Emotional Health · Health

UNHAPPY TOGETHER, Part 2: When You Quell the Inner Voice That Says NO

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. This is her response to Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson’s post, today, telling the stories of spouses who found themselves “Locked In to Marriage.”


“When you’re single and you’re unhappy, tomorrow is another day. When you’re married and you’re unhappy, tomorrow is the same day.”

Women’s options have improved since Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson’s youth, when marriage-and-kids was viewed as the major requirement for every woman, whether or not she had a college education. More and more women, particularly those who are educated and truly have options, are waiting to marry and begin families. They are establishing their careers, cementing their identities, and getting experience in romance that serves them well when they’re later choosing a spouse.

Yet many women approach marriage as a goal that must be met, and look for a partner with a job description and a list of credentials that would awe a headhunter. Rather than allowing relationships to evolve in an organic manner, falling in love, and then being guided by their feelings, many women accede to the requirements of the list—hoping that love will eventually develop, grow, and bind them to their mates. More than a few convince themselves, along the way, that love has indeed developed, and they reason that because their intended is the right person “on paper,” he will be a good life partner.

Certainly it makes sense to make sure that the person you marry shares your goals and values. Today’s woman—no longer constrained as fully as she once was by socioeconomic factors—has a greater-than-ever freedom to select her ideal partner. However, the burden of finding him has shifted to the individual. In past eras, many social conventions were set up to make sure that young people were introduced to each other. Gone are the days of Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Bennet understood that the job of marrying off her five daughters rested with her. Today’s young women are endlessly tutored when it comes to education and career goals, but the old social order that supported making sure the younger generation gets “married off” has collapsed.

Internet dating and social media have rushed in to fill the gap, but many are bewildered by the vast array of choices and the rapid pace. Meanwhile, the older generation has been told to refrain from imposing its own values and wishes on the mix. However, by holding back their advice, they forfeit the chance to give young women the benefit of their experience. And this is too bad, because, from my perspective, the best time to get out of a bad marriage is before it starts.

Most of the stories that Spicer-Jacobson cites are examples of people who knew right from the start, if not before, that they were making a mistake. A great many people have told me of similar apprehensions. As one woman put it, “As I was about to go down the aisle, I suddenly thought, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’’’ Acting on her foreboding by leaving him took 10 years. In her eagerness to find a life partner she had ignored the red flags, some of them substantial, that telegraphed the trouble that would arise in their relationship. They were there, but, like many of us, she ignored them, misinterpreted them, and discounted them.

blog-you-should-have-knownFlashes of insight do break through—yet some of us ignore amazingly egregious partner behavior when choosing to marry. (For an extremely engaging fictional account of this problem, read You Should Have Known, a recent novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, about a psychologist who, having written a marriage manual with this title, finds out the hard way that she has failed to follow her own advice.) I agree with the woman in Spicer-Jacobson’s post who advises that you should follow your instincts, particularly those that come in the form of doubts. Allow for some room to discount them if you are an over-worrier—doubts are universal, yet they are often powerful indicators of knowledge, just below the surface, of things we don’t want to admit to ourselves.

This applies to the post-wedding doubts as well. Even if you have taken the fateful step already, the longer you remain in a bad situation, the more complex it can be to extricate yourself. One good barometer is to ask yourself how willing and/or able you are to discuss your doubts with your partner. Do the two of you have any mechanisms for solving problems, or do they get swept under the rug? While not all issues in a marriage can be settled, a chronic, unyielding lack of negotiation can be fatal. When making this decision, it’s important be cautious about following the advice of well-meaning friends and family members. They do not have to live your life, and almost everyone has some personal reason for his/her opinion. As is evident from the stories in Spicer-Jacobson’s piece, caring about what others want can lead a bride (or groom) into a bad marriage.

How can you keep the dissolution of the “empty husk” (John Milton’s term) of a marriage that unites incompatible partners  from taking years, or even decades? Women’s increased economic freedom has helped them feel they have options, but economic independence is hardly universal, and the negative effects of divorce (poverty, dislocation, children’s emotional problems) tend to fall most heavily on the female partner. It’s a step not to be taken lightly, and it is almost always a painful process.

Any steps that can lead to increased independence (going back to work, etc.) will help in the long run. If a woman continues to stay in a bad marriage year after year, knowing that she wants out, there can be unconscious fears holding her back, and individual psychotherapy can help with this. One woman I know was helped to see she that she was hesitant to leave her needy husband because she was imagining that once she was free, her aging mother’s needs would then take precedence in her life. Therapy helped her to see that her view of herself as someone who was forever a caretaker was holding her back in many ways.

For many women, divorce is ultimately the best option they have. I am frequently reminded of a line I read long ago in a novel whose title I’ve forgotten: “When you’re single and you’re unhappy, tomorrow is another day. When you’re married and you’re unhappy, tomorrow is the same day.” I always recommend that couples try counseling before deciding to divorce, even if they feel that any counseling may be hopeless. Counseling can certainly let the partners feel that they have tried everything, and it can make a difference if they come to some insight and understanding, even if they decide to split. And knowing what went wrong can also help them from repeating the same mistakes next time.

Sometimes, especially if the spouses have a history of passion and intimacy, they choose to stay in the union no matter how badly things have gone wrong—and, in the end, are glad they did so. To paraphrase psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (who said, “We are all more human than otherwise”), all marriages are more imperfect than otherwise, and the question sometimes becomes, Which imperfections can you truly not live with? Ken Burns’s recent film biography of the Roosevelts on PBS recounts Eleanor’s heartbreak—never fully healed—when she learned of Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer. Convention kept the married couple together, however, and they went on to have a marriage that lacked intimacy but was rich in friendship, partnership, and mutual respect. Perhaps it was based on their shared history of passion—they had truly loved each other when they married.

Getting it right in the first place can make all the difference.







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