Dear Neil: Your recent letter to “Tortured in Wyoming” has stuck in my mind in a disturbing way. My main concern is that all the questions you asked him to consider seemed based around the central premise of what will make him happy. For instance, you asked him if there was a good chance he will lose touch with his children if he leaves his wife, but you don’t ask how he feels this disruption of the fabric of their life will affect them. You don’t ask him how he feels this might affect his wife, who he calls his “good friend.” Is this good friend’s happiness of no consequence, not even to be remotely considered?
This life is not all about you. Your happiness is not the center of the known universe. This man has three children, a wife and I imagine friends and extended family who will also be fractured from this, and all you talked to him about is his happiness. Do you think children or young adults will be happier because one parent decides to pursue their own happiness? I would argue that a deeper sense of well-being comes from making choices based on higher goals, and not on how happy you feel in this moment.
Wanting to Protest in Longmont, Colorado
Dear Wanting to Protest: Of course, you’re right. Wise life decisions don’t come from spur of the moment cavalier choices based on how happy we feel in any given moment.
In every marriage, there are actually three separate marriages: the marriage of the church (married in the eyes of God), the marriage of the state (your marriage certificate) and the psychological marriage. For many people, not all three marriages are perfectly aligned. Some people psychologically marry way before they actually get married, and other people may psychologically divorce even though they are still married in the eyes of the church and state.
Of the three marriages, the most significant, for most people, is the psychological marriage. Many people will no doubt disagree with me, but experience tells me that if you psychologically divorce your spouse—the marriage is actually over, regardless of the sheet of paper saying you are married and regardless of the vows you may have taken in a place of worship. If you psychologically divorce, the relationship is, for all intensive purposes, over—even if you stay together.
I’m not talking about being upset or angry or about feeling distant. Those can be dealt with and resolved by a good marriage therapist if there’s still love and affection underneath. But for some people, they no longer have that love or affection for each other. And if two people stay together when at least one is psychologically divorced, what role model do you think they’ll offer to their children? Do you think their children will learn effective intimacy skills and be able to discern what a healthy intimate relationship is and how to be in one? Their chances will be absurdly reduced if mom and dad do not role model a warm, loving, supportive relationship.
No, I would argue that couples, even couples with children, should not stay together if they are psychologically divorced—or if one of them is. It’s too cold an environment to bring kids up in, and it’s unhealthy for everyone involved. Few marriages are made in heaven, but no one should have to tolerate hell forever.