Originally Aired: April 4, 2017
EPISODE 8: I’m done with this marriage, but I’m not done with you.
Michael: It started with me. I just said I’m done with this marriage. I’m not done with you.
Robin: You were there so much for obligation in that relationship. And we were both chronically unhappy. We didn’t want to be with someone that we were chronically unhappy with.
THEIR MARRIAGE WAS BUILT FROM OBLIGATION, GUILT, AND CRISIS. SO, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE STILL IN LOVE WITH YOUR PARTNER – BUT NOT THE RELATIONSHIP? MICHAEL AND ROBIN TESTED THEIR MARRIAGE WITH A UNIQUE PROPOSAL.
ALSO COMING UP LATER IN THE SHOW, I TALK WITH DOCTOR JULIE HANKS. SHE’S A LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER, CONSULTANT, COACH, AND AUTHOR OF THE ASSERTIVENESS GUIDE FOR WOMEN.
Julie: This is what I need. So how are we going to work this out? It’s not, “Well, should I or shouldn’t I go?” Like, I knew I was going.
MY NAME IS ANDY HORNING, AND THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK. IT’S ABOUT ALL THINGS RELATIONSHIP – THE SOULFUL, THE SILLY AND THE SEXY.
MICHAEL I remember getting back to the house and I said ‘listen, there’s something really important I need to talk to you about’
ROBIN I was busy washing the dishes.
MICHAEL And you were busy! You were doing something! You were like ‘let me do this first’ I’m like ‘come on! Come on! This really matters!’ no, no, no, and I remember just really kind of had to hassled you to get you to stop and pay attention, right?
MICHAEL So finally I’m like ‘ok, sit on the couch’ and you’re like… it was just a struggle to get you to stop, sit on the couch and pay attention; so I did the thing, I got down to my knee, I asked you if you would marry me and there’s this long pause.
ROBIN I’m sorry; I’d never been so shocked in my whole life!
MICHAEL Really, really, really long, uncomfortable pause, you’re staring at the floor and then you looked up at me and you said ‘are you possessed?’
MICHAEL [Laughter] That was your answer…
ROBIN I don’t even remember what I said.
MICHAEL …to ‘will you marry me’ [Laughter].
ROBIN I just couldn’t believe that would ever happen [Laughter] ever! I mean it’s just, that’s so funny that I said that. But I think also, I was really surprised that you were really serious. I wanted like two months to decide and then you kept hassling me [Laughter] after I think about a month I finally decided…
MICHAEL I was really on, like, pins and needles, I felt like I’d really put myself out there.
ROBIN You had!
MICHAEL You’re like ‘well… I need more time’.
ROBIN I just needed more time, but then finally I told you ‘Yes, but we need a really long engagement’
MICHAEL And we were both just ambivalent enough about being married…
ROBIN Yeah, that is true.
MICHAEL – that we chose Independent’s day as our wedding day [Laughter]
ROBIN Right! [Laughter]-
MICHAEL Just as some kind of statement [Laughter].
ROBIN Yeah. It’s going to be a different kind of marriage.
– BREAK –
ROBIN Well everything changed then with the really sudden and shocking tragedy that happened; my son Justin was hit by a car.
MICHAEL First day of football practice. He was so stokes, just like a total high point for him.
ROBIN I had driven into his practice, it was close to our new house and he really, really, really wanted to ride his bike home
ROBIN Instead of going to pick him up, which I wanted to do, I was making dinner so it’d be ready for him. And it turns out we heard the sirens but I had no idea it was for us and they called me
My daughter and youngest were playing and I just said ‘I’m leaving, Justin has been hurt’ and she said ‘we’re coming with you!’ We jumped in the car and we went, we got there just as the ambulance was pulling out so we followed it to the hospital
MICHAEL You were still at the accident and you called me, you said ‘Justin has been hurt’ and you said ‘meet us at the hospital’
And then I remember there was this moment of hope. There was the sense that this kid was amazing, exceptional person. If any…
MICHAEL But that moment of hope was after most of the family had gotten there. We all got to have this moment together of [Crying] ‘this is going to work, this is going to turn out, Justin’s going to be the miracle kid.” And then no… no, this is not what’s happening.
ROBIN That was hard. We waited for as long as we could
ROBIN I mean this obviously has affected everything about our relationship because it was… our relationship was kind of cemented as it turned out by this event. It really colored our foundation of our relationship at that point, which we had to undo later.
So… that was my first gleaming that there was going to be a lot more to our story [Laughter] which there has been.
– BREAK –
ROBIN It was seven years after we got married and really… our oldest kid was gone in college and the youngest had just started living with his dad. we just kind of pulled together to keep it going for all these years and it wasn’t working well but it was the best we could do. and then it was clear that it wasn’t working.
MICHAEL Yeah, I’m not proud of much of it.
ROBIN Yeah, and….didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with what wasn’t working…
MICHAEL So let’s bounce to the end of that marriage.
ROBIN Yeah. The end of our first marriage… with each other!
MICHAEL The end of our first marriage with each other.
MICHAEL I forget how it came up.
ROBIN Well we were… it was our anniversary.
MICHAEL Oh! It was our anniversary!
ROBIN We’re out on the – because it’s 4th of July, we were on the lawn watching fireworks.
ROBIN And we’re reevaluating our relationship right on our anniversary.
MICHAEL I remember pulling out the vows we had made, and like ‘let’s look at the vows and see how we are doing on our vows we made seven years ago’ and I remember they felt pretty much cleanly into two categories, half of them we had just nailed, we had completely fulfilled on, and the other half we were like nowhere. Like we just had completely and utterly failed on the whole half of the vows that we had made. Then I think it started with me, I just said ‘you know what? I’m done with this marriage but I’m not done with you’
ROBIN Right, but the marriage we had…
MICHAEL But this marriage that started in this traumatic time and promises we made then…
ROBIN You were there so much for obligation in that relationship and we were both chronically unhappy, we didn’t want to be with someone who was chronically unhappy with.
MICHAEL so what we said was ‘ok, good, that’s done. Finito, that marriage is over, we don’t want to do that anymore and we’re going to start a provisional relationship based on can we get to a point with each other where neither of us has any sources of chronic unhappiness’
ROBIN So we got unmarried.
MICHAEL We got unmarried. That was…
ROBIN [Laughter] and nobody- we didn’t announce that to people but we knew it.
MICHAEL That was all like fourteen, fifteen years ago?
MICHAEL And I think we’re close.
ROBIN And we never [Laughter]
MICHAEL I think we’re really close! [Laughter]
ROBIN We never remarried [Laughter]
MICHAEL I think we’re really, really close!
MICHAEL It’s just one thing, I think.
ROBIN I think it was breakthrough for me when I realized how judgmental I was because I hate judgmental people [Laughter] I hate you and you’re being judgmental. And then to really own that that was my way of not expressing my anger, you know, that I would go-
MICHAEL Cool judgment as oppose to hot judgment.
ROBIN I would go to intellectual judgment rather than just, you know, just really let you know what I think and feel. You’re so much more grateful when I get responsive, when I can do it that way.
MICHAEL I love it when you get pissed. It’s like a breath of fresh air for me.
ROBIN it’s been a whole journey –certainly my first marriage failed largely because of this– [Laughter], is to learn to really own my anger but to also express it in a way that is current and relevant. And when I just kind of lay it all rather than making judgmental, and critical, comments or indirect. Then, I remember I was really grateful at how well you got that and responded, and things changed in our balance around that then.
MICHAEL Well, it’s scary and intimidating listen to someone go off, of course, but behind that I just felt hugely relieved, like ‘Oh! Thank God!’
MICHAEL It’s uncomfortable having someone be really hostile with you but compare that to being condescended to and the fact that I don’t know is somehow a function of me being an asshole or incompetent.
MICHAEL Compare that to just getting it direct, like ‘I’m pissed at you, I’m feeling a lot of hostility and anger is like ‘wow! Ok! I can roll with that! I can step back’.
ROBIN but I really feel relief, too, because otherwise what you’ll do is like this grieve thing and you’ll complain or grieve ‘poor me’ and that can go on for days and I hate that! When you’re just willing to do this then I’m much more able to…
MICHAEL Well now that you’re willing to listen! You haven’t been willing to listen to that in the past.
ROBIN And then we really set about, the commitment that we took time away, we took two or three days away every couple months and we really consciously work on all of our patterns and changes,
MICHAEL Flip charts in the…
ROBIN Flip charts…
ROBIN – agreements and all of our creative dials.
MICHAEL Doing them all, right to like happiness dials
ROBIN To measure how happy we were each day or how it was working. We were tracking it all, and then I got cancer.
– BREAK –
ROBIN That experience with cancer was one that was probably the biggest wakeup call in terms of me not taking care of myself, overworking, dealing with my anxiety but pushing harder and rather than try to change things,
Like something had stopped me, like something stopped me, ‘now I have to take care of myself’. It was a life changing moment. I keep going back to that you know, when I get out of balance. and I remember you said that that was so great that for all those months, for you and the kids, it was such a happy time because whenever you wanted to see me and there I was, laying on the couch.
MICHAEL Well, after the chemo treatment.
MICHAEL About the third cycle, the kids and I were chatting this up and we’re going like ‘you know, we really shouldn’t admit this, but really the chemo treatments are cool because she has to lay down and not move and you can just go in and talk to her anytime you want to, just hang out with her, it’s so great [Laughter]’
ROBIN Yeah. Such a mixed blessing.
MICHAEL I really remember shaving your head; it was like a big moment.
ROBIN You were the best, you were the best.
MICHAEL Because I’m going… the hair falling out like… it was clear to me you did not want to go there, you did not want to see your hair falling out in clumps.
ROBIN First you buzzed it.
MICHAEL I gave you a buzzed cut, right. Heads are not that easy to shave because the skin is thin on top. Anyway, I remember I was in the tub and then we went hat shopping for two days. We bought like twenty hats! Real cool hats!
ROBIN We walked up and down the Pearl Street mall, I think from every style.
ROBIN And I’ve shared them with lots of other women since then
MICHAEL Those hats have live on, the cancer hats!
ROBIN You made it fun, you made it like a party to have cancer! [Laughter]
HOST In my experience of working with couples who’ve lost a child, but also from a statistical perspective, one study shows that couples who have lost a child – the divorce rate is eight times higher than the national average. I’ve gotten nothing but respect for Michael Robin as they dealt with that tragedy. Their willingness to get unmarried, and yet to stay together. There’s something refreshing and beautiful of Michael and Robin realizing it’s not one another they don’t like, in fact they still love one another. They ended the relationship as they saw it in order to create something new.
BY DOING THE SIMPLE TASK OF REVIEWING THEIR WEDDING VOWS, MICHAEL AND ROBIN TOOK THAT RISK TO REEVALUATE THEIR RELATIONSHIP. AND BY RECOGNIZING WHERE THEY’D SUCCEEDED AND WHERE THEY’D FALLEN SHORT, IT WAS EASIER TO BUILD A NEW RELATIONSHIP FOCUSED ON GROWTH AND LONGEVITY.
DOCTOR JULIE HANKS IS A LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER, FAMILY THERAPIST, CONSULTANT, AND AUTHOR OF THE ASSERTIVENESS GUIDE FOR WOMEN: HOW TO COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS, SET HEALTHY BOUNDARIES, AND TRANSFORM YOUR RELATIONSHIPS. SHE AND I DISCUSS OUR SHARED GOAL OF NORMALIZING THE CHALLENGES AND WORK IN RELATIONSHIPS.
JULIE Are you familiar with David Schnarch?
JULIE His work?
JULIE One of the things I love about his work is that he just normalizes like, “Of course you’re going to have a communication breakdown. Of course you’re going to have sexual problems. That’s part of being in an adult relationship.”
JULIE Normalizing the difficulties and the challenges, those are expected parts of a growing relationship that you’ll have those times where you feel disconnected or you aren’t satisfied. And I think it’s so important because it’s like you’re saying that the expectations that people have of a long-term relationship are not realistic. You’re not just going to be blissfully happy all the time and have a great sex and great communication and parent on the same page.
AH In your experience, what’s the cost for couples that have those expectations that aren’t accurate, that aren’t real?
JULIE Well, I think the cost is the relationship. It’s my philosophy is that relationships are there to help us grow, not to help us always be blissfully happy. I’ve been married 28 years in March and I ask myself, “Am I still growing?” I can go, “Yeah, I’m still growing. I’m still learning.” So that’s a good relationship, not that I’m always happy, not that we always agree.
AH When you get couples to first understand that this blissful happily ever after thing isn’t what marriage is all about and then you get to them to buy into a different paradigm that intimate partnership is about growth. So does that help then if they understand the role that their marriage plays in their life seeing it as about growth instead?
JULIE I think it can really be transformational and it frees them from blaming the other person for their unhappiness. You’re not doing something or I’d be happy. We’re in pain right now because we’re growing and this is hard work. I think people say, “Oh, relationship is a hard work,” but nobody talks about what that actually means and requires.
AH Yeah. That’s been my experience too is that as far as people will go, they’ll say, “It’s hard,” or, “It’s work,” but that’s like naming the title of the book without actually reading it.
JULIE Right. Right. And I’m trained in emotionally focused couple therapy, which I love. It makes so much sense.
AH Because I’ve read a research that in fact that’s the most effective form of couple’s therapy. What’s your understanding of why it’s so good?
JULIE Because it actually gets to the heart of human emotion and attachment needs. But what emotionally focused couple therapy does is look at the emotional and relationship patterns that are driving any of the disconnection no matter what the topic is. But too often in couple therapy, therapists get sucked into the topic and communication skills and you’re resolving this, but it’s really what are the underlying vulnerable emotions and needs that are being expressed or trying to be expressed here and it really gets to the core of what we need as human beings. So EFT helps break that down, slow it down and then really drill down to what the underlying emotion is, the secondary emotion. So if I’m irritated or clients irritated about something, what’s that really about? It’s usually sadness, fear. So it’s hard work but it’s so effective.
AH When you say attachment, will you explain what that is? What that means?
JULIE It’s a deep emotional bond with another human being. That is necessary for our survival as humans.
AH Wow! That sounds pretty good.
JULIE So we need each other. And as adults, we pretend we don’t. So part of that, EFT is recognizing how the strategies couples use for disconnection are actually attempts to try and preserve the relationship.
AH So taking something a person is doing in a relationship and flipping it on its head and saying, “They’re not doing it for disconnection or to pull away. They’re actually doing it because they want more connection.”
JULIE Or they’re trying to protect the relationship. Let me give you an example.
JULIE So somebody withdraws, right? Often it’s a male who will kind of go into, “I need space. I don’t want to talk about this,” or they’ll leave. It feels to their partner that they’re abandoning them but really what they’re doing is trying to protect them from their own inadequacies. “I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t want to hurt you and so I’m going to leave.” It feels like abandonment to the partner, but it’s really trying to protect the relationship.
J I think one of the things in my own life and in the lives of most women I know is kind of like that tension between how do I have a self and authentic voice and also care for other people? Sometimes it is set up for women that it’s either-or. I either take care of myself or I take care of other people at my own expense. So I’m really passionate about helping women claim their voice and be able to identify what they think, feel, want and need and if that’s actually going improve, not rupture their relationships.
AH Dr. Hanks, would you be willing to share an example from your own marriage so that we can kind of get our hands around that dynamic of not just either, either/or taking care of someone else or meeting your own needs but doing both and speaking up for yourself and asking for what you want?
JULIE Yeah. So when my husband and I first married, we were both working two part-time jobs and in school full time. We both grew up in very traditional homes where our fathers were the primary financer, provider and mothers are the primary nurturers. So we had conversations like, “Wait, are you expecting me to do all the cooking? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t like cooking and we’re both doing two jobs and school. So we got to figure this out.” So from very early on, I think I just have had a sense of I’m responsible for my life, but there’s also been some guilt associated with that or shame like, “Wait, am I asking for too much?” So my husband and I really work hard at developing that kind of partnership where we support each other. And because of my own passions and goals, he hasn’t decided early on like, “Okay, this is going to look different maybe than what I thought.” Our first six years marriage, I was in school and we also had two children during that time and he participated in a direct care giving. We just kind of did it together. That partnership philosophy was really, it was sparked by my voice saying, “This is what I need. I’m going to graduate school. So how are we going to work this out?” It’s not, “Well, should I or shouldn’t I go?” Like, I knew I was going.
AH Yeah. So maybe for men, that natural I in that statement comes so much easier and yet for you, you really had to consciously claim it.
JULIE Right. And I think our society in general is set up that women do most of the invisible, unpaid work that supports men productive paid work.
JULIE So I think calling that out and labeling it I think is really important in claiming women’s voices.
JULIE Yeah. Yeah. If you really talk to anybody who’s been married over five years, this is another thing that’s important to normalize. Everybody thinks about, “Did I make the right choice? Oh my gosh! Is this going to work out?” I guess that’s normal to just wonder. And I don’t think that’s bad. I think it makes you go if you have to re-choose your partner again, like, “Okay, yeah, this is worth it.”
AH Yeah. – So, let me –
JULIE Everybody can think of divorce at some point if you’re married long enough, like, “Oh, this is just too hard. I don’t even like you.”
AH Right. Right. What do you think the cost is of not allowing yourself to ask that question like, “I can’t even begin to consider it or think it or feel it that I’m not even going to go there with myself about, but on some deeper level, I really do feel it and I wonder but I’m not even going to contemplate it at all”?
JULIE I think the cost is lack of self-awareness and lack of growth. So I think it’s important to differentiate letting yourself, question that and look at that and then using that as a weapon in the relationship. Those are totally separate things. So I just feel like I want to make that clear. But really if you’re not free to leave, you’re not free to stay.
JULIE Because in reality, anybody can leave a relationship at any time even if you don’t feel like you can or you don’t want to. For me, I find comfort in that, like you know what? We’re continuing to choose this, this path together.
AH That’s nice.
JULIE It’s not just he’s stuck with me or we have no choice because I don’t want somebody to feel stuck with me. That doesn’t feel loving. But I think just recognizing that every person has a choice to continue.
THAT WAS DOCTOR JULIE HANKS. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HER WORK AND BOOKS, VISIT DRJULIEHANKS.COM, OR VISIT OUR WEBSITE FOR ADDITIONAL RESOURCES.
THANK YOU TO MICHAEL AND ROBIN FOR SHARING THEIR STORY. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THEIR WORK PROVIDING COUPLES THERAPY AND RETREATS, AS WELL AS RELATIONSHIP COUNSELING FOR ORGANIZATIONS VISIT TRUELOVE.CENTER.
WE’RE LOOKING FOR COUPLES OF THE SO-CALLED TINDER GENERATION. IF YOU’RE IN YOUR TWENTIES AND WOULD LIKE TO SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RELATIONSHIPS WITH US, PLEASE SEND US A NOTE TO HELLO@ELEPHANTTALK.ORG. OR MESSAGE US ON FACEBOOK OR TWITTER.
OUR PRODUCERS ARE LISA GRAY AND KIM POLETTI. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY ROB BURGER. ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY OUR GUEST DOCTOR JULIE HANKS, WHO IS ALSO A SINGER-SONGWRITER PERFORMER, SASHA MERKULOV, AND JOE SMITH AND THE SPICY PICKLES. AUDIO PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE PROVIDED BY LESLIE GASTON-BIRD AND JOSH KERN.
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THANK YOU FOR LISTENING. I’M YOUR HOST ANDY HORNING. THIS IS REAL LOVE. THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK.