WTEWYSTTE: Rethinking Your Marriage

So next in our WTEWYSTTE series: rethinking your marriage.  Or, why did I think that it was a good idea to share my closet with this chump, again?

Aurelia pointed out once that few of us blog forthrightly about the issues in our marriage.  I hesitate to do so, because it treads awfully close to my own rule about not writing about anyone else.  But I’m going to throw this out there and let the chips fall where they may.  And I am reserving the right to pull this post down later if I start to feel as if I am/have violated Manly’s confidentiality in any way.

Cultural expectations for marriage almost always include procreation of offspring.  I’ve remarked before that this expectation is one of the reasons that childless couples face so much social pressure — by not producing children, they are seen as outsiders refusing to conform to societal norms.  So what does this mean for couples who married under this expectation and now find themselves in a position where they are unable to fulfill the implied obligation?  I invite you now to review the concept of a psychological contract. *jeopary music*   Make sense?  I know it’s normally applied to employer–employee relations, but I think that there’s a valid correlation to the shared expectations in a marriage.  The two ways that a breach of the psychological contract can be repaired can be boiled down to the essentials: walk away from the relationship, or re-forge the contract to reflect the changes in the situation.

A million years ago, when I thought that we were going to end up with children in the end, I read a post on a message board where a woman shared that when confronted with the possibility of never having children with her husband, she responded: Well, maybe we should re-think whether we want to stay married or not.  At the time, I couldn’t really understand her comment.  Why would not having kids be a reason to end your marriage?  I mean, we all said “for better or worse”, right?  And why wouldn’t you feel that way during treatment or right after you found out instead of after deciding to walk away?  Now, I completely understand what she was feeling.  When you first realize you’re infertile, the psychological expectations for producing children have not been forgone; most of us (90+% of us, I’d guess), still think that we’ll eventually end up as parents.  It’s just one of the “worse” times in a marriage, something to be weathered together, with a bright future on the other side.  And while you’re going through treatment, you HAVE to believe that they’ll work in the end.  Otherwise, none of us would go through the hell of having cameras pushed up our hoo-has, shooting up and/or gulping down medicine that wreaks havoc on body and mind, rescheduling work and life around doctor’s visits, sore elbows from all the blood draws, et cetera.  But in the end, when you finally decide to stop and walk away, you necessarily have to leave behind the belief that childlessness is a temporary event that eventually will be overcome. 

The first few weeks after deciding that we weren’t going to proceed, I was miserable.  I cried and cried and then cried some more.  Then I got to the point where I would just tear up.  And once I got that sadness out of my system, I went (looking back), a little manic.  I spent money, I bought stuff for the house, I cleaned, I cooked every night, I drank, I smoked, I hosted Christmas parties, I loved on my niece — there was nothing bad about this life, no, not here!  Everything’s great, all spiffy and shiny and I can spend my life thinking about me and not dealing with Fischer Price or snotty noses or PTA meetings.  And that lasted for months.  I wans’t consciously trying the “fake it til you make it” process — I was really quite entertained with life and with the possibilities I could see ahead. 

Now I’m slowly coming down off of that high, and taking a look at how our future really is going to play out.  I’m looking at the fact that we don’t have wills or living wills in place.  That we’re going to need to make sure we’re as financially sound as possible, since we won’t have kids to move in with or take care of us.  That we’re going to need long-term care insurance.  That one of us is eventually going to die before the other, and how that needs to be handled.  That our next house probably needs to be a one-story, because we’re going to be getting old in it.  That we really need to start taking better care of ourselves because it just going to be the two of us together in this world. 

Those are the big picture, long term worries.  But they lead to immediate, pressing questions about our union.  Take our monetary styles as an example: his first priority is to, in my view, buy toys and have fun now!  I, OTOH, want to jack up the 401K contribution and restore the foundation under the garage.  Which leads to resentment from both of us — from me that he’s expecting me to do all the work while he plays the rest of his life, from him that I expect him to give up the things he’s worked to get while I have access to more money anyway.  He thinks I’m a killjoy, I think he’s irresponsible.  Marriages have dissolved over this even without infertility.  Or sex; suffice to say that he always wants more and I really could be happy with less.  And dear god, if you wait until I am going to bed to go to sleep to ask for some, be prepared to be told to piss off.  You should have planned ahead.

Those kind of tactical, operational, boots on the ground decisions feed back into a layer of questions somewhere more theoretical but not quite big-picture: the what-ifs.  For example, if he’s this irresponsible now, is he ever going to change?  By denying him the opportunity to gain some perspective and maturity through fatherhood, have I condemned myself to living forever with (in the immortal words of Edward Norton), a “thirty-year-old boy”?  That’s not something that I’m willing to tolerate.  And while I’m trying very earnestly to deal with the emotional fallout of being childless, he’s down there watching reruns of startrek.  By the time that he gets around to processing the impact of what has happened, will I still be able to afford any empathy towards his pain? 

Yet, this is all balanced against the reality that this is my husband.  Is he the man I married? No.  The past five years have changed him, just as I am not the woman he married.  Time works on all of us.  It is his body that I curl against at night, it is his arms that wrap around me when I come home each day.  I love him, with or without children.  That has never been in doubt.  The question is whether I can live with him for the next 50 years with no hope that who we are will ever be reflected in a pair of eyes shining back at us.  Whether he will grow to resent me for being unable to make him the man he wanted to be.  To see if we can find a new definition of marriage, of this union, that fulfills our needs even with the understanding that is not what we originally signed on for.

I don’t claim to have answers to all this.  I don’t claim to have answers to any of it, actually.  We are working through these questions one day at a time, navigating the waters as we reach them.  Some days are better than others.  At my worst, I want to move out, to run away, to cause him as much pain as I am feeling myself.  At my best, I can’t imagine how we could NOT be together until we die.  On most days, there’s a mix of the two.  Part of me, very rationally, thinks that things will get better when I finish school and we’re not so stressed for time.  Part of me, very irrationally, wants to just sell everything and run away to live on an island in the south Pacific for the rest of time.  But it is fucking hard to face this shit head-on, knowing that a wrong answer could have diastrous consequences for everyone involved.


19 thoughts on “WTEWYSTTE: Rethinking Your Marriage

  1. I think that at some point in the infertility rollercoaster, we all wonder if we married the right person. I think that this post could have been titled “Anger Expounded Upon, Part II”. I don’t think there are any right or wrong answers. There is only understanding. Can you two talk about how you are feeling? Can you share with Manly your anger and disappointment, even if he has heard it all before? Relationships are all compromise and negotiation, even with children.

    I also think it is an illusion to expect that our children will take care of us when we get old. There is no guarantee of that. This was one of the reasons I wanted to have children, but it just really speaks to my insecurities.

    It is hard to create a new identity of yourself and your relationship when for so long that identity involved having children. Our society doesn’t really help us out with this one either. I’m struggling with that new identity also.

  2. very interesting issues you raise. it’s true any one of the more “pressing” issues you describe could tear a couple apart, even without infertility. but it all takes such a toll that I’ve wondered whether we would survive, even with a strong foundation…

    I think part of the pursuit of parenthood is being ready for that growth as humans — individually and within a relationship — growing with the joys and challenges that can bring you to a new level. it’s so hard to imagine how to nurture that development when it becomes clear there will be no little ones…

    I hope you can work through these issues however is best for you…

  3. Well, whatever your answer – one thing is for sure – it will not be the wrong one. It will simply be a choice on this path of life which will lead you to other choices. While you may look back and “knowing what you know now” make a different decision – you wouldn’t really “know now” without making that decision.

    Allow yourself to be unsettled and rather than doubt – simply question – like it sounds like you are doing. And please keep writing – for although I am not faced with the certainty of childlessness in my marriage, there is certainly that possibility. I’m so glad you are sharing.

    Thank you,

  4. Beautifully written and quite accurate. As I read, I thought about my own marriage and how it has evolved over the years; how we have evolved. Had we not, I wonder if we would still be together. The idea of marriage predisposes an idea that we not stay the same. Yet, so many couple live in sameness and one or the other (or both) refuse to move, change or evolve. Therein lies the danger.
    Infertility has changed us forever, but rather than cling to those earlier notions of what our lives would have looked like, we are trying to make a new picture for ourselves.
    For me, it is guilt that rules. I feel guilty for not being able to complete the picture for him. But, as the Star Trek blares from the TV, I wonder how much he really cares.

  5. It’s hard to look at all of these issues without making assumptions. I think perhaps you are making some assumptions about what your life would have been like with children: children will support you in old age, children will make Manly become more mature. You don’t really know if this true or not. You do know that if there are no children, they can’t support you, and Manly right now is not acting on a level of maturity that you would like.

    I think it’s important for you to keep the lines of the communication open. As you note, you are not the same people you were five years ago, so continuing to know who you are and who you are becoming is important. I get the sense that you are still feeling uncertain and unsettled about your decision to stop trying, at least in how you and Manly feel about it and how you and he are going to plan your life for a different future than what you had envisioned. You’ve reached the “stop” point, but are still struggling with the “now what?” I don’t know when the time is right to discuss these things more, but I hope you continue to keep the lines of communication open.

  6. Thank you for your honesty. No marriage is perfect, but I think those of us who wind up childless find ourselves pressured (or placing pressure on ourselves) to have this great marriage as compensation. I think that parents sometimes become so wrapped up in their kids that they neglect their marriage — while those of us without kids maybe focus too much on the marriage & become too dependent on each other for fulfillment. There has to be a balance somewhere…

    My own marriage is pretty amazing, 97% of the time… but there are times (like this morning…!!) when my dh is acting like a jerk & I think, “Who needs kids, I already have one??” I also think that he would never act this way if we had kids (someone has to be the adult)… so why is it that I have to put up with it now?? ARGH.

  7. I think this will best be hammered out over a margarita at dinner tomorrow. I am ALWAYS available to talk. I walked away from my first marriage due to major differences like you describe. Not only did we have different priorities in life, but when it came to infertility as well. He did not want to adopt (“It wouldn’t be mine.” His EXACT words.) Nor did he want to go through ART. It’s a very difficult debate on both fronts.

    I will see you tomorrow at dinner, and we’ll girl talk. Just know that my crystal ball was shoved up the ass of some idiot who told me to relax years ago!

  8. I have been mulling over the idea of the marriage contract you wrote about for some time. When we married, children were part of our contract, and our expectations of the marriage. In fact, we included it in our vows.

    Now that there will not be any children…I wish we had not included it in our vows. It makes me want to have a “do-over” wedding. We probably will once I am fully sure that I have left my dreams of motherhood behind, and feel confident in my commitment to a marriage without children.

  9. I don’t have the right words for you. Mostly because I think the opposite would of been true for us if we continued in treatments. That would have been our breaking point.

    Ultimately, you need to do what is right for you. So, I’ll be here if you need to talk.

  10. Oh, man, you put it so well. When we finally reached in the point in our relationship where we were on the same page about having children, we couldn’t. The resulting fallout put an enormous strain on our marriage. And even when we were in counselling, I kept thinking if he had been more mature years ago we would have gotten married earlier and tried for children earlier. I mean, my husband actually said if we had had children, he never would have brought up the issue of his discontent with me. After all, I’d be the mother of his child and my role in our marriage, I guess, would have been clearer. Without a child, I was just this miserable stranger sitting on the couch eating “bonbons” with no direction in my life. Yes, it was good that I got a wakeup call to get more invested in my life, but it almost drove me away. My anger at where we had found ourselves was overwhelming. I dug deep and fought to re-define my life for myself, not for him. I had never felt so alone in my marriage. I almost forgot about him in my determination to make him eat crow. We both realized that we needed to build another dream, another life – together.

  11. I think one of the biggest mistakes/misconceptions couples have in going into a marriage is that all expectations of the norm will happen. I wanted children. He was vehemently opposed. But we married b/c we loved each other. Future issues must be dealt with as they come up. Sometimes those issues take years to resolve, and some never do.

    While you said you didn’t felt like you might be breaking your rules by talking about your husband, you didn’t mention how you think HE feels about not having children. Has HE accepted it or does he still grieve? It’s hard to get them to be honest about their feelings b/c maybe he’s thinking the same thing you are, that he’s not sure if the truth will either forge your relationship or break it down.

    If nothing else, universally all couples go through stages of wondering “what if”. My husband has actually admitted that he wonders if he shouldn’t have married the girlfriend before me who already had a child and started a family earlier and raising teenagers instead of facing a newborn at 44.

  12. Your posts are so insightful- you find the perfect way to put into words what I am thinking and going through. Thank you!

  13. Sharah, thanks for doing this. I worry that I am alone in the blogosphere on this subject, but at least I know there is one more woman married to an imperfect guy!

    Funny thing, but I would have been the woman who said that I needed to rethink my marriage if there were no kids, for sure. Not because I didn’t love my husband, but because to me, the most important goal in my life was to have biological kids. I needed that link. The husband and marriage were a different thing altogether, nice to have, but not the end goal.

    And if I was going to be married to someone, we had to share the same end goals. If we had agreed to raise pot-bellied pigs, then we had to do it. If we had agreed to fly to the moon then we had to do it.

    And if we were going to have children, then we had to do everything on earth to do it.

    I’m very goal-oriented, can you tell? hehe

    As for you two, I really don’t understand why you accept his silence on the subject of why to end treatment. If you both agreed to stop and had discussed it, then maybe you wouldn’t have to keep talking about it, but I don’t see why he should just get to not talk about something so important to you.

    If he is bad at talking about it, then drag him to a therapist, but total silence? You deserve better.

  14. Sharah, This is a well said post. It brought tears to my eyes for you. Marriage is for better or for worse. Most of us don’t truly know the meaning of that until we get to the “for worse” part. And as far as infertility goes. I’m sorry you’ve come down off your high. I was so amazed that you had stayed up for so long–something I never had in me. Often, I hope to click on your site and see that you’ve been unexpectedly surprised, but when I get here, I find an even better reality–that you continue to find your way through, and stay on the path to your own peace, no matter what. Keep walking. You’ll get wherever it is you need to be.

  15. Well said, Sharah. I could have cut and pasted that post to my own blog, only because it so describes my point in marriage to the “t”….I dont’ have answers. And most days, I find myself thinking about anything BUT finding answers. I am in limbo as well. not knowing if I should make an effort to recommit to my marriage, or walk away-both seem equally, well, crappy.

    So, I understand. That’s all I can say…because I sure as hell don’t have answers. I understand completely.

  16. Sweet mary, Sharah. This is an amazingly well-done post. I’ve been backlogged and I’m just catching up. All the issues you raise are valid ones (and so cogently discussed!) Would Sarge and I be able to go the distance if we weren’t parents? How would our marriage look in ten years? In twenty? Would the strain of unmet expectations pile up and crack us apart? I don’t know. Like everyone else, I don’t have any answers. I just know you’re not alone in your wondering.

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