“Janet and John”: The story of an utterly avoidable marital breakdown

Janet and John had been happily married for many years. To their friends, Barack, Angela and Francois, they were outstanding role models.

Janet and John lived together and clearly enjoyed each others company. Friends and family who came to stay were made to feel extremely welcome. They had a beautiful house and were great hosts with a gift for hospitality and putting on a good show. If you came to stay once, you’d usually leave wanting to come back as soon as possible..

They also shared a business together that had been in their family for generations. They worked well together and often went on overseas adventures. To the outside world, they were inseparable, standing together under the banner of the same team, displaying a tremendous show of unity.

Both Janet and John were attractive, creative, competitive and interesting as individuals. Nonetheless they also allowed their own identities and differences to shine through, making each of them very much a person in their own right.

If you had to describe them separately, you would probably say that Janet was the more passionate and fiery of the two while John was the more relaxed and reserved. John was undoubtedly the stronger. Under his wing and the security that he provided for her, Janet was able to blossom and thrive and be herself. In no way was she submissive. But then nor did John take advantage of Janet by domineering. Most of the time, he used his greater strength to accommodate Janet’s wishes for the greater good of their marriage. If anything, she was marginally the winner from this. John knew this but didn’t really mind. The marriage was what was important.

None of this is to say that their marriage was perfect. Whose is? There were tensions that spilled into the occasional argument over who was responsible for what in the home, how they should spend their money, and how they should bring up their children. The children also had occasional unattractive spats, more often than not fueled by a strong competitive spirit more than any particular malice towards one another. Nor did the family make any effort to hide these tiffs. But most of the time, these public squabbles between the parents or between the children were shortlived. Parents and children were quick to kiss and make up. All in all, it was a pretty typical ‘happy marriage’, full of thoroughly normal ups and downs, a marriage that benefited all of the family directly and that made friends feel welcomed and safe.

In recent years, however, Janet and John began to drift apart. At the root of it was the way they managed their money. Throughout most of their marriage, they had operated a joint bank account that required both of them to sign. In that way, all spending was agreed jointly. Janet was happy with this arrangement. She had a big say in what was saved and what was spent. She knew that if she needed she could pressure John into spending on things that she particularly wanted. But she rarely, if ever, did. John was also happy. In theory, John could have abused his strength by putting pressure on her to cooperate with him. But in practice he didn’t. It was a good arrangement that worked well for both of them. It helped keep the two of them together.

Then John woke up one day and on the spur of the moment decided that Janet should be able to act more independently. So he opened an account in her name and gave her an allowance. In John’s mind, he was being generous and magnanimous. At first, Janet appreciated the gesture. However, the more she thought about it, the more it felt stingy. Instead of being an equal partner in their family venture, it suddenly felt as if she was being treated as a minority. What resentment there might have been beforehand, if any, had been contained by the joint arrangement they had that worked. The marriage was what counted.

Now her resentment at being treated as the junior partner bubbled over into anger. She still loved John but began to say things that she didn’t really mean. For sure she wanted her full share of their money and full freedom to spend it as she wished. But when John wasn’t prepared to do that, she demanded the right to end their marriage. She didn’t know if she meant it. But she said it.

John now thought Janet was being unreasonable in asking to have control over all of her money. He refused to give her free reign to spend how and when she wished. Instead he gave her the opportunity to walk away from the marriage if she really couldn’t cope with his new arrangement. In his mind it was the loving thing to do. But divorce wasn’t really what Janet wanted at all. Having changed the way they managed money a little, John didn’t see that he had in fact undermined her a lot. All she had ever wanted from her marriage was respect. She had it when they shared everything. She lost it when he gave her the allowance. It made her feel cheap.

John didn’t ever think Janet was serious about pulling the plug on their marriage. But as her position hardened, John realised he had to do something. Instead of telling her how much he loved her and how important and wonderful their marriage had been over so many years, he began to make threats about how much divorce would hurt her. If she left she would become far worse off, poor and isolated, destitute even, he said. She would struggle to support herself on her own. He would take back everything he had ever given her and make life difficult for her.

Not surprisingly, she became more determined to leave. She still wasn’t sure whether she would dare do it. But the prospect of a future life with John was beginning to look like an unattractive option.

Belatedly, at the very last minute, John realised the error of his ways and desperately tried to woo her. He offered her entire share of their money. But it was all too late. Janet was now hurt and had stopped listening. She was acting out of emotion rather than reason. If Janet chose to walk away now, it would be completely understandable. John had blown it twice, originally by failing to realise the sleight he made when he gave her an allowance and then by threatening her with the consequences.

Whatever Janet decided to do, their marriage was now in big trouble. A happy marriage of two very different people had somehow drifted into confusion and hurt.

If they split up, the consequences for the children would be appalling. To them the divorce would have come out of nowhere. Inexplicable. Devastating. The aftermath would almost certainly be drawn out, bitter, highly contested and thoroughly acrimonious. It was a classic case of how the end of a low conflict marriage hurts children most. They never saw it coming. Everybody suffers. Everyone is worse off.

If, however, they stayed together, they would need to do things very differently. John had finally woken up to the reality that their marriage was no longer the same. They had acted well as a team before his misguided mistake with the allowance. They still could remain a strong marriage. But things had to change and they would both need to operate much more independently. That also meant that John would have to run his own affairs for the first time without the help of Janet. He’d never even thought about that before.

Either way, it would be a long process of reconciliation to give Janet back her respect, whether they remained as husband and wife or became near neighbours.

Meanwhile their children – and their friends Barack, Angela and Francois – looked on bemused. How on earth did that happen?

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