Elliott Katz was stunned to find himself in the middle of a divorce after two kids and 10 years of marriage. The Torontonian, a policy analyst for the Ottawa government, blamed his wife. “She just didn’t appreciate all I was doing to make her happy.” He fed the babies, and he changed their diapers. He gave them their baths, he read them stories, and put them to bed. Before he left for work in the morning, he made them breakfast. He bought a bigger house and took on the financial burden, working evenings to bring in enough money so his wife could stay home full time.
He thought the solution to the discontent was for her to change. But once on his own, missing the daily interaction with his daughters, he couldn’t avoid some reflection. “I didn’t want to go through this again. I asked whether there was something I could have done differently. After all, you can wait years for someone else to change.”
What he decided was, indeed, there were some things he could have done differently —like not tried as hard to be so non-controlling that his wife felt he had abandoned decision-making entirely. His wife, he came to understand, felt frustrated, as if she were “a married single parent,” making too many of the plans and putting out many of the fires of family life, no matter how many chores he assumed.
Ultimately, he stopped blaming his wife for their problems. “You can’t change another person. You can only change yourself,” he says. “Like lots of men today,” he has since found, “I was very confused about my role as partner.” After a few post-divorce years in the mating wilderness, Katz came to realize that framing a relationship in terms of the right or wrong mate is a blind alley.
“We’re given a binary model,” says New York psychotherapist Ken Page. “Right or wrong. Settle or leave. We are not given the right tools to think about relationships. People need a better set of options.”
Sooner or later, there comes a moment in all relationships when you lie in bed, roll over, look at the person next to you and think it’s all a dreadful mistake, says Boston family therapist Terrence Real. It happens a few months to a few years in. “It’s an open secret of American culture that disillusionment exists. I go around the country speaking about ‘normal marital hatred.’ Not one person has ever asked what I mean by that. It’s extremely raw.”
What to do when the initial attraction sours? “I call it the first day of your real marriage,” Real says. It’s not a sign that you’ve chosen the wrong partner. It is the signal to grow as an individual — to take responsibility for your own frustrations. Invariably, we yearn for perfection, but are stuck with an imperfect human being. We all fall in love with people we think will deliver us from life’s wounds, but who wind up knowing how to rub against us.
Read more: PsychologyToday