Love and Hate
by Elisabeth J. LaMotte, LICSW
My client, Cheryl, entered therapy citing recurring fears that she would end up divorced like her parents.
“I hate my husband. Does this mean I should start worrying about divorce?” When Cheryl learned that her best friend, Lucy, was divorcing, she asked Lucy this same insecure question. Lucy chuckled with confidence in response:
“I wish I hated my husband. If you hate your husband, it means you care enough about him to stay married. Relax. You don’t need to worry about divorce.”
My years of experience as a social worker in private practice affirm Lucy’s anecdotal perspective. I can typically help a couple save their marriage if they are emotionally invested enough to hate each other. But if one of them has grown indifferent, the prospects for the relationship fade. Hate is the flip side of love -- love’s sneaky alter ego lurking beneath the surface of many loving relationships. Lucy had grown intractably indifferent to her husband. Questioning friends, prodding shrinks, disappointed parents all tried and failed to help them rekindle their love, or at least their hate. They became Cheryl’s first friends to divorce. Cheryl tearfully described how their breakup profoundly discombobulated her perspective on her own marriage.
Cheryl was losing weight and sleep. She grew consumed with fear that Lucy’s divorce was contagious. In spite of deep love for her husband and what sounded like a solid, loving relationship, divorce began to feel inevitable.
As a social worker, it is important to be aware when a client’s struggles mirror one’s own. Like Cheryl's, my parents were divorced. I felt similarly unsettled the first time I learned that close friends were separating. Meeting with Cheryl, I remembered a winter evening in early 2002. My husband, Russ, and I planned a rare night out to see Edward Burns' Sidewalks of New York. Most scenes transpired on the streets of Manhattan, so the city acted as a pivotal character in this documentary-style drama about marriage, divorce, rejection, and infidelity. The studio delayed the scheduled September release of the film, after the September 11th attacks. Our daughter was barely six months old at the time, and we remained shaken. A film highlighting New York’s cityscape might be therapeutic, we agreed.
Afterwards, it became clear that Russ and I had completely different reactions to the film.
“Don’t you think the movie felt totally unrealistic?” Russ’ critique reflected the wholesome Midwestern values of a Catholic boy whose parents met in kindergarten and married soon after their college graduation. “I mean, we don’t know anybody who sneaks around.”
“If they’re sneaking around,” I interrupted, “isn’t the idea that we wouldn’t know about it?”
“Seriously. Don’t you question the notion that every married person is secretly cheating, dissatisfied, and bound to split up? Don’t you think it came across as fake or at least exaggerated?”
At that point, virtually everyone we knew was a newlywed. Russ and I had been married for a couple of years and were among the first of our friends to have a baby. Most of the couples we spent time with in Georgetown had been married for just a few years at most.
I callously predicted that half the couples we knew would eventually break up. I’m Jewish, grew up in Philly, and have parents who divorced bitterly when I was seven. I owed it to Russ to educate him about the harsh realities on our horizon. Russ pushed back. He reasoned that experiencing September 11th as a new parent would put things into perspective. He was certain our parental cohort could buck the trend.
By conventional academic standards, my husband is considered smart. Harvard Law Review, Ford Fellow, and so forth. But walking home that chilly evening, I realized that, in this area, I was the brain in the family. I confidently clued Russ in on some unforgiving relationship realities:
“You can’t honestly believe that our random group of friends – or even we for that matter – are immune from the statistics. Plenty of couples we know are statistically destined to divorce.”
Russ insisted our friends would be different. I assured him we were not so special. Children of divorce understand my pessimism. Growing up with divorced parents forces a humble, cautionary approach to marriage. The possibility of losing my marriage looms in my mental foreground like the rifle of a random drive-by shooting. For some, this fear can prove toxic. For me, it means I try harder to help our marriage succeed. I prioritize our relationship with conviction. Almost daily, I get surprised by a momentary sensation of gratitude about our union. I often feel like a trespassing fool catching a momentary glimpse of a well-tended neighborhood where I do not belong.
In addition to Russ’ intelligence, he is calm in a crisis, hilarious, and imbued with a superior sense of direction. (He intuitively knows when the GPS is wrong.) He is a model father to our two daughters. And yet, like Cheryl, I also find myself experiencing transient flashes of hatred. These feelings periodically evoke a foreboding sense of marital doom. I sometimes interpret stray socks abandoned mid-floor as symbols of profound disrespect. Innocent slights or oversights can lead to vivid visions of buying our daughters duffel bags for the dual household visitation shuffles in their future. These duffel bags are red and blue, with thick athletic straps -- identical to the ones my mother purchased at Wanamaker's department store in 1975 for my sister and me.
A few years ago, we moved to a more suburban – and therefore car-centric –neighborhood. Russ took our daughters on a father-daughter camping trip with a group of fathers. We had only one car, and I assumed he would catch a ride with one of the other fathers. Shocked and insulted when he left with our car, I felt increasingly trapped, offended, and abandoned throughout my carless weekend. My outrage blossomed. When the cheerful campers returned, I sobbed, accused, and played the victim with gusto. Russ calmly asked why I hadn’t simply requested that he ride with a friend before he left. I’m a therapist, after all. I routinely teach clients to ask their partners for what they want rather than live in the fantasy that our beloved can read our minds. Then again, whoever said I follow my own advice? Of my many limitations, indifference to Russ and our marriage is not a concern. I love him enough to hate him with abandon.
I wrote a book about divorce asserting that adults who grew up in divorced households enter marriage with a series of unique strengths conducive to building a happy marriage. Although they often hesitate when it comes to marriage and commitments, their reluctance and reservations often lead them to marry a bit later when they are more emotionally mature. Children of divorce are often highly motivated when it comes to nurturing and sustaining their marriages. They know the downside of divorce well, and they tend to be willing to go the extra mile to avoid it. Unfortunately, the possibility of divorce can feel ever-present to those who experienced it during childhood. And I, like Cheryl, can lose sight of the extent to which this worry weighs heavily and can pull others down along with me. On the flip side, a persistent motivation to address these fears can amplify the cherishment that children of divorce bestow upon their marriage. Think of this cherishment as an unexpected dividend of divorce.
Social workers can use awareness of these “divorce dividends” to take a strengths perspective with clients. Whether a client is divorcing or has divorced parents, social workers can help clients locate and embrace the residual assets in their personalities. Ask clients how their parents’ divorce shapes their personality. Ask them about their strengths, and their origins. This approach allows clients to put words to important aspects of their personalities. Such exploration won’t erase trauma, but it can help formulate a new lens through which to consider their experience.
Cheryl and I discussed her fears and anxiety, but also focused on her fortitude. We explored the pain associated with her parents’ breakup and the “divorce dividend” inherent in her organic ability to prioritize her relationship. When we concluded therapy, she expressed reduced anxiety and increased optimism about her marriage.
As for our circle of friends, my pessimism proved relevant. Divorce number one signaled a brief but unsettling domino effect. Like Cheryl's, my friends’ divorces have filled a disproportionate amount of mental space and have generated substantial anxiety.
Russ’ optimism also turned out to be prescient. After sixteen years of marriage, only one out of every ten couples we consider friends have divorced. (I’ve counted.) Recently, the New York Times reported that “about 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary” without divorce and that “those who married in the 2000s are divorcing at even lower rates.” The story attributes this change in part to availability of birth control, more people marrying for love, and a trend toward marrying later. Russ was onto something when he innocently declared that our cohort would be different. If hate is the flip side of marital love, perhaps naïveté is sometimes the flip side of insight. Regardless, I love Russ’ naïveté as much if not more than his piercing intelligence.
Elisabeth J. LaMotte, LICSW, is a social worker, author, and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center. Her book, Overcoming Your Parents’ Divorce: 5 Steps to a Happy Relationship, was a finalist in the 2008 National Best Book Awards in the relationship category. To learn more about her, visit www.dccounselingcenter.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.