“Our marriage ended when I lost respect for my husband,” Jan said thoughtfully.
“I loved that man so much. I admired him and respected him and thought the world of him. To me, he was like a movie star and a sage all rolled together. I felt so lucky to be with him.
“It took years of battering and beating before that halo fell off his head. If he hadn’t treated me the way he did, I’d still be with him, thinking the sun shone out of his … you know.”
Many stories have been told about why marriages die. Some believe it’s because both people stop trying, or the novelty is gone, or they don’t have the right communication skills.
But I believe there’s another story.
It’s a story about the loss of respect.
When you lose respect for one another, that really is the beginning of the end. That’s when the Four Horsemen rear their heads—contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. You lose your inhibitions. You start saying things that are deliberately cruel. You don’t feel any need to impress one another. You stop treading softly around each other’s tender places.
Many couples stay together until the bitter end, despising one another. You can remain married to someone you don’t respect. But there’s a funny thing:
When someone doesn’t respect you, it’s hard to respect them.
That’s what Jan was referring to. She thought that nothing could shake her belief in her spouse, until he started treating her like a servant instead of his queen. He mocked her, excluded her, and seemed embarrassed of her around his friends. When they fought, he told her that she disgusted him.
At first, his accusations hit Jan like a sack of bricks. Was she truly so awful, so terrible? Was he seeing something in her she’d hidden even to herself?
She become more compliant, more amenable, quieter. Her confidence in herself was shaken. If this man, whom she adored, was disgusted by her, then what did that say about her?
Luckily, Jan got help.
She spoke with a trusted professional and shared what was going on in her marriage. By speaking about it out loud and hearing her words reflected back to her, she could see that what was going on wasn’t entirely her fault. Her husband’s disgust in her wasn’t a source of personal shame. Rather, it was a wake-up call.
When you love someone, their behavior may appall you, but you always love them. You may speak out in criticism of what they’ve done, but your love for who they are stays strong.
That’s how Jan felt about her husband, but it wasn’t how her husband felt about her.
That’s when Jan’s respect for her husband began to crumble. Six months later, they ended their marriage.
“I couldn’t stay married to someone who didn’t respect me,” she explained. “He had no reason to treat me well. Maybe he threw me a bone or two because he was feeling generous, but it really came down to whim. He owned me, and he could do what he liked to me, because he knew I was committed to the marriage and wouldn’t leave.”
“But you did leave,” I said.
“I did.” She nodded. “I wonder if all marriages end this way. You get to know someone so well that you see all their shadows and dark places, then you stop respecting them, and they stop respecting you.”
We sat quietly for a few moments.
“Sometimes,” I said, “you see someone’s shadows and dark places, and you love them even more. They become real to you, rather than this god you’ve put on a pedestal. You want to take care of them. It’s like, you want to be the sunshine and rain that composts the crap of their lives into rich, fertile soil.”
Jan laughed. “He had a lot of crap, that’s for sure. I just wish he wasn’t so embarrassed of mine.”
“Someday,” I said, “you’ll meet someone who won’t be.”