Growing Apart in Marriage

We were inseparable for the better part of ten years.

We met at the age of four at a Mother’s Day Out group at our church. I remember being drawn to her pigtails, her white-blond cornsilk hair reminded me of one of my dolls and stood in contrast to my much wilder and darker mane. By the time we were in first grade, we had graduated to official “best friend” status, proudly advertised on our silver James Avery half-heart charms worn on matching chains around our necks.

We did everything together. Completed each other’s sentences and knew the other’s every wish. The other kids seemed to understand that we were a package deal – make one friend and get another one free. Our friendship navigated the transition to middle school where afternoons spent catching toads were replaced with evenings endlessly dissecting interactions with the boys. Even as we took our first shaky steps into relationships with the opposite sex, we would always return to each other to seek advice and approval.

But then high school happened and those small differences that has always existed between us were suddenly magnified. My preference for Metallica drew me towards an older crowd and her love of the stage pulled her into theater. Our classes, which had rarely ever been together, were suddenly on opposite halls and our lockers were assigned in different buildings. Over the span of a semester, we went from being inseparable to being casual friends who largely moved in separate circles.

There was some sadness. I would see her under the lights on stage, those cornsilk pigtails now released into a shining wave down her back, and remember how familiar she once was to me. There were moments when I would see her name in its first-place position on my speed dial and would mourn for the connection that we shared.

Yet even with the pinch of grief that would tag along with my memories, I understood that this transition was natural.

We had simply grown apart.

Our interests, our goals and eventually, our experiences, meant that we no longer occupied the same space. And even though it was sad, it was okay. We each had our own path to take and we could remember with fondness those years when our paths converged.

Why is it that we treat marriage so differently than other relationships? We acknowledge that friendships grow and recede, changing over time, yet we fear our marriages being anything but static, constant. When we sense that our partners are growing away from us and we catch a glimpse of diverging paths, we respond with panic or a quiet denial instead of acceptance.

We accuse them of no longer being the person that we married, beg them to stay the same as they were. We project our own discomfort with change onto their shoulders, penalizing them for wanting to change direction.

It’s sad when two people who were once so compatible begin to grow in opposite directions. It’s painful to be presented with the choice of following your heart and moving in a new direction or silencing your heart in order to preserve a relationship. You may secretly crave a reason to end the relationship, struggling to acknowledge that it has outlived its usefulness when there is nothing identifiably wrong with it.

You fear breaking hearts, yet your heart is breaking every time you feel like you have to make a choice between your partner and your purpose.

There are no easy choices when a couple has grown apart. Choose to stay and you and your partner risk feeling diminished and stifled. Attempt to renegotiate the marriage and you may find that the terms are not agreeable or that they are not sufficient to mitigate the growing distance. Walk away and you invite loneliness and regret even as you move towards your light.

This is not to say that marriage should be discarded as easily as a shirt once fashion changes. There is a commitment. A promise. Ideally, core values and goals are still in alignment and individual growth can occur within the supportive structure of the marriage.

But that is not always possible. The couple that met through faith and always held religion as the cornerstone of their union will be rocked if one partner disavows their church. Or, if two people came together with the express wish of starting a family and one later decides to remain childless, the bedrock has been fractured. You can fight the situation, but your protests will only go so far.

I often learn about acceptance through nature. My backyard is comprised of a small oval of grass surrounded by trees and shrubs. Most of them happily grow together towards the sun, leaning against each other for support and generously sharing the sunnier spaces. Or, they renegotiate, sharing the same soil yet bending their stems in different directions in order to both have their needs met.

Some become bullies, so concerned about their own needs that they shade out those around them. Others allow themselves to be shaded, giving up their own potential for growth with barely a whimper. I rarely intervene, but when I see a plant failing to reach its potential because of its location, I feel obligated to step in and either move the limbs that are blocking the light or replant the stifled one in a more favorable location. I don’t brand this intervention as “failure,” it doesn’t indicate a problem with the individual plantings. It’s simply something that needs to happen for growth to continue.

Yet marriage is more important than a bunch of flowers looking for their own stream of sunlight. We build lives together, share dreams and fears as we layer years of shared experiences. There is a vision of a shared future, moving forward along the same trajectory that was envisioned from the beginning.

And yet…

Change is inevitable. And sometimes endings are as well. There are times when the kindest action is to honor when your paths converged and allow them to continue along their own course.

 

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