Separating before death do us part: the challenges of maintaining relationships in today’s world
Once upon a time, one could make a commitment “until death do us part”, and actually consider it a meaningful promise. Sadly, today the same words that used to represent “lifelong relational security” now feel more like a fairy tale read in childhood, along the lines of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
The society in which the “till death do us part” story unfolded did not have a 62% divorce rate. In those distant days of yore, 51% of adults at any one time weren’t alone or involved in a primary relationship. (This summer, Psychology Today magazine published an article with that statistic of 51%.)
Hubert Humphrey once commented that he had been married to many women throughout his life, all named Muriel, a sweet and genuine reflection on the ways we grow and change over time, even in long-term relationships. People often marry before they know who they really are and therefore choose partners for reasons other than those that would be sustainable in the long term.
Also, people lack the skills and tools to build a long-term relationship. I also believe that it takes a town to maintain a relationship, just as it takes a town to raise a child. But the structures of our village have collapsed. Too many of us, children and adults, live like wild humans trying to survive on the emotional streets of life.
So when I read pioneer Nina Utne’s personal essay on personal growth and social awareness about the dissolution of even her marriage in the March-April 2007 issue of Utne magazine, I felt like I needed to do much deeper reflection. on whether anyone can tell about maintaining a long-term relationship in today’s world.
Utne writes, “Eric and I have viewed our marriage as a spiritual path, and its dissolution … humbles us and demands serious spiritual practices.”
“And we, of all people, who have spent most of our lives exploring the nexus between personal growth and social change, who have weathered many of the storms that ruin marriages, should be able to navigate this transition gracefully. But that’s without factoring into ‘shenpa’, a Tibetan word for things that trigger us and make us explode and shut down. “
Unfortunately, we are not given a relational roadmap that lets us know that after going through the neurochemically rich stages of the “new relationship energy,” we will enter the shadowlands, where our deepest selves will indeed be activated. . Triggers are an invitation to learn, grow, heal, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. But without the roadmap and tools to navigate the territory, too many relationships break down and fail.
Nina Utne quotes a conversation someone had with Margaret Mead about how she felt about having failed in their marriages. “She replied that she had not had failed marriages; she had remarkable associations that were appropriate for the different stages of her life.”
While that may be true for many of us, and is a very compassionate and perhaps helpful way to sustain relationship breakdowns and divorce, part of my heart still feels sad as I contemplate that grain of contemporary truth. .
There is profound value in having another ride alongside us along the journey of a lifetime. I experienced this with a mentor of mine, who supported the development of my life for 17 years. He was a spiritual father to me, and I can honestly say that our relationship lasted until his sudden and unexpected death parted us. Although I mourned his passing, it was easier to accept due to the richness of our 17-year relationship. I felt that I had a lot to be thankful for, my tears of sadness were softened with tears of love.
I myself am a divorced single mother. And I have been for more years of my life and my son’s life than I could have ever imagined. For one thing, my ex-husband and I are still “working the pieces” in a way that few couples do before, never mind after divorce. For approximately 9 years, we have been working regularly with a family therapist to help create a safer environment for raising our son who is now 11 years old.
People marvel at this commitment we have made. And yet it was more important to me than any other agreement on our divorce contract. Our agreement is to participate in this family therapy until our son is in his early 20s. I know this is a promise that we will keep.
I believe with all my heart that if two people have children together, they have a responsibility to work their relationship for life for the sake of their children. If a couple divorces, they generally have more work to do than a married couple. The problems that caused the divorce do not magically disappear in court. In fact, they often need more attention so that they don’t become heavy hitters at night and during the day.
It seems sadly easy for people to walk away from each other, or even run away, without having looked at the skeletons in the closet, including the very personal closet that accompanied us in our engaged associations. Receiving a roadmap, a third party who is committed to helping partners succeed, and role models from people who take the time and do the emotional work to maintain and deepen long-term relationships should be a right. on the way to adulthood.
I have come to realize that for me, having a close relationship for a period of time and then not having it is more painful than a long-term relationship that ends with the death of my partner.
I had to face this problem head-on several years ago, when a man I had begun to see as a possible long-term partner was diagnosed with cancer within 6 weeks of our relationship. I remember my therapist asking me, “Do you want to keep getting involved with this man who may die?” I found myself saying, “I’m not afraid of the fact that he may die. We will all die eventually. In fact, I really wish I had the opportunity to do so until death do us part. I am more afraid that it won’t happen.” death for which I lose it. I’m more afraid of not being able to do it until death do us part. “
Sadly, after almost 2 years as partners, integrating our families and our lives, he decided that he didn’t want a long-term partner after all. In fact, I walked by her side during surgery and cancer treatment. And although cancer became a chronic disease in the long term, our relationship was not something he carried with him in the long term.
I find it sad and paradoxical that I have been given the opportunity to use my deeply refined relationship skills to help other couples navigate the Shadowlands, and with great success. I have been praying to God for a partner ready, willing and able to do this work with me. I have no desire to be the shoemaker whose children don’t have shoes. And I surely apply my relationship skills to raising my son, maintaining my deep long-term friendships, and just about every other facet of my life.
I truly pray for the opportunity to “until death do us part” and give my son the model of a healthy, sustained, mutual and loving relationship between a man I love and myself. This is far more complex than I could have ever imagined growing up … and even at this point in my middle-aged life.