LMD: Love, Marriage, Divorce, by Gary Ahlskog, Ph.d


The saying, “Love makes the world go around,” is probably true, but this doesn’t mean we know what it is.  Poets have tried to capture it, most people think they’ve experienced it, but no one can define it.  Besides introducing you to the Family Team at http://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html, this section discusses 2 insights that come from realizing why romantic love can’t be defined. 

Insight #1:  Love is based on a wonderful, exciting, and rejuvenating illusion, the illusion that we found the loved person, instead of realizing that we created them by investing in them our own capacities to love.  Our investing in this other person is a good thing.  Without it our species would go extinct.  As wonderful as it is, we don’t recognize this illusion while it’s going on.  We think we discovered a special person, not that we created them in our own mind. 

Here’s minor proof:  Ever wonder why your special person happened to be  sitting around available and unnoticed by everyone else?  Ever wonder why your friends and relatives were politely supportive, but not gushing?  I’m in favor of the most important phrase in human history, “I love you,” but to be clinically accurate, we should say, “I choose you to be the person I’m going to love.”

Love isn’t phony.  It’s exciting and it’s universal, but understanding it is still elusive.  While you were choosing to invest your loving capacities in her, her tendency to smear her makeup seemed so spontaneous and endearing.  When you withdrew your loving investment, smearing her makeup seemed careless and inept.  Obviously, she was putting on her makeup the same way all along.  Likewise when it comes to his chewing tobacco.  You were the one who felt it was deliciously rebellious and anti-urban, but when you withdrew your investment, his tobacco chewing just seemed gross.  We are aware of the negative moment when we inwardly say, “I don’t choose you any more,” which underscores how unaware we were of our original choosing. 

Insight #2:  Love can’t be defined because our primary template for love is individual and idiosyncratic. What’s common and universal is the intensity of our emotional pulse.  Whatever brought us to that pulse is as varied as there are people on the planet.  Some women like facial hair, others like baldness; some men like legs, others like breasts. Do you prefer wealthy or creative?  Adjusted or spontaneous?  Intellectual or savvy? Aggressive or compassionate? Family-oriented or rebellious? Open-minded or tough-minded?  There is no end to this list.  Each of us experiences love according to our personal template, which explains why poets shouldn’t be expected to define love for any of us.

            Our personal template began in our early years with the first persons we invested in, persons we depended on, usually our parents (whether they were actually loving or not). We cultivated variations influenced by siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, friends, and so forth.  Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, we met someone in the hallway, cafeteria, committee meeting, or jam session, who captured our hearts.  We fell in love with a love that’s intense and sincere.  We don’t recognize our own template, and even if we thought we did, templates are multi-dimensional, containing positive and negative factors.   

            Example #1: If a young man’s mother was depressed, he may not notice that the woman he finds most attractive is slightly needy.  He’s not aware that her enjoyment of him allows him to feel like he’s fixing or curing the early template of his mother’s depression.  Because this couple is happy at first, he truly believes he has found the opposite of his early maternal template.   Complexities will show in the long run.

            Example #2: If a young woman’s father was generous but critical, she may find she’s not much attracted to men who respect her.  She may have difficulty cultivating independence and self-reliance, feeling that these make her less loveable. The more a future husband may be successful, the less self-worth she may feel.  Ironically, the more supportive her husband is,  the worse she may feel as she has to supply her own inner critical voice.  Complexities will show in the long run.

            Romantic love doesn’t really “wear out,” it’s just that eventually the complexity of our templates shows up.  Ask an old married couple about their journey together and they’ll tell you that they didn’t really have a “relationship.”  They’ve had 3 or 4 different relationships with each other as they resolved different facets of their templates.  Transitions between templates are usually rocky, but help is available to get you through successfully to the other side.  Helping you preserve and increase the love in your life during rocky times is a reason the Family Team was created.  Contact them athttp://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html



Marriage is the best thing in the world!  Nothing compares to that exquisite commitment of mind, body, and spirit when we realize that life has taken on special energy and purpose. Approaching life as a pair gives each decision, dream, and dinner new vitality and meaning.  Sex is new.  Holding hands is new.  It’s the best thing in the world!

Marriage is more than a “committed relationship.” 

            Marriage is unique because we pledge emotionally, financially, and legally, in the presence of our relatives and friends, to live life as a pair.

            Marriage is how we create joy in a universe that often seems to offer only randomness.

            Marriage is fun.

            Marriage makes us whole and stops the search for something else.

            And marriage is complicated…as follows:

            Among the wonderful aspects of committing to our special person is the hope that past pain is over and the future will be better.  It’s plausible and reasonable, but  this “hope” is surprisingly close to our “expectation” that things should get better, which is surprisingly close to the “requirement” that past pain should be fixed, which ends up meaning that the spouse is supposed to do this fixing and make it all better.   Of course, the spouse has no idea about any of this.   Wonderful as marriage is, it can’t rewrite the past.  The wife in Example #1 above didn’t know she was supposed to fix her husband’s distress over his depressed mother and can’t know that he silently experiences her as “failing” him whenever she expresses self-doubt.  The husband in Example #2 could not know he was supposed to fix his wife’s inner self-critical child and can’t know that she silently experiences him as “failing” to understand her whenever he focuses on positive aspects of their life.  So when a couple marries, their hopes also contain the seedbed of a later sense of being let down.  Nobody can see this beforehand. 

Affection is the enemy of Eros.  Every couple growing closer in mutual affection and respect faces the problem of diminishing sexual attraction.  It’s easier to be dirty with someone you just met in a bar than with a spouse you admire, respect, and want to respect you.  You curtail your sexual side as the affection for your spouse grows.  It’s complicated.  For most of us during adolescence, being respected in the eyes of parents, teachers, and priests meant seeming to be non-sexual, or only mildly sexual.  It was a lie, of course; we were all wildly sexual inside.  Our psyche created a false but powerful equation in which being sexual is slightly dishonorable, whereas being non-sexual earns respect.  The erotic foundation of marriage falters as the parties believe, falsely from their adolescent templates, that they will improve their marriage by withholding their dirty wishes, fantasies, and actions.

During the sexual revolution of the ‘60s-‘70s, the institution of marriage underwent major scrutiny.  For a while marriage seemed to be pointless, merely a convention based on society’s need to document who was responsible for the care and feeding of children.  Lots of couples simply lived together in the theory that they’d get to know what they were committing to before marrying.  Today it’s clear that living together before marriage creates a slightly greater chance of divorce.  That’s right, living together doesn’t improve the odds of a successful marriage; rather it adds credibility to the option of quitting when things get difficult. 

            Children are one of marriage’s most wonderful gifts. Couples who forge a long life together talk about how rearing children was their most rewarding fun.  They couldn’t have imagined such joy.  Couples who struggle in their marriage talk about sleep deprivation; sexual frustration; retrieving huggy-bear from under the sofa; cleaning cereal off the wall; losing former enjoyments (e.g., no more theater); and abandoning their own deepest hopes and dreams, as when taking the kids to get vaccinated crowds out auditioning for the orchestra.

            Children are paradoxical:  They are wonderful.  They are fun. They deprive parents of their independent lives and identities.  They offer parents an iron-clad rationale for the meaning and purpose of their marriage, namely rearing the next generation.  Couples who don’t have children have extra finances and flexibility to chart their own own course.  Yet they lack the built-in rationale for marrying (rearing children), so they must invent a definition of what their marriage is all about: Travel?  Business? Sex?  Art?  Never underestimate how difficult it is to create identity and purpose in marriage when the cliché of rearing children isn’t available.

            George Bernard Shaw remarked that the peculiar thing about marriage was how a couple might spend years courting, years of uncertainty, only to arrive at a specially heightened moment during the wedding, wherein they promise to stay in this heightened state forever. Obviously this heightened state collapses, but this need not doom the marriage.  Help is available and effective to correct damaging patterns and allow parents and children to thrive.  This is another reason why the Family Team was created. Contact them at http://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html.



            Whenever a marriage fails, the angels weep.  No one likes divorce, no one thinks it’s fun.  That said, let’s get to work making sure doomed marriages end cleanly.  Let’s minimize damage.  As soon as the word “divorce” is used seriously, you must consult a lawyer.  Even if you reconcile and don’t proceed to divorce, as we and the angels hope, your minimal time and expense from consulting a lawyer will be worthwhile.  Never assume that what you consider logical or reasonable is how the law works in your state.  A matrimonial lawyer will help you avoid causing yourself inadvertent harm.  Whether reconciliation with your spouse is possible or not, you’ve entered an emotionally vulnerable time.  You want your lawyer to be your legal counselor but not your psychological counselor. This is another reason for the Family Team, where lawyers don’t play therapist, and therapists don’t play lawyer.  Check it out at http://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html

            The 2 topics most likely to create lengthy, nasty, and expensive divorces are disputes over (1) children and (2) finances.  If neither of these is a problem in your case, divorce mediation may be a worthwhile avenue.  However, mediation won’t work as a method of soft-soaping disagreements, browbeating a spouse, or sidestepping the law.  It’s not necessarily cheaper.  Since mediators require both parties to hire their own attorneys to approve the final agreement anyway, complex negotiations are often resolved better by skipping mediation and using individual attorneys right from the start.  You can explore this further by contacting the Family Team at http://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html

Divorce prompts irregular spurts of emotion.  Our psyches don’t process “time” very well, so it’s easy to get caught up in indignation that financial inequities aren’t being fixed right away, or despair that a few weeks of lonely nights must mean there will never be new love.  When you actually separate, here are the most common sources of psychological distress:

(1) An early sense of relief may be followed by a sense of dread.  Or vice versa. 

(2) One partner seems conciliatory at first, while the other seems argumentative; then these attitudes switch. 

(3) One party seems to hurt more, but they may recover faster. 

(4)  One spouse went on a sexual spree, the other shut down.  Over time this too may reverse. 

(5)  Whoever initiated divorce already envisions an alternative scenario.  One partner will seem resolved and clearheaded, while the other seems lost.  One partner has picked out a lover, is going to come out of the closet, is going to move to Canada, etc., while the other is foundering in distress.  The scenario picked out by the “clearheaded” partner is called “transitional,” meaning that it gets them through the night in the short run, but it usually doesn’t work out.  The foundering partner feels lost at first, then catches up and surpasses in forging a new and meaningful life, so the partner who originally seemed so clearheaded was engaging in wishful thinking with no true advantage.

(6)  In the early phases of negotiating, both parties often want to avoid anger, enmity, and expense.  So they feel cooperative and they sound cooperative…for a while.  Nevertheless, this couple has lived many years under the same roof and tried to ignore problems that finally led to today’s break-up.  The longer negotiations go on, the more likely one or both parties will become angrier and less cooperative, as they recover more negative feelings buried in the past.  From this premise come 2 guidelines:

(a) Whatever you can resolve quickly and cleanly, resolve it now, otherwise it will morph into a dispute.

(b) Whenever you think the negotiations have gotten so bad that they couldn’t possibly get worse, take a deep breath and accept that they will get worse, because you are drilling even deeper into buried wounds.           

Larry King was asked how he accounts for his 5 failed marriages?  “What do you mean failures?” he replied, “They were all successful for what they were at the time.”  There are 4 important understandings here:

  1. We change and grow as a fact of life.  If 2 people are connected at 25  but disconnected at 40, this isn’t a “failure.”  Their split eventually will be revealed as gain for both parties. (Women usually feel the gain from separation earlier than men.) 
  2. Recognizing when a marriage can’t be fixed is preferable to pointless plodding.  Marriage therapists know that if one partner in a marriage comes to find the other sexually repulsive, there is no chance of recovery, only divorce.  Endless talking merely postpones the inevitable. 
  3. No meaningful advice can come from a parent, priest, or psychologist, because no one but the couple has lived under the same roof and slept in the same bed.  Only you know your marriage from within.  A good therapist can help you expand your feelings and perspective, but a truly good therapist will never pretend to know what you should do.  If anyone claims to know, don’t listen, get away!
  4. Neither party is to blame.  Assigning blame is not only useless, chances are it’ll be assigned backwards.  When it seemed obvious that she’s to blame for moving out, we can’t know the extent of physical or emotional danger she felt she was risking by staying.  When it seemed obvious that he’s to blame for having an affair, we can’t know how she was manipulating their finances.  Huh?  This doesn’t seem to jibe.  Here’s how it works:  Marriage therapists know full well that one partner provokes the other until the other can’t take it any more and makes a mistake, after which the provocateur gets to seem like the innocent one, the victim of a mistake, even though the truth is that the seemingly “innocent” one was the driving force in creating the divorce all along.  Reread this, it’s complicated.  It happens all the time.


Children are always distressed by divorce.  It’s less if they are in their 30s or 40s, instead of being 3 or 4, but it’s there nonetheless.  Even when children agree that divorce is for the best, they inwardly wrestle with feelings of being abandoned and/or defective (the product of a defective marriage).  Younger children are more vulnerable to 3 damaging dynamics:

  1.  Fearing that they must have done something to cause it, or failed to do something to stop it.  This includes a feeling that divorce still might be avoided if they can make themselves the problem instead of the couple, which they try to do by suddenly getting in trouble at school, quitting the team, becoming physically or psychologically ill, and so forth. 
  2. Feeling torn and conflicted because one or both parents mistakenly is involving them in adult details that require them to take sides and/or comfort the adults.
  3.  Being used as the pawn by which one parent tries to hurt, argue or tamper with the other, e.g., causing scheduling problems with play dates and baby sitters so that, by disrupting the child’s life, this misguided parent succeeds in the underlying goal of disrupting the former spouse’s life.

In a fairer world, no child should have to bear the brunt of problems caused by adult parents who are having trouble divorcing cleanly.  No matter how well intentioned, divorce can create emotional pressures leading to long term psychological scars for parents and children alike.  It need not be this way.  Help is available so that the couple can divorce fairly and completely, with minimal extraneous anguish and minimal psychological scars to them and their children. This may be the most important reason the Family Team was created.  Contact them at http://sherridonovan.com/family-center.html

About sherridonovan

Matrimonial & Family Attorney. Mediator and Family Coordinator.
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