The whole issue with Brent started a long time before the fight that caused Jenna to come to my office for a divorce consultation. Jenna is a competent, beautiful young mother of three with an MBA from Duke and an enviable position as a financial analyst with a start-up IT company. Jake is a handsome orthopedic surgeon who, in addition to a grueling operating schedule, is working on patenting a new knee prosthesis. They met in a bar during summer vacation when both were visiting their parents on Cape Cod the summer after Brent completed his residency and Jenna completed her graduate program. When their eyes met, each felt the potent alchemy of attraction. They dated for six months before Jake told Jenna he loved her. Although Jenna told him three months earlier that she loved him.
Noticing the scowl on her face when she says this, I ask if that bothers her. She quickly replies, “Wouldn’t it bother you”?
“Well,” I consider my thoughts. “I think in the beginning of every romantic relationship, there is a certain excitement caused by the insecurity of not quite being sure how the other person is feeling. I think maybe you resent resolving the tension for him about that just as I suspect you’ve been resolving everything else for him since then.”
Jenna purses her lips. “So, you’re saying I’ve resented him all this time for that?”
“Jenna, what did you and Brent fight about?”
“The same thing we always fight about. I cook, clean, take care of the kids, and work a full-time job. He walks in and everything in the house has been taken care of. I was prepared to put up with all the hours Jake spends at the hospital and in his lab if, when he comes home, he’s actually there for me. Oh, he says he appreciates all I do, but I want to be appreciated as a woman, not as a scullery maid.”
I close my eyes briefly and nod. After practicing family law for over 30 years, I’ve heard this refrain from thousands of women. Although there’s a sense of pride in all she can accomplish, there is also resentment that comes from the numbing effect complacency has on the relationship.
“Have you tried to talk to him about how you feel?” I ask.
She looks down and shakes her head. “I don’t know how.” Taking a tissue from the box sitting on the side table next to her, she wipes her eyes. “Every time I try to talk to him, he rolls his eyes and says, “Not this again. I’m just so fed up with it all.”
“Let me guess. You’re here because you’ve run out of patience. You feel like someone who goes into McDonald’s and starts banging on the counter, “I want a steak, I want a steak.” But you know that you’re not going to get steak at McDonald’s, so you’ve concluded you either settle for hamburger or find another restaurant.”
She jerks her head up and looks wide-eyed at me. “Exactly. At first, I used to get so upset by his lack of response that I would try to shake him out of it by raging at him. And the more I rage, the sullener he becomes. The sullener he becomes, the more bored he looks with the whole thing, and the harsher my words get until I realize I’ve lost all my dignity because of how he dismisses me.”
After a long beat, I say, “What you’re really trying to say to him is you miss him. You miss the way you two were in the beginning, and you want that feeling back.”
“Yes. Exactly. And because he never heard it, I stopped saying it. Now, instead of talking to him, I?m talking to you about my options.” She studies me through narrowing her eyes. “Well? What are they? My options?”
“Before we get to your legal options, let”s talk about your life options.”
Jenna tilts her head. “Life options?”
“Legal options are pretty cut and dry, and I can explain them to you. But first, I always ask my clients to consider the impact the legal actions will have on their life and, as in your case, the lives of your children.”
Jenna nods with a tight expression. “Go on.”
“I’ve learned from representing both men and women over the years that what you’re going through happens in almost every marriage and relationship. Things seem to work reasonably well until one day they don’t. It’s like that moment in McDonald’s when you recognize you’re not going to get what you’re demanding. And suddenly, the compromises you made for the relationship to work yesterday become insufferable sacrifices you’re no longer willing to make today.”
Sitting upright, Jenna says, “You’re right. That’s exactly how I feel. I’m not willing to sacrifice my happiness for the sake of staying in an unfulfilling relationship.”
“I get that. I understand completely. But what if it could be fulfilling again?”
“Humph. And what if pigs could fly?” Pausing, she sighs deeply. She shakes her head and says, “I’ve already tried everything.”
At this point, you may be skeptical that a divorce attorney would actually talk a client out of immediately pursuing legal action since that’s how we make our money. But there are ethical considerations when advising a divorce client, and the primary one is to make sure there’s no chance for reconciliation. Through the years, I’ve tried different approaches to jolt people out of their mindsets and bring about clearer thinking concerning the possibilities. The approach I found most effective was asking a client to try looking at their marriage as if it’s not dead, just malnourished.
“Jenna, try something with me. You may not think it will have any effect on how you feel about your marriage, but what do you have to lose?”
Jenna wrinkles her nose as if there’s a bad smell in the room. “Okay. What is it?”
“I want you to think about your marriage as if it’s malnourished, not dead. And I want you to feed it with the five essential emotional nutrients every marriage needs to be healthy.”
After a quick exhale through her nose and a snort, she says, “Go on. Explain.”
“Water is like communication. While we can live without food for eight to twenty-one days, we can only live without water for about three. Staying hydrated is essential for good health. When a couple stops speaking to each other or only argues and bickers instead of talking, it’s like their marriage is dehydrated.”
A slight smile spreads across Jenn’s lips. “I’ll drink to that.”
I mimic raising my hand as if to toast and go on. “Let me suggest something. I’m going to ask you to take one of my cards and after the kids are in bed tonight ask Jake to sit down for a minute, that you have something to tell him.”
“And what would that be?”
“You tell him what you’ve told me. Do not try to talk reason to him. Tell him you came to see me because you find your situation oppressive. The kids, the house, the job, and Jake. Tell him it’s as if when we settled down, we shut down. Tell him you’ve been wondering if it’s all worth it. Going on like we’re just stuck together.”
“Hmmm,” Jenna clears her throat. “What if it makes him feel put down and causes the fight of the century?”
“What if it doesn’t? What if your honesty reasserts your separateness and individuality and awakens in him a new desire for you? What if what you say to him is how he’s been feeling? What if, when you voice your unrequited feelings, it gives him permission to voice his own? What if it starts an intimate conversation that wakes you both up to a different kind of reality? A reality where you both recognize the mutual limitations of married life, look at each other in a different light, and choose it again.”
Jenna appears to be staring at nothing for a long moment and then looks up.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN FINDING OUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN JENNA TALKS TO JAKE, PLEASE RETURN NEXT MONTH FOR THE SECOND IN THIS SIX-PART SERIES ON THE MALNOURISHED MARRIAGE?