I finally told you I wanted a divorce.
You forced me into this corner and I have no other way out. You cheated on me – again – with your daughter’s mother, and who knows who else. Just like all of the other times, you never came clean. I never got the full story. You apologize and expect me to move on, but I can’t do it anymore.
It’s never going to stop and I can’t be that woman – the woman who always looks the other way. It eats me up inside trying to figure out what was said, who you were with, and when you had time to do it. And why? Why would you do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? What is wrong with me that almost all of the men I have been with have cheated on me?
You seem surprised that the people in my life who care about me are mad at you. I’m not sure what you expect from everyone. These people actually care about me and my welfare. They know what you’ve done to me isn’t right. I know it’s not right either, but part of me just wants to try to forget about it. I am not emotionally detached. I still love you. I was still trying to make this marriage work.
One of the hardest things I will ever do is to leave you. You know I hate to be alone. I need to be around people all the time. I know I am going to be so lonely. You were my best friend and now I will have no one.
One of your “friends” called last night. I can’t believe that you don’t have enough respect for me to wait – wait until we are separated. I asked you to move out but you say you have no where to go. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to live with you for the next couple of months when it is so obvious that you are already moving on? I cried myself to sleep last night, and you asked why I was crying. What do you think? That I am some kind of emotionless robot? That I would just move on since you have?
For the most part, I am holding it together for my kids. I don’t know how much longer I can do that.
I am hoping that going to counseling will help. This is eating me up inside so bad. Lord knows I don’t need any more stuff to make me depressed.
I do not want to go back to that place.
I’d do anything for my wife. It’s a running joke between us that I’d even die for her—take a bullet, a knife, name your poison. The joke part is that for as long as we’ve known each other, she’s said she’d never return the favor.
What makes this funny now (and when I say funny, I really mean sad) is that after 22 years together, we’ve never felt more apart. She wants to end it. She says she loves me, but isn’t in love with me, and she’s not sure if she ever truly was. She says I’m her best friend but she no longer feels comfortable being naked with me. She wants to move on with her life.
I know the way we’ve been living is unhealthy, codependent and whatever else Dr. Phil is talking about these days. I know that the reasons we first got married—my mom was dying of cancer, I needed someone to take care of me, and Caryn needed someone to take care of—are no longer reasons to stay together. Christ, I’ve been in and out of therapy half a dozen times since we first met. But I also know that, unhealthy or not, this is the only love I’ve ever known.
Caryn says I’m too intense, that I’m critical, that I’m sarcastic, that I’m depressed, that I’ll never enjoy going out dancing with her. What she’s really saying is that I’ll never be the person she truly wants, and she’ll never be the fantasy woman in my head.
For the last five years, we’ve been going through the zombie suburban motions for the sake of the kids, or because our hands were tied financially, or whatever other excuses we made for hanging on to the status quo. Six months ago, during one of our typical Sunday-morning arguments with the bedroom door shut and the kids downstairs, Caryn said, “no mas”—and since then, our everyday life has been like a rehearsal for death.
I picture myself growing old and being alone, and I get that sick jolt in the pit of my stomach when it hits me that I’m done, it’s over. I’ve always been the type of guy who, given the choice between a straight line and a more circuitous path, would choose . . . the path Caryn chose for me. Heartbreak and grief—ping-ponging between numb and angry—I have to do alone.
Caryn’s laugh has always been the biggest turn-on for me, and we’ve laughed together a lot, from the first time she showed up at my apartment more than 20 years ago wearing a pair of Minnie Mouse sunglasses. But during our zombie years, she slowly turned her back on me. The worst of it was lying in bed knowing I couldn’t touch her. It sent me back to our first few dates when, in a foreshadowing of her future ambivalence, she wanted to break up. I’d worked hard to change her mind then, bombarding her with late-night calls. Now I was determined to do it again. My plan was simple, really: I’d find a way to change myself. Caryn would fall in love with me all over again and we wouldn’t have to have this stupid conversation for another 20 years.
So I shaved off my beard.
I know that doesn’t sound like much, but to me it was a symbolic gesture signaling more significant changes to come. I’d worn a beard for more than 30 years, and I told everyone I’d finally shaved it off because it was getting gray and making me look old. But the truth is that I did it because I wanted Caryn to see me differently.
“Did you get a hair . . . OH. MY. GOD!” she howled when I came home clean shaven, feeling like a new man. She said I looked younger, but really not all that different, and a few minutes later she went back to the Sunday Times crossword puzzle.
It was sort of the same deal when we both got tattoos a few summers ago. I got a large Chinese symbol on my left arm that roughly means “to live,” and Caryn got a smaller version on her ankle that means “freedom.” We said these would be constant reminders of what we want out of life. We also thought they looked cool. What I didn’t understand at the time was that although I wanted “to live” with her, she wanted “freedom” from me.
When my close shave failed to get her attention, I tried something really scary: yelling at our kids. Caryn was always on my case for ceding the responsibility of disciplining our two sons, because it meant she was always the bad guy. She was the one who told them “No!” or yelled at them for fighting or leaving empty Cheez Doodles bags under their beds, and then I’d waltz in from work, plop down in front of the big-screen TV and hang with my homeboys.
So no more Mr. Nice Guy. The next time Rob, 14, and Zach, 13, went at it, I swung into action. “What the hell is up with you guys? When are you gonna grow up and stop this stupid crap?” I screamed, making sure Caryn heard every syllable. I took away Robbie’s laptop and Zach’s cell phone. They shrugged if off, since they knew they’d get it all back in a matter of days, if not hours.
“Why are you yelling at them like that?” Caryn asked, and for the life of me, I didn’t have an answer.
I’d always let Caryn make the major decisions in our life. She was the one who said let’s get married, the one who said let’s have kids, the one who said let’s adopt when we couldn’t. As I saw it, this was about love—it made her happy, so she’d love me even more. In fact, she complained for years about the burden of having to make all these decisions, and now she wanted out. Well, I’d show her.
“I want Chinese food tonight, goddamn it!”
“I want to see City of God!”
“I want to build a new deck in the backyard.”
“I want to have sex—now!”
To all of which Caryn pretty much said, “Okay.” Things were finally changing around here, I thought, but for some strange reason I pictured George Costanza saying it.
When I wasn’t barking orders, I shut the hell up. Caryn and I had always been great talkers. We’d go on about everything, pick it to pieces and then start all over again. You can avoid a lot of stuff by talking. The truth is, when one of us talked, the other didn’t always hear it. We took in what we wanted and interpreted it to fit our own rationalizations and arguments. So I decided to try the tough-guy silent treatment (which, not coincidentally, was both our moms’ favorite form of punishment). I also gave her more space. I’d go downstairs to watch TV instead of lying silently in bed next to her. If she was in the kitchen, I’d go into the living room. On weekends, we’d go our separate ways and meet up for dinner. I never felt more disconnected in my life. It was as if blood had stopped flowing to my heart.
My friend Doug, the art director for the Web sites I’m in charge of, would listen sympathetically and share whatever emotion I was tangled up in. If I was pissed at Caryn, he’d call her “that bitch,” and if I was feeling the least bit hopeful, he’d egg me on. He told me one day he thought I was being incredibly selfless, and went on to say how men, in general, are all too willing to twist themselves into pretzels. I nodded absently, but knew that he couldn’t be more wrong. It was all about fear. I was scared to be alone. I was scared of the unfamiliar. I was scared of opening up. And (damn you to hell, Dr. Phil!), deep down I was scared to be happy—with or without Caryn.
After a month or so, my Kafka-esque transformation just stopped. As I looked at myself in the mirror while shaving, it hit me that, other than my beard, there was no growth attached to any of my so-called life changes. Transforming myself into someone I thought Caryn would want me to be was exactly what she had always wanted me not to do.
The real tough stuff was still locked away because I didn’t have the courage to go there. The deeper truth of our marriage, the stuff we’re not proud of but that connects us on the most basic level—fears, judgments, evasions—that’s what we both needed to face if our marriage were to have any chance in hell.
So for the past few months, we’ve been doing the therapy thing. And when we walk out of each session, Caryn says it feels like she’s just taken a bullet, a knife, name your poison.
Under a heart-shaped magnet on our refrigerator, there’s a New Yorker cartoon I knew Caryn would get a kick out of, a picture of two women immersed in serious conversation. The caption reads, “It’s easy. The first step is to entirely change who you are.”
It’s the second step that’s a bitch: figuring out what we really want. I keep asking myself the same questions over and over. Why do I still want to be with someone who no longer wants to be with me? Am I really in love with her, or do I just need to be loved? I could give you the usual psychological mumbo-jumbo—my need to stay with the familiar rather than explore the unknown, how Caryn reminds me of my mother and vice versa—but I think it’s simpler than that. There’s a place in my heart that is Caryn’s, and no matter what happens between us, that place will always be hers.
Sometimes I imagine how it would be if we went our separate ways. I see myself sitting alone in an empty apartment and there’s a knock on the door. It’s Caryn, and she’s wearing those ridiculous Minnie Mouse sunglasses again. She’s standing there, crying softly, and between sobs she says, “I’ve been such an idiot!” I hold her tightly in my arms, and as she takes a deep breath, I feel her holding onto me.
And then I let go.
I was so tragically glib about how evolved I was; how I’d managed to escape my past unscathed. I called myself the Energizer Bunny, joked that I was made of Teflon, and marveled that someone could grow up as I did and become a mostly functional adult child of two alcoholics.
My home life as a child was far from simple. I pretended my family was like those I saw on television because in the television, the mothers loved their daughters every SINGLE day. Those children had meals cooked for them, had parents they could talk to, parents who took them to swimming lessons, parents who cared about them, parents who loved them no matter what.
They had what I wanted: parents who behaved like parents.
I had the illusion of a family, two parents, a much older brother, some cats and dogs, and then there was me. Caregiver. Cleaner-upper. Parent to myself. In reality, I was alone and I knew it.
I learned what so many of us children of alcoholics do, trust no one but yourself. It became a way of life. Carefully, I constructed a facade that even I began to believe. A life that I so desperately wanted, I could attain if I lied enough about it.
Eventually, I grew up. Waiting for the day when I itched to have a drink, and then another, and then another, I was surprised when it never came. I had a child out of wedlock, a happy accident, I changed my life around to accommodate that of a single mother, then I got married. I had another child. Then another.
I knew that I bore some of the scars of my past–who doesn’t?–but it twenty years for me to realize that I’d grown up to do the precise thing that 8-year old Aunt Becky always swore she never would do: I put myself in the same position that I would have done anything to get out of.
I married an addict.
We always joked about it, The Daver and I, his addiction to his work–Workahol, we called it, back when we still joked around about it–but for the past five years I’ve watched as it went from working to live to living to work.
It was all that he ever wanted to do, work, that is, and that’s where he got his joy, his rush, his feelings of accomplishment, his ego, and we were just periphery. Background noise. Particularly loud and unbelievably adorable background noise, but background noise nonetheless.
As he worked more, he needed more and more to feel that rush, that thrill, and his hours grew until he barely saw us. When we’d dare interrupt him for something like, oh, maybe the HOUSE being on fire, we’d get a terse, snappy reply, and stung, we’d walk away hurt.
I consoled myself that he was working so hard to support us, and when I’d bring it up, he’d swear that he was doing it all for us, but it wasn’t quite the truth. What we needed was a husband, a father, a friend, and someone who didn’t place something else above us every second of the day.
I’d never considered it a real addiction, not like gambling or drug addiction, because it was one of those things that we did, you know, NEED to do.
But there it was, from Adult Children of Alcoholics:
We either became alcoholics ourselves, married them, or both. Failing that, we found other compulsive personalities, such as a workaholic, to fulfill our sick need for abandonment.
When I read that, I dry-heaved, and then I bawled my eyes out. It’s a bitter pill to swallow to realize that your past is never as far away as you thought it was.
I finally brought it up to The Daver, and this time, rather than trying to pass it off as something else; my problem, money issues, whatever, he listened. He listened and he realized that it was a problem.
I explained that I had lived my entire life with addicts, always walking around on eggshells, and that things in our house had to change. I simply couldn’t–and wouldn’t–put my children through what I had been through.
We both started individual therapy this weekend. He’s looking for a balance, and I’m, well, I’m looking to put the ghosts of my past to bed. For the first time in many, many months, I feel hopeful about the state of my union.
Perhaps this is where the sidewalk ends and a road begins