I didn’t know it when we started going to lunches together, but the woman who would eventually become my wife and the mother of my children was living with another man. I’m certain that he didn’t know she was seeing me across town at some organic restaurant and sharing smiles and flirts and “catching up.” And years later, as things were getting tough in my marriage, I didn’t know that she was having lunches with a younger man across town. She didn’t tell either of us about her lunches with other men.
I caught on when I read an email that looked like spam to be deleted from the family computer. It wasn’t spam. It was an explicitly intimate letter about their lunch, their trip to our local library, and a few of the deep topics they discussed, including my depression and her unhappiness.
I guess that’s how it starts. Emotional infidelity might eventually lead to a sexual affair, and most likely to divorce. But we were struggling, that’s for sure, but in my mind we were struggling together, to get through tough emotional and financial times. The break in our team effort, the inclusion of this stranger, a man I’d never met, felt almost unbearable. I WAS struggling with depression. And I was in one of the deepest periods when I came across this letter. I entered a period of deep detachment.
I confronted her. We went to therapy. We worked through it. Sort of. She apologized. She said she understood how this could be hurtful to me. She never owned the infidelity aspect of what she’d done, but she said she’d never do it again.
Years later as our sex life wained, and I was asking and trying to unlock the combination to her sexual desire, the ideas of this “other man” haunted me. What was preventing her, really, in this obviously unhappy state, from seeking satisfaction outside the marriage? How was I supposed to understand the total lack of intimacy with me, and not imagine that she was being open and sharing with someone. Maybe her therapist. Maybe another man.
And throughout the course of our marriage there were casual dates with her ex-husband that she didn’t tell me about. So in some corner of her mind her “lunches” were none of my business. I didn’t get it.
The real crux of her secrecy was how it came out in other ways, and ultimately how the issue of trust was paraded out over and over again as “my” issue. When I got a speeding ticket and didn’t tell her, I was being deceitful. All these little things kept adding up and dominating our couple’s counseling. My problems. My depression. And until the tail end of our marriage, as I was gainfully employed and beginning to feel some of my natural self-confidence back, I just went along with the story that I had a lot of issues to work through. But wait…
I did begin to speak up that Christmas and January/February before she asked for the divorce in March. I had started asking about closeness. I had started challenging her isolation and anger issues as she pointed them at me. I began to hear her “fuck you” outbursts when they came at random times. And at this time I was unwilling to bow down to the plea that I was the problem. It wasn’t me, baby, it was WE. We had a problem and it was time to either put up (“Let me out of the glass box,” I would say.) or break up. Even as I would like to put the “asking for divorce” on her shoulders, I was pressing the issue of closeness.
And in my expressions of passion mixed with righteous anger, I was saying, “Either things change, or I’m outta here.” My flaw was, I was fighting to say in the marriage, I was fighting from a belief that the foundation of our family was more important that any “issue” we had between is. I was stripping the relationship back down to its core to examine the fundamentals. “How can we go months without kissing? How is that okay with you?”
And in that last moment, I still believed we were in therapy to join together again. However, I also knew that our therapist was not a marriage counselor, he was working to get us actually hearing each other. He was trying to get us to the reality of our relationship, and not biasing our conversations in any way, but allowing us to sort through the issues. In these last sessions I believe we began to hear one another. And in the final moment of exposure and truth, I expressed my love and desire and my hope that we could rebuild from ground zero.
My then-wife expressed her dissatisfaction with our relationship and how I was not changing enough to give her hope that things could be different. She was talking about trust. She was claiming the high ground at that last second, and pointing the finger at me, saying I was not honest enough. Her statement of clarity at the end of our marriage was that she did not see any hope that I was going to become (change to become) the man she needed.
The Off Parent
Note: I think this poem unlocked the feelings to make this post possible: love and what was missing
< back to The Hard Stuff posts
- My Divorce: A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory
- Waiting for the Other Person to Change
- My Funny Man Divorce: A Little Bill Murray a Touch of Robin Williams Mixed w/ Ferris Bueller
- The Divorce Whisperer
- Of Course You’re Not Happy With Me, We’re Divorced
image: winter depression, gerald gabernig, creative commons usage
We seek a connection, a rush, a hit of passion. We search for our next relationship, sometimes in a wounded state, sometimes strong and confident. The process is the same. In starts and fits we meet people, we check out the chemistry, the attraction, and then we evaluate their potential as a partner. And as we spend time together we lean into the connections we find, the affinities we try to cultivate and highlight. And the red flags we try to evaluate and either dispel or bring up for discussion. A few too many red flags and they are out.
And if we’re lucky we continue down the courting road towards whatever is next. And depending on our desire and openness we progress on to the big R, relationship. And sometimes we find ourselves afraid to explore that road for long without fear kicking in. What’s that fear about?
Part of the fear for me, is the knowledge that my desire and romantic goggles will cloud my clear thinking and I will be blind-sided by some fatal flaw in the relationship or the other person, or even our fractured match.
A flip-side to that fear is the one that says, Oh my, what if it continues to grow and build and feel great? What if it’s mutual? And that too has a fear base. Going too far and too fast into a relationship that ultimately has the power to destroy your hard-won recovery.
So we balance our feelings between the two extremes, walking together down the old road of becoming familiar with each other’s habits, quirks, and even their fears. And if we’re lucky, if we’ve done our self-care homework and are coming from a healthy and stable place within ourselves, we can parse the various emotions that come flooding up from the highs and lows of this journey.
It can’t all be euphoria and bright stars. If there is zero conflict and only bliss, there is something amis. And you can be assured that the opium of your bliss will give way to the hangover at some point and the real “other” person will show up. And it’s hard to remember that the courting phase also puts each of us on our best behavior, whereas when we become more and more close we start to let a few of our skeletons out. On accident, for example, if we snore or something. And unconsciously as we project past hurts and memories onto this new relationship. Either way, if you have zero conflict you’d better dig into that, because a healthy fight, or healthy disagreement is essential to success for the long haul. You’ve got to be able to disagree and not freak out when you find things that don’t gel.
Okay, so let’s say all of this is working. And let’s imagine you’re several months down the treacherous road, you’ve weathered an argument or two, maybe even seen and worked through a few red flags. And it’s still feeling good. What then?
Then comes the biggest fear, in my opinion. What if you do everything right and explore all skeletons and mismatches and something still starts to go off. Maybe in a year, maybe in 5 years. How do you keep a relationship healthy? How do you still develop passion for a person you’ve been exploring with for years? What’s the key to sustained and loving relationships?
Because, after all this work to get where you are, to even come close to finding a compatible partner, the worst thing imaginable is the death of that passion or compassion for the other person. How did it happen in your previous relationships? What was the fracture that started the breakdown in the relationship? Was it a specific event?
In my experience so far, part of the hesitation and “go slow” impulses comes from a healthy respect for this potential let down. I don’t want to get deep with someone if I’m likely to get hurt. And in the early months of the relationship, I can assure you there is still enough novelty and newness, the excitement for discovery, that fuels a distorted view of reality. It’s okay to go slow. The main goal being communication and understanding how you and your partner cope under pressure. It can’t all be paradise and nectar.
In my real marriage (my first marriage was a trial run) I was still madly in love with my partner who had begun to look elsewhere for that connection. There was no physical infidelity, but a few big slips of the emotional variety. And through it all we both struggled to recapture, reframe, and reform our relationship. And ultimately, even as I was optimistic and willing for repair, the other person decided divorce would be the better course of action for us.
That was the real death of my relationship, learning that my then-wife had been to see an attorney to see what divorce looked like, to explore options.
I hope never to experience that free fall drop again in my life. I’d rather stay alone, or at least casual and superficial. The breakdown of my marriage and thus family was the hardest moment I have yet to experience in my life. As I rebuild my life, and rebuild my trust for another person, the fall is one of those skeletons that I have to keep expressing and being honest about. And if we stay in the present moment, and keep our connection, we’re on the way towards building a bridge over past hurts and fears and towards what each of us is ultimately looking for: a lifelong cheerleader and partner. Someone who can see the hurts, and quirks and still love you through them.
It’s a long road just to find a person who’s willing to even venture down the relationship journey at all. So how do we build a new connection without allowing the fear or euphoria blind us to the real relationship? Again, it’s about staying in the present moment. You don’t have to plan or fear commitment when you are just getting to know someone. You don’t have to protect yourself if you stay in the “now” and just enjoy the process and the high of a new relationship.
Look for ways to see through the haze of lust, or the fog of fear, to recognize when things are working, or things are really not working. It takes time. There is no hurry.
The Off Parent
< back to On Dating Again index
- Our Sexual Brain and the Lies it Tells Us
- Sex Rules: The Frequency, the Fun, and the Fantasy
- Browsable Women: The Three Hells of Online Dating
- Relationships and Dating Are A Bit Like Space Travel
- Blinding Desire
- Learning About “I Need You” vs. “I Want You”
- The Divorce Library (reading list)
- Songs of Divorce (free listening library – youtube sourced songs)
- Laugh It Off (building a resource library of funny videos and other diversions)
- Facebook (follow us on Facebook and keep up with all the conversations)
- The 5 Love Languages (a book on love styles by Gary Chapman)
image: Anastasia Fursova, creative commons usage