In thinking about the etiology of divorce, where and when it originates in a couple, I am convinced that it is about a shift in hope. Hope is what keeps people hanging on when there is a lack of certainty. Uncertainty is what life dishes out!
Hope is especially salient when it comes to a living, dynamic intimate relationship. It may be the single most important nutrient that sustains a relationship. When he or she causes harm to us, when we ‘shut down’ or ‘blow up’, when interests diverge, troubled times appear, and the glue starts to crack, it’s hope that carries the day.
The hope that love will prevail. The hope that we can grow old together, that we can finish raising our children, become grandparents, that we can attain our dreams.
We ‘hope’ that he or she is going to keep coming home to us, continue to find us lovable, stay faithful to us in word and deed, remain the same person we married as far as preferences and values, and so on. And, perhaps on a silent and invisible level, we ‘hope’ that we continue to find our partner lovable, that we still want to come home to him or her, to stay faithful, and so on.
It’s unlikely that anyone who vowed to stay committed to another “til death do us part” wants to face the fact that he or she no longer has hope that this can happen. When a spouse reaches the point of hopelessness, there is a defense of protective denial that seeps in.
As the person who ran out of hope in my own marriage, I can tell you it is a painful experience. Hope is like oxygen to us human beings. The antithesis of hope is despair.
We do not want to acknowledge that the life we’ve built together has no hope of survival. We see the death of our marriage on the horizon, but continue to look away. We create smoke and mirrors for a while to keep this ugly truth from showing up in our lives. We have more children, throw ourselves into careers, over work, over spend, develop addictions, have affairs, you name it. Anything to avoid the fact that we are in despair over the lack of hope left in us about our marriage.
Meanwhile, the ‘hopeless’ one’s partner is left in the dark. There may be some hints of the depth of despair that is hiding in the hopeless one’s soul, but it is disguised in a myriad of excuses. The ‘clueless’ partner is also, perhaps unconsciously, colluding to keep the secret. Fact is, it is human to avoid pain. We all want to hear and see only what we want to hear and see.
I have sat with countless couples as a marital therapist and heard nearly the same words come out of the mouths of each partner. “Will someone please tell me what is going on here?”, and “I’ve been trying to tell you for so long.”
Hope dies hard. Once shared that hope has been replaced by despair, the circus begins. In come the clowns.
If only they could climb down into their souls and tenderly move away all the disguises, the defenses, and openly speak to each other. They might finally say something like “I’ve been full of despair since I stopped feeling hopeful about us. I can’t do this anymore, and I am sorry. Sorry for my own inability to keep hope alive, sorry for not being able to share this with you honestly and openly.” and “This is devastating to me, and I don’t want this. But I understand this has not been what you wanted either, and you have been suffering with it on your own.”