With this ring, I wish you dead

It's taboo, but spouses in bad relationships sometimes think it: Death is a cleaner break than divorce

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

There's been another hurricane of a fight in your stormy marriage, and your wife blows out of the house. She grabs the car keys. The front door slams. The wheels screech on the pavement.

And then the thought rises: Well, maybe she'll have a fatal crash and put you both out of your misery.

You're horrified, of course. You never tell anyone that the thought has occurred to you - until, that is, one of your female friends mentions how shocked she was that once, while standing in the kitchen with her husband bitterly arguing, she wished that he would just do her the favour of dropping dead on the floor.

"The death wish for another is not something that people comfortably talk about, but when asked, it is something that many people will acknowledge," admits Gregory Hamovitch, a Toronto psychologist who has worked with individuals and couples for more than 20 years.

"It is more common than would be evident on the surface."

Well, let me wave my little taboo flag. At one point in my long marriage, my husband had a terrible health scare. After gallbladder surgery, he suffered life-threatening complications that sent him back to the hospital for two months, followed by a three-month convalescence. Eventually he recovered, but my anxiety over his health continued.

Our marriage was not in good shape, either. And I remember worrying that maybe he would not survive. I was not considering divorce. We had three young children, and I was a stay-at-home mom. As wonky as this makes me sound, the thought did float through my brain that death was possible, and while not wished for, it would be one ending.

I found myself thinking that, despite the dysfunction in our relationship, and how unfair I thought he was, I should just try to love him really well because maybe he didn't have long to live.

It sounds crazy now that I write it. (He is alive and well and remarried, by the way.) I put it down to magical thinking, which is a particularly female activity. It goes something like this: I'm a good person, and fate, the forces of the universe, will take care of my unhappiness for me.

Death of her spouse was not an outcome Jennifer Elison hoped for in her difficult marriage, but she was brave enough to write an article recently in Newsweek about how she felt when it happened unexpectedly.

"I was in shock," she wrote of her husband's death in a car accident at the age of 31. "But I was also aware of a bewildering mix of sadness, anger and, as hard as it was to admit, overwhelming relief."

The day before he died, she had asked him for a divorce.

Death is a cleaner break than divorce. It's psychological surgery. The person is gone from your life. There is anguish over the loss, but it's different. Death is a natural, final and no-fault parting in a way divorce will never be.

And it's easier to be a widow or widower than a former wife or husband. You get real sympathy. If you're a man, you will be the beneficiary of the Casserole Brigade, the legion of single women who come to your door offering microwavable suppers.

But while the death wish sounds like the product of a selfish mind - hey, you avoid the cost of expensive lawyers - it is more likely the thought of a distressed one, psychologists say.

"It occurs as a fantasy around conflict avoidance," Dr. Hamovitch says.

It is also passive: the stance of a victim who feels helpless and trapped. "I used to think about him dying a lot," confesses a friend of mine about her husband of many years. "But when I faced divorce, and started taking control of the problem, I stopped thinking about it." The same was true for me.

Psychologists have a field day with the death wish issue, if and when people are brave enough to admit to it. "It is a primal expression of rage," says Barry Rich, a therapist in Richmond Hill, Ont.

We tend to feel the strongest degree of anger toward people with whom we are most intimate.

"I give patients permission to feel that it's not taboo," says Cecil Fennell, a marriage therapist. "People feel that if you wish it, it's almost as bad as doing it."

So, here's my advice.

Let's say you and your beloved are drinking your morning coffee over the paper. One of you mentions the reports on the ongoing investigation of Stacey Castor, the American woman accused of administering fatal antifreeze to her second husband. (She is suspected of killing her first husband the same way.)

Don't react with false horror, as in, "I can't believe people would do such a thing."

Rather, be honest. Say, "You know, honey, I know this sounds weird, but once, I thought of sticking a knife in your back."

"Really?" he might respond. "When?"

"Oh, a few years ago, when you were in that obnoxious phase of acting like a master of the universe." You take a sip of your latte. "You're much nicer now."

He looks up calmly from his paper. " Well, now that you mention it, when you went on holiday with your girlfriends in 2001, I hoped that a wave would sweep you out to sea. I didn't want you to suffer," he says, as he returns to reading the paper.

"But I thought it would be for the best."


"I was so glad when you came home. I missed you terribly, and I realized I just needed a break from you." He smiles, and passes you the business section.

"Maybe we should talk," you suggest.

"Sure," he says. He reaches across the table to take your hand. "Want to go to the bistro tonight?"

"Great," you say. "I'll phone the babysitter."