What I thought marriage would be like.
I was getting married for the second time so I was certain I knew what I was looking for. I needed someone much more stable than my first wife. I needed someone who understood depression; heck if she suffered from it herself that would be okay too. I wanted her to be solid, serious, and able to express herself creatively. And sure, we had to have fun.
What really happened in my marriage.
There was some drama in our courtship. As we were just getting started “dating” my future wife cut off our relationship. She needed to get right with her current boyfriend (WHAT?) and give that some time to sort itself out. It was a classic dear John lunch. And we agreed to not see each other for the foreseeable future. What she didn’t tell me at the time was she was actually living with the guy. Kissing me and living with the guy. I never knew until later. So we embarked on what I called our “moment of silence.” But what it really should’ve been was a BIG RED FLAG to get the fuck out. I didn’t.
She called me several months later, saying, “It’s done.” I was excited and we jumped into the “relationship” part of our courtship rather quickly and easily. She moved in with me a several months after that. And I remember our first fight was over when we would start trying to have a baby. She was getting freaked out by her age, and really wanted children. I did too, but didn’t subscribe to the drama of how quickly we needed to start trying. She freaked out. I consoled. We agreed we would start trying soon after we got married.
We bought a house in the fancy part of town (great schools, expensive, both of us had gone to the same fancy high school and we wanted the best for our kids) and rented my condo. Very quickly we had a mortgage together and were constructing our nest for the kids. She suffered an early (first trimester – were we even into a trimester language yet, I don’t think so) miscarriage. This gave her some sense of urgency that we try real hard to get pregnant. She was very goal oriented.
With the first kid came the burden of the child care and the house upkeep weighing down on us, we began to show some stress. I was working freelance, but had a steady gig with an online magazine. Times were good. 9/11 swept my business right out the door. And she was working part-time for her big employer, mainly to keep the insurance that would provide the coverage for our second child. I was crushed. We were both freaked out by money. We continued down the path to have a second child, but we were both struggling personally.
I suffered a major depression after 9/11 and during the medically challenging birth of our second child. She and mom suffered from a rare medical condition known as Kell. Their blood was incompatible and the mom’s body was trying to kill the daughter’s body. We visited a neonatal specialist every Monday morning for a sonogram that determined if our daughter was would need to be delivered in an emergency C-section, or if we could make it another week. It was harrowing. And our relationship suffered rather than got stronger. Doubt began to creep into my mind for the first time.
Then the hard middle years. Me struggling with depression, trying to find work, and the two kids eating up time, energy, and budget. Of course we were also in the glow of being new parents. We did bask in the amazing joy of being parents. But it was more us and the kids rather than us as a couple.
Nothing ever seemed to be settled for her. There was always something wrong. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough housekeeping help. There wasn’t enough spontaneous super-dad repairman around the house. She was mad that she had to ask me a couple of times to change a light bulb in the hallway. I was asking, “But the bulbs are right there, you can change it.”
During this hard time she confided in a new male co-worker. They shared several lunches together (just how she and I had gotten started) and I stumbled on an email between them where he was consoling her for being married to a person with depression. In my mind they were having an emotional affair. She apologized when confronted, and though she never apologized for the actual dating, she said she understood how it could make me upset and she would stop immediately. She never said she was sorry for doing it. She was sure she had done nothing wrong. But she would stop because she saw how it was hurting me.
This issue drove a wedge between us that may have been the crack that broke the marriage. We took it into therapy. We struggled with our financial issues. We were both stressed and not really going to each other with the work that needed to be done. I was using the energy to stay up late and write poetry, stories, or go into my music studio and compose. She was going to bed with the kids and waking up groggy and late. I became the “kids to school” dad. I was up. I was energetic and enthusiastic. She was always still getting ready.
Somewhere in that hard period she must’ve thrown in the proverbial towel. I don’t think she suffered from the same eternal optimism I did. I was solid and sure that we could return to the good times. I’m not so sure she felt the same way. She began to tell me how much I was disappointing her. It was part of our therapy that you could and should complain when something was out of balance. So she complained a lot. I struggled to find the way back to the joyful life that I knew was just around the corner. She began saying she didn’t believe that therapy or any of this “working on it” was getting us there.
In the end she made a decision to leave the marriage. While I was still sunk in the business of rebuilding she began to imagine life without me, parenting without me, and perhaps finding a new love, finding happiness again, with someone else. That’s the only motivation I could figure. More happiness elsewhere.
The final straw was certainly on my back. I was let go from the job that had saved us financially. And for three days I struggled to keep it a secret as I was working a new contract gig and interviewing for new jobs. I wanted to tell her, but not from a defeated place, from a place of hope. I wanted to say, “I lost my job, but I’ve already found the way to replace the income, so don’t worry.” It didn’t go down that way.
I was let go on a Friday. She and the kids were out-of-town for the weekend. When she returned on Sunday, I should’ve told her. Maybe I should’ve told her on the phone, but I didn’t want to wreck her holiday. She needed a holiday, for sure. So Monday rolls around, we’ve hardly had a chance to talk and I roll out the door just like I was going to my job, but I was going to my contract job, and later that day going to an interview. I kept the devastating news inside for one more day. I mean, I did have work. I did have a plan. It was a shitty plan, and a shitty thing to do. I thought I was doing it to save our marriage. What I was really doing was giving her the perfect reason to ask for a divorce. My untrustworthiness.
On Wednesday, while I was out at my “job” a letter came in the mail about COBRA medical coverage options. The jig was up. She was rightfully freaked out, more than usual. I was the liar, the untrustworthy child who wouldn’t grow up and take responsibility for his life. And in that position the only thing I had to argue was, “I think this is a turning point for us to regroup, reconnect, and recommit to our relationship.” It was a weak case at a bad time and she didn’t buy it.
That snap took place in March of 2010. In order to keep our kids in school through the end of the year, I argued to stay in the house and keep things “as is,” so they would not have to deal with this until summer. She did not agree, but the school counselor convinced her to wait. “Give them the summer to process this. Don’t do it while they’re finishing up their 3rd grade and 5th grade years.”
We lived in stasis. One of us slept on the couch or in a bed with a kid. I still did the morning breakfast routine, but the “relationship” was gone. In June I left the house and moved in with my sister. In August the divorce was final.
What I brought to the divorce.
I am conflict adverse. I’d rather settle, negotiate, lie, suppress, than get in a fight. My dad the raging alcoholic didn’t give much room for conflict in my family of origin. This caused me, over time, to avoid raising issues with my then-wife as things got tough. When sex went south in the marriage, I simply took care of myself and hoped for better days. I should’ve stood up and demanded we figure it out together.
I also brought my depression to the marriage. As an artistic soul I fluctuate sometimes between inspired highs and hopeless lows. I believe it’s manageable, but to some people it’s too hard.
I also have had a strong desire to work for myself. The “day jobs” I had were often a struggle as I scrambled to find the hours late at night, or early in the morning, to do my craft. It strained the marriage when I was always looking to steal back a few hours for myself. In the last years of my marriage I was helping put the kids to bed at 9 and staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning. Then going to work. I was burning the candle at both ends, and somehow napping, to my then-wife, was a sign of weakness, not a strategy to get more time later at night.
What was good about the marriage.
We did share some tremendous love in the early years of our marriage. While the time with the young kids was stress provoking, we mostly managed to focus on the bliss of becoming new parents, and the amazing evening activity of observing and interacting with these little humans. We loved our kids more than each other, I think, and that was ultimately the decision she made. Towards them (with 70% custody) and away from me. But for a good portion of our marriage we were two artists in love with our children and each other.
We did a good job of focusing on the parenting rather than the issues in our relationship. In divorce, this has been the saving grace. Our kids are now 14 and 16 and are showing signs of being intelligent, well-adjusted teenagers. While the fires have raged over money and the AG’s office, we’ve kept our kids above the fray. I’m sure there are frustrations they are aware of, but for the most part, the story is, we still love each other, we were just not right for each other in the long-term.
I did learn to love full-on in this marriage. I learned to put my whole soul into the project and come back with the joy of being a parent, and being in love, and being married. This total commitment is part of what blindsided me in the divorce. I was okay with things being a bit out of whack, because I “knew” they were going to sort out. I knew we would be happy again. In fact, inside, I was still happy, though the relationship was quite hard for the last year. I still woke up with joy and hopefulness in my heart. I’m not sure my then-wife ever recovered that joy in herself as she seemed consumed by a deeper rage and a sadness that was deeper than our relationship.
The Off Parent
< back to The Hard Stuff
It’s been almost four years since my divorce was finalized. Today marks the anniversary of my leaving my house, our house, for the last time. And I’m not exactly sure how or when it happened, but my then girlfriend-to-wife-to-parent was not so unhappy when we met. I would’ve run the other way had she shown the vitriol she is capable of maintaining and even increasing over time. What happened?
I hear the story all the time: responsible mom, lazy dad, equals unhappy family. But that’s not the way it was in our house, in my eyes. But that’s the problem right there, “in my eyes.” I have no way of knowing what happened in her eyes. I cannot pull out the thoughts in her head and thus I am left with only my side of the story.
We had some great times and some hard times. And we rallied along together for a long part of our marriage. Through financial difficulties, through a major medical scare with the pregnancy of our second child, and even through some emotional infidelity on her part. I forgave. We grew bigger as a couple. And we continued with our married life. Everybody has ups and downs.
And just as we were beginning to find some footing again, my stable job at a huge corporate tech company, the kids doing well in school and thriving, and her retooling her career and reimagining where she wanted to go from here. Well, something in her eventual vision began to exclude me from those visions.
It happened just as the 2009 economic downturn forced my big corp employer to layoff all of my innovative team. Since we were not directly tied to an ROI we were let go, but in the most generous way possible. Essentially I was given a small golden parachute, that said, “Thanks for your effort, here’s a little something to send you on your way.”
But this was the beginning of the end of my marriage. In this moment of repose, refactoring what I wanted to be doing next, I saw this moment as a great opportunity for both of us, for our whole family, to reestablish priorities around our work/life balance. And the parachute gave us nearly 8 months of running room, in my mind.
Not in my then wife’s mind.
We had lunch one day, soon after my sabbatical began. I had started a blog (which I still write) about digital marketing and I was enjoying a little extra rest and flexibility. We were talking about the future over tacos.
“So, I think we’ve got a little breathing room to decide what we want to do next,” I said.
“It’s not that much money.”
“What’s going to happen when the money runs out?”
We argued. She too was looking for work at this moment, but she was trying on several different paths and not having much success establishing a new career. I was applying for jobs and playing tennis in the afternoons, and getting a bit of time to myself.
At this point, looking back, I can only guess at her mindset. Either we were both going to start working in some full-time capacity, or I was going to find another big corp high-paying job, and she could continue to seek her bliss. I was imagining a few months to regroup and reset our priorities together. She was already done with that and really just wanted me to go back to work, and quickly, before there was a gap in our income stream.
Um… We had a disconnect. And this is about the time the “fuck you” outbursts started showing up in her vocabulary. I can only guess that things would’ve been easier for her if I had merely complied and taken the first corp job that came along and we could return to status quo.
But I was unhappy with the arrangement, as I shipped off to work everyday to a 45 minute commute each way, and arrived home in time for dinner, or in time to bring dinner home. She wasn’t really doing the happy housewife has dinner ready thing, not that I expected that. I was stressed and tired a lot of the time. The culture at this corp gig was notoriously bad and it had become more hellish once a re-org took away my manager and replaced it with an arch-enemy. My last year at the corp gig was pure antagonism.
Unfortunately, the next year of marriage would be pretty antagonistic as well. I was unclear what was going on at the time, and today I can merely guess at the worries in her head that led her down the divorce path rather than the joining-in-a-new-dream path.
The stereotype is of the man who does nothing around the house. He goes to work and says, “Well, I’ve brought home the money, you do the rest.” But that wasn’t our arrangement at all. If anything we were 50/50 parents. I was the early riser who made lunches and breakfasts and got everyone out the door, including my then-wife when she was working. I was actively trying to do better and better at noticing chores and doing them without being asked. But honestly (and this is a common refrain as well) I didn’t see a lot of the issues she saw. The dishes in the sink overnight were worth the opportunity to wrestle with my kids for a few more minutes before they went to bed.
She didn’t see it that way. But something about her attitude about the differences between us began to change. Some how the situation, or her anxiety about the situation, was my fault. Even though it was pretty obvious that dell had laid-off about 5,000 people, somehow I wasn’t fulfilling the required breadwinner role at the moment. I was fine with that. She was not.
But here’s the part that I still have difficulty understanding. It was during this year, as we were trying to negotiate our new financial order, that she made -$5,000 for the year. I didn’t see this number until we were doing our taxes the next February. And I was happy to support her in looking for something she wanted to do for a living, but she was NOT finding any work. Okay. So the pressure grew on our financial planning, and eventually my severance came to an end, and while I had done a bit of consulting work, I was nowhere near making our full nut with my consulting business. But the big corp job had not presented itself even though I was applying all the time.
And this is when things really began to break down. The only thing I can come up with, as I try and project myself into her mind (which I can’t do, but we always try) is that she really didn’t want to work full-time and she was pressuring me, in more than one way, to get the next job that would make all of our lives easier. Um… No.
And in December of that last year of our marriage I did get the next big corp gig. And while it was thrilling, there was very little celebration on my family side. Rather than be excited about my new income stream, she was fighting with me on my first week on the job about “when does the insurance kick in?” I was excited and fighting about money at the same time. It was an awful feeling. I had WON the big job but LOST my happy wife.
The happy wife never returned. And perhaps when she landed the full-time job in February, she was already mapping plans for her departure. Again it’s impossible for me to know what her thought processes were. Other than fighting with me, she didn’t share to many of her dreams of where she was going, or what she wanted. Well, beyond me getting the next big job and us all living happily ever after.
And in March, just as her job was starting, my big corp gig took an unexpected turn and they let me go in somewhat of a coup, but we don’t need to go into that right now. And my marriage quickly unraveled after that. There was some crack that had been widening between my then-wife and me at that point.
And the loss of the job that was going to save us was the breaking point for her. Of course, if she had already consulted with a lawyer at that point, her intentions were already in motion. I’m not sure of the timing on those events, but the loss of this new job broke the thread hope for her. Somehow the struggles we had been through would lessen if we were no longer together.
In the end, I would’ve stayed in the marriage despite the unhappiness, so in many ways she did us both a favor. I can say that now. But it still hurts to have your primary mate and confidant decide to bet against you. And I understand it wasn’t me she was betting against, it was somehow preferable, in her mind, to break up the family and go it alone. And it’s true, the happiness equation would’ve taken a complete 180 in her attitude and approach to our life together. She would’ve had to return to the woman I married. And that wasn’t going to happen.
So she’s mad. Today we met about the school year schedule and I almost forgot how mad she could get. Everything went without a hitch, but I was glad to have the therapist there, just in case. I no longer need to be exposed or responsible for someone else’s rage. And today she wasn’t mad. But I know better than to count on compassion and patience, though that is what I attempt to give back. We move along, now on different paths without joint progeny, and we are okay. That’s enough.
The Off Parent
back to The Hard Stuff
- My Divorce: A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory
- Waiting for the Other Person to Change
- Love, War, Divorce: Why I’m Not Fighting My Ex-Wife About Custody
- Divorce is Not About What’s Fair, Let’s Get That Straight
image: dana showing off, frank kovalchek, creative commons usage