Let’s 1)say you have what you believe to be a healthy marriage. You’re still friends and lovers after spending more than half of your lives together. The dreams you set out to achieve in your 20s—gazing into each other’s eyes in candlelit city 2)bistros when you were single and skinny—have for the most part come true. Two decades later you have the 20 acres of land, the farmhouse, the children, the dogs and horses. You’re the parents you said you would be, full of love and guidance. You’ve done it all: Disneyland, camping, Hawaii, Mexico, city living, 3)stargazing.
Sure, you have your 4)marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your5)wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”
His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a 6)sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to 7)duck. And once I’d recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t 8)buy it.”
He drew back in surprise. Apparently he’d expected me to burst into tears, to rage at him, to threaten him with a 9)custody battle. Or beg him to change his mind. So he turned 10)mean. “I don’t like what you’ve become.”
11)Gut-12)wrenching pause. How could he say such a thing? That’s when I really wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn’t. Instead, a 13)shroud of calm 14)enveloped me, and I repeated those words: “I don’t buy it.”
You see, I’d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I’d committed to “The End of Suffering.” I’d finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I’d seen the 15)insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness—and I mean all of it. My husband hadn’t yet come to this understanding with himself. He had enjoyed many years of hard work, and its rewards had supported our family of four all along. But his new endeavor hadn’t been going so well, and his ability to be the breadwinner was in rapid decline. He’d been miserable about this, felt useless, was losing himself emotionally and letting himself go physically. And now he wanted out of our marriage, to be 16)done with our family. But I wasn’t buying it.
I said: “It’s not age-appropriate to expect children to be concerned with their parents’ happiness. Not unless you want to create 17)co-dependents who’ll spend their lives in bad relationships and 18)therapy. There are times in every relationship when the 19)parties involved need a break. What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?”
“20)Huh? I don’t want distance,” he said. “I want to move out.”
My mind raced. Was it another woman? Drugs? 21)Unconscionable secrets? But I stopped myself. I would not suffer. I remained 22)stoic. I could see pain in his eyes…
Well, he didn’t move out. Instead, he spent the summer being unreliable. He stopped coming home at his usual six o’clock. He would stay out late and not call. He 23)blew off our entire 24)Fourth of July—the parade, the barbecue, the fireworks—to go to someone else’s party. When he was at home, he was 25)distant. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He didn’t even wish me “Happy Birthday.” But I didn’t 26)play into it. I walked my line. I told the kids: “Daddy’s having a hard time as adults often do. But we’re a family, no matter what.”
My trusted friends were irate on my behalf. “How can you just stand by and accept this behavior? Kick him out! Get a lawyer!” I walked my line with them, too. This man was hurting, yet his problem wasn’t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could solve it. Privately, I decided to give him time. Six months.
I had good days, and I had bad days. On the good days, I 27)took the high road. I ignored his 28)lashing out, his merciless 29)jabs. On bad days, I would 30)fester in the August sun while the kids ran through 31)sprinklers, raging at him in my mind. But I never wavered. Although it may sound ridiculous to say, “Don’t take it personally,” when your husband tells you he no longer loves you, sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do.
Instead of 32)issuing 33)ultimatums, yelling, crying, or begging, I presented him with options. I created a summer of fun for our family and welcomed him to share in it, or not—it was up to him. If he chose not to come along, we would miss him, but we would be just fine, thank you very much. I barbecued. Made 34)lemonade. Set the table for four. Loved him from afar.
And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing the lawn. A man doesn’t mow his lawn if he’s going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed a door that had been broken for eight years. He made a comment about our front porch needing paint. Our front porch. He mentioned needing wood for next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the future. It was Thanksgiving dinner that 35)sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly and said, “I’m thankful for my family.” He was back.
And I saw what had been missing: pride. He’d lost pride in himself. Maybe that’s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we’re not so young and golden anymore. When life’s 36)knocked us around. And our childhood37)myths reveal themselves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal. My husband had become lost in the myth. But in the end, he found his way out.