As a highly sensitive person, I could not stand to see him suffer. It was easier for me to be the one in pain.
“I just don’t know how to be your wife before being your friend.”
This was one of the last things I said to my husband, a few months before we divorced. We were married for almost six years when reality hit me in the face and made me take a deep look at our relationship — and to learn that our marriage had been dead for over a year.
We met when we were 21, in our last year of college. I fell in love with him because he was independent and brave, but felt lonely. I was not as brave or independent, but could provide company and build intimacy.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I absorbed not only his emotions, but also part of his personality. We traveled a lot, and although I enjoyed it, it pushed me out of my comfort zone more than I could handle. A different city every few days, sleeping in hostels, etc. We clashed a lot because I wanted to stay longer in a city that I found peaceful and quiet, while he wanted to move faster to see more places.
At home, I saw him suffer as I really wanted to stay in and enjoy quiet time while he wanted to be out with friends and have more interesting experiences. I was emotionally and physically exhausted every day, but I agreed to all his conditions, because as an HSP, I tend to avoid conflict and change — and our conflict management as a couple was not healthy.
As I look back, I can see how I tried to “go with the flow” in my marriage to avoid arguments and unpleasantness. It breaks my heart to have accepted unhappiness as the new standard to preserve familiarity.
Here is my story, which may sound familiar to other HSPs.
What Led to My Marriage’s Downfall
As I make peace and accept my new status as a divorced person, I can’t help but reflect on some of the things that led to the debacle of my marriage by putting my role as a friend before my role as a wife:
- Making his comfort zone my comfort zone. I pushed myself to “enjoy” things that made me miserable, such as loud hostels, frequent reunions with lots of people, adrenaline-filled adventures, etc.
- Pushing myself to duplicate my partner’s personality for the sake of avoiding conflict and being a “better” wife. I would try to keep my feelings quiet to keep him from getting upset, and try to be outgoing and “fun” so he wouldn’t have to live with a “boring” partner.
- Accepting that my relationship lacked emotional intimacy as my partner struggled to understand his emotions and show vulnerability. His first resource was always stonewalling during arguments.
- Letting go of any physical affection. My partner did not consider touching as important for our relationship as I did, and regardless of me almost begging him to hold my hand or hug me, he just could not do it.
- And last but not least: Putting all his needs before mine as I could not bear the idea of him suffering.
My partner and I hit the “point of no return” when he attended a conference out of town and was gone for a week. For the first time in months, I enjoyed my quiet house, relaxed while hanging my laundry to dry, and hiked in solitude. During my first hike alone, I remember the feeling of freedom keeping me going in the longest hike I had ever done.
I felt free. I felt alive. And I knew I had to confront reality and make big changes in my life.
I Couldn’t Stand to See Him Suffer
But those big changes didn’t come as fast or easy as I wanted. The sudden realization of how happy I was when he was out of town made me see all the things I had done to keep my marriage “alive.” And the truth was too much for me to handle.
When my partner came back, I asked for a separation. As we both discussed it in tears, he convinced me it was not a good idea, and I accepted it even though my inner voice was screaming that I needed out of that relationship. Again, I could not stand to see him suffer and cry. It was easier for me to be the one in pain to keep him happy.
We stayed together, but it was easy to see at this point how unhappy and unhealthy I was becoming from trying to extend the life of an already dead relationship. It suddenly became unbearable to share a room with him, to force myself to be loving when I felt so hurt, and to go on dates again to try to rekindle our spark.
I remember crying in the bathroom at work and the ongoing stomach aches and nausea. When he tried to hold my hand and hug me — after years of asking him to do so — it now felt obligated and empty.
In the End, Divorce Was Healthiest
This kept on until one day he started the conversation about separating. After separation, he still asked to go on dates to try to fix our relationship, and against my will, I accepted every time. One day I was so upset I cried as we exited a museum during one of these dates. We parked on the street, and he asked why I kept saying yes to every one of his ideas. After a long, deep conversation, he begged me to stop being his friend and instead start being his wife.
You see, the more I was being his friend, the more I kept him from working on being a better husband. By being his friend first, I:
- Hid the truth about the health of our relationship.
- Never set up correct boundaries.
- Did not allow him to see what he was doing wrong.
- Settled to be unhappy to avoid change.
- Kept myself from embracing who I really am (an HSP).
- Kept him from growing and from getting the help he really needed.
- Made myself unhealthy. Lost a lot of weight, could not sleep, could not focus.
- Ignored and betrayed my inner voice.
After a few months, we resolved that divorce was the healthiest thing for both of us. We went through therapy, had honest conversations, and did everything as quickly as we could to move on and try to find happiness in our own ways.
Even when our divorce was as friendly and peaceful as it could be, it was hands-down the hardest thing I ever did. We stopped talking altogether as we found we could not be friends at the moment, and actively avoided running into each other at work (we work at the same place).
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What I Learned
Although this process was difficult and emotionally draining, I am hopeful. I feel our divorce gave us a chance to grow as individuals, and for me, to understand and live by my own priorities. Through a lot of therapy, I now finally understand what they mean during the safety demonstration before a flight: You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else.
By trying so hard to be his friend first, I neglected the resentment that had started to accumulate. I was angry at myself for not taking care of my health, for always blindly justifying his decisions, and for having accepted a life of unhappiness. “Unconditional friendship” became more of a forced offer to help with strings attached.
I started evaluating my own friendships and cut out those where I had fallen into that kind of behavior. I started setting up boundaries, addressing my own priorities, and implemented “happiness checks” every month or so — I would compare my current situation versus what I described in my journal as my optimum happiness level. I have decided to be braver and speak up for my needs, and to continue developing myself as a strong and independent person.
Six months have passed since we divorced, and I still have issues processing and accepting that our relationship died, and that we went from being partners to not talking anymore. I am still adapting to the loss of familiarity, trying to find my own path, and parting with the idea of us ever being friends again.
But a few weeks ago, I ran into him at work and saw him laughing with friends, ready for work and finally happy. And as a healthy secret friend, I was truly happy for him.