The Kids Are Gone and Now It's Just Us. Yikes!
You stand at the curb in front of a dorm at AnyPlace College and watch your youngest child, with attendant duffle bag, disappear inside.
Your spouse of at least 18 years hovers next to you, and suddenly this merger you created lo those many years ago, is no longer necessary. It's a choice.
You drive home, largely in silence, as you process the fact that the two of you are alone again.
If you married well, worked hard at communication, expressed any resentments that may've cropped up, kept goodwill alive in your marital bed, continued to evolve as individuals, came together in your decision-making, and didn't allow the day-to-day minutia of raising a family erode your relationship, this may well be the second honeymoon phase of your marriage.
Now you can make love in every room of the house, or at least be naked in every room of the house, making as much noise as you like.
You can reconnect as people, not parents.
However, if you've been in a toxic relationship for the better part of that 18+ years you might be staring straight down a rifle barrel at a work horse that needs to be put out of its misery.
Your relationship might look like this:
- Your spouse criticizes you on a continual basis, making you feel you're not good enough, smart enough and/or lovable enough. (You feel like Eeyore most of the time)
- You always meet your spouse's emotional and physical needs, but s/he rarely ever meets yours.
- Your spouse is as inconsistent and unreliable as the weather in Tornado Alley.
- Your spouse has a drug, gambling, alcohol or roaming sex addiction.
- Your spouse is jealous or controlling.
- Your spouse is consistently negative and fatalistic, always bringing you down.
- Your spouse is disrespectful or picks fights with you in front of your children.
- Your spouse lies.
- Your spouse is unfaithful.
There's no doubt that divorce is devastating; emotionally and financially, but more devastating yet is spending the rest of our lives -- which are lasting a good 20-30 years longer than they did in 1900 -- in an emotionally abusive situation.
So what can you do if you find yourself sitting across the table from a person you've grown to resent and even loathe minus the buffer your children provided?
I. Find You
I know that's a tall order and sounds vaguely Scientology-esque, but until you know who you are and what you want, there's no way you'll feel entitled to step away from a long-term, unsatisfying or even painful situation.
These are some ideas I give clients to find out who they are:
1. Join a Recovery Group (aka your Mental Health Village).
Isolation is a killer. And when we're in a toxic relationship we're often ashamed. And shame wants us to stay isolated. It's a poisonous Möbius Strip.
I personally love 12-step programs due to the spiritual components found there. But you might find support in your church or some other type of recovery group. (You can skip Scientology and the Moonies.)
Basically anywhere two or more people gather to share common problems and challenges.
2. Write down and share your fears.
Get a good journal and write down every negative thing you worry might happen if you get a "gray divorce":
- The kids won't be okay.
- I'll be broke and living in my 1990 Toyota Celica.
- I'll never meet another love and will live the rest of my life alone.
Get those little Fear Cockroaches out of the dark and into the light of day where you can see them scurrying about like the repellant creatures they are.
Then share them with your Mental Health Village. (This should be a safe, non-judgmental place to share - no shaming allowed.)
Sharing our fears can often shrink them, making them more manageable.
3. Write down all the things you wish would happen if you walked away.
And go big! You're just dreaming here so eat the whole tamale. Examples:
- I'll get a great job and be self-supporting. There'll be a clothing budget and three martini lunches with Don Draper. (You can be a little whimsical)
- I'll have a more honest, intimate relationship with our shared children.
- I'll meet a wonderful person who loves, respects and even likes me to spend the rest of my life with. S/he'll even give me foot massages.
- Things might improve with my ex if we're apart, so I won't want to hire a mobster to break his kneecaps, and we can be more polite with each other in front of our children.
It may feel awkward to write down your wish list.
If we've been in a toxic relationship long enough, we might be so beaten down that we don't feel entitled to such great things.
Write them down anyway.
Read them aloud before bed and upon waking. Our unconscious mind will process these "affirmations" and we'll slowly become able to embrace them.
In time, these positive possibilities might carry more weight than our fears, giving us the courage to change.
When we can visualize our good, we can receive our good.
When you share them with your Mental Health Village and they energetically support you, this helps you feel like you're not changing your life in a vacuum.
II. Slay Your Ego
Our egos are punk ass little bitches. They really know how to keep us stuck in stinking situations by whispering things like this into our ears:
- Your smug, perfect, happily married sister Margaret never liked your spouse and warned you against him. If you leave you'll have to admit she was right and you were wrong, which is humiliating.
- If you leave you'll no longer live in your big, fancy house, or belong to the same clubs and all of your friends will feel superior to you and pity you.
- If you leave you'll have to work in customer care at Target. What if some of your neighbors come in and see you working there? How perfectly mortifying!
Our egos are mean-spirited and like to make us miserable.
How freeing would it be to not give two f#@ks about what anyone else thinks about us? What would we do if we didn't care what people thought about us??
So here's what to do to get our egos under control.
1. Write down every negative thing it's whispering like Voldemort that is keeping you stuck.
This brings your ego's agenda out of hiding.
2. Share these thoughts with your Mental Health Village
This will give you perspective and often life-altering suggestions.
3. Come to believe in a Power Greater Than Yourself.
If you are averse to Higher Powers thanks to a bad religious experience or are adamantly atheist, your Higher Power could be Nature, or Science, or the ever-expanding Universe.
If you're feeling bad enough you might be willing to "fake it 'til you make it."
4. Pray and meditate daily for clarity and courage.
Prayer is for asking questions. Meditating is for receiving answers from God, your Higher Power, The Universe,Your Higher Self or whatever entity you hope is listening.
I guarantee you'll start seeing messages everywhere!
After doing all of these things your self-esteem will flourish. You'll become strong enough to set healthy boundaries while remaining in your marriage. Or you might just decide it's time to step off and see what the rest of your life has in store.
If you found this article helpful you'll want to opt-in to Shannon's biweekly newsletter.
Shannon's book, "In Love With an Asshat? How to Skip the Heartbreakers & Find Real Love with 14 Life-Altering Exercises" is coming out soon and you won't want to miss it!
And be sure to share this article with anyone you know who may need it.