How Can You End a Marriage That Never Was?
By Bruce Derman, Ph.D.
When looking at divorce, we tend to make several assumptions. We assume that the relationship in question didn’t work out for various reasons. Frequently, we see one more at fault that the other. In addition, we may all agree that the relationship needs to be dissolved as quickly as possible and the two partners need to move on to a new life.
Yet, what if I were to tell you that all these assumptions are based on a false premise that there was a marriage to end in the first place? What if there was only a marriage in name only? Then the question changes from asking, “How are we going to end this marriage?” to “What are we really ending?” In fact, have these two people even been in a marriage that requires an end?
I believe that many marriages, especially those which end in divorce, are merely arenas designed for the sole purpose of allowing each partner to achieve their individual needs: money, security, sex, children, or safety. In my view, this purpose does not speak to the essence of what a marriage is. As Carl Whitaker, a famous family therapist says, “Without an ‘Us-ness,’ there is no marriage.” A relationship requires a WE or an US. A relationship is not two people competing over their needs or even meeting another’s needs for a period of time.
The WE part is considered an entity in and of itself that transcends the self-serving needs, desires, and wants of the individual partners. It is much more than occupying space under the same roof or taking care of specific wants: sexual satisfaction, being provided for, or creating children in one’s image. Therapist and psychologist Terry Hargrave says, “A strong marriage requires both partners to let go of their single-minded search for self-fulfillment and commit themselves to the care and health of a third entity – the precious and fragile relationship they are creating together.” The relationship about which I am speaking has its own voice that is not his or hers, and which reflects the state of the WE that is present. Any time the voice of the relationship is not present, the marriage will be shaky or mostly a caricature. The tone of the WE voice is typically soft, its words brief, and it will never debate, defend, or attempt to prove what it says.
When I address the US of the struggling couples whom I work with, I hear the cries of the relationship: “I am emotionally starving,” “I feel sad,” “Proving that you are right doesn’t feed me,” “Slow down,” or “I need you to have a shared vision.” I have watched numerous couples, who would normally argue and polarize over anything and everything, merely listen when this voice is recognized as an entity separate from them.
My particular interest in this perspective comes from being around many couples who choose the often painful path of divorce when in truth they had never showed up to create a “marriage” in the first place. As a result they are getting out of something that they were never in. They were only living under the illusion of being in a marriage in hopes that the other will fulfill their favored images and needs. When this illusion crumples in anxious disappointment, they both run for the divorce path so that they move on to another fantasy. Ultimately, without the commitment to creating a WE, all of these efforts which partners expend will only be self-serving.
As part of my work as a divorce coach in the Coalition for Collaborative Divorce, I do not want couples to end whatever they have had together based on the false premise that they were in a real marriage. I would rather hear them admit, however difficult it may be, that they were never committed to creating a real WE from the beginning and that their marriage was merely an image. From this equally humble place in which no one is to blame, they can have a chance to start over and choose to have a marriage in the true sense of the word. If after a period of attempting to support a WE relationship they still determine that they are not able to realize a shared vision, I support their desire to end it. At that point I would gladly participate in assisting them in resolving their divorce with humility, dignity, and no false illusions.