Answering the knock on my office door, I open it to find a modestly dressed man and woman in their forty’s. Before I can welcome them, the man thrusts his meaty hand toward me.
Shaking my hand so hard that my shoulder feels like it will unhinge, he says enthusiastically, “You must be David. My name is William and this is Martha.” Turning sideways he lets me see Martha.
Martha’s expression is flat. Her body shows no energy. She does not proffer her hand.
My mind is making thousands of millisecond snapshots of important nonverbal ques.
Smiling, I say, “Yes, I’m David. Why don’t you come in and make yourselves comfortable.”
Stepping aside, William says, “Go ahead Martha.”
It’s then I notice William’s smile is the nervous kind. There is a bead of sweat above his upper lip. The corners of his mouth quiver when he speaks to Martha.
Taking their positions on the loveseat, William sits on the front edge, leaning toward me, while Martha sinks easily back against the seat. She has yet to make eye contact with me or speak.
“So what brings you two to see me?” I ask.
Scooting even closer to the edge of his seat, William says, “My friend, Alex Franklin, said you really helped him and his wife save their marriage. I’m hoping you can do the same for us. Martha says she wants a divorce.
“I thought we had a good marriage,” he continues. “I’ll admit I’m not the best husband in the world and I could do better. I’m just asking for one more chance.” He reaches toward Martha and lays his large hand over her folded hands.
Ignoring him, Martha finally looks at me and says, “Look, this marriage is over. I don’t know why I’m even here except that I promised I’d come one time. So, don’t expect any miraculous transformations out of me. I’m done.”
Color rising in her cheeks, Martha continues, “What you don’t know is that I’ve invested twenty years of my life in trying to make this marriage work. I’ve done everything I know to do. I’ve read every self help book on marriage and tried all the tricks. It helps for a little while. But things always go back to where they were.”
Holding her palms up, she concludes, “I give up.”
William withdraws his hand from Martha’s empty lap as if it suffered a sudden paralysis and lays it limply in his lap.
They both look expectantly at me. I resist the urge to squirm uncomfortably in my chair like a third grader before he stands up for his turn at the spelling bee. It’s already clear that I have to hold hands with two people, one of which wants to travel to Dallas and the other is heading to New York. My first task is to not grip either of them too tightly or I’ll be torn asunder by these steeds.
Recognizing that Martha is the one holding the cards in this game, I look at her and say, “Why don’t you help me understand why you are ready to walk away from this man?”
Martha gives William a scathing look and says, “I’ll be glad to.”
William slumps back into the loveseat, his head bowed.
“Let’s see,” Martha begins, “where shall I start. How many hobbies have you had through the years William? There’s been the bowling league, fishing, softball, Nascar, video games, poker night, NFL.” She pauses. “Have I left anything out William?”
Sitting motionless, William offers no rebuttal.
“And how many of those activities involved me?” Martha’s voice rises. “How often did you ask me to do something with you? When did you ever act interested in doing anything with me?”
She gestures toward William’s inert form and says to me, “See? He doesn’t say anything because he knows I’m right.”
William tries to clear the frog in his throat. He lifts his face and says, “I thought you were happy. I didn’t know…..”
“You didn’t know?!” Martha snaps. Collapsing back, she throws up her hands and says, “And that is why I give up.”
In a pleading tone William says, “But I’ll change. I promise.”
A cold, heartless laugh escapes from Martha. “If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that, I could pay for the divorce.”
William and Martha’s marriage appears to be dead in the water. But how did it get to this place?
For one thing, William thought that because he was content going his own way with his life that Martha would feel the same way. While it seems true that men are more likely to be content with just living together in a marriage, with the attitude “you go your way, I’ll go mine,” women are not content with that kind of life.
There is a very interesting proverb that reads: Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes king, a fool who is full of food, an unloved woman who is married, and a maidservant who displaces her mistress. Proverbs 30:22-23 (emphasis mine). And while I’m confident that William would vehemently profess his love for Martha, his actions did not show it. Martha felt unloved.
Enduring chronic, emotional pain is what killed Martha’s desire to remain married to William.
An extra marital affair is the “great white shark” way of destroying a marriage. It is a vicious, all-out attack on the fabric of a relationship. As the result of one action dreams are demolished and devastation is the aftermath.
But neglect is the tiny “piranha” way of destroying a marriage. It is the collective result of thousands of tiny wounds that slowly unravel and shred the fabric of a relationship. It is impossible to point to one event that causes someone to untie the thread that holds them to their spouse.
Over and over Martha had clung to William’s promises to change his behavior. She repeatedly climbed back on the Ferris wheel of hope, believing this time the ride would be different, only to find out that nothing had changed.
Those repeated disappointments ate away the love she had for William.
In the early years of the marriage Martha was angry about William’s behavior. But that anger finally gave way to a sense of futility and detachment. By the time they arrived at my office Martha had already emotionally divorced William. The only thing lacking is the physical, legal divorce.
It’s a sad picture.
But it didn’t have to end this way. If William had invested more of his energy in making Martha feel like she was important to him, if he had demonstrated to her that he wanted her involved in his life and he in her life, these rocky shoals could have been avoided.
A wise captain, while focused on steering the ship, pays close attention to his shipmates, for without them he’s sunk.