In a broken marriage, accepting that the toxic relationship has completed its journey requires a level of courage that takes time to develop.
Patriarchy teaches us that everything is a competition and that winning is the greatest and only desirable goal. Take a look around at your next youth sporting event; you will notice a parent scolding a kid for the wrong outcome. This type of behavior turns us into people who can’t accept loss, failure, or criticism without feeling a personal attack.
When everything is falling apart, our first instinct is to try even harder to keep it together. We think squeezing tighter would be most helpful to the situation when it’s actually the complete opposite. I can’t say it any clearer: it is absolutely destructive.
The role we’ve played in a toxic relationship becomes ingrained into our identity and our actions. We often fail to see the clearest and most obvious realities because we cannot see past our situation.
It’s hard for this behavior to change even when recognized by people with good intentions. But without healing, it’s the only thing that makes you feel safe. We are suffocating the possibility of any positive outcome, whether it be a renewed love or a divorce we won’t regret.
But we’re afraid of the unknown, and this fear forces us to cling to what’s comfortable. We wait on them to be the person who directly says that it’s over; giving up is just not an option when in this state of mind. Our shame takes over in these moments and says, “We can’t lose this fight!”
We want them to concede that it’s over because we’re so caught up in what others may think. Our mind tricks us into thinking we can have the upper hand when explaining that we wanted it to work. We try to have control of the story, so we don’t feel at fault. Imagine the cycle of abuse that occurs when both people are in this frame of mind.
As much as we don’t want to take any blame, we also must realize that divorce is never just one person’s fault. The funny thing is that in refusing to take ownership of our situation, we actually abdicate control of our peace, joy, and happiness to the other person.
A little over two years ago, my fingers were gripped so tightly around a 20-year marriage that had been heading downhill for years. The strength of my hold was built on a foundation of lies, hurt, and guilt. She told me she wasn’t in love with me, and I should find someone I liked. But my self-confidence was so low that I was focused on trying to manipulate her into staying. I was so desperate for control that I was willing to give up any hope for love and care in a marriage.
So many fears came to my mind:
“I don’t want to be some divorce statistic.”
“What will everyone think of me?”
“I’m a dorky and introverted guy, so how in the hell would I meet anyone.”
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“How will I be able to pay child support?”
“I invested so much time into a 20-year marriage, and it would feel wasted.”
“What about the kids?”
“Everything will be better once the kids leave.”
All were rationalizations used to hold onto my own selfish needs and not face my own insecurities. Eventually, after a huge argument, I finally mustered the courage to ask her directly if she wanted a divorce (instead of just dancing around it). The truth came spilling out—there was no denying it any longer. The divorce was happening.
As we were preparing for the separation, I visited with a therapist. She asked me a straightforward question that I would like to propose to anyone that is going through this same situation:
“Why would you want to be married to someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”
I couldn’t answer the question honestly at first, so I just repeated another one of the lies, “Because I made a vow.” I felt so ashamed of myself after that question and wanted to retreat because that excuse went away a long time ago. But I didn’t, she looked at me, and I just broke down into tears and said, “I don’t know.”
The truth was that I felt unworthy of love for so many reasons I hadn’t yet discovered. That was the moment I finally allowed myself to be truly vulnerable without fear of retaliation or manipulated lies. The therapist asked deeper questions regarding how I felt I was being treated, and if I felt like my soon-to-be ex-wife could provide the support I needed.
All her questions began to penetrate the defensive wall I had built up for years, and my need for toxic control began to weaken. Through these sessions, I realized that I was losing far more than I could ever gain by holding onto an empty hope.
This realization didn’t immediately create sanity in my mind. I had bouts of toxic behavior—pleading for her to stay when I felt afraid and needed to control everything as we waited through the end of the school year. It was a rollercoaster, but eventually, as the days went by and she finally moved into her own place, I realized that the world wasn’t ending. I rediscovered my faith during this journey, which allowed me to finally release the Vulcan death-grip I had on our unhealthy marriage.
Understanding God’s love anchored me in who I was and opened my heart to accept my marriage’s truth and my part in its downfall. I was able to admit how toxic our relationship had become over time. Accepting the truth allowed me to begin working on healing my heart, mind, and overall health. I discovered that the grieving process gave me space for my imperfections, allowing me to release so much negativity present since my childhood. The stress I had been holding onto was no longer deteriorating me.
I compare the need for control in a relationship to that of a crafted drug—destructive, addictive, and hurtful. The only way to sober up is by admitting the truth, facing the catalyst(s) in your life, and stepping away from the toxicity. It takes time and diligence to recognize it and prevent the fears from attacking your resolve. Once you see it coming toward you, shine a light on it—prevent the toxic feelings from pouring out in response. This will help you gain clarity and allow you to strive toward understanding your triggers and choose positive responses in moments of frustration.
Too often, our pride pushes us to sustain a toxic and hurtful marriage. Fear of divorce tightens our grip and further warps our view of reality. However, this is so far from what I’ve come to understand as a truly healthy relationship. The length of time we spend in a relationship does not constitute the measure of its value or health. Too often, we are looking at society’s values, and it’s especially tough to accept this truth in a longer-lasting marriage. We must recognize that there was value in the shared journey, but at some point, the relationship has run its course.
Most of us who have gone through a divorce (or are considering it) originally had intentions on the marriage lasting forever. Over time, we realize we can’t hide from the truth: that the relationship can’t be more important than the people involved. We recognize underlying issues and patterns of behavior that can’t continue. And if there are kids involved, then we want a better example for them.
If your marriage is struggling, you’ve most likely tried to make it work with the best intentions. If you are still feeling hopeless, I encourage you to seek out a therapist to help you uncover whether the relationship can be saved or if it’s better to move forward with a divorce. This can help prevent so much of the toxic control when we begin to feel desperate.
It also takes two people to improve a relationship; if a partner indicates they are no longer in love and wants a divorce or asks for separation, it may be best to seriously consider their request. It isn’t easy to not take this personally, but this will also grant you the ability to find out if it’s where you want to be as well. Any attempts to beg, make false promises, or manipulate a person to stay will only build future resentment. Space will allow for healing to occur and for each person to find their own path—together or as separate individuals.
I was so afraid of what people would think of me or say about my situation. I kept it completely private, even after my divorce was final. If I could do it all over again, I would have actively sought out support much earlier. I believe it would have helped me get to a healthier place without enduring so much more pain through the process. Regardless, I do feel that divorce was the best option in my situation.
Having an objective viewpoint—someone without attachment to you or your partner—will help you see a clearer perspective. The key is to be honest, vulnerable, and willing to listen when you hear the truth. Don’t allow the false sense of failure that shame attempts to place upon you or fear of the unknown to control your responses and/or actions. I truly feel surrendering the desire to control creates the healthiest relationship of all—the one with ourselves. At that moment, we’re able to best love ourselves and attract the kind of love we all long for as human beings.
Even in a toxic relationship, most people aren’t seeking to hurt one another. Despite total acts of selfishness, there is usually some level of care for each other’s well-being. The truth can be difficult to share, but it’s also the one selfless act at the end of a marriage that can bring everyone involved a sense of relief, freedom, and an ability to move forward.
The key is to have patience and honesty with yourself. Building a relationship with another person is a process, as well as moving through the detachment phase when a relationship is ending. Many of the details may differ, but everyone navigates through the same steps when ending a marriage.
You shouldn’t be concerned with any timetable other than your own, even as well-intentioned people offer advice and support. As you work through ending a relationship in one part of your life, you will most likely find that you are uncovering a deep and meaningful understanding of yourself in other areas of your life.
Trust your heart and give yourself the care you deserve while minimizing unnecessary drama. Marriages can end with partners sharing respect and kindness, especially as they work to co-parent children. Like scar tissue, your heart can heal and become stronger—it will be better for you, your family, and your future.
“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” ~ Brene Brown