Hello there, troubled Letter Writers:
You both wrote to me about a situation where these were consistent facts:
- Spouse A felt (legitimately/admittedly) very neglected and ignored for a long time and like they were doing the bulk of childcare/household/keeping the relationship going.
- Spouse A formed a close bond with someone else, a close friendship that turned into an emotional affair that now wants to become a romantic/sexual relationship as well, involving someone from their church.
- Spouse A was honest about where things were and proposed some kind of open marriage/polyamory situation.
- Spouse B is trying to do better, generally, and desperately wants to save/fix the marriage. They are anti-open marriage, strongly anti-opening it to Church Friend but are (resentfully, reluctantly) considering going along with it if that’s what it takes to stay married.
- Spouse B has asked Spouse A to stop communicating with Church Friend and Spouse A has (reluctantly, resentfully) complied for now.
- Spouses A & B have at least one child.
- Free space for “Pandemic” and “Lots of other shit going on” that got refracted through the marriage and this whole situation.
- You’re going to try couple’s counseling.
There were more words than that but now those reading along at home know about as much as I do.
Letter Writers, I am not a marriage counselor, I’m not your marriage counselor, and there are some things I cannot and/or will not do:
- Tell you whether to stay together or get a divorce
- Tell you how to successfully “open up” a collapsing relationship where, from what I can tell, one partner really, really doesn’t want to
- Tell you who is more right, justified, or at fault
- Tell you what the future looks like or what the right thing to do is
- Post your letters for the whole Internet to see (I can, but I won’t. You’ll thank me for that someday, if for nothing else)
- Mediate interpersonal conflicts
- Pretend that we all don’t know that both of you wrote to me, that notes won’t be compared and possibly used as ammunition down the road if things deteriorate more. As I see it, I can address you jointly or not at all, so here we are.
But since I can’t stop thinking about your letters, what I’m going to do is assign a little homework that will hopefully reduce fear and bring some clarity as you go into that counseling process. Think of it as a starting point or lens for making a big decision when all the options seem bad.
Step 1: Within the next week, I want you to give each other the gift of 24 hours of peace and solitude, where one spouse takes on all childcare, chores, and household management while the other heads to a hotel for a night, then you switch. During that period, unless something is bleeding, dead, or on fire – a true emergency that requires the other person’s immediate attention – you leave each other alone.
Step 2: During your 24 hours of peace and quiet, I want you to each to think through what the most ethical, peaceful, kind, legal separation would look like. I know there are big feelings swirling around and sexy temptations in the wings, but I want you to think in terms of going it alone (vs. being with a new/additional partner), so you can focus on caring for and deciding things for yourself that doesn’t revolve around getting another person to feel a certain way. For example, if it were completely up to you:
- Where would you live?
- How would money and property work out?
- What kind of co-parenting and custody arrangement would you create together for maximum stability and care? I don’t believe in “staying together for the children” but since you are parents there is an Order of Operations where you map out how to be good parents even if you’re not together anymore.
- If you stopped discussing romance/feelings/sex/The Future with each other for a while except for counseling sessions, what kind of stuff could you talk about civilly and productively in the short-term? What are some “safe” topics of conversation? What must get discussed, done, and decided no matter how anyone feels about anyone right now?
- What support could you call upon from friends, family, and your community – Child care? Employment? Moving boxes? Friendship/social life/emotional support/mental health? Legal help?
- What would you want to tell other people you know about all this and how would you do the telling?
- What steps and agreements would make you best able to take care of yourself and your children in case of a separation?
- What steps and agreements would leave your spouse in the best position to take care of themselves and your children?
Take it step by step, make notes, run numbers, write down questions as they occur to you. Nobody’s ever going to read this except you, so be honest.
I know this is a weird assignment, especially for people who swear up and down they want to stay married. Divorce is scary and sad and painful, it’s a thing that people go to couples’ counseling to avoid, or to at least know that they tried everything to avoid. Even when it’s the right thing to do, ending a marriage can still reek of shame and failure, especially among churchgoing folks, which you both seem to be.
But here’s my reasoning:
It’s almost impossible to repair something without first admitting how broken it is. Whatever should be happening, whatever anybody promised, what is happening between you is pretty bad. And right now, as you both cycle through possible compromises, fears about the future, and grievances about the past & present, it’s a little like you’re rearranging the furniture in a burning house. Should you get a new sofa or reupholster the old one or get matching recliners? I don’t know, the floor is lava! Whether you tear the place down and rebuild or move, it’s going to look really different from now on. Temporarily, deliberately embracing the worst case scenario is a way of acknowledging just how different, and shifting priorities accordingly: What can you save, what can you carry, what could you live without? Knowing is a little better than not knowing, so start there: “If the thing I fear actually happens, what will I do? Then what will I do? What will I do after that?” You can’t control what other people will do, so how do you approach each choice in front of you with integrity?
Envisioning and planning for the scariest realistic outcome is like clocking where the emergency exits are: You hope you’ll never have to use that information, but mapping scary situations (Emergency!) to possible actions you can take (Go to the nearest emergency exit!) can help you put them in perspective and remind yourself that you have options, options that include leaving a situation that is causing you pain. Staying and working on a relationship knowing that you could survive and rebuild after a breakup is a different prospect than staying because you feel like there’s no other choice.
Working through options and generating possible actions is a means of harnessing your imagination to work for you to solve problems (instead of just generating new disasters for a change), and being as specific, concrete, and real as possible has a way of clarifying what your boundaries and needs truly are. “I’ll agree to almost anything to avoid being alone even if I know it would be bad for me, but I won’t pretend to like it” is a bad negotiating position, and compromises forged in fear, willful avoidance, resentment, and desperation rarely hold. At minimum, an honest reckoning with your options – including the shitty ones – can save you from expending energy pretending to consider compromises that you already know won’t serve and then causing even more pain and disruption when one or both of you inevitably goes back on promises you made under duress.
Counterintuitive or not, I think that once you’ve mentally grappled with the worst case scenario, it’s sometimes easier to be open to discussing alternatives. If the worst thing happens, you’ll deal with it, you already know how you’ll deal with it, so you don’t have to center it while you work on options B, C, D, E, and so on. It also gives you a baseline to compare other options to. Is option B better/worse for you than possibly breaking up forever, an eventuality you’ve planned for? Yes/No? Great, what’s next?
I don’t know where the middle ground is between “I want an open marriage so that I can be with one specific person” and “I don’t want an open marriage at all, and definitely not because of that specific person” which is why I’m leaving the whole middle ground territory to you and your couple’s counselor, who will likely attempt to help you look for the things that bind you together and for ways that it could all still work out. There are whole books about polyamory and open relationships and how to do it well, and you could both read those and eventually make some more educated, less “or else!” decisions about that whole deal, that’s also not my area. From here, my map looks like a maze with two starting points at opposite ends, each marked “The Least Worst Divorce Possible.” In the center is a garden that looks nice, but I can’t quite read the labels, they keep changing. In the meantime, I’ve got a ball of string for each of you to help map your way back toward each other or pass safely out the other side of the maze (one way or another), and I wish you maximum luck, fortune, and kindness as you undertake this very difficult thing.
I will not be taking follow-up questions.