Thursday, January 23, 2014

Death by a Thousand Small Cuts

According to Wikipedia, “death by a thousand small cuts” is a way major negative change happens — slowly, in many unnoticed increments not perceived as objectionable. It is akin to the expression “boiling a frog,” where the belief is a frog placed in a pot of hot water will jump out, but one placed in cold water and gradually heated won’t notice the danger and will eventually be cooked to death.

I think this was the manner in which my second marriage was ultimately, incrementally extinguished. 

In the beginning, as in the end, it was all about the small things. I believe that had we continued our attention to the small things we could have sustained what was once the most important big thing — our marriage.

Initially, we specialized in details, niceties, and politeness. He was in the US Army and transferred to Seoul, S. Korea while we were dating. Before he left we spent hours talking about our concerns for the forced separation, but it turned out we excelled on separate continents, emailing each other daily (often multiple times) with long messages recounting the day’s activities and filled with sentiment for each other and plans for a future together. I raced home to check for his emails.

On weekends we invested two and three hour blocks of time burning the international calling plan and bridging time zones to discuss everything under the sun, the moon, and the stars. Under the classic “way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” philosophy, I regularly baked cookies to mail to him.

Separated by half a world, we still maintained a magical closeness.

After 18 months of long-distance relationship nurturing and maintenance I quit my job, moved to Korea, and we married. Together in time and space, he opened doors to buildings and vehicles for me and I thanked him for it. Hand in hand we rode the subway and walked around Seoul. We talked about our future and planned our life back stateside.

Three months later, he retired from the Army and we returned to the house he owned in Tennessee and a new life together. We continued our habits of paying attention to each other by talking, dreaming, holding hands and opening doors. Married life was good.

But somewhere along the line we stopped noticing each other. I don’t know when it happened, I only know that about four years into our marriage, I realize with a shock the many ways our relationship had shifted. We had managed to commit the tiny crimes of neglect we vowed to never do when we first married.

When he walked in the door from work, the warm “Hi, Babe” and quick kiss had been replaced with a curt “What’s for dinner?”

Instead of rushing home, I found reasons to be elsewhere.

We stopped eating facing each other at the dining room table and were eating side by side on the living room sofa, facing the TV.

The routine question of “How was your day?” was met with “OK,” or “crappy,” instead of the once detailed stories of coworkers, bosses, work successes and frustrations.

Too much space in between.
Weekend walks in the woods had been traded for near-silent observation of outdoor shows on TV.

We never emailed or spoke to each other during the workday.

We stopped talking to each other and replaced it with watching other people talking on TV.

My self confidence took a nosedive and I began provoking arguments primarily for the conversation and attention.

The volume and resonance of his snoring increased. I resented what I perceived as his indifference to the effect on my own sleep, and stomped down the hall to the guest room, where I set up permanent camp.

Where we had once done everything together — talking, shopping, hiking, driving aimlessly around town holding hands — we had degenerated to living separate, parallel, mostly silent lives.

When I expressed my concerns, he didn’t want to discuss it. He said he was happy and that we had a great marriage because we rarely fought. The way I saw it, we rarely fought because we didn’t talk, and a marriage is only as happy as the least happy person.

On separate continents, we were able to focus on each other and maintain closeness, but under the same roof, we had incrementally neglected each other until there was too much emotional space between us.

One thousand small cuts later, we signed papers for our divorce.

Originally published January 22, 2014 on

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