My friend David recently attempted to describe for me the state of his marriage. He explained that he felt like it wasn’t alive but it wasn’t dead. It just sort of kept moving forward, and whenever he thought he might escape it, there it was, lumbering after him. “No matter how fast I run, no matter where I hide, there it is, coming at me like a zombie,“ David said. He was joking, of course. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much truth there was in the analogy. No matter how strong a union is when it’s forged, inevitably, after the thrilling bloom of the early years, it begins to take on an almost undead quality. It becomes a Zombie Marriage.
“What happens in a marriage is that as it settles,“ says Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, “people just get in a routine with each other. They go on automatic.“
The mistake some couples make is diagnosing that comatose phase—when they’re too wrapped up in their careers, kids, and aging parents to engage with each other—as terminal. That’s when they start obsessing over pulling the plug.
“Too many people take that zombie zone as a sign that they need a divorce,“ says Susan Heitler, a Denver psychologist and the author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. “The bulk of my practice is referred to me by lawyers, and I’d say 80 percent of those who’d gone in to get a divorce turned out to have great marriages.“
Still, taking the opposite tack—exhaustively trying to jump-start a marriage with therapy, self-help books, and couples’ time that’s enforced as strictly as homework hour—can be equally toxic.
“If I thought I had to work on my marriage all the time,“ says one friend who tied the knot 12 years ago, “like constantly take its pulse and make sure everything was okay, I would have given up a long time ago.“
Another friend of mine, whom I’ll call Jeff, says that only when he stopped thinking about his marriage altogether, stopped attempting to prop it up with counseling and “date nights,“ and accepted that it was in its zombie phase, did he and his wife settle into a less anxious, more peaceful coexistence. “I’m not fighting it,“ Jeff says. “I’m not pretending it’s better than it is.“
These men have realized what a lot of couples who are still together in their fifties already know: In most cases, the Zombie Marriage is just a phase—and quite possibly a crucial one. For a lifelong relationship to survive its most challenging period, it must enter an unconscious, protective state, so that no matter how many stakes are driven through its heart it will continue to stumble forward.
Accepting that isn’t a license to stop caring. It doesn’t mean you can start avoiding home and ignoring your wife when she has something to say. Nor can you get away with using a marital coma as an excuse to cheat.
“When a man feels emotionally undernourished,“ Heitler says, “the question becomes What can he do?’ One option is he can say nothing and feel increasingly undernourished. Or he can get angry. Or he can get a girlfriend. Or drink. Or just keep working at the office.“
And those survival tactics highlight the exception to the Zombie Marriage rule. Everyone knows that if you attack it just right, even a zombie can be killed.
A couple in my social circle recently got divorced, and as I watched the husband, a friend of mine, go through this, I began to wonder how his undead marriage had died. Were there egregious transgressions? Irreconcilable differences? No one really knows what goes on in a relationship, but as far as I can tell, this couple had been deep in a Zombie Marriage, and instead of resigning themselves to the dull march, they decided to kill it outright. Think of the shotgun blasts to the head in Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later. This guy and his wife, I concluded from having witnessed a few of their vicious rows, had relentlessly attacked their marriage until they finally succeeded in blowing its head off.
Maybe if they had held on a few months or years longer they could have spared themselves the subsequent agony. Because the Zombie Marriage, just like those B-movie ghouls who can be restored to mortality with a few drops of a serum or potion, can be revived. I look to my parents for proof.
I recently learned that they too went sleepwalking through a protracted rough patch in their thirties and forties. They stayed together. Now that they’re in their late seventies and early eighties, theirs is almost a parody of happy, cranky old people’s matrimony. They’re in love, and I suspect that—through it all, even the Zombie Marriage phase—they always were.