A woman whom I shall call Anne was long in a discreetly unhappy marriage.
Several times a year, she, I and several other women friends would have dinner and often, after a few glasses of chianti, she would, in strict confidence, mention difficulties with her husband, James.

Hers, like a number of unions, looked successful. Anne and James had reared two remarkable daughters together, excelled in big, busy jobs, and cared devotedly for both sets of parents. They regularly welcomed us to their inviting home, where raucous evenings might end in dancing on the deck. But within the private life every couple has, where love is nourished or neglected, things didn't go so well.

James avoided spectacular marriage-busting behaviours like maintaining a second family elsewhere or dumping their life savings at the blackjack table, but had gradually devolved into a state of indifferent callousness. After years of hearing about Anne's increasing distress, I began to question the wisdom of sticking around.

"Why not leave?" I'd ask in that this-is-not-really-a-question tone. There were always reasons to stay, reasons anyone in that situation thinks about: children still at home, financial implications, the pain of a split for elderly parents.

Sometimes I'd question the validity of these excuses; Anne resented my pushiness and called me "opinionated". I retreated, same as the other friends, to a position of sympathy and support, feeling heartsick for her misery. Anne, stoic and contained, seemed in it for the duration.

One golden summer evening, Anne and James were invited to a friend’s home for dinner; appetizers were served in the garden. Anne lay back on a chaise, hand trailing in the grass.

She felt the unmistakable sting of a bee on her thumb. Blinking back tears, she fished an ice cube from her drink to apply to the spot– and that’s the last thing Anne remembers. The host, unable to elicit a response, wisely called 911. The EMTs who treated her severe shock reaction said she'd had a close call indeed.

Anne had no history of allergies and had been stung before without a reaction. 

By winter, Anne had moved out. When I asked why she finally acted, she said, "The bee. I realized, I can't live another 20 years like this."

That crisis evoked her will. Anne now lives an entirely new life. One daughter is completing graduate school in forestry, the other works in another city. (Anne is happy that she waited until the girls were old enough to live on their own.)  

The many details are being sorted out with James. Not all days are easy, but she's lighter, more relaxed. She has begun to see a man whom she first met over forty years ago, as a student, and with whom she's become reacquainted since the split.

Starkly, efficiently, the near-death experience shakes our sense of time. After potentially last moments, courage and clarity arise. As I said to Anne, "You went to dinner expecting a usual evening and your life changed forever."

Whether the difficulty is a marriage, job or other situation, there is a moment when everything shifts- but is has to be the right timing for you. Sometimes it takes a bee that finds your hand in the grass. Other times, it's just another day, but it's the day.


Viktoria Berg said…
I was very touched by this, it´s a wonderful story, and so true. So many of us need a close call, a serious illness, some kind of close encounter with death, to wake up to our lives. And some never do.
Susan B said…
I remember a moment like that twenty-some years ago, not near-death but a blues song on the radio that was like a wakeup call. "If I'm Going To Be Lonely, I'd Rather Be Alone." I think deaths or illnesses of those close to us can also be reminders that we must make the most of our years.
KSL said…
A very poignant story. I remember a line in the book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" about life not being a "dress rehearsal", that's been a sort of touchstone by which I try to live.
I wonder how women manage to live under these circumstances and ignore or push aside their true feelings...
your friend was fortunate that she realized that there was more to life and moved on.

I have been guilty of putting up with difficult people who were toxic throughout my career.
It sure feels good when we get out from under. It's like being able to breathe after being suffocated.
frugalscholar said…
When I read your relationship posts, I get a pain right in my heart (panic response?). I only hope this never happens to me. I have been in a harmonious relationship for over 30 years. Our biggest argument came over our votes in the 2008 primary: Mr FS went for Obama, while I voted for Hillary.

I have had sick-making relationships at work--as Hostess notes above--having worked under an all-powerful and bullying dept head for many years (she's now gone, but the scars remain). I can't imagine having a relationship like that at home.

Everyone deserves happiness.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting this.

I left my husband too, and relatives keep asking me, "Won't you give him a second chance, atleast for the sake of your baby."

They don't realize the numerous second chances I have given before I took the decision to move away.
Duchesse said…
Viktoria: Yes, aclose call or perhaps even some chance remark- see the next comment.

Pseu: Music has that power, as if it reaches us on another channel. I would love to do a post asking women for their "aha!" songs.

Kathy" My friend Alice always says that but I did not know what it was from.

hostess: Work situations can be as disruptive as the worst relationship. Some women have endured bullying and other negative behaviours that they would never stand for in a marriage (see Frugal Scholar's comment.)

Frugal: I'm glad you are out of the situation; the workplace can harbor- but should not- abusive people. So much progress has been made in making the workplace free from that, but I guess not in yours.

Anon@4:26: If I've learned one thing, it is that outsiders lack the whole picture. And I question the assumption that a child would be better off growing up in a home full of unhappiness.

Unknown said…
Great post. I had my wakeups in an unhappy job and career path this year. In the span of 12 months a friend died, a coworker's spouse died, another friend's spouse died (all within 8-10 years of my age) and a client and his wife were killed in a holiday accident days after I'd talked with him about a routine matter (promising to call the next week, only to get his grieving sibling who also ran the business). To my knowledge, each had pursued more of his or her dreams than I had, and was happier than I was with choices in life. Then I heard of a former coworker's death - the 7th lawyer suicide in 10 years (that I know of) in my circle. Nothing like being repeatedly reminded that we don't each get 100 years to get a person moving...
Susan said…
It was the terminal illness of a close friend that was a catalyst for us. It was then that we recognized that we would not live forever and decided to build our beloved stone farmhouse. It is a real place of beauty and refuge.

I agree that life is too short for toxic people in our lives. Currently, I am trying to find a solution in dealing with a toxic mother in law. I haven't seen her for two years now, but recognize that there needs to be some middle ground.
Anonymous said…
I had a near-death experience in my 30s, but I was too weak and tired afterward to make any major changes. It wasn't until over 10 years later that I had my wake-up moment. It was the death of a crazy-maker in my life, shortly followed by the death of someone who'd been extraordinarily kind to me. I realized that I'd pushed away the kind person so that I could deal with the toxic person. I told myself, never again will I do that.
Duchesse said…
Artful Lawyer: I am sorry for your losses and shocked by the suicide stats. No matter what one's age, it is time, once one wakes up.

Susan: It's a demanding situation when a person cannot simply be avoided. (I'm all for avoidance as a conflict resolution strategy *sometimes*. My Dad used to say, "If you see a skunk walking toward you, cross the road.")

Once again I recommend "Nonviolent Communication", Marshall B. Rosenberg's book, an invaluable assist to me in family issues.

Mrs M: Oh, what a powerful lesson, and one that can help all of us determine where to spend our time.

Anonymous said…
I stayed longer in an unhappy marriage than perhaps was good for me, but I eventually took my exit with dignity and respect for all concerned. Perhaps I should have left after the first time I had cancer, certainly by the second time, but I didn't. It took until my daughter grew into more maturity and bravely, sweetly showed me she could handle it. It was still one of the hardest things I've done, leaving a marriage of 30-plus years, and the ensuing loneliness was almost crippling. Almost. One must always be brave, and it is so very hard. No regrets.
Arthi said…
>Anon@4:26: If I've learned one thing, it is that outsiders lack the whole picture. And I question the assumption that a child would be better off growing up in a home full of unhappiness.

I'm the same Anon.

I agree totally that it is more damaging for a child to live in a household where the parents do not respect each other.

The posts with the most