By Laura Mullins
Over the course of our 18-year relationship, my husband and I have dealt with several bouts of long-distance love. In our dating years, I moved across the country for a job and the distance took its toll on us a few times. We would break up, try dating other people, but still felt inexplicably drawn to each other over the thousands of miles that separated us. Even when we decided to get married, visa issues prevented us from being together and we spent the first 9 months of our (first) marriage living on different continents. Not quite the honeymoon we expected! When we finally had our paperwork approved, our overdue reunion was a great triumph and we believed that since we survived the challenge of long distant love, surely we could survive anything!
Physical distance takes trust, commitment and communication, which is a great foundation for any relationship. But physical distance is nothing when compared to the challenges of emotional distance.
While we knew how to love each other well from different continents, we had no idea how to emotionally connect while living under the same roof! How in the world is that possible?
To be fair, this didn’t happen overnight. Emotional erosion happens little by little over the course of weeks, months, or even years. It can be so gradual, that by the time you notice it, you may be so far removed from your partner emotionally that you are never able to close the gap. And even if you do recognize the emotional distance from your partner, having the courage to say something about it is an entirely different challenge.
I noticed the emotional gap in my marriage shortly after my second child was born. I attributed it to adjusting to our new family dynamic and my husband’s new job demands. For 9 months, we just plowed through life, me with the kids, him with his job, occasionally meeting in the middle for dinner here or there. But whenever we had time together, conversation did not flow easily. It felt limited, forced, even obligatory. “We’re just tired,” I thought. And neither of us said anything.
Over the course of the next couple of years, I found myself talking to my girlfriends more than I talked to my husband. I shared with them my fears and frustrations, my celebrations and victories, even my deepest insecurities. My emotional needs were being met with my friends while discussions with my spouse had become rote and scripted. How was your day? How are the kids? What would you like for dinner? We weren’t fighting or combative in any way. We were still quite affectionate with each other and even got away for the odd weekend here or there. Yet still, neither of us said anything.
Then two weeks after my 35th birthday, he said something. “We need to talk,” he said. My stomach dropped to the floor as I sat down at the kitchen table, both relieved and terrified by what he was about to say. Nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of his statement. We’re not happy. I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce. I stared at him blankly, tears in my eyes, completely hollowed by his words. I had the sensation that I was in a nightmare, willing my sleeping self to open my eyes, to wake up and feel the safety of reality. But this was no dream. This was really happening. And nobody was going to save me from it.
The funny thing with emotional distance is that it can’t really be measured. While I recognized that our marriage was not in a place that I wanted it to be, I had NO IDEA that he was ready to end it. How do two people who share a home, a bed, a LIFE together end up on such different pages?!?
Looking back, one of the best things that happened for us is that we truly separated. Quickly! At some point that fateful night, my “fight or flight” instinct kicked in. I became very aware that my children lay asleep in their beds while their parents were separating in the dining room. All I could think of was protecting them from what was happening. So I ran. He stayed with the kids that night while I somehow drove myself to my girlfriend’s home, where she welcomed me with open arms and a very large glass of whiskey.
The next day, I asked him to leave the house. My thought was that if he didn’t want to work on keeping our family together then he didn’t deserve the privilege of living in the house with us. Secretly I hoped the thought of not being in the house with us would scare him enough to work on things with me. Instead, he agreed and stayed with a friend.
Within a few weeks, he had signed a lease for an apartment and had moved out of the family home. The last time we had stayed in the house at the same time was the night before my world changed.
Some people might think he should have stayed and tried to work it out for longer. But the truth is, neither of us was in a place where any meaningful work could have been done. In fact, I think couples in similar situations do themselves a disservice by trying to stay under the same roof, especially if one spouse is not open to improving or saving the relationship. Emotions are raw and hearts are vulnerable. By creating physical distance, I believe we were able to save our family from irrevocable damage of emotionally charged words or actions.
For the first few months, I blamed him. I blamed his job. I blamed his friends. I kept looking for a reason for our divorce. Isn’t there always a reason?? I spent a great deal of time and energy looking for that reason but never found one. It was not until I exhausted myself blaming him that I took a look in the mirror and realized that I had a responsibility in the marriage too. But it’s a lot easier to find fault with others than it is to admit your own shortcomings. Once I finally owned the parts of the marriage that I could, I felt a heavy weight lifted off my shoulders.
At the end of the day, the man I was divorcing would always be the father of my children and we would always be connected through our boys. Our boys had nothing to do with our marriage failing and they deserved two happy, healthy parents, married or not! I completely committed myself to my mental, emotional and physical health so I could be the best mom I could be and their dad did the same.
So how can you avoid falling into the black hole of emotional distance from your partner? It may sound cliché, but it all boils down to communication. I knew something was off in our marriage for a really long time, but I never had the courage to speak up about it. I will always be grateful that my husband was brave enough to say something when he did, even though the truth hurt so much. If you feel something isn’t quite right, SPEAK UP! Don’t let the emotional distance grow so vast that you can’t find your way back together.
These days, we don’t go more than 2 or 3 days without connecting at a deep and honest level. Read our blog post here about the things we do differently in our second marriage that we wish would have done in our first. We worked really hard to rebuild a solid foundation of trust and friendship after our divorce that enabled us to fall in love again over time. As difficult as it was, our divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me!