Norman Cousins wrote, “The tragedy of life is in what dies inside a man while he lives.”
I think what dies inside people who guard their hearts and create emotional distance is the hope that their relationship will get better. They’ve resigned themselves to the fact that the person they’re dealing with will always be the way he’s always been.
I once bumped into a woman at the dry cleaner’s whom Lisa and I met through my daughters’ sports teams. She was one of those genuinely nice women who seem to have an enjoyable life: she was easygoing and pretty, she had nice kids and a very successful husband, and even though she had moved around a lot she seemed to have a lot of friends. Out of the blue she asked, “Do you think people can change?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’ve seen people make dramatic changes.”
“Then I want you to pray for my husband.”
She described how he had spent the last fifteen years of their marriage pursuing his corporate dream job at the expense of their relationship. “It’s not that he’s done anything immoral,” she said. “I honestly wish he had. That would make it easier for me. It’s just that there’s nothing left inside of me that feels anything toward him. I’ve grown sick of waiting and tired of the apologies.”
She’s one of many women I’ve met over the years who have reminded me of Mary in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, which is loosely based on the events of O’Neill’s life. In the play, Mary’s husband, James Tyrone, is a semi successful actor who has sacrificed time with Mary and their sons for the sake of his career, constantly moving them around in pursuit of the next applause.
The entire play focuses on just one day of their marriage, from eight-thirty in the morning until midnight. Scene by scene, hour by hour, the narrator peels back the layers of their tattered relationship until James is able to see the deep emotional damage he’s caused his wife. Halfway through the play, as deeper conversations cause Mary to reveal her unfiltered feelings toward her husband, she callously confesses,
“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
Emotionless in the face of Mary’s unflinching despair, James wrestles with his responsibility for driving Mary to the edge. Finally, oblivious to what he has helped his wife become, James says to his sons, “The hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her. Or it’s more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses herself. . . . You know something in her does it deliberately—to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we’re alive! It’s as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us!”
And from that point on, Mary turns inward and slowly begins to lose touch with reality; she’s fearful, desperate, and alone.
Do “blank wall” and “bank of fog” describe the emotional distance you feel toward your husband, your wife, your father, your kids? I think Mary’s right—sometimes things happen in life before we realize it, and those things really do come between who we are and what we’d like to become.
Unlike Mary, however, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that we lose our true selves forever. We could, but it’s not inevitable—even if, like the woman I talked to outside the dry cleaner’s, your marriage ends in divorce.
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