One of the first stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine follows the experiences of married couples faced with quarantine. “Perhaps global pandemic and marital strife go together,” muses the author. This isn’t the first prediction I’ve seen this week that divorce rates are going to spike when quarantines are lifted. But I’m wondering along with this author: “Does every quarantine scenario have to resemble Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’?” He quotes a psychoanalyst who says what you’ll need in this case is empathy.
For what it’s worth, here’s a personal anecdote from the recent history of my rather complicated marriage. (I acknowledge there is no other kind.) Laying aside specifics, here’s the general landscape. You can supply your own specifics if the landscape looks familiar.
We had hit another point in our cycle where we didn’t know how to make each other happy. Attempting any conversation usually meant inviting frustration, and probably also a fight. In a stroke of what I’ll call luck for the moment, we each stumbled simultaneously into our own lines of new thought as we processed, in our own ways, our shared experience of this familiar mess. The result was an apocalyptic and unplanned kitchen counter conversation that lasted (give-or-take) six hours, not factoring in the pauses involved in parenting three kids late on a Saturday. The conversation spawned a dozen more conversations over the next few days, and this is what I’d like to report:
We both made a daring decision to step into empathy, creating a space for our partner to share their own experience. We set aside our usual mode of processing these things because it just wasn’t delivering the results we were looking for. I am a firm believer in statements like “But I did my best” and “I couldn’t have done that differently.” I think it’s essential to the healing of wounded relationships and wounded selves for us to understand and honor the basic needs that drive us and how they cause us to respond to life. But a few years of practicing these rubrics of self-awareness and boundary-setting (“I’m sorry you are upset, but this is as much as I’m willing and able to give.” “I realize you don’t agree with me, but this is what I believe I have to do.”) had helped us grow and brought us to a place of mutual respect…and distance. In so many ways I have my life and he has his. We have “our” life, too, because we’re lucky to share a lot in common: kids, community, general conception of the world, taste in TV shows, appreciation for life’s simple joys, even vocation/career path. But we were each feeling alone most of the time, and not in a good way.
So instead of the familiar “But I did my best” routine, we tried something risky: Forgiveness. Round after round, we listened to each other’s personal accounts of this marriage – all ten chaotic years of it. (Cross-country move, multiple churches, multiple jobs, years of graduate work, self-employment, home renovations, three children and a miscarriage, just to catalog the big things.) We met every story with empathy and compassion. It went something like this:
“I experienced that.”
“I see you. I hear you. I remember. That must’ve been hard. I would’ve hated being in your shoes.”
“You weren’t what I needed in that moment. That happened to me because of you.”
“Oh. I hadn’t looked at it that way yet….”
And then would come the hard part, and it felt positively formulaic:
“…but I’m looking at it that way now. And I’m sorry.”
And then, the even harder part – part of the formula but feeling remarkably less formulaic:
“I forgive you.”
Over and over and over, constantly swapping roles, we took off our armor, laid down our weapons, and talked to each other about the marriage we’ve had. The ground rules: Empathy and forgiveness.
We’re not finished, but we’re getting good at the formula, and we feel safer with each other than we have in years. Our ten-year anniversary celebration was scheduled for last weekend and we had to swap out our travel plans for a cheeseboard on the living room rug. It was absurdly simple but incredibly beautiful to share a bottle of wine with this person who’s stuck with me for ten years of almost-constant drama, and to know that we are actually together: known, understood, accepted, safe, chosen. Loved.
Life is a genuine sh*t-storm, often. If you’re married to someone who loves you, it’s probably safer than you expect to acknowledge that you’re not perfect; to acknowledge that your finitude, your boundaries, your mistakes, your choices, your preferences, do in fact cost the people you love dearly. It’s safe to be curious about their experiences and to be the empathetic listener they need, even if they’re talking about you. It’s safe to agree with someone who is saying “You hurt me” if you’ve already agreed that the protocol in place is: “I’m sorry / I forgive you.”
I have shuddered a few times in the last week to wonder what our experience of this quarantine would’ve been if we hadn’t stumbled into that conversation when we did. So I’m telling our story, placing it among the myriad of “You may as well try this at home” offerings the almighty Internet is presenting us with as we sit alone wondering how to make it through this quarantine.