame my husband for our circumstances, but I knew that it wouldn’t help the situation. He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and needed my support, not my criticism. Despite how scary things were, we sought financial aid but never lost faith that a better job would come along, and eventually, it did.
It was also hope that got us through the difficult years of raising teenagers. Too often, we were on opposing sides when it came to parenting and disciplining our kids. My husband was the strict one, while I tended to be more lenient, and the friction between us resulted in numerous arguments. The aftermath of those quarrels left us circling one another like wounded animals waiting for the next strike until we were able to reach a compromise.
But the biggest obstacle in our marriage has always been my struggle with clinical depression. After being together for so many years, my husband knows me well enough to read the signs when he sees the darkness that threatens to consume me. He gives me the time and space I need to work through my emotions, yet never fails to help me find my smile again once the storm inside me subsides. For him, it’s like riding on a roller coaster without seat belts in the dark—he never knows when the next drop will be or when we’ll crest the hill. Either way, he holds onto me tightly so that whether we climb or fall, we always fly together.
Our willingness to tackle all of these obstacles comes from facing them together rather than apart and in sharing the victory of our achievements. We have always been each other’s greatest strength. We’ve worked hard at the partnership we’ve created, and neither one of us has ever been willing to call it quits. Choosing to stay together is not just for the sake of the kids; it’s about striving to meet our common goals as parents, and as a couple, and realizing that we are equal halves in the marital equation. We’re on the same team, rooting for our love and the vows we shared at the altar years ago.
Appreciation, communication, kindness, trust and forgiveness are important keys to the success of my marriage, along with a heavy dose of humor. It’s the little things that go a long way—a love note taped to the refrigerator, flowers from our garden in a vase by the bed, our ability to finish one another’s sentences or share a knowing glance that speaks volumes in a crowded room. It’s the impromptu kisses, sharing a bowl of ice cream late at night, doing a silly dance to make the other one laugh, or cuddling on the couch to watch a movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It’s about being best friends, choosing to make one another happy, and accepting the little idiosyncrasies that each person has. It’s giving without expecting something in return and in letting your spouse know every day that they are loved.
I can’t pretend to understand what my friend is going through, but her reasons for ending her marriage are her own, and that’s all that matters. What I can do is offer my support whenever she needs me.
And I can show my husband every day that I’m a better person because of the love he has given me.