Last Monday, my husband asked if he could take me out to lunch. I immediately felt a mild dread bloom in my stomach. We have an awkward and unusual living situation. We have stated that we no longer want to be married. We both know that the next step in moving toward not being married is separation. He, therefore, lives in the basement and will continue to live there until he moves out. This makes for a very weird situation. It made for an even weirder car ride to our lunch venue.
We arrived at the restaurant and were seated. I already knew what I wanted to order but pretended not to know by looking at the menu. He put down his menu and said, “So, I just wanted to check in with you. How are you doing with all the changes going on? Are you doing alright?”
Stop. Don’t pass go. What?! Since when did he ask empathetic questions? I felt like I had been transplanted into an alternate reality. I did not trust it. I redirected immediately.
“I’m okay. Tell me how you are doing. You are alone downstairs a lot now.”
“I’m fine. I just don’t like change.”
That felt like an answer consistent with the man I know. I wanted to help him reframe his situation if the element of change in his situation was the primary stressor. So, I told him a story about a man my friend knows.
“So, Alice knows this guy. He works in the IT department of one of the big companies in town. You have probably met him. Anyway, he is very successful in his job. He just lacks a strong social drive yet he is not on the autism spectrum. Sometimes, according to him, he will get an urge to try dating. He will feel a pang of something like loneliness. An urge to couple, I guess. So, he’ll go on a date. And, in the middle of the date, he’ll look across the table at the woman and think, ‘Why am I doing this? I don’t like this at all. This is a waste of time. I get nothing out of this. This is more trouble than it’s worth.’ And, he won’t go on another date again for a long time. He does play video games, and he forms virtual relationships in that context. Those virtual relationships seem to satisfy whatever need he has. Does any of this feel familiar to you or resonate with you?”
He looked thoughtful. Then he said, “Yeah. I can really relate to that.” I nodded and said, “Then really you aren’t losing much. Think of this change as cutting the crust off your lifestyle sandwich. I am keeping everything that I want, and you are keeping what you want.”
He really thought about it.
The weight of his words did not hit me until the next morning. I was cleaning the kitchen. I saw his face in my mind’s eye, sitting in front of me at the restaurant, looking thoughtfully smug, admitting that he felt like that guy in the story. He, too, had never seen the point of having relationships. The sense of having been deceived for 19 years slammed into me like a Mack truck. I just kept thinking, “You could have told the truth at any point over the past two decades! You didn’t have to stay with me!”
So, that is what I brought to therapy last Tuesday. My therapist made an excellent observation:
“But, Jules, your husband’s fear of change was greater than his inertia. He might not have liked being in relationships and found them to ultimately be too complicated and a waste of time, but his anxiety overrode that. He was willing to stay with you because he was too scared to do anything else.”
After you get over the offense of that observation, read it again. How many of us do the same thing? We know that we are in a situation that is not good for us, but we are too afraid to make changes. The change itself is too intimidating so we opt to just tolerate the status quo because familiarity feels better somehow–even if the situation is in no way beneficial to us.
I sat in my therapist’s office for an hour processing my feelings around my husband’s statement. What he said represented his point of view throughout our 19-year life together. I did not know that he was never going to get better or change. I never knew that he had no real interest in growth or development. I did not realize that he felt that being in a relationship was simply troublesome. I had been knocking myself out for almost half my life trying to make this marriage work while he was thinking that “all this” was really just an existential waste of time. Too complicated. I wanted to lie on the ground and have a seizure over it.
What is the good part about this revelation? It falls in line with my hypothesis about his schizoid tendencies, and it absolves me of any feelings of guilt that I had about divorcing him. Things are so much clearer to me now. My therapist observed, “You are seeing everything through a much clearer lens now. You are able to understand your situation as it is rather than second guess everything. And, most important, you finally see that you gave it everything that you had. This is not your fault.”
I nodded. He leaned in and made eye contact with me.
“This is not your fault.”
I nodded. He said it again.
“This is not your fault.”
Suddenly, I remembered the scene from Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams’ character is standing in front of Matt Damon’s character. He wants to tell him that his childhood abuse was in no way his doing. He did not deserve it. He did not have it coming. So, he looks at him and says, “It’s not your fault.” And he says it repeatedly until Damon’s character cannot hold up under the weight of it. Hearing that it’s not your fault in this way is very uncomfortable. This is what my therapist did to me. “It’s not your fault.” I had to work hard to keep my composure while, at the same time, allowing his words to penetrate.
What he was really saying is that it’s not my fault that my husband could not change. It’s not my fault that he could not choose me. It’s not my fault that he was reactionary and physically abused me. It’s not my fault that he has done what he has done or made the choices that he has made. It’s not my fault.
And, it’s not. After 19 years, I finally believe this. What’s more, I will not do what he is doing. I will not fear change more than what is possible. I am choosing the unknown over the known because, to me, that is choosing hope.
My marriage is a desolate place, and I am not responsible for my husband. I am, however, responsible for myself and for modeling to my daughters what appropriate behavior within marriage ought to look like. Should they find themselves in a very difficult relationship in the future, what legitimacy would I have to speak to that if I never did anything worthwhile about my own? This is something that has been on my mind.
As always, it is a winding road, and I do not know what lay ahead. Alas, I am hopeful, and it is so nice to feel hope again.