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I CAN UNDERSTAND WHY HAVING A heart attack is a popular way to die. There’s a conciseness to it. One minute you’re enjoying your chicken nuggets, and then – boom! – you’re gone. Divorces are like heart attacks. One minute you’re legally married, and then – boom! – you sign some papers and your marriage is declared dead. The divorce decree, just like an autopsy, states the time of death and establishes a cause. But it’s far less revealing than an actual autopsy.
After I signed the divorce papers legally ending my 10-year marriage, I stared at the cause: “constructive abandonment”. This means that even though my wife, Rose, and I had been living together under the same roof, we’d jointly abandoned our roles as husband and wife. In other words, the marriage failed because we failed to be married. That’s kind of like saying the cause of death was ceasing to live. While this may fulfil the requirements of the court, it would never hold up on CSI. So I decided to conduct my own marriage autopsy, with the help of a half dozen relationship experts. You’re going to want to hear the results. Why? Because I bet you’re making some of the same mistakes.
Strong retrospective evidence (in other words 20/20 hindsight) suggests that overwhelming feelings of love led couple to make key compromises in life/goals not supportive of each individual’s long-term happiness.
We got married when our hearts told us to. When we make the most important decision of our lives – in other words, who we should be with till death do us part – most of us are operating under the influence. The brain in love is awash with the feel good hormone dopamine. In fact, love activates the same pleasure centre in the brain that cocaine does, says Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and research professor at Rutgers University. But why would humans choose mates while they’re in such a compromised state? “The human animal has not evolved primarily to be happy,” says Fisher. “We evolved primarily to spread our DNA.”
So when Rose and I met and fell in love, we really were feeling something bigger than both of us: a primordial drive to mate. Instead of acting with our heads, we acted with our, well, genitals. Bad choice. This drive didn’t care a lick that I was just finishing varsity, or that I’d previously decided that I’d never settle down before my career was humming. It was equally indifferent to Rose’s upbringing in a nice Jewish family where a central tenet is that a husband provides financially for his wife. That made hitching her wagon to a penniless film student not necessarily the wisest choice.
Review of medical history shows extensive and ultimately successful efforts to conceive offspring in the early stage of relationship.
We had kids as newlyweds.
Right after we were married, my wife’s biological alarm clock began ringing. Not that I wasn’t complicit in heeding it – it meant having a lot of sex. Great work if you can find it, right? And it was both of those things – great and work. Trying to conceive can feel like you’re having a ménage à trois with a fertility chart. What should have been the most intimate of experiences was now something we were sharing with doctors and our families. “Looking forward to meeting our grandson!” they’d say. The thing is, making a grandson for somebody is not very hot.
“The most unique aspect of a romantic relationship is not love, but intimacy,” says relationship expert David Deida, author of The Enlightened Sex Manual. “We love lots of people, including our families and friends. But what makes a relationship truly unique is the intimacy you share with your partner alone.” While we were trying to conceive, we called sex “trying”. As in, “We’re going to try this month.” All that trying yielded two beautiful boys who are the most important things on Earth for me. But it also complicated the physical relationship between Rose and me for the rest of our marriage. A couple’s memory of their passionate early years helps orient their deepening romance in the later years of marriage, says Deida. While other couples can look back and say, “We’ll always have Paris,” we got stuck with “We’ll always have that funky motel off the turnpike where we had to meet to do it during your ovulation window.”
“In good times and in bad” ratio skewed several standard deviation points towards “bad” during yearlong period of death/illness/injury in extended familial unit.
Chaos became our comfort zone.
During our family’s year from hell, a brand-new crisis would arrive at our doorstep every four weeks or so. It was almost as if we had inadvertently enrolled in the tragedy-of-the-month club. The hypervigilance that sustained my wife and me through these crises was not so conducive for relaxed date nights. And when the end of the world becomes your comfort zone, each new crisis is actually a relief from the stress of worrying about what will befall you next. It reached the point where I felt closest to my wife when we were racing to the hospital together. That was our date night. According to Dr Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and author of The Emotional Brain, fear-based memories are encoded in a part of our brains called the amygdala. So while my more logical hippocampus and prefrontal cortex understood that the year from hell was over – and that my wife was a person distinct from that horrible experience – the story was less clear down in my amygdala. Eventually, posits LeDoux, my wife and I came to associate each other’s presence with stressful situations. Not good.
Struggling writer husband assumed primary caregiving responsibilities, while successful businesswoman wife procured porcine assets (brought home the bacon).
We busted gender stereotypes… uncomfortably.
Rose earned more money than I did. And not a little more. Often I felt like the miscellaneous expense line in her budget. And although a third of wives outearn their husbands these days, I’ve never felt comfortable with it. “For many men, identity and self-esteem depend on doing well at work,” says Dr Brenda Shoshanna, author of Why Men Leave. “So when a wife earns more, the husband can feel he’s really not the man in the family.” A further complication was our decision to work from home so we could both take care of the new baby – a great idea that broke bad on us. When her work line rang, I’d get stuck changing nappies, enviously watching her do big business. Meanwhile, of course, as she was stuck on the phone, she’d enviously watch me change nappies. It was almost funny. Almost.
Effort on behalf of male partner to bridge the growing intimacy gap proved less than effective.
My romantic gestures were too grand (and a little delusional).
In his new book, Venus On Fire, Mars On Ice, Dr John Gray takes his exploration of male-female differences to an examination of how men and women interact on a molecular, hormonal level. “Men and women do have ‘chemistry’,” he says. “A woman gives off pheromones when she feels taken care of by a man. What men fail to realise is that on an interpersonal, chemical level, it’s the small stuff that really does matter. “If you want to score 36 points, you don’t give her 36 roses,” he says. “You give her one rose on 36 separate occasions.”
When I landed my first book contract, I viewed it as a chance to finally contribute in a significant way to my family’s bottom line. More important, the book documented our family’s year from hell and spoke directly to the challenges my wife and I had faced as a couple. In my mind, going off to work each day was a romantic mission to save the sinking ship that was our marriage. All my wife knew was that I was gone. Completely caught up in my work. For close to a year. When I finally looked up from my work, I discovered that the marriage I thought I was saving was gone.
I THINK LOVE DIES IN MUCH THE SAME WAY THAT A HEART DOES. OVER the life of a relationship, all the little resentments and disappointments can accumulate like plaque in an artery, imperceptibly choking out intimacy – the lifeblood of any relationship. As much as I wish I could blame Rose for that, I can’t. She’s a wonderful person – intelligent, passionate and devoted to her children. It would be so much easier for me to move on if she were a worthless human being. And, unfortunately for her, despite my lengthy list of faults, I’m a decent enough guy. No, I think the ultimate cause of our uncoupling lay not in all the little things we did wrong, but in the unanticipated effects of all the big things we did right. That’s why it’s difficult to move on. But understanding this allows me to look back at the relationship and appreciate its meaning and beauty, despite its imperfections. Rose is, and always will be, the best mistake I ever made.