The Case for Staying Married to a Spouse You Cannot Stand

My husband and I celebrated 19 years of marriage in December. I am only 37, which means I have been married more than half my life. Much of that time has been very happy, but there have also been days — even years — when I could not bear the thought of staying.

In our Hasidic community, we did not marry for love (although I was certain I fell for him when he confirmed during our short “beshow,” the traditional first meeting between a prospective couple, that he, too, was a TalkRadio 77 groupie). We come from a long line of couples whose marriages were arranged. Some grew to love their partners. Most persevered. So when I found myself lying awake at night thinking, “Leave,” or “You deserve better,” I felt like a failure.

Five years in, our marriage had experienced the kind of seismic changes few relationships see in a lifetime. Whatever love survived was overshadowed by bitter irritation and sometimes even hate.

“Hate is a strong word,” I would tell my kids when they were little if they passionately expressed their displeasure with a teacher or their aversion to certain foods. But hatred is also a strong feeling — and a real one. The hatred I sometimes felt for my husband then was a lacerating and all-consuming resentment.

We had moved out of our Hasidic community in New York, and he — a circumspect man — was resisting the rapid modernization I demanded of him. I loathed his comfort with the lingering strictures of our Hasidic upbringing. He was exasperated with me. I called him dreadful names. He responded to my contempt with silence. When he let my insults slide to preserve the peace, I found myself hating him for his dispassion.

Despite those intense feelings and my attendant everyday unhappiness, I stayed with him. And I am glad I did. I realize this idea is at odds with our current culture, which insists that marriage should be, if not constantly blissful, free from the intense animus that many married people of previous generations endured.

While today we generally understand that marriage is complicated and imperfect, as is reflected in the entertainment we consume — in “The Sopranos,” “The Crown,” even with the Obamas — years of hatred or the inability to stand your spouse still seems beyond our common idea of what a marriage could, or should, survive.

To be clear, I am not talking about staying in abusive relationships, which make up a whopping 20 percent of all marriages and intimate partnerships, and should be left as soon as safely possible.

Still, it is worth bearing in mind that divorce may not be a paradise — statistics show that many people are worse off after they split up. Divorce increases one’s risk of living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 survey. Remarriages, statistics show, have a higher chance of ending in divorce than first marriages. Single mothers are also disproportionately burdened with raising their children.

Statistics may be unlikely to convince anyone to stay. But I believe we should explore why, so often, our culture encourages us to run from the ambivalent space between “happy” and “irreconcilable differences” — and why we frequently rush to celebrate divorce as the brave and logical end to discontent.

Some experts say it’s time to rethink the foundational tenets of a successful marriage. I am a big believer in the Gottman Method of couples counseling, developed by the psychologists John and Julie Gottman, which helped me and my husband emerge from a dark decade. In his book, “The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy,” John Gottman has modest expectations for what qualifies as a fulfilling marriage. “I am likely to think a marriage is good enough if the two spouses choose to have coffee and pastries together on a Saturday afternoon and really enjoy the conversation, even if they don’t heal one another’s childhood wounds or don’t always have wall-socket, mind-blowing, skyrocket sex,” he writes.

In my case, my husband and I already had a history of enduring difficulty and finding the good enough marriage on the other side. For a distressing while there at the start of our union, we were strangers sharing a home. As you might expect, love did not, to quote “Madame Bovary,” “come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings.” To build romance and companionship often felt like tilling a desert. Once love blossomed, it was inconsistent. It could be both an effervescent presence or leave a yawning emptiness.

Five years in, our stringent Hasidic community began to feel, for both of us, like an outfit three sizes too small. The lifestyle was too confining. We left town as pariahs with two babies in tow and settled in a more open Orthodox community. My new freedom intoxicated me, consuming my compassion for my husband, who was not exactly a hound for rapid change.

What followed was that decade during which we fought like cats in the wild. What we’d harvested in those early years — affection, waxing friendship, tentative understanding of the other’s needs — went the way of my Hasidic garb.

I might have left then if not for his ineffable patience with my brutal disquietude, a still flickering love — and therapy.

But 10 years is a long time to put up with someone you loathe, even if there may be 20 happier ones on the other side of it. As the days stretch on, how are we to know if our specific misery is temporary? Where is the line? How do you know when it actually is worth dissolving a marriage?

It’s a fuzzy line, says Dr. Julie Gottman. “It’s not where one partner hates the other,” she told me. “Instead, it’s when one partner feels total apathy toward the other. There are no embers of love left to blow on.”

She says that most marriages fall apart because people too often don’t know how to create a loving, warm relationship. That’s where good counseling can help.

Another tool that might be helpful is a symbolic remarriage. Esther Perel, psychotherapist to the masses, introduced me to this concept of renewal, an idea central to Jewish faith and practice. You can have multiple marriages with the same spouse, she has said.

“Want to marry again?” I texted my husband. We had been in therapy and were slowly, painfully emerging back into daylight. I felt that to persevere for another decade, and another after that, I could, without vows and pomp, get to know my husband again — the person he became, not the one I had married. And in doing so, I could make room for us to grow out of our previous marriage.

Recently, on a quiet Sabbath morning, the sun moseying up and around our living room windows, we drank coffee and nibbled on babka, as one does on Sabbath mornings. The conversation rolled from our dream home to our teenagers to this story I’d read and that bit of work news he hadn’t shared, and I leaned my head on my husband’s shoulder and whispered, “Isn’t this nice?”

I do not possess the language to describe the kind of easy rapport and mellowed love that flourishes after so many years of marriage. I do not know how or why it happened, but it did, and I am grateful, to the marrow — not only because I love and respect my husband more deeply today (which I do), or because our children have both parents under one roof, or because divorce might have been a lateral move. I am grateful because, to riff on Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson), what does not kill your marriage makes your love stronger. And isn’t that worth fighting for?

Frimet Goldberger writes about societal attitudes toward arranged and modern marriages, as well as the state of traditional Jewish communities in America.

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