“What has he done, though?…He looked at me with a cold, severe expression. Of course that is something indefinable, impalpable, but it has never been so before, and that glance means a great deal,” she thought. “That glance shows the beginning of indifference.” – Anna Karenina
The end of a marriage should never come as a surprise. Such a thing rarely goes from good to bad overnight. Divorce is a silent killer. Its seeds are inconspicuously planted into the soil of a relationship years before blossoming. Divorce must germinate before reaching full potency.
Every failed relationship can be traced to one or both partners losing respect for the other. All else flows from this one thing. The tangibles, adultery, abuse, ‘irreconcilable differences’, may be considered culprits but spouses don’t cheat or beat on someone they admire and respect. With such marriages, contempt hangs thick in the air.
This is a fact we must accept and often reminded of if we want a marriage overflowing with the humility and forgiveness necessary to make it work.
To stop a waterfall you don’t build a dam near the precipice where the water plummets. The momentum is too strong and any effort is washed away in the torrent. Instead you move up river away from the deluge where the flow is less chaotic and more controllable. You change a stream so its water can’t generate energy to become a violent rapid. The success or failure in a marriage follows this same logic.
Too many married couples take notice and action against their problems after they reach the precipice where the tides of emotion, frustration, anger, and regret are nearly overpowering. They search for solutions when any effort is most likely to be carried away in a violent fury. They begin work in the chaos instead of moving upstream where the water is gentler, and their efforts have a better chance of keeping the inundation from carrying their marriage over the edge.
Most people don’t haphazardly decide, “Today, I’m going to end my marriage!” Unwanted behaviors, habits, and problems play themselves out leading to such a regrettable decision. It’s our negligence to do anything about them that breeds our animosity. But even when the couple recognizes that respect has disappeared, their attempts to address are usualy too late. Once respect is lost it’s nearly impossible to get back and never looks as it once did.
This leads me to wonder if we couldn’t be paying closer attention to more subtle disturbances in the water; those attitudes taking place further upstream signaling the marriage has altered course and is now heading towards dangerous rapids and a deathly fall.
Think back to what attracted you to your spouse or partner. It may have been her beauty or his great smile, yet both are superficial and never sincere reasons we are drawn to someone. Intimacy grows and is sustained when we feel valued and cared for. He shows a heartfelt interest in your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. She expresses genuine concern about your well-being, ideas, and dreams. This was the glue that first bound you and it’s still what, in part, keeps you together. Even as her beauty begins fading and his smile had withered you’re held strong by memories and behaviors that show an authentic care and interest for one another.
Indifference becomes an acid that eats away at this connection. Contempt and disdain are the scars that remain. When I disregard your thoughts, opinions, or ideas I naturally lose respect for you. When I stop showing interest in you, I stop caring for you.
This should be easy to recognize in our relationships. The moment we catch ourselves thinking, “I don’t care anymore about what/that/if she or he …” for anything we once held with deep conviction, we should consider that a sign we have arrived at indifference. She has long believed that family dinner is important; it’s the third time this week you’ve called to tell her you’re working late. You prepare for her anger and condemnation. This time however you get, ‘That’s fine, it doesn’t matter.” Instead of relief at finally getting a break and winning the battle, terror should strike that you may be loosing the war. That indifference isn’t her coming around, it’s your bond that is slowing being torn down.
I believed the apathy I felt for my former wife’s relationship with a another man reflected my maturity and acceptance. Now I recognize it was indifference that signaled a change in the course of our relationship. Its direction had been altered and was now heading towards a precipice that would plunge our family into separation and divorce.
Every relationship will face dangers that can become a spark setting everything around it ablaze. Often these moments seem trivial and harmless, but only after we stand amid the smoldering embers of what once was do we understand their importance. I’ve come to believe, as did the heroine in Tolstoy’s epic novel, one of the greatest of these dangers is that of indifference.