Modern Love: "I'm Not Buying It" - Huh? - 7/31/09

Smartmarriages smartmarriages at
Thu Aug 13 18:39:25 EDT 2009

Another powerful article from the New York Times Modern Love series.  A
must-read, must-save to reread, must-share with couples articles.  It's not
always going to work, but this is a strategy we can recommend to
on-the-brink couples.  We need an "on-the-brink" keynote in 2010 to remind
ourselves of all the great programs and strategies for couples in the deep
end - the "I-don't-love-you-anymore-I'm-not-sure-I-ever-did" couples.  Maybe
we should open a session with an Impact Award and standing ovation for Laura
Munson and her "I'm not buying it" article.  - diane

Modern Love
Those Aren¹t Fighting Words, Dear
July 31, 2009

LET¹S say you have what you believe to be a healthy marriage. You¹re still
friends and lovers after spending more than half of your lives together. The
dreams you set out to achieve in your 20s ‹ gazing into each other¹s eyes in
candlelit city bistros when you were single and skinny ‹ have for the most
part come true.

Two decades later you have the 20 acres of land, the farmhouse, the
children, the dogs and horses. You¹re the parents you said you would be,
full of love and guidance. You¹ve done it all: Disneyland, camping, Hawaii,
Mexico, city living, stargazing.

Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so
self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in
your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband
one fine summer day: ³I don¹t love you anymore. I¹m not sure I ever did. I¹m
moving out. The kids will understand. They¹ll want me to be happy.²

But wait. This isn¹t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a
begging-him-to-stay story. It¹s a story about hearing your husband say ³I
don¹t love you anymore² and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen
as a result.

Here¹s a visual: Child throws a temper tantrum. Tries to hit his mother. But
the mother doesn¹t hit back, lecture or punish. Instead, she ducks. Then she
tries to go about her business as if the tantrum isn¹t happening. She
doesn¹t ³reward² the tantrum. She simply doesn¹t take the tantrum personally
because, after all, it¹s not about her.

Let me be clear: I¹m not saying my husband was throwing a child¹s tantrum.
No. He was in the grip of something else ‹ a profound and far more troubling
meltdown that comes not in childhood but in midlife, when we perceive that
our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did.
But I decided to respond the same way I¹d responded to my children¹s
tantrums. And I kept responding to it that way. For four months.

³I don¹t love you anymore. I¹m not sure I ever did.²

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow
in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself,
I managed to say, ³I don¹t buy it.² Because I didn¹t.

He drew back in surprise. Apparently he¹d expected me to burst into tears,
to rage at him, to threaten him with a custody battle. Or beg him to change
his mind.

So he turned mean. ³I don¹t like what you¹ve become.²

Gut-wrenching pause. How could he say such a thing? That¹s when I really
wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn¹t.

Instead, a shroud of calm enveloped me, and I repeated those words: ³I don¹t
buy it.²

You see, I¹d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with
myself. I¹d committed to ³The End of Suffering.² I¹d finally managed to
exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as
good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my
control. I¹d seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take
responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.

My husband hadn¹t yet come to this understanding with himself. He had
enjoyed many years of hard work, and its rewards had supported our family of
four all along. But his new endeavor hadn¹t been going so well, and his
ability to be the breadwinner was in rapid decline. He¹d been miserable
about this, felt useless, was losing himself emotionally and letting himself
go physically. And now he wanted out of our marriage; to be done with our

But I wasn¹t buying it.

I said: ³It¹s not age-appropriate to expect children to be concerned with
their parents¹ happiness. Not unless you want to create co-dependents who¹ll
spend their lives in bad relationships and therapy. There are times in every
relationship when the parties involved need a break. What can we do to give
you the distance you need, without hurting the family?²

³Huh?² he said.

³Go trekking in Nepal. Build a yurt in the back meadow. Turn the garage
studio into a man-cave. Get that drum set you¹ve always wanted. Anything but
hurting the children and me with a reckless move like the one you¹re talking

Then I repeated my line, ³What can we do to give you the distance you need,
without hurting the family?²


³How can we have a responsible distance?²

³I don¹t want distance,² he said. ³I want to move out.²

My mind raced. Was it another woman? Drugs? Unconscionable secrets? But I
stopped myself. I would not suffer.

Instead, I went to my desk, Googled ³responsible separation² and came up
with a list. It included things like: Who¹s allowed to use what credit
cards? Who are the children allowed to see you with in town? Who¹s allowed
keys to what?

I looked through the list and passed it on to him.

His response: ³Keys? We don¹t even have keys to our house.²

I remained stoic. I could see pain in his eyes. Pain I recognized.

³Oh, I see what you¹re doing,² he said. ³You¹re going to make me go into
therapy. You¹re not going to let me move out. You¹re going to use the kids
against me.²

³I never said that. I just asked: What can we do to give you the distance
you need ... ²

³Stop saying that!²

Well, he didn¹t move out.

Instead, he spent the summer being unreliable. He stopped coming home at his
usual six o¹clock. He would stay out late and not call. He blew off our
entire Fourth of July ‹ the parade, the barbecue, the fireworks ‹ to go to
someone else¹s party. When he was at home, he was distant. He wouldn¹t look
me in the eye. He didn¹t even wish me ³Happy Birthday.²

But I didn¹t play into it. I walked my line. I told the kids: ³Daddy¹s
having a hard time as adults often do. But we¹re a family, no matter what.²
I was not going to suffer. And neither were they.

MY trusted friends were irate on my behalf. ³How can you just stand by and
accept this behavior? Kick him out! Get a lawyer!²

I walked my line with them, too. This man was hurting, yet his problem
wasn¹t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could
solve it.

I know what you¹re thinking: I¹m a pushover. I¹m weak and scared and would
put up with anything to keep the family together. I¹m probably one of those
women who would endure physical abuse. But I can assure you, I¹m not. I load
1,500-pound horses into trailers and gallop through the high country of
Montana all summer. I went through Pitocin-induced natural childbirth. And a
Caesarean section without follow-up drugs. I am handy with a chain saw.

I simply had come to understand that I was not at the root of my husband¹s
problem. He was. If he could turn his problem into a marital fight, he could
make it about us. I needed to get out of the way so that wouldn¹t happen.

Privately, I decided to give him time. Six months.

I had good days, and I had bad days. On the good days, I took the high road.
I ignored his lashing out, his merciless jabs. On bad days, I would fester
in the August sun while the kids ran through sprinklers, raging at him in my
mind. But I never wavered. Although it may sound ridiculous to say ³Don¹t
take it personally² when your husband tells you he no longer loves you,
sometimes that¹s exactly what you have to do.

Instead of issuing ultimatums, yelling, crying or begging, I presented him
with options. I created a summer of fun for our family and welcomed him to
share in it, or not ‹ it was up to him. If he chose not to come along, we
would miss him, but we would be just fine, thank you very much. And we were.

And, yeah, you can bet I wanted to sit him down and persuade him to stay. To
love me. To fight for what we¹ve created. You can bet I wanted to.

But I didn¹t.

I barbecued. Made lemonade. Set the table for four. Loved him from afar.

And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing the lawn. A man
doesn¹t mow his lawn if he¹s going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed
a door that had been broken for eight years. He made a comment about our
front porch needing paint. Our front porch. He mentioned needing wood for
next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the

It was Thanksgiving dinner that sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly
and said, ³I¹m thankful for my family.²

He was back.

And I saw what had been missing: pride. He¹d lost pride in himself. Maybe
that¹s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we¹re
not as young and golden anymore.

When life¹s knocked us around. And our childhood myths reveal themselves to
be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all:
it¹s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those
achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but
happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be

My husband had become lost in the myth. But he found his way out. We¹ve
since had the hard conversations. In fact, he encouraged me to write about
our ordeal. To help other couples who arrive at this juncture in life.
People who feel scared and stuck. Who believe their temporary feelings are
permanent. Who see an easy out, and think they can escape.

My husband tried to strike a deal. Blame me for his pain. Unload his
feelings of personal disgrace onto me.

But I ducked. And I waited. And it worked.

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