Roommates or Soulmates?

Published by Susan Raab-Cohen on

This piece from the NY Times beautifully captures the pain of an “avoid-avoid” or “withdraw-withdraw” relationship. Sometimes it’s very hard to help people take the small steps they need to take towards each other to build a different cycle in their relationship. Often, as in this story, one person wants and needs more but can’t figure out how to make it happen. Many times these couples look like they have an ideal relationship…but it’s not ideal, it’s devoid of intimacy. One of my favorite lines is: “Hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is.” Love needs to be dynamic, brave, changing.

Modern Love


Three years ago, my husband and I broke up after two decades of marriage.

Our path since has been so gentle that we have been the cause of confusion and gossip in our little Colorado mountain town. Both of our cars are often in the driveway, meals are frequently eaten together and logistics make it easier for us adults to switch houses rather than our children doing so.

Neighbors sometimes can’t tell the difference from before the split and after and need to be assured when they run into me at the post office: Yes, a breakup has indeed occurred.

By now, my response has become a well-rehearsed murmur: We like each other and always have. We are conflict-averse, quiet people. No one was at fault. The relationship (in my opinion, at least) had just run its natural course.

I remind them that breakups have a new paradigm; they don’t have to be hostile and hate-filled. They can be mindful, respectful. Humanity has evolved.

Also, I tell them, we’re thinking about our children, not only for the usual reasons of keeping them foremost in our minds during difficult times, but because in recent years they have already been traumatized by things beyond their control: evacuated for wildfires, cut off by historic flooding and exposed to loss and devastation.

The neighbors nod, knowing all too well the various natural disasters our area has endured. Those sirens and helicopters and newscasts still seem to blare loudly in our ears — another reason for us to go quietly about the dissolution of our marriage.

I smile at these neighbors and wave as they get into their cars. I do not speak about the sting of all this.

I don’t tell them how I recently sank to my knees and laughed in half-sorrow, half-relief, only because of this: My marriage had long ago turned into the cliché of roommate-ness, and that it could suffer such a change without any emotional upheaval was revealing. In fact, the silence said it all.

The words I don’t say to my neighbors, the words that get held on my tongue, are: I wish you had heard a fight. I wish our voices had been loud enough to carry across the valley. He and I may have free speech, but we’re not so good at frank speech.

Shakespeare had it right: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke.

What hurts most is not the loss of the marriage. What hurts most is that our relationship had never, evidently, been the kind worth raising one’s voice about.

But I’m getting louder. Now, I watch couples all the time — in movies, in novels and in real life — paying attention to the way they have conflict. I lean over in restaurants. I sit on a bench near the river where two people are talking. My favorite overheard conversations include lines like: “Really? That’s all you’re going to say?”

Or, “That’s not enough for me.”

Or, “That’s just not so, honey.”

Dialogue, basically, that pushes.

I want to hug such couples, tell them to keep it up.

The last time I tried to do that conversational push with my husband, I failed. And thus it was also the moment I decided to leave him.

It was an ordinary day, the house was quiet, and I was reading on the couch. He was reading a magazine while standing in the kitchen.

He always did that, happy to stand after a long day of sitting in meetings, and I suddenly realized it had been a decade since he and I had sat on the same couch at the same time. Perhaps we had sat together for a moment while one of us tied shoes or to discuss a calendar, but to actually watch a movie? Talk? Have sex? Fight? Raise our voices?

A roaring anger flew into my body and I wanted to push him with words: Why hadn’t he ever learned to sit on the couch with me? Why hadn’t I ever asked him to? But most important, why hadn’t we had a big damn fight about it?

After therapy, we had made no progress in solving our differences in how we experienced or received love. We had identified them, or at least I had: He disliked touching or snuggling; I did not. He wanted to stay at home on evenings and weekends; I wanted to go out. He disliked the sensation of two bodies being in proximity; I did not.

All these differences expanded over the years as we became our truer selves. Quietly. Sometimes I would open my mouth to say something about our growing distance. Probably he did, too.

But no. My mind would run through the list of reasons to keep quiet: I would come across as unreasonable, nagging or needy. He was tired. The children were in the house. They should not hear us fighting.

On the couch that day, I watched him flip through the pages of his magazine. He glanced up, met my eyes and went back to reading. I let out a quiet sigh. I watched my breath expel the anger from my body, let any fight I had left in me dissipate.

I could nearly see my exhaled stew of emotions; it looked like glitter floating around, drifting to the floor. I wasn’t high, but I felt like it. The patterns in the sunlight suddenly struck me as the most painfully beautiful things I had ever seen. Silent sparkles swirling around, making a decision.

A few days later I got the words out: I was leaving. While our friendship had sustained us for 20 years, and we were both the better for it, I wanted more. I was sure we could manage the coming split with respect and dignity. I was sure we could guide our children through it with love and devotion.

He sat on the couch with me as I told him. My voice shook with the words I was trying to say — speaking my mind felt awkward and new — but I got them out. I looked at him and awaited a response.

“Are you sure?” he said.

I nodded. I waited. I was not sure. I was waiting for his big reaction, or mine. I was waiting to see how this discussion would go.

It went as always: quietly, reasonably, without obvious anger or raised voices.

It has been quiet ever since. We are simply not capable of sound and fury, I’ve decided.

I sometimes wonder if our inability to strike out is heartbreakingly rooted in our love for one another. Because we did and do love each other. And we both had been so injured by our violent and loud childhoods that we found refuge and joy in the quiet.

But that kind of love often doesn’t survive life, and in the end, our silence was less about respect or affection or love than it was about cowardice. He and I were equal partners in that, turning inward instead of speaking out.

So we have gently floated on. The children stay put in the same house, and he and I amicably rotate back and forth. The mountains have greened up again. There hasn’t been a major fire in years.

My current boyfriend loves banter. He chats all the time about ideas, movies, songs, his day, bad drivers and the fact that he loves the look of horses standing in a field. He grows annoyed when I don’t push him back with words or ideas. That’s what conversation is for, he argues.

I laugh and engage. We also have big, complicated disagreements. I am no longer interested in silence.

I sometimes laugh to myself when I hear someone say, “I’m a drama-free gal.” I know what she means, and I appreciate peaceable ways. But something about that phrase also breaks my heart.

My ex and I still take walks to catch up on things, to discuss logistical or parental matters. On these walks, I sometimes start a conversation of substance, just to see if we can do it better. We can’t. We retreat swiftly to talk of holidays and events and plans: Thanksgiving, our daughter’s violin concert, the meeting at the town hall.

On these walks, the neighbors will sometimes stop us to ask cautious questions. Our demeanor is so calm and quiet they must feel a need to have us once again confirm our split. They will congratulate us on a separation so well done.

And I will nod, in silence.

Categories: EFTMarriage


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