HOW BREAKING OUR MARRIAGE WAS THE THING THAT SAVED IT
This story is about my marriage. It is filled with incredible highs and hurtful lows, but it is a journey I am happy to have chosen. My husband, Mark, and I met in high school 23 years ago. I’m 36 now, nearly all of my memories are of our life together. We have been married for 14 years and have 4 daughters aged 9, 7, 4 and 2. It is as exhausting as it sounds, but I’m happy.
About two years ago our relationship hit breaking point and we ended the marriage. Writing this makes it sound mutual, but in truth, my memory is blurred with teary conversations, misunderstandings, confusion and anxiety. I look back and feel incredibly sad for our former selves, we were broken and stagnant. Believing that we were over helped us to forge forward, and in a strange sense, became the very thing that helped us to rebuild.
I was born in Sydney and our family lived close to the city in a very metropolitan suburb. We moved around our state quite a lot when I was growing up because our Dad was a high school teacher and this meant changing towns with every new post he accepted. The last country town I lived in was a small community in a picturesque area on the mid north coast of New South Wales. Our home bordered on rainforest, and we spent most weekends walking to and swimming in waterholes. It was here that I met my future husband.
I was 13 the first time I saw Mark at high school. He walked past me and it was crush at first site. Of course he didn’t know who I was and I had so much working against me: My family was new to the town, my Dad was a teacher at the high school and Mark was two years above me in school. I felt doomed.
It was acting in the same high school play that brought us together, and eventually he asked me out on a piece of paper as we played a game of Pictionary with school friends.
After high school we both moved back to the city of Sydney and lived together. We married when I was 22, we had our first baby when I was 27 and that is when the small cracks began to appear.
Motherhood is all consuming, add to that it was our first child and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have family living immediately nearby and I felt out of my depth at times. I had issues with breastfeeding and spent so much time expressing milk and then topping up with formula. The whole process was exhausting and I had no time left for my husband. This meant that Mark spent more time going out with mates, which only widened the chasm between us.
However, the period of baby rearing is really quite small. As our daughter neared the age of one we found we had more time for each other. We made the decision to move from our two bedroom inner-city apartment, to a leafy seaside village an hour from the city. Suddenly everything felt alive again, we had space to breathe, water views and wildlife to enjoy, and a real sense of community. I felt very settled, and within a snap we were pregnant again.
Throughout the pregnancy I had mounting anxiety. It had come and gone at periods throughout my life, but I felt I could no longer manage it and so I sought help from a wonderful counsellor. Anxiety is incredibly isolating; it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. I felt less capable of providing support for those around me, especially Mark. Add to this his own fears that once our second child was born he would be bumped even further down the priority list.
I had a textbook hospital birth with my second daughter. Breastfeeding came easily and I returned home. My anxiety returned, but whenever I looked at my beautiful daughter I felt completely calm. Those quiet hours breastfeeding as we bonded were a huge relief from my worries. It was all the moments in between that weighed on me.
I don’t remember much more about that period, just static memories of darkness and the journey to recovery. This story isn’t about my mental health, but it’s important to acknowledge it because of the extra pressure it placed on my marriage. Mark was incredibly supportive, but my focus was again on the children, balancing part-time work, and this gave us even less time for each other.
I should say that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We have an incredibly strong foundation of friendship and our marriage was built on top of that. We mostly ignored niggling resentments; they only bubbled up during disagreements and I think this must be the same for many relationships.
We had a three year gap between our second and third daughter. During that period I chose to leave my IT job and started studying Nutritional Medicine. Mark gave me his full support as the subject matter was important to me and I believed that the qualification would offer a career that was easier to manage with a young family.
I come from an academic background and was drawn to the highly scientific component of the course. I set very high standards for myself and would only accept the best results. Because of this I spent all my spare time studying and working on assignments. I became extremely stressed and Mark started referring to himself as the “study widow”.
Mark has his own stresses and worries. He is a financial markets trader and works nights, as well as being a Director for his firm. He wears many hats professionally speaking, and has spoken about how challenging parenting is for him.
Without really discussing it, we demarcated our roles believing it was best, only to realise later that this was widening the gap between us.
Just when I thought I was completely overloaded with stress by trying to balance family life and study, I fell pregnant with our third daughter. It was the perfect catalyst for deferring study (I happily didn’t go back) and putting all my energy into being a stay at home mother. It was a wonderful decision and just what my family and marriage needed. Simple things, like having the time to sit on the couch with Mark and watch a movie were suddenly incredible!
After our third daughter’s birth we found ourselves back in the same pattern. All of my focus was on the three children and how to survive each day without falling to pieces. Mark’s job was also becoming more demanding and we saw less of each other. Due to our different shifts one of us was always exhausted when the other was just switching on. This made it difficult to have a simple catch-up, and misunderstandings became very common.
When our third baby turned one we became pregnant with baby number four. All of our children were planned, but falling pregnant has always been easy for us and suddenly we found ourselves with four daughters, aged six and under! It is chaotic, but we felt our family was complete and agreed that we wouldn’t have any more children. Based on our fertility this involves putting the strongest measures in place!
We were overjoyed with our baby’s arrival, but our marriage had hit breaking point. At home we were unable to relate, I resented that work had always been Mark’s priority and he resented that I hadn’t given him enough attention for what felt like years. It had become quite toxic, we argued a lot and were both extremely anxious about our situation. In one of those heated and sad discussions, the gauntlet was thrown down to end the marriage and neither of us argued to keep it together. Our baby was only six months old.
We were certain it was over. It was too hard for us to be together during that time and so Mark decided to temporarily move to another state. It is hard for me to write about this time. I feel guilty saying that many days I felt relief. The house no longer felt like a war zone and we made a pact to talk positively, even over the top, to our daughters about each other.
Despite our split, we were incredibly amicable and respectful towards each other. We both worried for how the other was faring, even if we couldn’t ask. We had started discussions on how to divide and manage our assets long term. Mark had devised a plan that was extremely supportive for the girls and I; it would see us cared for well into the future.
I was very sad but distracted by the busy life of parenting four small daughters. I knew that Mark was struggling emotionally and for the first time I couldn’t be the person to console him. We had disconnected on social media and so I only had tiny hints of his life with new friends. What I heard sounded adventurous and luxurious. I was happy for him but also a little jealous. As I sat breastfeeding mornings and nights in my pyjamas, I felt boring and hopeless. But still, it was where I wanted to be.
We were forging forward. During a phone conversation to discuss an upcoming family holiday to New Zealand that had been booked months before our split, I asked Mark if we could regain our intimacy while away. That was when he told me he had started seeing someone else. I was floored. Completely devastated.
My first reaction was to cancel the holiday, I was wracked with anxiety and sadness and couldn’t eat for days. It was then I noticed how much weight I’d lost over the whole period, I was gaunt. My second reaction was to go with the girls and our nanny, who had also become a close friend. Mark felt terrible about the situation and encouraged me to go without him. But in the end I asked him to come. Yes, he had a girlfriend, but I missed my best friend. I thought of the fun we would have: dinners, hangouts, and the joy of seeing him with our daughters.
The trip was incredible. It was everything we hoped and just what our family needed. We didn’t reunite until we returned from our holiday. Mark was adamant that he wanted to respectfully end his current relationship and I was comfortable with that decision. He moved back home almost immediately and we have been working on keeping our ‘new’ relationship in a positive space for a year and a half now.
I talk of a new relationship and this is how we see it. It was important we didn’t pick up from where we had left off. We were changed people and didn’t want to make the same mistakes. I love that we’ve been together since we were teenagers, but it meant before our split we didn’t have ‘baggage’. I wish there was a better term, because I realise now that this ‘baggage’ can actually make people interesting. Knowing that someone else has found your partner attractive actually helped to stimulate my new relationship with my husband. Likewise, the very real prospect of losing me to someone else made Mark more appreciative of what he had.
We did some very important things at the beginning of this new relationship. But the most crucial was drawing a line in the sand: no bringing up any arguments or misgivings from our last relationship.
I find I get tired of disagreements and can’t be bothered to hold a grudge. Making up is always so much better. I do my best to be more supportive, and I respect that sometimes we have bad days and can behave in childish ways. I don’t take it to heart, and this makes for very quick apologies.
Marriage is a lot of work, and we will always be working on ours. We are going through a great period right now; we are better communicators, respectful towards each other and intimacy comes easily. Perhaps we’ll hit lows sometime down the track. Until then my relationship toolbox is bulging and I feel better equipped with all that Mark and I have learned.