Last summer, quiet quitting took the world by storm.. The idea of doing the bare minimum at work just to keep things humming along was certainly far from new, but we suddenly had a way to conceptualize the under-performing that happens in the workplace. And we were understanding no longer as laziness, but of an intentional act of self-preservation.
As I heard the world’s chatter about quiet quitting, it made me think a lot about the work I do on burnout. People checking out emotionally and down-shifting their effort? That sounded like what happens when workers become overwhelmed and disenchanted with their jobs. When quiet quitting was shown to be linked to having a bad manager, it reinforced the connection.
But as writers and analysts opined on the perils of quiet quitting on the economy, I found that it also reminded me something even more painful – and maybe more harmful. How many of us, I wondered, had quietly quit our marriages?
In her work with couples, the Emotion Focused Therapy creator, Sue Johnson, describes three different “demon dialogues.” These are the patterns that couples begin to establish – dysfunctionally – when they are lacking connection and healthy attachment. The first two patterns involve getting stuck in emotional gridlock and getting into battles of criticism and withdrawal.
But it’s the third one that’s really the grim reaper of relationships. She calls it the “Freeze and Flee.”
In the Freeze and Flee pattern, a couple has started responding to each other with emotional distance. No one is reaching out for connection. No one is taking a risk of getting rejected by their partner. A couple may even be cordial and respectful to one another, but actual emotional intimacy is nowhere to be found.
What I often see with couples is that this pattern emerges after the other two dances have been exhausted. At some point, one or both of the partners feels that they’ve tried too hard, given too much for the little to no benefit they feel in return. They’ve resigned themselves to a certain cold cohabitation, and they’ve decided that this needs to be good enough.
Sometimes they do this for what they feel is for the sake of children. Sometimes it’s because it’s what they saw modeled growing up. Sometimes it’s because the idea of investing any more energy – including in ending the relationship – is far too daunting.
Some of these partnerships continue on like this for years – sometimes decades or lifetimes. And some finally smolder when one partner decides that this hollow commitment feels worse to preserve than to break.
Quiet divorces take many different forms, but they’re marked by disconnection. For those of us who haven’t ever experienced healthy attachment before with a parent or in another relationship, it can actually look pretty normal. We might not even question it.
Here’s what I hear people say when they’re in a quiet divorce:
“We just have our own lives. He does his thing and I do mine.”
“I just feel lonely all the time, even when we’re sitting next to each other.”
“I don’t really even care anymore what happens.”
“We feel like ships passing in the night.”
“I hate living this way, but I also don’t see a way out.”
“I’ve just given up. I can’t even care anymore.”
“I’m going to just focus on what’s in my control. I can’t worry about her anymore.”
“It’s like I know I should be upset, but I’m not even that. I just feel numb to it.”
“He’s a good dad. That should be enough, right?”
“I wish I could just feel something again.”
Being in a marriage where one or both partners has quietly divorced is excruciating, but that might be hard for the partners themselves to admit. Just like in quiet quitting, we’re emotionally withdrawing ourselves not as an act of laziness or even as a punishment, but rather because we have to protect the pieces of our hearts that remain.
As a rule, defense mechanisms can be pretty strong and pretty resistant to examination. And so if quiet divorcing has been keeping us safe from more heartache, it can be painful to recognize.
It’s often only when something pulls the blinders off to our reality – sometimes therapy, sometimes a friend, sometimes a crisis – that we start to see it for what it is. Cold. Lacking. Gut-wrenching. And like so many things, once we see it, it becomes almost impossible to unsee.
There are plenty of ways in which Glennon Doyle can be problematic, but I’ll invoke her here for a moment. In Untamed she talks about debating staying in her previous marriage for her children, while also wrestling with the knowledge that she wouldn’t wish her marriage on any of her children.
She says, “We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist. What a terrible burden for children to bear—to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear—to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too.”
Does this mean that if you’re in a quiet divorce, you should just pursue a legal divorce?
Definitely not. At least not necessarily.
It means that we cannot let ourselves be fooled into thinking that apathy is what we owe our children. We cannot accept the idea that disconnection is our fate and that our giving up on love serves anyone.
That might mean breaking the Freeze and Flee cycle long enough to start couples therapy. It might mean taking a big risk with our heart today to tell our partner how different we want things to be. It might mean setting some different, scary boundaries. It might mean starting over.
Whatever it looks like, don’t let it look like quiet divorcing. We are not born to be quiet.