I have mentioned in passing that M and I went through a bad patch years ago; I refer to it as The Dark Time. The last couple of days there have been posts and bloggers who have truly tugged at my heart, their pain almost palatable across the screen. For them I share this slice of our life and marriage and what I learned from trying to keep my skeletons locked away.
M and I lived together for almost 7 years before we got married. In that time we rarely spoke of marriage, but in the fall after our 6 years together anniversary, M specifically stated that he felt we would not get married. Like EVER. This was in response to my statement that I did not want to be his girlfriend forever, so it was definitely a significant statement. It made me realize that our vision of the future was not aligned. At that time I was working for a CPA firm, it was fall and just starting to get busy, so I decided to give it some time and really be sure before acting. I would wait until after tax season to decide.
In February after this conversation, M changed his mind and asked me to marry him. I was overjoyed and agreed, so we got married. Things were fine, normal. Until they weren’t.
It was a couple of years later that M’s lab merged with another and he was laid off after 21 years. He was actually relieved, because it meant an opportunity to pursue other things. Truly this is where the cracks began in our relationship weaknesses. He took the summer off on unemployment and then accepted retraining and went to truck driving school. Three months later he left to begin his career as a long-haul truck driver, and within another 5 to 6 months I was screaming for a divorce.
Looking back, I can see clearly everything that lead up to that breakdown. At the time, mired down in the emotional muck of it, it seemed rather sudden, like M went off to drive a truck and I went batshit crazy and drove our marriage off a cliff. That was the narrative and story he pushed at first and I mostly accepted at face value, because that was the dynamic of our entire relationship. He controlled and drove, I passively passengered. We both found out, in the hardest and most painful ways possible, that we both did far worse than that.
For most of our relationship up to that point, M was a shitty husband and I was an equally shitty wife. Matt over at mustbethistalltoride.com talks about the shitty husband syndrome frequently. I am here to tell you that there is a correlating shitty wife syndrome as well. The first section of our marriage, before The Dark Time, M was a controlling and bullying husband and I accepted it as perfectly normal. He was not mean or intentionally cruel, but he was emotionally demanding for his needs to be met, much like a child pouting and sulking when not getting his way. Only it was cloaked in adult charm and endearing to me. This is but one facet of our life together, but it is a reality. Truth is I was passive about it; I blindly, agreeably went along with just about everything he wanted. Once he was on the truck and away from the house, he tried very, very hard to maintain the same level of control and influence. But you know what they say about cats and mice, and without him being at home to instill and enforce his will, I suddenly woke up and realized I wanted and desired my own stuff. I was off the leash and going to town!
It sounds worse than it actually was, because I have never been a partier or sought out extramarital attention or company. But I did go out with my friends when the kids were with their father. I did not always answer my phone when he called, which made him crazy with insecurity and anxiety and resulted in very ugly fights. For the first times in our relationship I routinely stood up to his diatribes and pushed back harder than necessary. I cut our phone calls short. I told him more than once he was not my father and I did not have to answer to him. I went for the jugular in my defensiveness. In short, I was bitchy and unpleasant when he would get high-handed with me when he was at his worst – desperately unhappy, miserable, lonely, and scared on the truck. I was not supportive; I was not even very kind. The more he demanded from me, the harder I pushed him away. I hate conflict; if there was a hand sanitizer that worked for killing it I would buy it by the gallon. My behavior baffled him, because I had never been like this when he was at home. His confusion and panic made him more desperate than ever. He finally heard me, got that I could not longer take it when one night I screamed that I hated him, never wanted to see him again, and I wanted a divorce.
It was an awful, awful time.
To be fair to M, he is an extremely perceptive, sensitive, empathetic guy. He reads emotions in other people the way most of us read the newspaper. He is also insecure and needed me to be his anchor, except up to this point in our life together he was not expressing it in a manner than was healthy or practical for either of us. Because the “read” he had always gotten from me was off. Because for the entire time we had known each other, I had been hiding who I really am. On some base level he knew it, but since I seem to be the most open of people, it was impossible for him to reconcile the fact that I was concealing. I had been lying by omission to M for 10 years at this point.
I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor.
M and I had been together 10 years, married for 3+ of those years, before I finally broke down and told him. And as you can imagine, the ramifications of that admission were enormous. I used it like my final nuclear option, a big giant tsunami delivered to wipe out and wash away our relationship. At that time I wanted OUT. We were in counseling but I hated him, hated that he was so doggedly insistent that we get to the bottom of our issues, that he was bullying me and pressuring me and pushing me to communicate what the fuck was wrong. So I did. I told him. I delivered the new at full, screaming, crying volume. Then I ran out of the counselor’s office and got in my car and went home. I refused to talk to either of them for 2 weeks afterwards. I was so ashamed of myself I thought divorce was better, easier than having to face either of them ever again.
I never talked about this. I had been through some pretty deep and intensive counseling about it before I got married the first time and again after I split from my kids’ dad. Truth is I never told him, either, and I know it had an effect on the reasons why our marriage fell apart. My reasons for concealing this are varied and my own, but for brevity let us just describe it as shame and severe discomfort. The saying you don’t shit where you eat? With this particular shit I want the toilet to be in another zip code from where I live, preferably at least a few states away.
It was a turning point. M did not give up. Our counselor did not give up either. I finally returned to the counselor’s office, just me, to talk about it. I still wanted a divorce. I could not take the pressure from M any longer, he had broken me with his relentless pursuit for the “truth” and now that he had his prize I wanted to be released from further responsibility. A few solo sessions with the counselor built me back up enough to face M, to finally talk about all our shit.
Trust is a tricky thing. When you are a kid and your trust is betrayed so completely, it is almost impossible to develop again. With anyone. I function well in the world. I strive to be a good person, to be kind and not judge, because I cannot know the breadth and depth of another person’s experiences or pain. That said, it is hard for me to completely accept another’s kindness and compassion at face value; the self-protective mechanisms deep inside my brain always wonder what someone wants from me.
In the counseling M and I went through to rebuild our marriage, I learned a lot about trust. I thought for sure, M being M, he would want all the nitty-gritty details of what happened to me, so he could understand (sarcasm). I learned I did not know my husband at all. He loves me. He wants me to be whole. He wants the broken parts healed as much as possible so I can be happy. He accepted then and accepts now what I can and am willing to share with him, but my not telling him details does not make him wonder about what else I am hiding. Not anymore. The old pain is old pain. It makes paralyzes me sometimes, and he has to handle me carefully and lead gently, not push or in my brittle state I will fly apart. In turn I know now that my husband needs to know that I trust his judgment, that I believe in him, that I can and will be the one person, the one thing he can depend upon.
Compressed into a few sentences is about 15 months of pure hell in marital counseling and therapy. We yelled. We screamed. We cried. We also hugged, touched, forgave. And we talked, really talked, about who we are, what we want, what we need. Our dreams of a life together, the marriage we could (and now DO) have were born in that office, in the midst of the most miserable, painful hours of my adult life.
We also learned how to communicate and how to fight fairly. We learned about our individual insecurities and stopped using them against one another in anger or in the context of winning. We learned to fight fairly. We learned to express our needs without demands or apologies. We both grew up, we both got better.
As we were emerging from the dark time, we routinely had to practice both our communication skills and our conflict resolution techniques, because neither came completely natural to us. Looking back it’s a funny memory, something we share, but at the time it was heart-attack serious business. We would be having a discussion about something, and I would start to feel pressured by M or he would begin to think I was not being completely transparent. He would push, I would default to my own defensive behaviors. Out came the kitchen timer. M would talk and I would actively listen for 3 minutes without interruption, then it was my turn to talk, his turn to listen to me for 3 minutes, without interruption. Sometimes it would take 10 or 15 rounds before we negotiated a resolution, but we got it done.
Occasionally we still break out the timer, because even now, so many years later, emotional overload makes a productive conversation impossible. It was a hard and painful lesson, but backsliding into our prior marriage behaviors is infinitely worse and dangerous for us.
This is a very condensed version of a difficult, painful, and tenuous time in our relationship. We were separated for 2 years, all of which M was away from home and driving long-haul routes, coming home ever 6 to 8 weeks to a few hours of grueling time in our therapist’s office, hashing out our problems. In thinking about it now, I realize it was not the counseling that resurrected our marriage, although it was key to our being successful in sorting it all out. When things calmed down, when we had dismantled or destroyed every last shred of our relationship and were looking at each other across the ruins of a disfunctional marriage, we both had to decide if we wanted to try to rebuild from the ashes. That we loved each other was never in doubt, but love alone is not enough to make a happy, successful marriage. It takes work – blood, sweat, LOTS of tears kind of work. Was I up to it? Was I adequate for the task? Did I deserve that kind of happiness? For me it was a huge leap of faith, a second chance I am grateful for and have worked hard to preserve.
I was up to it. I am more than adequate. Most importantly: I do deserve happiness.
M is my best friend, my most unwavering supporter. Our imperfect union is enormously satisfying for us. By grace of God we made it here. We did the work to start over and find our path to a good marriage. We continue to do the work every single day, choosing each other and to prioritize our relationship over other things in our lives. The dark times do not have to last, and for others we know, love, respect it meant ending a marriage or relationship that could not be repaired. I know what I almost gave up, what I almost lost. I do not to take M or our life together for granted, and I refuse to let him do that to me and to us. Together we have a happily ever after, but I am a realist and know it could all dissolve tomorrow with a different choice or change in direction. Hopefully we respect and value one another and what we have together enough to talk about it before making that decision.