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.