It wasn't easy, but we put the pieces of our broken relationship back together.
"Is he having an affair? Why else would he ask for a separation?"
This extremely productive comment came courtesy of my mother, only a day or two after my husband had asked for a trial separation.
She meant well, but her comment stuck with me, and I couldn't help but think of that female coworker he seemed to hang out with regularly. It didn't help that, only a few days after The Separation Talk, he'd left for a weekend snowboarding trip with his work buddies, a group that included her. The timing was pretty terrible.
"He's not having an affair," said my shrink. "If he's willing to see a couples therapist, he doesn't have anything to hide." I pulled at the threads on her couch. I stared at my knees. I thought about it. It made sense.
But she was everything I wasn't. Someone he could nerd out with over web development. Someone who was up for bar hopping and karaoke every damn night of the week. Someone who actually wanted to go snowboarding.
Of course, in the weeks that followed, I learned that I could screw up my marriage all by myself, without the help of an alleged other woman. We both could. Because there was no other woman. Rather, we'd just stopped being loving spouses.
By the time my husband suggested separating, I had reached an epiphany. Our marriage was worth saving, I'd decided, and I was willing to do anything it took.
Unfortunately, Michael hadn't come to that same conclusion.
He kept flip-flopping. "I'm not going to leave you," he'd assure me over dinner at a nice restaurant, making it sound as if I was in the grip of some neurotic delusion, rather than suffering the after-effects of his separation suggestion. Then, the next night, out of the blue, over wine and takeout Chinese: “I don’t think we’re a good match for each other. I just don’t know…”
I'd crumble. I'd sob. He'd waver. He'd assure me we were okay. We'd have desperate, tearful, phlegmy sex. I'd feel used.
I'd feel confused.
I'd feel exhausted.
Looking back on that time, Michael insists he did want to save our marriage, "but needed to know that you wanted to as well."
Not only that, but he was going through some personal problems of his own. He had finally moved into an industry he loved, and was enjoying the camaraderie he found at work. He was frustrated by our inability to sell our condo, and frustrated by the loss we were bound to take. He was scared of the huge step we were planning to take in trying to have children. He was scared of getting old.
With both of us feeling unloved and wrapped up in our own problems, we had stopped being good to each other. In fact, we were constantly on the defensive, because we each assumed the other had checked out.
So how the hell did we come back from that?
1. We wrote Love Lists. Identifying everything we loved about each other reminded us of why we were in the relationship in the first place, and sharing our lists gave us each the warm fuzzies.
2. We shared everything we hated. No matter how helpful the Love Lists were, they didn't change the things that made us unhappy. So I told Michael I hated feeling like his lowest priority. He told me he hated my lack of participation. We both hated feeling unappreciated. The hate flew around, fast and furious.
It was great.
Because, after that? We had something to work with.
3. We went to therapy. I believe that most people can benefit from some QT with a mental health professional. I'd been benefiting from talk therapy for years. Finally, Michael went too. We went alone and together. Having an objective listener really helped Michael. He'd been walking around with a huge weight on his shoulders, and confiding in someone other than me was a huge relief. Once that was out of the way, he felt ready to move forward.
4. We eased up on each other. Once Michael and I reopened the lines of communication, we gained a better understanding of what the other had been feeling… about our marriage and about life in general. Knowing these things made us infinitely more forgiving.
5. We got harder on ourselves. Sure, we still lost our tempers sometimes, and felt low-level bits of irritation with each other, but mostly we concentrated on improving ourselves. It's reassuring to see the effort your spouse is making on your behalf. It lets you know that he's in it to win it. (Whatever. It sounds corny. Shut up.)
6. We regained a strong sense of intimacy. In five years of living together, we'd slowly become less and less intimate. And I'm not just referring to sex (though that was a problem, too). After deciding to fight for our marriage, we smooched more often. We held hands in public. We touched each other. We had more sex. Regaining that sense of intimacy took us out of the Roommate Zone, and put us squarely back into the Sexy Time Zone.
We're still struggling with a lot. I've been working my ass off to build up my business. Our condo sits dormant on the market for the second year in a row. We've been trying to have a baby for over a year and are at the point where we'll have to schedule medical tests.
But somehow, we can look at each other at the end of the day, my legs snaking around him in bed as I try to snuggle even closer, and know that we’re stronger than ever.
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