November 26, 2017

Does Comfortable Numbness Prevent Us from Facing Our Truths?


This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

“How will you know when it’s time?”

Throughout my divorce and even to this day, countless people have asked me just how I managed to figure out it was time to leave my marriage. It would appear that leaving a marriage is still considered a radical act, whether after a few months, a few years, or a few decades. Unless you’re a Kardashian.

My answer has never wavered. “Only you will know when it’s time to go.”

I know my rather cryptic advice was of little help to a school mom whose husband would verbally and physically abuse her in front of her children, and yet expected her to continue to open her legs for him whenever he demanded it. She even managed to have another child in the middle of being regularly beaten up. While I argued then that in this day and age, every woman should have the option to leave, she explained that her family would not take her back, her community would shun her (she was Muslim) and her children would be taken away from her.

She was too scared to leave, she said. Which of course incensed me, though I remained silent. In what kind of twisted universe, I fumed, does staying, despite the very real physical and emotional risks, become the safe option? Clearly it was the pathology of abuse, together with a sense of shame and the fear of censure from an unforgiving society, that made her feel powerless and worthless. Moreover, the thought of being on her own absolutely terrified her; she felt she wasn’t equipped with any employable skills, never having really worked before marriage. She felt that she would be judged as a failure for not being able to keep her husband and for subjecting her children to the trauma of divorce, upending their lives and shuttling them between homes. Never mind that her children were witness to more than one occasion to their father pummeling their mother, even while she was pregnant. Naturally, in accordance with the domestic abuser’s playbook, the husband turned on the charm in public. No one suspected he was a wife-beating assh*le in private.

It makes me sad to think that my school mom acquaintance calculated the risks inside her head and concluded that living in the hell that was her marriage to an abusive man was the safer option for her and her children than being on her own. Perhaps his frequent blows had numbed her into a kind of acceptance of her situation, something that made me even sadder.

That was over 10 years ago, and even today, it amazes me that while we proclaim the importance of living authentic lives, celebrate the rewards of finding your bliss, and following your passions, tout the joys of self-discovery, and promote the heady rush of empowerment, many of us still choose to live in comfortable numbness. It strikes me as another one of the many paradoxes of human existence: that inasmuch as we would like to live lives that are full and fulfilling, we gravitate towards the comfort of the familiar, no matter how dysfunctional, or even soul-destroying that may be. That’s just as true of work and careers as it is of marriage and relationships, and of men as it is of women.

Of course it could be argued that in a country like the Philippines, anyone in an unhappy or simply stagnant marriage has little recourse but to remain married, legally speaking. But a well-placed source told me recently that the divorce bill is likely to be passed next year, which would no doubt bring relief to so many, including the Tish and Andy Bautistas of this world.

The disgraced comedian Louis C.K.—of all people—once started a joke by saying, “Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true, because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce.”

One would have had to go through a divorce to understand the truth contained in these words. But just as most people put an incredible amount of thought into whom they marry, and rightly so, anyone considering divorce does so with a whole lot of introspection, anguish, even anger and pain. Even as one party (or both parties) contemplate divorce and try to approach it as the best course of action from an objective viewpoint, there will always be some emotional—and sexual—residue that comes with unraveling a shared life. There’s the shift in feelings, whether brought about by a third party or not, there’s the implication of sexual rejection by one spouse of the other, there’s the separation of common assets and the administrative nightmare of dissolving bank accounts and insurance policies, changing wills, discussing settlements and, of course, custody, if children are involved.

And yet, comfortable numbness, by its very definition, shields people from the discomfort of facing certain truths about themselves and their relationships. It gives them the illusion of protection from risking too much for an unknown that may hold the promise of being exhilarating, life-affirming, occasionally challenging yet deeply fulfilling, but at the end of the day remains a volatile uncertainty, and therefore should be regarded with fear and suspicion. Comfortable numbness insulates people from a host of things we’ve come to be wary of: Vulnerability, a willingness to experience both hurt and joy for personal growth, the discomfort of confronting the truths about ourselves and what we really want, the implied selfishness in finally putting ourselves first instead of subsuming our hopes and needs and desires so that the status quo is maintained.

Alain de Botton, in his book How to Think More About Sex, wrote this about diverging desires for love and sex, but it could just as well apply to marriage and divorce: “We tend to tiptoe around what we want, cloaking our needs with evasions and in the process, we habitually lie, break each other’s hearts and suffer through evenings filled with frustration and guilt.”

Comfortable numbness, in any aspect of life, but particularly in marriage and relationships, may feel like a security blanket, but ultimately, we’re wrapping ourselves in a false sense of security.

“You’re so brave to leave.”

People have said that to me countless times, and maybe they’re right.  Not all marriages should end in divorce, of course, and bravo to those couples who have remained married, bound by love, mutual respect, and, if they’re lucky, enduring desire for each other. But in some cases, staying married is an act of cowardice that stealthily steals away at your soul and makes you settle for comfortable numbness as a substitute for living a full and fulfilled life.

I can only hope the school mom has realized that before it’s too late.

B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant. 

For comments and questions, e-mail

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.


Art by Lara Intong

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Filed Under:

Abuse, B. Wiser, Career, culture, divorce, domestic abuse, Domestic Violence, marriage, relationships, Sex and Sensibility

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