part one: drowning

Why?

As Frank and I were emerging from the fog of a hard season of our marriage, we both said that we never wanted to be so far from each other again. Frank asked me to write down our experience so that we could remember and learn and remind ourselves as needed. We also felt that perhaps sharing our struggles as openly and honestly as possible would help other couples in a dark season find their way back to each other.

This was not an easy thing to write. It took several months, many drafts, many starts and stops and starts. We had many conversations and a few texts about the topic. I wrote this in three parts because I think it’s important to share specifics about what we went through. Just saying, “It was hard!” seems too broad and too open to interpretation. “Hard” is a subjective word and for some “hard” may mean “a few times last week my spouse was annoying” and for others it may mean that their spouse had an affair.

The nature of our difficult season didn’t involve an affair or any other obvious transgressions; our hard season was more about two people living separately together.

So… here you go. Part one of our three part story:

We found ourselves in a therapist’s office two summers ago. Frank sat next to me, preparing to run through the highlights of “our issues.” I felt myself bracing for impact.

And how did we even get here?

When we really examined our marriage, sitting in the therapist’s office and in conversations at home, we realized that the situation we were in began months and maybe years before. As we swam through the murky feelings of loneliness and hurt and sadness, the image that stayed with me was that we were silently and slowly drowning.

This image of drowning is powerful for me: I witnessed a cousin nearly drown when I was in grade school. The transition from “fine” to “drowning” was so subtle that it was nearly impossible to realize what was going on. My cousin had been jumping into the pool and climbing out and jumping in again – and then one of his jumps was a little too far out and too far over. Just a few inches and he was doing the silent, terrifying bob. Mouth open, no screaming – only gasping, under water, above water, gasping, grasping.

I saw it happening and I was too young to really understand the seriousness of the situation. My mother, from across the pool, saw what was happening to my cousin and knew he was in terrible trouble. My mom is a woman who is more closely associated with fun and celebration and joy and laughter. But in those moments of terror, she was fierce. She took two, maybe three, efficient steps across the pool deck before executing a perfect, on-point shallow dive. When she came up for air, she had my cousin in her arms.

Those moments of witnessing him drowning and my mom swiftly recovering him were moments that passed slowly and without sound in my memory. And the moment he was lifted out of the water: the sound returned and time recovered. He screamed and then cried.  He sat on the pool deck, wrapped in a towel, understandably upset.

When our marriage was struggling, the descent into drowning was imperceptible. It was as small as a moment where one of us did what we would often do: forget to get dry cleaning, forget to fill the car with gas, forget to put away a gallon of milk before bed, and so on. In those small moments, when our marriage was healthy and strong, we would brush these minor annoyances away. But as we started to drown, these small moments were etched onto an ever-expanding scorecard.

And this score-keeping mentality began to define a deeper, more troubling mindset: my spouse is an asset or a liability. My spouse is good or bad.  My spouse is wrong or right. Judgement, accusation, resentment.

This mind-set transitioned into a game in subtle/not subtle maneuvering. If he got a “guys night” then I needed a “girls night.” If he wanted a back scratch, I needed a neck rub. Silly, trivial maneuvering that led us further from each other.

Sometimes we would have loud angry, arguments. But often, and maybe even worse, we didn’t argue at all.

So the thing about drowning is that people who are drowning don’t look the way you would expect a drowning person to look. They aren’t screaming or splashing or making a scene. They are trying to survive. Up and breathe. Down and panic. Up and breathe. Down and panic. Grab. Grasp. Gasp.

Drowning couples go to church. Drowning couples go on dates. Drowning couples go through the motions because maybe, at some point, they will grab onto a moment of normalcy that will become a life raft.

At some point, we forgot why we were arguing. We couldn’t figure out why “he/she just won’t (fill in the blank).” It felt like whatever it was I needed at a specific moment of time was the least Frank could do considering the spoiled milk/empty gas tank/etc. The truth of the situation was this: nothing either of us could DO would ever be enough. No action to fill our self-created voids would EVER BE ENOUGH. There would always be something else and something else.

I honestly think the path we were on was the path that frequently ends up in divorce, domestic violence and cheating aside. I think that we all know someone who has a particularly harrowing/horrifying divorce story, but so many marriages seem to end in a gasp and a defiant sigh. “Fine. Whatever. It’s over.”

The sad thing is, 18 months ago, I figured that the way we were living was the way it was just going to be, especially in our season of life.

Except…

On one of our dates, we had fun. This was a surprise – we both had expected to simply go through the motions: go on a date and have a meal. Check the box.

We stayed local, in a town we lived in but hadn’t really explored. We discovered new stores. We enjoyed a new restaurant. Almost inexplicably, our guard came down; we laughed.

We laughed the way we laughed when we were first dating. We talked and listened the way we used to when we were first married.

For an evening, the fog lifted – loneliness and hurt and sadness slipped away. The scorecards fluttered to the ground. Our separate agendas were forgotten.

I wish I could say we grabbed that life raft of a moment that God threw our way and held on. Unfortunately, we had a lot of work to do and that thick fog rolled back in at the end of the evening.

But Frank, my brilliant, brave husband – he didn’t forget that moment. That moment of closeness reminded him that we didn’t have to drown; we just needed help finding something to grab onto.

And so…

On a thick and hot July evening, we sat stiffly next to each other on the too-plump couch in our therapist’s office.

Frank drew in a breath and began, “We need help.”

And the rescue began.

Next week part two: the rescue.

6 thoughts on “part one: drowning

  1. Harrowing story. In three parts. No binge reading, eh? Janel and I can identify ourselves in your story — although she is very laid back. Familiarity breeds contempt. Marriage makes us live so close and depend on each other so much that it can easily become uncomfortable. But when we really studied it, it wasn’t that we were too close, it was that we weren’t close enough.

  2. I have a lot more years on me. Emily, marriage is best that becomes a true partnership. The “keeping score” aspect of your story – I know so many sad couples who have done that. Some should divorce; others already have. Marriages have their ups and downs; friendships do too. The best times are always when you throw that score-keeping aside and do what is necessary to make your partner feel cherished. Hard to do when you are tired or worried or just feeling empty. But the reward is worth the effort. And good for both of you for the work you are doing.

  3. Pingback: part two: the rescue | emmy kay and co.

  4. Pingback: part three: the walk | emmy kay and co.

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