Ms. Gran, in your book, you dealt intensively with people who leave their partner. Intuitively, one thinks The one who is left sitting needs more attention.
There is ample blank space in our society. When a person who appears to be in good order in the circle of friends is left, everyone is amazed to ask: Why? People think: Why do you have to part with someone who is not a psychopath, who is not violent, or does not use drugs? Leaving a highly problematic partner is generally approved. But I wanted to give a voice to those who leave a pleasant or personable person. In the 40 years that I have worked like a couple of therapists, I have met many who had to break out of a relationship who could not help it. And the sympathy always lay with those who stayed behind.
Because their fate affects more?
Of course. Being abandoned is also extremely painful, a shock. A big piece breaks out. You feel entirely defenseless. All of this almost instinctively makes us feel sorry for the abandoned, want to protect them. But that’s only one side of the story. We know them well. A lot of dramas and whole operas have been written about it.
But we don’t know anything about the other side.
These people have mostly gone through a very long process, sometimes over many years. In which they dreamed that the relationship would change, things would improve. They are often abandoned while the external connection is intact. They have often sought the conversation, tried to put something on the table – unsuccessfully. Everyone I interviewed for my book always comes back to one central feeling: total loneliness. They call adjectives like isolated, invisible, unimportant. And as they shrink more and more, they lose Hope for a good togetherness. Until they finally leave.
You have become an advocate for the outbreak. In your book, you write about how shaken they are by the separation.
Many of them cry violently when they talk about how hard both the eternal endurance and the final step in breaking were. It takes an incredible amount of strength to break an emotional bond with a person you once loved. The astonishing thing is that you will still burst into tears long after – if the separation was long ago. Even if they have been married for a long time or are now well, they can remember the grief they had just before they left. It was like they were dying.
Is breaking out ultimately a survival instinct?
Exactly. Nobody said: We argued so much. All describe an urge to save one’s own life. It was no longer lying like under a respirator mask because you can’t breathe. It is a dramatic metaphor, but it is true. Those affected can hardly breathe properly anymore.
How can we get another picture in our heads – from the kitschy “Until death separates us” to the more realistic “Unfortunately it didn’t work”?
The living being is with Hope endowed. It makes us not give up lightly. Even under challenging relationships, there are always good moments, bright spots that give us Hope. Like little rewards that are given over and over again. When it comes to a breakup, it is often said that someone gave up too quickly. I’m afraid I have to disagree. In retrospect, I often see that a long, lonely struggle has preceded it.
Let’s go to those who will be abandoned. You often seem to have refused a connection or closeness in advance?
We’re talking about very insecure people at heart, who haven’t had a good bond experience in their childhood. They never feel safe, are continually looking for signs of letting them down. I had a man in my office whose wife was always afraid of being abandoned. It didn’t matter how much he assured her that he loved her. If he didn’t respond adequately, she panicked, started crying, screaming. They accused him of having someone else. It’s so hard to live with someone like that. Only in rare cases do these people gain confidence in the more stable part.
So the best thing is to take a tear?
Yes, otherwise, it will lead to the breakdown of the healthy partner. The other’s behavior is very controlling. That can ruin you. The bad thing is that the more stable one feels very lonely at some point in this tight network. He is permanently misunderstood.
You write in your book that your clients often felt as if they had been erased.
Exactly. They go because they have become invisible. You suddenly no longer recognize each other. This is dangerous because it affects self-esteem.
And yet a mother of four who breaks out of a marriage in which she was unhappy is condemned: “How could she? It was such a good marriage ! “
Because the bystanders fear that this could happen to them, I always say divorces are contagious. That scares people. They protect themselves by demonizing the outbreak. It then says: something is wrong with it. How can you leave such a great man? But if you were to acknowledge that women and mothers are ordinary people and their reasons may be understandable – then everyone would have to face the truth. That is: it can happen to anyone. For this reason, nobody wants to hear their story.
What kind of story would it be?
Many cannot describe why they left. It is also interesting that they rarely speak ill of their ex-partners. Then it says: He was fine. Or: she was a nice woman. You don’t understand exactly what happened. You can say: I felt like a piece of furniture in this marriage. He never spoke to me about things that were important to me. But not: My husband was a bad guy.
Why do we bind ourselves to people who ultimately don’t suit us?
It’s too stupid. (Laughs) We all make this mistake. It has happened to me a lot again. When we fall in love, we enlarge our self. It makes us more assertive, more beautiful, more courageous. It’s always said that love blinds. But I think a completely different state is much more important: you feel safe and seen. In the past, however, marriage would never have been made for reasons of love; today, that is the only reason. We only marry when we are in love with others. But 200 years ago, that would have been the worst possible reason.
Because love is rarely permanent?
The problem is instead of falling in love. I think we often fall in love, even though we’re not ready for a relationship at the moment. Either we are too young. We are tinkering with our careers. We have just been abandoned, we are in a depression, and so on.
Nevertheless, you suddenly meet someone without having expected it, and falls in love for the strangest reasons. You suddenly feel alive again, which is, of course, too tempting. But unfortunately, you may have come across the wrong person. It doesn’t have to be Mr. Right.
What are the warning signs that I’m in a relationship that won’t work?
Suppose the other person isn’t interested in what you’re saying. It is always risky if the other takes one for granted. The formula applies: if two want to stay together, they have to give each other a feeling of importance. Everyone has to be number one in the other.
And what kind of love do we need that lasts long?
Love is based on an unwritten emotional contract. It has two simple rules: the first relates to the bond and is there for the other, especially when he needs one. The second rule concerns our identity. It’s about the feeling that the other person knows who I am. Our longing to be understood. According to the motto: I need to know that you know that I drink tea and not coffee. Those who abide by the rules – that is, really being there for the other person and being an eyewitness to their life can hardly go wrong. Both assure us: Life is not in vain.
Do you have to be able to speak to each other?
If a couple has excellent small talk, that’s a good sign. About little things, how the day went. If two can talk, they’re interested in what’s going on in the other’s head. It’s like a bridge, a trip into the other’s room. Preferably several times a day!
What if one day you realize that communication is difficult? Can you practice in a new language then?
I’ve been married to my husband, who is my absolute favorite, for 25 years. He is a surgeon and not a small talker. In the beginning, it made me very angry when he looked in his newspaper and said nothing. Although I understood that he didn’t want to exclude me, he was very busy with something. But I knew that this silence wasn’t right for us as a couple. So I asked: Hello, talk to me! Then he replied very calmly: I can’t think when you scream. My brain then becomes cement. And then I know nothing to say. So I had to build another bridge. Today I say very calmly: darling, listen to me. I want your attention. But it took me many years to do that.
And what about eroticism and sex?
A lot of couples openly admit that they are connected and friendly, not the exciting sex. Hugs, physical closeness, yes, but not necessarily the erotic attraction they had in younger years. Close ties and passionate sex tend to be mutually exclusive. Many people have very little sex when they are together for a long time. Although they have a strong feeling of love, sitting side by side on the sofa, holding hands, being able to touch.
Are you all right then?
Actually yes. The famous New York couple therapist Ester Perel considers that passion disappears in safe and loving relationships. But many colleagues find this conclusion very annoying. Because they assume that if the relationship is a safe place, the sex will always be right. Because you can always tell your partner what your needs and fantasies are. Similar to Perel, I observe that this is not true. Unfortunately, love and passion collide in long-term relationships. That’s sad. Especially when couples are only 45 or 50 years old, but it happens. It feels like a significant loss. Many then think: We urgently need help that cannot be. But there is no guarantee that sex will come back.
What if we weren’t persuaded continuously that sex had to be sparkling forever? Which is not the case anyway.
Then it would be more comfortable. I know that those who cannot get over the waning sex have a big problem with my practice. I like to say to my friends who lack sex – often because they are single: Why are you so angry with them? You had so much sex in your life, so much fun! You have been erotic for so many years, have left nothing out. Be more humble in the remaining years! If the right date no longer appears, forget it! Do something else with your life!
And what do they reply?
Sometimes one says: You’re right. We had a good time. Now it’s quite lovely to have my body for me.
“I LEAVE YOU BECAUSE I WANT TO LIVE” has been published by Herder Verlag (24 euros). Sissel Gran portrays very moving and clairvoyant people who have broken out of relationships. She is currently writing a book about why love and passion are so difficult to reconcile in the long run.