| Family Reflections |

It’s Complicated

Marriage is complicated. And that’s okay.



arriage is a complicated institution. Recently, I read a book about a woman’s journey through her husband’s long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The book details her struggle during his decline and death, and her experience of building a new life without him.

The focus of this autobiographical account was the woman’s inner emotional world — her difficulty in processing the changes, the loss, the transitions, and her sense of personal identity. Who was she if not her husband’s wife? As for many Jewish women, it was her marriage that gave her a purpose and place in the world. By the time her husband passed on she had been with him for 57 years — 57 tumultuous years — including the last 14 difficult years of his illness.

As she described so poignantly, her husband had been a wonderful man who suffered from severe anger management issues; when he felt upset or hurt (which was quite often) he would respond by ignoring his wife for weeks on end. The reader, trying to understand the description of this person as “a wonderful man,” is left bewildered. Was this a story of lost love or a tale of redemption from trauma? If those decades spent together were so tumultuous, then why didn’t the man’s death usher in a period of respite, healing, and renewal? Why was the author so immersed in pain, drowning in longing and yearning for a man who had treated her so poorly?

Checking readers’ reviews of this book, I discovered that almost everyone was asking these very same questions. “Why didn’t she just leave him long before he got sick?” they asked.

“How did she let him get away with behavior like that?” they wondered. “If she was crazy enough to put up with this sort of person, she shouldn’t have published a book about it.”

No one showed understanding or sympathy for her marital suffering. No one showed any remote understanding of the complexities of a lifelong marriage. No one seemed to understand that people can have mixed feelings, unjustified love, endless endurance, or lifelong commitment. These readers, I deduced, were young people — people either single or newly married, raised in a culture that had very little understanding of the institution of lifelong marriage.


Parents want their children to love each other, support each other, and “get along.” Some fortunate few actually have children who do all that, but the more common experience is to have children who fight with each other, resent each other, and annoy each other. Their kids hold hostilities and jealousies, fret over the unfairness of the distribution of goods and privileges, and fight for commodities such as love, fairness, attention, and nurturing. Sibling relationships are, for the most part, “messy.” They run hot and cold as siblings choose each other as playmates, companions, and confidants, and then tattle on each other and abuse each other through insult, injury, and battles for control. They have what some refer to as love-hate relationships; to be “like brothers” is to be simultaneously the best of friends and the worst of enemies.

Messy Feelings

This being the case, why do we imagine that adults who share life together (aka spouses) will enjoy decades of harmonious companionship? That sort of relationship (albeit a bit shorter in length) is only really seen between humans and their dogs. When it comes to people, living together is complex. People are complex. Each human has excellent qualities and some awful ones, too, rendering each more or less lovable, depending on what side is showing when.

In lifelong marriages, partners love each other, depend on each other, nurture each other — and fight with each other, disappoint and crush each other, abandon, and occasionally hurt each other. And this is exactly what this woman was writing about. She was trying to sort out her confusion of feelings, thoughts, and experiences. She missed the closeness she shared with her husband: his wisdom, help, and friendship. This was the “wonderful” man who was no longer with her. And without the constant struggle to avoid doing or saying whatever might trigger him, she could relax into an unfamiliar, overwhelming void. She didn’t recognize herself or her life anymore. Confusion and disorientation engulfed her. Really, she was experiencing the unraveling of the complexity of her existence, the multifaceted journey to which she’d committed herself body and soul — she was shedding all of the elements of the shared life that was her marriage.

Because marriage is complicated.


 (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 891)

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