Ellie couldn’t wait to get into my office. She plopped herself in a chair and immediately started talking. “I can’t stand him. Sometimes I hate him. There isn’t a thing he does that I don’t have to follow behind him and clean up. All he’s able to do is shmooze with people. But, when it comes to sharing love, or being responsible, forget it. Go find someone else. And don’t you look at me as though you’re ready to say ‘I told you so’. I know good and well I should have left 10 years ago. But I’m an optimist. I thought, if I was understanding and loving, he’d come through. But, he only got worse. You’re giving me that look again. But let me tell you, I took my marriage vows seriously, so, get the idea of divorce out of your head. I’m too old to start again. If we split, there won’t be enough money for either of us. Also, he can’t make it without me. I’m the only one with a job and insurance. At his age, there’s no chance he’ll get hired again. So, what do I do? Do I just have to be resigned to the fact that I’m stuck with him the rest of my life?”
In many ways, Ellie is very similar to Jack, who sat in my office week after week, saying the same thing. “She’s a wonderful woman, a good mother, really attractive, but I have absolutely no feelings for her. For years, I complained because she didn’t want sex. Now I don’t care. But ever since I told her that, she’s been running after me, saying she loves me. I love her, too, but I’m not in love with her. Dr Ed, I’ve done everything you said. I voiced all my resentment and tried to get rid of my anger, but it hasn’t changed a thing. There isn’t anyone else. She’s everything someone could want, just not someone I want. You said “act now, the feelings may come later”. Well, this is later and the feelings haven’t come.”
Ellie and Jack are not unique. There are thousands of them in our society. People who either leave or stay, but who find no joy in their lives and their situations. They claim they feel empty inside and want more, but aren’t able to find it in the partnerships they’ve established. All the while, their actions create distance between them. Some go so far as to provoke sufficient controversy and conflict to cause their partners to make the decision for them, because they’re unable to leave on their own. Their guilt, their fear of the unknown and their familiarity with their discomfort provided a paradoxical security blanket that disallows them to leave on their own. As a result, these individuals remain depressed, inflict pain on their partners, and gift their children with a dysfunctional role model for marriage.
For many of them, no solution is possible. They will remain forever in unhappy, emotionally empty relationships viewing themselves the victims. For the rest of you, let me share what I said to Ellie. “You have four choices. One, divorce him today, get out of the situation, fix you and go on and live a better life, alone or with someone else. Two, stay in the situation and remain the disgruntled individual you are today. Three, continue to cause conflict and hostile interactions, which could, eventually, result in your partner divorcing you. That way, the responsibility, guilt and subsequent consequences of the divorce will be your spouse’s, not yours. That involves no growth on your part and there’s the likelihood that you’ll repeat this process with someone else. Or, four, try to make it work.
Right now, you get an A+ for criticism, negativity and being the victim. Why not try something new? Recognize that your negativity does no good. Refrain from depreciating your husband. Accept that you chose him, consciously or unconsciously, for who he is. Nor do I want you to blame yourself. Instead, I want you to look for good in him. You say he’s a shmoozer who gets along with people. That’s positive. He could be an uncommunicative guy who sits in a corner, saying nothing. He’s better. Verbally reward anything good he does. Stop dwelling on things that irritate you because when you concentrate on the bad, it is impossible to see any good. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to think of yourself as someone searching for gold. Know you’re going to have to sift through a lot of soil, dirt and debris, all of which you’ll discard without criticism, before you find even a small yellow nugget. Your thinking has to be, “If there’s a little flake here, there might be a whole vein somewhere near. So you continue searching for it, being positive in your attitude and hopeful, with regard to the future. Your effort, energy and change in orientation, are all up to you, as is the onus for your discontent. You are not a victim. You’ve been a volunteer. To change that, you have to change you.”
Ellie’s response was hostile. “You want me to look for good things? Why would I do that for him? It’s one more thing you’re telling me I have to do. That’s what I’m objecting to, having to do everything and take all the responsibility.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything for him. I’m asking you to recognize that your life is sad, depressing and dysfunctional. Nothing will change if you continue to behave the present way. What I’m suggesting is you assume a positive orientation and decide that you no longer want to live with anger, hurt and an absence of love. I want you to search for any goodness that surrounds you and build on it. You need to take responsibility for your attitude and curtail behaviors based on your hurts, disappointments and resentments.”
What I am saying to Ellie, Jack and every one of you, whether your problems are with your job, parents, children, love life or marriage, is you can create the world you want. To do so requires that you have the courage to take risks, to have dreams and follow them. You need to have resolve during the bad times and when necessary, admit failure, give up and try again. You see, you not only have the power to create your world, you can also choose to fill the world you create with joy and success or bitterness and depression.