Heartbreak

It Took Two Divorces For Me To Learn What Destroys A Marriage

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woman reflecting

Today I got divorced. Again. The process was surprisingly simple. I met in a small room with a magistrate. My ex, who lives out of state, was there by way of Zoom. The magistrate swore us both in and asked us a few questions. I signed a paper. Boom — divorced. It took all of 20 minutes. I know because there was a large digital clock on the wall counting down the seconds until the next hearing.

The process was technically simple, sure. My ex and I were getting divorced without children, lawyers, or arguments over the division of assets. Emotionally, however, it was anything but.

We both thought our love would last. We enjoyed many happy years together, building supporting evidence that pointed toward forever. And then we started growing apart. We hurt each other. It came to a point where I could no longer stand to be touched by him. And the juxtaposition of 15 years of highs and lows set against a few minutes of paperwork dissolving all legal ties was truly astounding.

This whole roller coaster ride of love, marriage, break-up, divorce — it isn’t my first rodeo. I got married for the first time at 19 years old. It was an abusive relationship and I went into it knowing we were incompatible, but hoping we’d be able to work it out.

Now in my late thirties, fresh off my second divorce that I didn’t see coming, I have a lot to share about what makes a marriage thrive, and what kills it. 

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The weight of incompatibility

My 17-year-old son had his first serious breakup last year and it crushed him. Now he’s in a different relationship. He talks to me sometimes about the anxiety of his current girlfriend breaking up with him, even though they’re doing well. I told him that at any stage, whether you’re married or not, and no matter what age you are or how many relationships you’ve had, committing to someone always comes with the risk of things going sour.

Breakups and divorces can really hurt us. Traumatize us. They can break families apart, cause financial crises, and so much other harm. I shared all of this with my son. I wanted to be real with him, but I also wanted to give him something more optimistic, too: We do it because we love the person we’re with, so much so that we’re willing to risk getting hurt.

Both of my divorces were on the grounds of incompatibility, which is often used interchangeably with irreconcilable differences. It means the relationship is broken beyond repair. Or, at the very least, that neither party in the marriage wants to repair it.

   

   

In some relationships, each partner is well aware that there are incompatibilities. They discuss the issues, strike some compromises, and agree on what their marriage will look like in the future despite their differences. Maybe it’s something like wanting two children instead of four. Or a preference for city living versus the country lifestyle. Such couples might agree they’ll have three kids. Maybe they’ll find a quiet, woodsy suburb near the city that offers the best of both worlds. Even those major life differences, like religious or political beliefs, can be sorted through thoughtful communication, though it’s often more challenging. This was the case in my first marriage. I knew we’d face our fair share of challenges with our incompatibilities, but I thought (wrongly) that we could work through them.

In other relationships, however, these differences sneak up on you. When you’re with someone long enough, you both grow and change. As you experience more in life, you learn more. You develop new interests. You become older and wiser. All those things — the ups and downs, job stress, traumas, dramas, and even the good things — can change a person. Or, maybe one partner will grow and change while the other stays exactly the same. And then that becomes the problem.

Whether you knew about incompatibilities before the marriage, or if you’re dealing with major differences you never saw coming — many couples find themselves at a fork in the road at some point: stay together or part ways.

Can you navigate the incompatibilities together, or will doing so make one or both of you miserable? That’s the question so many married people find themselves asking at some point. And while it’s a question facing the couple, it’s also a question that each individual has to answer on their own.

Maybe you stay married, happily resolving your differences and healing the wounds that resulted from your incompatibilities. Or maybe divorce is the best way to go for all parties involved. Adults, kids — everyone. Because divorce doesn’t always break up your family. In my case, it can save it. The right decision is the decision that makes you, and therefore everyone around you, happier and healthier.

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Clashing communication styles

It’s certainly possible to work through incompatibilities with your partner. It just depends on how much you can compromise without losing yourself and your happiness. More importantly, it depends on how you communicate the development of key shifts in your dynamic, as well as any changes to the relationship that need to be made.

When I started growing and changing, my partner remained much the same. I finished my degree, started a business, and got a better job to support us. I became the breadwinner and did more than my share of housework. He stayed in a job he didn’t like. He started expensive film projects that didn’t pan out. He left more of the chores — and more of the bills — for me to take care of.

The changes I did see from him throughout our relationship tended to have a negative impact on us. We kept growing apart in big and little ways.

For example, neither of us saw the Trump era coming. Those years really ripped into my ex and me. I started seeing my husband as someone who was OK with voting for a reality TV star who harassed women. Someone who loved the sport of guns despite the growing amount of pointless tragedies and violent loss of life. Someone who believed in conspiracy theories.

I started to resent him for it. For our growing list of major incompatibilities. And we didn’t know quite how to talk about all the changes. A major breakdown in communication was one of the many reasons my second marriage ended up not working out. I wanted to discuss it. My unhappiness and his, and the possible solutions. He often preferred staying quiet or avoiding the issues altogether.

Eventually, I wanted to explore polyamory together. Something I see now as a band-aid that I hoped would save us and didn’t. He preferred having a secret emotional affair where he could rant about me to the woman who got away. A woman he said he’d wished he’d married over settling for me. Even though we went to therapy to try to learn how to communicate better and heal our incompatibilities, our relationship had fractured in so many foundational ways by then that I no longer wanted to put us back together.

Relationships are living, evolving things that grow and change. Whether or not you and your spouse grow together and continue compromising lovingly and respectfully takes honesty, proper communication, and work. And if you aren’t willing to do the work and communicate, you’ll either stay together and be miserable, or you’ll part ways.

   

   

It’s up to both of you. At the same time, it’s up to just you. Because whether you stay together in the face of relationship calamity has to be, at the end of the day, a mutual decision. You’re still your own person — married or not

RELATED: Relationship Coach Says We've Been Lied To — Communication Problems Do *Not* Cause Divorce. But Here's What Actually Does

During our hearing, my ex agreed to divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. He could have fought it. He could have accused me of being at fault or asked for alimony. He could have done any number of things to slow or stop our divorce or simply make it more difficult for me. But in the end, he agreed when the magistrate asked the question — that we were indeed incompatible, and our marriage was beyond repair. He gave me that. He gave me my freedom. And because of that, I think we can remain friends.

After two divorces, I see now more than ever that sometimes we change and shift in ways that push us farther apart from our significant others. Different interests, forms of communication, arguing styles, libidos, desires, and ways of sharing affection — these kinds of differences can all cause a couple to misplace the love it takes to work at staying together.

I think the most common thing that happens, though, is that people think they can compromise, and then end up becoming very unhappy while trying.

Their intentions are good. They truly believe they’ll be able to figure it out together, whatever “it” is. They try new things. New dates. Couples classes. Therapy. Relationship styles. But incompatibilities are not always salvageable.

What I told my son — that a relationship always comes with the risk of breaking apart, no matter how long you’ve been together or how much experience you’ve had — that’s the key. You can’t know every detail of the future the day you get married. Your relationship will grow and change. And understanding that you don’t have to force it to continue doesn’t have to be a scary, depressing thing.

Marriage is not always forever, and that’s okay. Learning that is incredibly liberating, actually. Understanding that no relationship is immortal means understanding that you have to properly care for it and nurture it. You have to be flexible and work together if you want to stay in a happy, healthy marriage. And even when we do stay married or in a domestic partnership, we are still individuals. We have individual needs, desires, and ways of getting through challenges. Understanding that is a couple’s best chance at staying together in this crazy thing we call love.

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Holly Paige is an adventurous sex journalist and podcaster who loves to write about relationships, feminism, culture, and mental health. Her work is published on Medium and Substack.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.