Every so often, someone will notice my wedding ring and ask me about it, because it is somewhat unusual. It’s a ring that I had made in the jewelry district in Los Angeles back in 1987 while I was engaged to be married. I was trying to explain what I had in mind to the jeweler who was getting frustrated that I was rejecting everything he was showing me. Finally, I sketched out my envisioned design on a piece of paper and he asked if I just wanted them to custom make that design for me, and I happily agreed.
I am actually not a jewelry person. My accessorizing is generally haphazard, and I have a whole drawer full of baubles that sit mostly untouched. I have simple tastes. The one thing I almost never leave the house without, however, is my wedding ring. When the jeweler presented it to me, he was excited to show me how it turned out and I was happy that it reflected my unique conceptualization. I have always been disinterested in what other people thought about it, or whether or not it met a certain standard for jewelry design, because it was my own distinctive creation, and it was just what I wanted.
Right after I got married, my husband and I spent a week in Cancun, Mexico. The Cancun of 1987 wasn’t quite as developed as it is now. I avoided drinking the water and I ordered all my drinks without ice, but as my husband and I were preparing to fly back to the U.S., I realized that something must have made me sick. We flew to Portland, Oregon, to have a reception in his hometown of Lake Oswego, and were headed to a resort near Bend, to spend another week at his family’s condo, before driving back to Utah to continue our schooling. I spent the whole week in Bend feeling ill, and by the time we were driving toward Utah, I had a temperature and was so miserable that my husband stopped at a medical care facility in the small town of Baker, Oregon, where medical services were sparse.
The medical team immediately gave me an IV drip for my dehydration and began running some tests. The nurse used a needle that was so small that the drip was taking a long time to drain, so he jerry-rigged a pressurized system to increase the flow by wrapping a blood pressure cuff around the bag and pumping it up. The drip did start flowing faster, but soon the bag drained enough that the pressure needed to be increased again. I suggested that my husband pump up the blood pressure pump a second time. Neither of us had any experience with medical instruments.
A few seconds after my husband started pumping, we heard something pop, and I felt something raining down on my head. I instinctively shut my eyes and asked my husband what had happened. He said, “Don’t open your eyes. Mercury just shot out of the instrument and you have it in your eyelashes.” I was freaking out a little bit because I had heard that mercury can be dangerous if ingested. He meticulously picked it out of my eyelashes and off of my body.
A few hours later, after I was discharged, I looked down and noticed that my wedding ring was now silver instead of gold. I surmised to my husband that the jewelers in Los Angeles must have used cheap materials instead of real gold, and my beloved wedding ring was ruined. Later, I called my parents to complain about it. Then, I proceeded to tell them about my adventures with mercury, and my father asked, “Wait a minute. Did you have your wedding ring on when the mercury exploded all over?” “Yes, why?” I replied. “Because mercury bonds to gold. That’s why your wedding ring looks silver,” he explained, “You need to go to a jeweler right away and have it buffed off of the ring.”
I blew off his explanation, and lazily replied that I might get around to it eventually, but that I was under a lot of stress moving into an apartment, starting a new semester, buying books, starting a new job, and paying for my emergency room bill, since these were the days before COBRA, and I had no insurance. “I can’t afford to pay a jeweler to do that right now,” I whined.
My father was a chemical engineer and the owner of an industrial chemical manufacturing company. He knew a thing or two about chemicals. He warned, “Lori,” (now using his no-nonsense, authoritative voice), “if you do not go and get that mercury buffed off of that ring, then it will become part of the molecular composition of the metal, and you will not be able to get the silver color off of it. It will be part of the permanent structure of the ring,” (or something like that…in terms a chemical engineer and manufacturer would use). Sure enough, a jeweler restored the ring to its former purity.
I think about that incident every so often, and my father’s warning that I needed to buff off the mercury before it permanently tainted the structural integrity of the gold from which my ring was constructed. It seems like an appropriate analogy for marital relationships.
By and large, the most challenging cases with which I am faced are those in which one partner spent years building resentment toward another partner without addressing the discontentment or hurt. This happens for many reasons: conflict avoidance, fear, confusion, perceived need to be long-suffering, hopelessness, etc. The reasons don’t matter as much as the effect this strategy has on a long-term partnership. Almost inevitably, the partner who often gives in or placates the other partner without saying anything reaches a breaking point which is manifested as a distinct and firm disconnection.
Allow me to give an example. In one situation, which is almost exactly like many other situations I have seen, a husband spent years focused on his career. Making a lot of money was very important to him, and became part of his identity. He was determined to “succeed.” In the eyes of the world, he was successful, having developed a business and selling it for millions of dollars, giving him the freedom to retire early and invest his profits in a variety of income-generating ventures. However, his wife wanted nothing to do with him. It seemed as if his “success,” had cost him his marriage.
He pleaded with me to help him save his relationship. He said all the right things. He was completely cooperative in therapy. He did everything she asked. And nothing changed. As much as he apologized for ignoring her for so many years, and as much as he explained that he wanted to move forward in a different direction with her, she was past feeling. She seemingly had become comfortable with their disconnection, had accepted it as part of her marriage to him, and had no desire to get close again. Many times, she repeated, “He never listened to me when I tried to tell him before, and eventually I just gave up. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care if we are disconnected…In fact, I’m comfortable with it. I like it that way.” The couple was willing to stay married, “for the children,” but the marriage was very low quality by any standard. There was nothing I could do.
These situations cause me pain because they are so preventable if addressed early and often by both partners. Quite simply, if you find yourself feeling resentful toward your partner, the best thing you can do for your marital future and your children is to address it immediately, even if it hasn’t been previously heard. This doesn’t mean being “brutally honest,” or rigid and demanding. Kindness and generosity are ALWAYS important with any degree of honesty. It means to continue to evaluate the condition of your marriage and recorrect the trajectory toward closeness instead of disconnection, so hard feelings don’t build up enough to completely divide the marriage. If your partner isn’t hearing you, giving up will not fix it. It is not heroic to avoid conflict while allowing discontentment to become bitterness.
Dr. Carlfred Broderick, Harvard and Cornell-educated former director of USC’s marriage and family therapy program, identified unaddressed resentment as one of the main factors weakening a marriage and making it more vulnerable to disconnection and affairs. In my experience, he was absolutely correct. Fast and frequent marital repair is a recipe for success.
In the parable of the wedding ring, if you do not buff off the mercury in your marriage (resentments, discontentments, hurts, slights), it will become part of the permanent structure of the relationship, unchanged by delayed apologies and tardy responsiveness, leading to something of a lower quality alloy.
In essence, it becomes more difficult for a marriage therapist to “buff off,” the layer of toxicity that is poisoning the marriage. Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, however. Please don’t give up. Try to repair the quality of the relationship instead of just enduring a low-quality but stable marriage–for the sake of the children. It may be challenging, but if BOTH partners put forth required effort, the “ring,” can be restored to its former beauty, and I daresay it empowers the family as well–a ring for which Tolkien may even agree is worth enduring the epic adventure.