Tag Archives: marriage

Teaching love


What is she teaching them? What will they grow up to believe about love and happiness?

On one hand, they never see her kissing their dad. They never see her touch him voluntarily, and sometimes they notice that she has a hard time maintaining eye contact with him. They see that she can be patient and kind. But they also see that she can be tense and distant. Selfish even. Lately, her oldest daughter pauses on pictures of them together, studying the photographs and wanting her to look at them too. The puzzle pieces don’t all fit together, but she does not say the words aloud.

On the other hand, both parents are there. The girls have a home they know and love, and they never fear that they will go without a meal, or a parent to tuck them in at night. Someone is always coming home. Everything looks the way it looks at other people’s houses. Their parents sleep in the same room, they share the money, and they both do the household chores. They are united, usually, in decisions that involve them and sometimes they do seem to like each other. They still take trips together, and they still go out with their friends. On the surface, it all looks normal. So maybe it is.

But the girls are smart. Maybe smarter than she is. Do they understand longing and regret? Do they know what it means to be restless? Does staying teach them resilience and commitment and partnership? How will they learn about passion?

More and more, she wonders what she is teaching herself about love.


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Strong enough

break through

Tucked into the corner of her therapist’s loveseat, watching a float plane take off from the busy lake outside the window, she feels for a moment the vicarious lift and joy of being airborne.  The relief of being above the question before her.

Why aren’t you attracted to Jake?

She turns, and the room comes back into focus.

It’s taken such a long time just to get to this place, to this room, where she can admit the truth, the not-being-attracted-to-her-husband kind of truth. But this question challenges her. Why is harder to put her finger on.

Jake is a good man. Gentle, honest, and giving. Resiliently committed. He snaps back like a rubber band, never stretched to the point of breaking, never pushed past the point of no return. He is a caring and engaged father, a supportive partner, and he wants to take care of her.

Her therapist waits.

But he is vulnerable. And she hates that.

How is he vulnerable?

She thinks back to when their daughters were small. Jake agreed to be the breadwinner so that she could be the stay-at-home parent. This had been a brave decision, cutting their income dramatically at a time when expenses were going up. And for almost two years, they’d played their roles perfectly—Jake, the provider, and she, the caregiver. The girls had thrived, and Jake’s business had been busy and profitable.

Then the economy failed. A two year recession set in, and Jake’s confidence faltered.

She hadn’t known how bad it was at first. Her depression. His despair. The vacillating mood swings that were unsettling and hard to predict, with moments of extreme optimism and pessimism. He wanted her to join him, to be high when he was high, to share in the low, but she resisted. He wanted her to own the weight and responsibility of it with him. She wanted him to fix it.

At some point, she’d grown angry. And then desperate.

This is where it broke down, she says, relishing the clarity. This was the point at which she had no longer felt safe, where she was no longer able to pretend that everything was okay, or that this was the life she wanted. This was where attraction had withered. This is where the “we” had reverted back to “I”.

She pauses. She knows how this sounds. Unsupportive. Ungrateful. But there is a big part of her that finds his desire to lean on her unappealing, unattractive, and downright needy. She wants him to be strong and independent. She wants to know he has things handled, that their family is taken care of. She doesn’t want to be responsible for his self confidence. She wants him to take what he wants from the world, without hesitating.

She’s on to something. It makes her sound selfish. It makes her seem unkind. She feels sad, and embarrassed, and deeply flawed. But in this room, it takes shape. And the contradiction of the guilt and the empathy she feels, the respect she has and the distance she needs, it all suddenly makes sense.

There is a long silence. But her therapist is smiling and nodding her head.

Photo credit: http://www.health00.com

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Have you?


You haven’t left your husband, he types.

How the hell would you know?

Have you?

Its not that easy. This is not you and Paula. This is me and Jake and two kids and a house we own and private middle school and two car payments and all of my friends who will become half of my friends and all of our family who will become half of our family and custody hearings and this city and your city and my lousy paycheck and his slow, rainy months and his hurt looks and my guilt, and all of it so much bigger than you packing a couple of bags and renting a place across town and getting a dog.

E, you know I can’t.

D, it shouldn’t matter.

How can you be so irrational?

(The cursor hesitates.)

You mean honest?


Photo credit: http://www.johnson-family-chiropractic.com

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Today, she is picking herself up, dusting herself off. Mulling a setback. Contemplating progress.

“And how does that make you feel?”

Jake’s answer to the therapist’s question yesterday wasn’t fair. None of this was really about him, he said. He really couldn’t do anything about it. He had shrugged.

Frustration had overwhelmed her. Why was she here with someone who could so easily throw up his hands, who didn’t want to be in charge, who would rather reserve the right to sit back, watch it all unfold, and then blame her. Her reaction was over the top, but she couldn’t hold it back. She felt angry about the suggestion that he was the victim, that there was nothing he could do, that this was all her fault, her decision.

Grow a pair. Sayeed said the words for her, with a question mark, so that she didn’t have to own them. Barely concealing a toxic mix of guilt and glee, she had watched him wrestle with this.

And then Sayeed named something else for her, saying it before she could recognize the shift in dynamics: judgement. Yes, of course she felt judged, she said. Jake was judging her, he was judging her, she was judging herself.

Somehow, this broke through. This word, powering a fresh rush of emotion, ripped the plastic sheeting separating the present and past rooms in her head, pushing her through a divide. As she struggled to focus, she sensed something moving in a recessed corner. She felt it heating her skin, accelerating her heartbeat, changing her vision. Something deeply buried—a box, the box, had been nudged and the answers living inside were vibrating.

She couldn’t get to it in time. Just as it began to take shape, as she felt she might reach it, as Sayeed’s face lit up in recognition and he leaned forward a little in his chair, as Jake let out a breath—their time was up. Session over. Back to work, to clients, to kids, her life framed above it, like a porch built over a place where flowers had once grown.

But the box had opened and she had recognized its contents—ragged keepsakes of accusation, aggression, derision, contempt, neglect. Memories buried or cast off, scars preserved.

Judgement shapes everything about us, leaving a patina, a shine, a bruise. It scalds us, freezes us, numbs us, nips at our heels, and locks us out. Or in. Sometimes it locks us in.

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The tipping point

crying woman

Silence can be terrifying. The void opens and, though the span looks like something she can jump, the darkness below seems to be waiting. Breathing.

She knew she was in love with Drew, and yet it was the one thing she couldn’t say to Jake. She could tell him she wasn’t having an affair. Others might argue the semantics. She had crossed lines. But she hadn’t passed the sign that says no turning back.

She couldn’t tell Jake what she could barely tell herself. She was in love in the most disastrous way possible with someone with more scars and bigger fears than her own. She was willing to risk everything that was safe and recognizably good about her life for the uncertainty and martyrdom of Drew, an idea so humiliating and immature, it embarrassed her. This need to believe in a soulmate, a pre-destined tragedy, this pain was undoing her. But it had reached the tipping point. The place where emotion weighs more than logic and takes over the argument.

In a rare moment of courage, she asked Jake for a separation. She waited until the idea was no longer a shock to either of them, until Jake had grown weary enough to think it might be his own idea. Jake said he felt relieved, that at least they could move forward. If not with her, then without.

But reality set in quickly, logic rushing in with the kinds of questions you should be able to answer when you’ve made up your mind. Instead of feeling emboldened, her heart sank. She had expected to know, to feel certain, to be propelled out of the house, out of their life. But she wasn’t sure.

How could she move out? There was no money for separate lives. She needed to be close to still be a daily fixture in the girl’s lives, at least if she didn’t want to start a fight. If she wanted to keep them in their school, among their friends, in the upper middle class neighborhood she could hardly afford on her own, she’d have to stay. And Jake couldn’t keep the house on his own for long. He’d have to sell.

The uncertainty was overwhelming. So she started with the easy things, the things she could change without really leaving. She told her closest friends. She separated their phones, and she changed her email address. She began to look at the cost of renting an apartment. She told her mother, who listened and tried so hard not to fret aloud, it was palpable. She considered moving to the guest bedroom but Jake objected. He didn’t want to have to explain it to the kids until there was a real plan in place. He told his parents, who were furious with her. And when Jake told them he hadn’t given up, they were mad at him too.

And then she cried.

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Did we look like we could be saved?

We sat at opposite ends of the couch, the numbness between us thick as pudding. Across from us, the counselor sat in a chair in the small basement room, waiting patiently as we gauged our surroundings. One window in the room provided enough light to warm bamboo in a pot, but it was not generous enough to offer a view. The books on the shelves sat just above a little fan oscillating toward me and then toward him, as if undecided, judiciously allocating portions of cool air in fair and balanced proportions. We were both trying to look normal enough, though Jake already showed signs of cracking, his eyes reddened, his breath held and then released in an unnatural rhythm.

Sayid was soft spoken and gentle, searching our faces to see if we could make and sustain eye contact, waiting to see who might speak and what might be said. I could feel his silent assessment, see him processing us. How bad was it? Did we look like two people about to break apart? Did we look like we could be saved? It was hard to tell. His eyes were open and clear, reflecting my gaze, absorbing my silent questions without judgment.

Jake spoke first, rolling out the thin crust of his anger. He had waited for this turn, the opportunity to say it all out loud. He threw out words like divorce and custody and leaving, and I flinched but didn’t interrupt. I watched Sayid observing, understanding, letting him get it out into something wide and surveyable. When he finished, Sayid nodded.

When it was my turn, I didn’t deny Jake’s accusations. Instead, I reached deep for the words that would explain, and it felt good to give confusion a forum, to lay it out in front of him. It felt right to accept the blame, to give in to the questions. I hoped Sayid would translate my words into something calmer and more rational, something bigger and more important, something reassuring and reasonable. I wanted Jake to see us honestly. I desperately wanted him to accept that we might be holding each other back.

What worried me in that first meeting was that deep down, I sensed a truth, quiet and unwelcome, waiting to be acknowledged, stirring. Something inside me, opening like an album, sticky with childhood fears. I didn’t want to explore it here, in this room, with Jake. In this room, I wanted to be strong, focused. Tears would not fall, and I would not break down.

I watched Sayid watch me until I could no longer meet his gaze.

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Moment of truth


It wasn’t until she lay crumpled on the floor of the bedroom, tears streaming down her face, looking into an abyss both terrifying and electric, that she felt the enormity of her Drew problem. She had underestimated Jake’s reaction. She’d known he’d be angry. But she had hoped his anger would quickly give way to a reckoning, a shared understanding of what was missing in their marriage. Foolishly, she had been optimistic about what this opening of Pandora’s box might mean.

What she hadn’t bargained for was his inability to process it in private, away from the kids. She didn’t realize the suggestion of separation might provoke an extended fight that would threaten to engulf their daughters. Jake never did have a poker face. He’d always been transparent, a lousy trait for a parent.

To be fair, Jake didn’t know what it was like to be a child of divorce, a kid with parents who hated each other. He didn’t know what it felt like to grow up shuffling between them, hearing their disparaging comments about each other, and wishing at least one of them would recognize how confusing and confidence eroding it all was.

Without that experience to guide him, he couldn’t be expected to know how his pain would affect the girls, how they would absorb his emotions yet not understand them. She realized he would turn to them for comfort, and it wouldn’t be until it was too late that he would see his mistake. She could not let that happen.

No, on the floor that night, as he stood over her, shaking, hands clenched, and speaking loudly enough to wake the kids, she realized her needs were secondary, and that this was going to be a gradual evolution, not an instant transformation. She let his heated words about counseling and a midlife crisis wash over her and sink in. Though the path was visible, she couldn’t get there without his support.

She needed to be the adult. This would have to be mutual, because the girls were her first priority, and this was a role she must accept. All others, real and longed for, must wait.

As she calmed the storm she’d created, forcing some of Pandora’s demons back into the box, she tried not to despair that this change she could see could not be reached.

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