Be careful what you ask your partner, if you might not like the answer.
After an evening of sharing the living room sofa while they watched a romantic movie, Brandon turned to Kim, to whom he’d been married for nearly 30 years and asked, “If you met me today, would you still want to marry me?”
As you might have guessed, this question was actually a bid for reassurance from Kim that she still found him attractive and desirable.
After a brief pause to reflect, which to Brandon felt like an eternity, Kim spoke the shortest, most devastating sentence Brandon had ever heard.
Although Brandon felt stunned, Kim’s answer didn’t come as a total surprise. He would later admit that he had been suspecting that the fire had gone out, or at least dimmed for Kim a while ago. Unwilling to continue denying his concern, or rationalizing his fears away, he screwed up enough courage to pop the question. His worst fears were realized in her response.
Brandon was speechless, but flooded with emotion. After a long sigh, Kim continued: “It’s not that I don’t love you. I still do, but we’re just so different in so many ways. At the beginning I saw a lot of those differences, but thought that we would grow to be more alike or that they would stop bothering me after a while, or that you would change under my influence, but none of those things have happened, and it’s become clear to me that it’s very unlikely that they ever will. I’ve kind of resigned myself to our situation. It’s not ideal. It’s not what I had hoped for. In some ways it’s disappointing, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. There are plenty of other women out there who are a lot less happy than I am. And I want you to know that I’m not going anywhere. I won’t leave you, and I’m committed to living out the life-long partnership agreement that we made when we got married.”
Not surprisingly, Brandon didn’t find Kim’s elaboration particularly reassuring: “It almost would have been easier if she had told me that she didn’t love me any more and that she didn’t want to stay together. At least then we could have made a clean break. This way I felt like I was hanging in limbo. It really hurt. A lot.”
In the days that followed, Kim related the incident to several girlfriends, many of whom told her that they would have lied to their husbands in her place. Two said that they knew just how she felt and were glad that their husbands hadn’t asked the same question.
Kim replied that she was not one to lie; she was a very young 21 when she and Brandon got married and she didn’t know herself well enough to be clear about the kind of man that she wanted to spend her life with.
Kim’s major complaint about Brandon wasn’t that he was a bad person, but that he wasn’t particularly deep. He was a simple guy who didn’t have a lot of ambition, not just in regard to power or money, but the drive for a rich, fulfilling life. “I don’t think he’s withholding his inner life from me, I think he just doesn’t have one. He’s a superficial person, and that’s O.K. with him, but it doesn’t work for me.”
Kim concluded several years ago that this was the way Brandon is and was going to always be and decided that she “had better just accept the reality of the hand that I’ve been dealt and make the best of it by compensating in other ways for what my marriage won’t be able to provide for me.”
Kim compensates by immersing herself in her career, spending time with her grown children and close female friends, and doing a lot of volunteer work in her community. She has given up hope that her relationship with her husband will ever be anything more than it’s been, and reminds herself, when feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction arise, that no one’s life is perfect, and she should stop feeling sorry for herself and focus on the good things in her life. This helps to get through painful feelings. Sometimes. Temporarily.
But they always seem to return.
Although Kim doesn’t know for a fact that Brandon lacks any kind of inner life, she is convinced that this belief is true, and acts in accordance with it. This behavior can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing unsatisfying relationship patterns. This is not to say that there may not be some truth in Kim’s assumptions, but by essentially finding him guilty without giving him sufficient opportunity to respond makes it difficult for her to recognize changes in his attitude or behavior if he were to change.
Brandon almost certainly has much more of an inner life than Kim believes; his willingness to risk asking her such a vulnerable question is a manifestation of that deeply feeling part of himself. That one question holds many other unspoken questions that relate to his concern about his marriage:
Are you happy that you chose to marry me? Are you sorry that you married me? Do you regret the sacrifices you have made to make this marriage work? Do you ever imagine leaving me? Do you love me with my flaws and imperfections? Are you satisfied with me? Do you want to be with someone else?
Kim and Brandon never revisited the conversation that they began on the couch that night. There was a window of opportunity that closed and hasn’t (yet) been reopened. The opportunity has to do with sharing more explicit details regarding what each of them has been feeling, why they’ve been feeling that way, and what, if anything, could be done to interrupt a painful but not necessarily impossible impasse in their relationship.
Brandon’s fear of hearing words that could activate more pain, and Kim’s sense of hopelessness and despair, have kept them from taking steps in the direction of creating greater clarity, understanding, and perhaps even real intimacy in their marriage. In Brandon’s mind, the risk of hearing more from Kim is that he might become overwhelmed with grief and pain. He believes she will never really want to be with him anyway, no matter what he does. In Kim’s mind, she’s already tried so many times to get Brandon to change that there’s no point in another attempt.
Both are convinced that the other person is at fault and responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. This view frees each of them from the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgement of having played a part in the problem. In denying responsibility, we also deny whatever power we do possess to influence change in the situation and in doing so, creating another self-fulfilling prophecy.
In all likelihood, Kim and Brandon will have a lifetime partnership. It won’t be a terrible marriage; it will be an acceptable arrangement. They will probably have very few arguments. They do have some interests in common. They will have predictability and security and a refined image to present to their family and the community. But they with live with a chronic undercurrent of dissatisfaction, knowing there is more available than they are currently experiencing.
They are aware that other couples have a deeper love than theirs. They just don’t know how to grow it for themselves, and have given up on ever achieving it. They don’t know that what would be required of them is to get real with each other, commit themselves to being more transparent, and be willing to reveal not just their dissatisfactions but their deepest longings and desires as well. Doing so wouldn’t guarantee that both of their visions would align with each other, or that their respective dreams would be realized, but it would make that more likely and at the very least, make a more favorable outcome for the situation possible. In choosing to keep the relationship on a superficial level in order to avoid feelings of sadness, grief, anger, guilt, shame, emptiness, and fear, a continuation and deepening of these feelings is all but inevitable.
Even now, however, it’s not too late; Kim and Brandon are not doomed. It’s never too late to begin the repair work we’ve been putting off for weeks, months, or even years. Opening up to feeling the pain and disappointment we’ve been avoiding is sometimes exactly what we need to do in order to find the willingness to do our own work. Dropping into the depths of that pain is frequently where the motivation comes from to finally risk change. It can be bitter medicine, but sometimes just what the doctor ordered.