The crazy thing about relationships is that you might not realize you’re in an unhealthy marriage and you may not understand all the reasons you stay. When you start researching and talking about your experiences, your reality will start to shift and you’ll start to see choices.
Joining me for this Conversation is Alex Delon who is the author of Leaving You … For Me. Alex knows all about staying in an unhealthy marriage – she stayed for 47 years and then found the strength and courage to leave and enter singledom in her sixties with her medicare card in her back pocket. In this frank and vulnerable Conversation, Delon shares why she didn’t see her marriage as troubled, and even when she did, why she stayed, the final straw that made her leave and how she sees that decision now.
Listen in below or keep reading …
The Affairs That Mean Nothing
Delon was not aware that her husband had been having extra-marital affairs almost from the beginning of their marriage. She became aware of some of them after she left when people would tell her and say, ‘I didn’t want to tell you before.’
Delon also believes her doctor treated her for an STD but didn’t tell her that was what she was being treated for. She had struggled with vaginal infections for years which had caused other conditions. She’d also had side-effects from medications given to treat ‘bacterial and yeast infections.’ Finally, one doctor tested her for STDs and then said they needed to treat her husband.
Giving her husband the benefit of the doubt, Delon says that men often don’t show signs of syphilis or trichomoniasis and other STDs. You might remember this from the movie Out of Africa.
This incident was ten years into the marriage and when Delon discovered an affair, her husband assured her that it meant nothing. It was of no consequence.
“I gave him the image of the husband and the father and the lifestyle and he wanted that,” said Delon. “But he played around on the side and the repeated thing was that it didn’t mean anything. ‘I just had fun with it. You’re the one I want.'”
A Family Pattern
One reason people stay in unhealthy marriages and don’t see them as troubled is that the behaviors are familiar. They’re the behaviors you saw growing up and so when they happen to you, you’re not surprised and your reactions are conditioned on how you saw your parents react.
“I was raised in the boys will be boys generation,” said Delon. “My dad did this to my mother. You put your family back together and you work and every time you think it’s going to be different.”
Some Separations Fail
It’s not uncommon for one spouse to leave and then the couple reconciles but not having done the relationship work to change their dynamics, they reconcile back to the relationship that wasn’t working, so often nothing really changes in the unhealthy marriage except that at least one of the spouses now sees how difficult it is to leave.
Delon says her husband left when their kids were still young. She felt comfortable with him gone but he pleaded with her to let him come back: I can’t concentrate, I need you, I had no idea, I’m so sorry, I’ll be husband and father I never was.
She said no but then her father had a heart attack.
“My ex met me at the hospital,” said Delon. “He stayed at home with the kids while I went and slept at my dad’s side with my mother. When I went home, he never left.”
Denial – A Powerful Motivator
Delon suspected the affairs were continuing but she didn’t know for sure. She was sure that she didn’t want to become a bitter, suspicious person and she wasn’t going to hire a private detective.
“You can’t question them because then you get the rage and you learn to shut down,” said Delon. “You think, OK, probably not happening. You lighten up. You have a great life. You’ve got a great family. You pull yourself together. You take the blame. You take the responsibility.”
It’s Not Physical Abuse
It’s an odd societal standard we have when a marriage is judged to be good provided there is no physical abuse or when less desirable behaviors are rationalized because at least you’re being beaten.
When Delon’s husband left, he left because he had had an affair with her best friend and he didn’t know if he wanted to stay in the marriage. When Delon didn’t want him to come home, her father thought she was crazy.
“My dad said, what’s wrong with you,” said Delon. “He comes home every night and he doesn’t beat you.”
Delon describes her ex brilliant, dynamic and successful and that was what everyone saw from the outside. She learned to believe that in leaving her unhealthy marriage she would be disappointing her family.
“We cover it up, we go along and we’re the accessory on their arm,” said Delon. “We smile, we make great dinner parties and we try to be enough to get their approval.”
But then what happens is ‘trauma bonding‘ which is an attachment disorder that is formed from emotional abuse.
The betrayal, neglect, bullying, devaluing, lies and silent treatment become a cycle when it happens over and over again. And in between it’s sprinkled with the ‘I love yous.’
For Delon, she didn’t want to face the fears about leaving and so she convinced herself that she would just try harder. Then when her husband would give her little positive reinforcement or recognition, she experienced that dopamine, serotonin rush.
“You actually become hooked,” said Delon. “That defies logic because you know better.”
You Rationalize The Behavior
While Delon she had a life that would appear as having it all, the stuff was not why she stayed. She stayed because she rationalized and normalized the behavior and the dynamics between her and her husband. Her choice stemmed again from her family of origin.
Delon says her older sister was very critical of her. Her sister told her that their father spoiled Delon and that she didn’t like her. Yet she was Delon’s older sister and Delon sought her approval. With each incident or confrontation, Delon would ask herself if it was important enough to get into a fight and challenge her sister. Delon became a peacekeeper.
Added to this, Delon idolized her mother and she measured herself against her mother, always coming up short. She normalized to not being enough.
“Then I get into this relationship with a man who has a very abusive background,” said Delon. “I look back and right out of the gate he doesn’t come from work. He doesn’t call. It’s 10 o’clock at night when he gets here.”
His response to her being upset was to yell and say that’s no different to what his parents did. He told her they would get divorced if she was going to argue with him like that.
“I made a decision that night that it wasn’t enough to divorce over,” said Delon. “Step by step by step you start to back down and you fall into those patterns. That’s how the dynamics of those relationships work. I’m not a stupid person.”
The Final Straw
In Delon’s book she talks about ‘holding myself together with barbed wire.’ It was a phrase that came to her one night at about three in the morning after she had found out her husband was continuing an affair which he had told her he would end.
“I was afraid to move anything,” said Delon. “I hurt and I was in trouble and I needed to do something. I was paralyzed with the insanity of it all.”
She felt that without the barbed wire she would fall apart. It was that affair that convinced Delon that her husband was not going to change no matter what her husband did or said.
“It gave me the determination to give up trying to fix the relationship,” said Delon.
She had just been assembling a walker for her mother and she realized that in thirty years, if she was lucky her sons would be doing that for her and “I didn’t want to waste the next thirty years of my life doing what I had done for the past thirty years.”
She then spent a week going through family albums and through the tears and fears, she came to the realization that if she didn’t leave, she wouldn’t be OK.
People who have taken many years to leave an unhealthy marriage often express regret for not having left sooner. Delon says that it is only in the last six months that she has ‘cut the cords’ with those regrets.
Overcoming regrets is a process of letting go and a conscious decision because you can’t change the past.
Delon recently moved to another state by herself and described the feeling at first like a refugee from her old life.
“It just has finally settled that I’m not,” said Delon. “This is my life and I like it and I wouldn’t go back for love or money.”
Think you may be impacted trauma bonding? Not sure if your relationship would be considered unhealthy? Talking with a licensed therapist or counselor, like the ones at BetterHelp may help.
Alex Delon is the author of Leaving You … For Me, a memoir of how she left her marriage of 47 years and ventured into singledom in her sixties. Follow Alex on Facebook and Twitter as @alexndelon.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of BetterHelp which means that if you decide to use their service I may receive an affiliate commission at no additional cost to yourself.