I’ve Fallen Out of Love But is That Enough to Divorce?

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Reader’s Question

I am a 56-year-old woman. I know the emotional abuse I received from my dad for many years affected my life and marriage. Therapy over the years made no difference.

My husband was in the armed forces when we got married 22 years ago. His personality was that of a very strong and capable man, very self assured and confident. This was who I fell for and thought I loved, but he retired from the service 2 years after we married and this confident personality dissolved into thin air. My husband may look like the man I married but he’s not.

So, I don’t know whether I fell out of love with my husband because I erected a huge wall soon after we married as a result of the abuse from my dad or because my husband changed so much. I do know that I have become angry all the time and find fault in everything my husband says and does. After all, you can’t fall in love with someone you are permanently angry and irritated with, can you? I will add that most of the time I internalize my anger/irritation.

I am “fond” of my husband, though. But that’s not enough is it?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your description reminds me of the numerous research studies that show, in one way or another, the importance of positive illusions in romantic relationships. Happy couples tend to hold overly positive views of each other, and this seems easiest to pull off at the start of a relationship. It’s almost as though the positive illusions serve as the lubricant in the otherwise friction laden interactions that often occur with living together on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, it seems all too common that the image we hold of our spouse becomes more negative with time. Usually, though, it’s not as sudden or as drastic as you described. It may be that the behaviors you saw as indicative of strength and confidence were associated with his role in the military, rather than the result of personality traits or ways of being across multiple settings. You also allude to the possibility that you unconsciously distanced yourself as a way to protect yourself from the possible hurt of trusting someone who then takes advantage of that closeness, as you father did.

Regardless of the initial cause, as you implied in your description, once we’ve changed our core views of another person, our perceptions of that person’s actions, no matter how small, seem to be colored accordingly. As you said, the result can be near-constant irritation over whatever the other person does (or doesn’t do). This generally makes for an unhappy home for both parties. You didn’t mention whether your husband seems happy, but to the extent that he is, it may be simply because you don’t always blast him with your disappointment and anger. He might be devastated if he knew how you feel.

The ultimate question is what to do next, and that seems to be the implied question in your letter. Of course only you can decide, but I can empathize with your apparent ambivalence. On the one hand you’re clearly unhappy, but on the other it is natural to feel fond of someone with whom you’ve shared so many years (especially if he has not done anything overtly or intentionally hurtful). The status quo is unsatisfying, but ending the marriage entails plenty of anxiety, upset, and change involving lots of unknowns. For these reasons, many people appear to stay in problematic or unhappy relationships until a new love interest is started (which helps resolve the ambivalence by pulling the person away from the problematic relationship). Of course that “solution” is often the most hurtful for the partner left behind.

I have found it helpful in these dilemmas to mentally cast ahead a few years. So, imagine being in the marriage 3 years from now, and whether it is likely the marriage would be different then. Ask yourself whether you can imagine doing anything between now and then so that you would want to be married to your husband 3 years from now. Imagine also what your life might look like 3 years after initiating a divorce. This somewhat more distant focus may help resolve some of the uncertainty by removing from the equation the unavoidably disruptive and upsetting stage immediately following a breakup. Sometimes the desire to avoid the messy details of a break up clouds the bigger picture. With a finite number of years of life left, perhaps the most important question is how you want to spend them.

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