There’s a couple I worked with for over a year. Recently, he made the decision to end their marriage. He didn’t seem to have made this lightly; rather, it was after much soul searching and individual therapy. His wife was understandably angry. They’d been together since they were in high school, and have kids.
She pointed out that he had made a lifelong commitment, that he’s supposed to keep working at it even when it’s hard. He responded that it was too hard–everything was a struggle, he was constantly setting aside his personal happiness, and fighting irritability because of it. He felt they both deserved better than that state of affairs. Which of them is right?
Sadly, I think they’re both right. Sometimes commitment should trump personal happiness; sometimes couples who have been together since they were young just grow in different ways and it becomes incredibly difficult to reconcile those differences. Ultimately, his decision prevails. Whoever is firm about leaving, wins.
It was emotional for me because I could tell that the wife–who I like and care for–was angry at me, too. I think she felt that I had failed them, and in the session where he announced his decision, that I hadn’t fought hard enough for their marriage. He said he wasn’t there to debate the decision, that he was entirely resolved, and I took him at his word.
My next move was to ask how I could help them grieve and move forward and co-parent in a healthy way. But I felt myself starting to tear up in session because they were both in so much pain. Just because he was leaving didn’t mean that he didn’t feel the loss. Her emotion was so fresh and raw and palpable that it was hard to watch.
I told them what this reminded me of: The book “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” by Shel Silverstein. It is a series of black-and-white drawings of a missing piece, who looks like a slice of pie. He (or she) is trying to find a mate, and finally, fits perfectly into a Pacman-shaped entity. Together they form a circle, and are able to roll along . Until one day, the missing piece begins to grow, and they can’t roll anymore.
“I didn’t realize you were going to grow,” said the Pacman. “I didn’t realize either,” answered the piece. Pacman gently sets down the piece, and they say goodbye with great sadness.
The reason it reminded me of that couple is that they are each good and loving people who couldn’t fit together. The wife felt they should figure out a way to fit (no matter how much chafing and sawing that entailed) and the husband felt they need to accept that they’d grown and find missing pieces who suit the people they are now, not the ones they were as teenagers when they first found each other.
As a therapist, I aim for my couples to reach agreement: that they both want to keep working, or they both feel it needs to end. Sadly, sometimes that doesn’t happen. The reason I told them about “The Missing Piece” was because I want them to see their partnership as a success, because it lasted for so long and contained so much love, rather than as a failure because it is ending. I think their split can be seen as supporting their health and continued growth–as individuals, and as co-parents, not as a couple.
I think, especially, of the wife. Selfishly, I hope she forgives me for not being able to create a different outcome for her. But I believe that even if the ending of the marriage wasn’t her decision, it can ultimately bring her greater satisfaction and peace and new love. That’s what they both deserve, and what their children deserve to witness.
Spoiler alert: At the end of the book, the missing piece meets the titular Big O, who is self-contained. Big O teaches the missing piece how to roll until his/her edges smooth out. The final picture is of the two of them rolling along together.
Man leaving woman photo available from Shutterstock
Brown, H. (2013). Missing Pieces. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 10, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bonding-time/2013/01/missing-piece/