“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” –Ross Perot
This week’s announcement about the end of the 40-year marriage of Al and Tipper Gore caught me off guard. I am sure I wasn’t the only one surprised by them calling it quits. They were one political couple whose mutual respect and admiration stabilized all of us through some difficult times. Despite the pressures and public viewing, their marriage seemed vital and authentic. Admittedly, any marriage always runs deeper and includes much more than what is available to its witnesses, so I have been reflecting on what happens when people quit on each other.
In part this has been on my mind as I have been experiencing my own relationship dissolution lately with a dear friend. For reasons that I don’t understand and can’t even name, she has pulled away from the relationship, clear and articulate only that the reflections I provide are not what she is wanting in her life. Ever the loveologist, I tried leaving messages of all kinds, until suddenly I stopped. I quit because the pain of rejection and all of the internal messages it triggered was too intense. It took up too much space in my heart that I couldn’t resolve. It was easier to bear the pain of loss.
Often when a relationship dissolves we look for a single event that caused the end. The truth is that even when there is a precipitating event, it is almost always the result of a long chain of minor exchanges where one partner feels dismissed or disrespected. While these moments may often go by unacknowledged, they are nonetheless recorded in the body of the relationship. It is in the smallest day to day interactions that we experience the love in our relationships, or become habitually defended to injury. It is easy to imagine in the high profile public life of the Gores, how defended, yet cordially you learn to co-exist.
For most couples I know, it is usually not a single big external event that shakes the relationship and ignites the fuse of dissolution. Rather it seems like there is a changing internal tolerance for bearing the pain of a dissatisfying relationship that shuts the door. I know that even after 26 years of marriage, there are still many days when I have to force myself to hold side by side the parts of my marriage that fill me with the parts that drain my sense of self. I have to go through the emotional decision-making of choosing to value what the relationship offers and has always freely given me with where it falls short.
Most often, I have heard from the partner who has left their relationships that they couldn’t accept what the relationship/partner couldn’t offer them. The gifts of the relationship were not enough and often even became invisible to them. All the relationship represented was what was missing. This is a slippery slope that defines many intimate relationships. Our emotional needs unfulfilled become the narrative that defines both the partner and the partnership.
Even decades after my own parents ended their 17-year marriage; they remain as dedicated to the narrative of failure and pain that caused the separation as they were when the wound first happened. Although their story might be more extreme than most, it is not uncommon to carry our painful relationship narratives into a second or third relationships, achieving a similar result.
While there are clearly some relationships that were never a good idea to begin with, many more suffer under the weight of doing them. I am no stranger to the place of wanting to cry uncle and just give up what can feel like a herculean effort to keep things clear and healthy. In the years of seeking this place over and over, the one single lesson that gets easier to remember is that, it is usually right when things are about to shift and open up when many people give up. The breakthrough is usually less than a step away. Sadly, this is the loss in quitting; you don’t know how close you were to what you wanted when you shut the door.