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I’ve been with my husband for 15 years. We dated (largely happily, certainly comfortably) for seven years. I had complaints. Sure. Who doesn’t? But what we had together worked on so many other levels. The thing was, Polly, he really got me. And as you might remember, there weren’t all that many dudes in Sunny California in the early 2000s who were eager to sign up for a relationship with a self-defined neurotic with unresolved abandonment issues, intellectual pretensions, and very little in the way of real-world skills. When we met, I was 27 and a temp and deeply unrealized. Then I met George (not his real name).
George was a lot like me — clever, hyperverbal, into all the “right” cultural touchstones, unafraid to hold an unpopular opinion. A friendly contrarian. I liked him immediately, and he somehow escaped friend-zoning, which was my usual defense against guys I liked. He was my first REAL relationship. The first person I lived with. And with his help, I eventually pulled myself out of my extended adolescence, applied to grad school in New York, and became the writer I already was in my head.
We spent three years in New York, living off his savings, while I learned how to be a journalist and quickly discovered that this career choice was not nearly as pragmatic as I’d imagined. But it was awesome. We ate at great restaurants, went to endless museums, hung out with our friends on Manhattan rooftops until the only ones left on the road were cabs, saw tons of movies, and explored our art. While I was busy getting my first bylines, he explored a new career in the arts and got very, very good at it, had a couple of group shows at small spots, and quickly developed delusions of grandeur. Obviously, being in a creative field myself, I know how this goes and suffer from my own grand misapprehensions about my talent, so I never really challenged him on it. Then I turned 34 and I will let you guess what happened.
Yes, my biological clock went into overdrive. We had talked about kids here and there, and he was always like “Someday …” Staring down the barrel of my mid-30s, I realized I would have to press the issue. After speaking to him reasonably didn’t produce any momentum, I finally delivered an ultimatum: Get me pregnant or let me go. So we got pregnant. He seemed happy — was happy, I think. Our daughter was born in the spring of 2009 and suddenly the whole universe realigned itself so that she was at its center and I was an orbiting planet. And that was okay with me. It was a relief to focus on someone else for a change.
The tricky part was that: (a) the baby never slept. Like, seriously, for the whole first year. And this did exactly the kind of psychic damage you’d expect. We were constantly deprived of time to ourselves. I compensated by overgiving and he, basically, checked out. Not because he’s a horrible person, but because we were in a state of crisis. Because in addition to the whole sleeping thing, (b) almost as soon as she was born we ran out of money. I could give you a whole long explanation of how this happened, but it would just be a justification. The truth of the matter is that neither of us are good planners, we’d both been overly optimistic about our career prospects, and we vastly underestimated the expense of having a kid.
The joke was seriously on us.
Short version: He went out and got a big-boy job and promptly fell into a severe depression. He was so, so angry. While he never quite came out and said it, it was clear to me that he blamed me for stalling out his rock-star art career by selfishly insisting on having a baby.
I was furious at the unfairness of this, but also wracked with guilt (and very, very tired). We decided to downsize our lifestyle, so we could eke out a little time to do what we loved. We moved to the West Coast. We bought a house and were able to pay for our lives. But we both thoroughly disliked it. After New York, our new city felt like a sleepy town in the Ozarks. I recognize what a spoiled snob I am, but the truth is the West Coast just wasn’t the right fit for us. George was deeply unhappy with his work, and, honestly, no less depressed than he had been before we left New York. Things with us were getting increasingly hostile. I felt emotionally neglected and saddled with like 97 percent of the labor of childrearing and house tending (holy crap — no one tells you!). We tried therapy, and it was kind of a dismal failure. There was still love there, but it was buried in a closet filled with a steaming pile of repressed and unrepressed resentment.
Then he got a job offer in New York. We both missed it so damn much, and it seemed clear that the window to go back would probably only open once, so we did it. We moved back to a MUCH smaller place — this one rented — in an area with a decent public school and were immediately flooded with relief. Home. This was it. We knew that. Things were pretty good for a while there. The unequal labor was still a major issue. He was pissed at me for not earning my keep; I was pissed at him for embracing a Don Draper–style of parenting. We were not at our best, but we were mostly holding it together. And then: He lost his job. Yes, the one that was allowing me to work part time while tending dos babes in our new light-filled Brooklyn Brownstone paradise “two-bedroom”? Poof. It was gone.
It’s hard to overstate the ensuing panic, but it led him to find a good job in an industry that doesn’t make him want to set something on fire. For a while, I thought this would make everything better. His mood improved. He wasn’t exactly optimistic, but he wasn’t like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club either. It seemed like we were on an upward trajectory.
Meanwhile, the unsleeping baby had turned into a busy, rambunctious toddler. Number two was equally vivacious and charming, but also moved like a bolt of lightning through a forest, destroying everything in her wake. By the time the little one turned 2, it was clear that the 800-square-foot apartment with the gorgeous high ceilings just wasn’t working. I found a duplex in much cheaper neighborhood in Brooklyn with — wait for it — a basement AND a yard. A golden ticket! I told George, who promptly freaked the hell out. He’s never been super into change, and the previous nine years had severely drained his resources. He would not, could not, do it. And he was NOT happy about this less-tony address, despite the reality of his less-tony paycheck.
As with the baby ultimatum, I finally just told him: Look, I need this. Things are too hard. So move with me, or I’m moving alone. He moved with me, but under duress.
It’s been two years since then and things have not improved between us. Partially, this is because of the unrelenting pressure of earning a living as a “culture” worker in modern-day New York. Partly, it’s due to the strain of parenting our inarguably wonderful but seriously high-needs kids. But mostly, I think, it’s that this closet full of pain had finally caught up to us. He never quite forgave me for making us move (and maybe for “making” him have kids?). The decision to move had unanticipated financial repercussions that he blames me for. And I continue to feel like a single mother living with her inattentive boyfriend.
This all came to a head last January, when I stopped being able to tolerate the passive-aggressive jibes and lack of intimacy and booted him out of our bed. I was feeling completely tapped out after years of trying to manage our lives on my own and just choking on Bell Jar–flavored bile. Meanwhile, he was greeting all my requests for help with complaints about my “bad decisions.” He’d make half-hearted attempts to help more, stall out quickly, and then retreat to his office where he’d sit at his desk cherishing his resentments against me like Gollum with his precious. It seriously sucked.
Note: Around the time I made him move downstairs, my first and only (so far) novel had just failed to sell, his parents got tired of subsidizing our quixotic career aspirations. (Did I mention they moved to to our West Coast city shortly after us. Yeah, they are still there, stubbornly insisting they love it.) Our financial situation was even bleaker and I made two decisions: (1) I needed a job, (2) I wanted out of this mess. Within a couple of months, I started working 20 hours a week (bringing home nearly as much as his full-time job fetches), embarked on a daily yoga regimen, cut back on booze, and generally attempted to embrace something beyond a bunker mentality.
I told him I wanted to split — that things had just been too strained and too toxic for too long. He insisted on therapy, something I was skeptical of given our previous efforts. We went. Our (male) therapist spent a lot of time explaining to me how much easier it was to parent with a partner and how the expectations for fathers are different from mothers while I quietly seethed. Suffice it to say, it did not help.
I would have left then but — you guessed it: money. We were barely affording one apartment. Two was clearly out of the question. So we established a détente, where he slept downstairs while claiming to be “working through things” but mostly ignored me or asked me what I was willing to change. Cue an endlessly repeating cycle of deflection and rage, interspersed with brief moments of affection and nostalgia. (Side note: I’ve been working on this stuff in individual therapy for longer than my bank account can bear.) He refuses individual therapy and has spent the bulk of the last year alternately stymieing, stalling, and making short-lived promises.
There has been a lot of fighting. Every day I live with the guilt of what all of this has done to our kids. All I can say is that everything seems normal until it doesn’t anymore.
Lately things have equalized for reasons I don’t totally understand. A lot of my anger has burned itself out. I feel less antagonistic, less willing to take on every power struggle. I am getting more and more glimpses of the guy he can be — the sweet, unguarded, devoted, albeit lazy, somewhat delusional, guy. We are laughing more. He is looking for a better-paying job. We are still not meeting our expenses but can see an eventual future when we might. He is making token efforts around the house. The girls are happy seeing us together.
I’m starting to feel alarmingly comfortable. The communication hasn’t improved, so it’s pretty much impossible to know if the closet is just locked or actually less packed with crap. He is still an insufferable control freak who wants all the credit for his 20 percent effort much of the time. He continues to have surprisingly little insight into what makes him tick. He still sleeps downstairs. We still (mostly) don’t have sex.
But he still gets me more than almost anyone, the bedrock me — I think? But maybe it’s really just the snide, misanthropic post-adolescent me? Regardless, we share a long history and I’m aware that no one will ever know me the way he does. (And that, at 44, my chances of spending my remaining time alone are not insignificant.) This is extraordinarily difficult to give up. Especially when the financial implications of doing so would mean picking my kids up and moving them to a tiny upstate town where rent is only slightly ridiculous, forcing them to deal with the loss of close friends and community on top of the loss of their nuclear family.
It’s been months (years-ish?), Polly, and I still can’t decide. I’m stuck at a crossroads between awful and traumatic and I don’t know which turn to take. I know I am not guiltless in any of this, but I genuinely just want what’s best for everyone. None of the options in front of me are good, and I honestly can’t see a clear path toward happiness for any of us regardless of what I choose. Help me please?
Dear Lost Mama,
You and your husband are playing for opposing teams. When you want something, you defeat him to get it. When he wants something, you roll your eyes at it. Even when you make choices together — Let’s move across the country! — the consequences of those choices are used to blame each other. “This was your decision, not mine!” is something married couples should never say to each other, least of all about something as big as a child or a move or a career change. It’s not just incredibly unforgiving, it’s inaccurate: Someone else made you have a kid? Someone made you take a job you didn’t want? You couldn’t stand up for what you wanted?
I understand that he feels like you held a gun to his head a few times, and that’s something that should be discussed, along with a million and one other long-held grudges. I understand that you find him lazy and whiny. You wouldn’t be the first woman to describe her husband that way, but he does legitimately seem to have a big problem with taking equal responsibility for your big picture and accepting his role in it. But the big problem at the center of everything is your shared refusal to hammer things out and find new solutions when the going gets rough. As the shit hits the fan, you both have a tendency to use the other person as a scapegoat, or to look, independently, for magical solutions that aren’t really going to solve all of the problems you think they will. At times when you needed to join the same team and balance out each other’s bad ideas and bad impulses, you steadfastly refused to do so.
Even when you went to couples therapy, you blamed the therapist for being sexist and unhelpful but didn’t try to look for a better one. Your husband could’ve told you why staying in Brooklyn Brownstone paradise might’ve been better for your family, but you were anxious to cast his fixation on being in a nice neighborhood as a personality flaw. You could’ve convinced him that having a baby was a natural and joyful thing for you to share, but instead you turned it into an ultimatum and he used that ultimatum to paint a picture in which he was cornered into becoming a dad. You’ve chosen the role of bossy, imperious parent and he’s chosen the role of resentful child, over and over again. This way, you both avoid the risk of showing up and showing your true, fragile selves and asking for things you want, honoring the fact that the other person is separate from you and has a choice about whether to give those things or not.
Lack of gratitude is a recurring theme with both of you. It’s something you both need to work on independently. You’ve had so many unbelievable strokes of luck, but you’ve always returned to this place of lack and longing.
I do understand your anger at him. I also understand why he’d be frustrated with you. Either way, some things should never be used as weapons to bludgeon each other with. But you two don’t have any boundaries. You’re locked in battle, and the only way to get an edge on the competition is to raise the stakes. But being locked in battle essentially means that you never commit to each other, not really. Yet you both also refuse to take responsibility for yourselves. You both seem to like having someone to blame for the things that are wrong. But blaming the other person doesn’t even work or feel good. It’s amazing that so many people fall into that blaming/battle state and never find a way to crawl out of it.
I frontloaded all of my harshest thoughts here because the weird thing about you two as a couple is that you match perfectly. You both bring some major flaws and wretchedly bad psychological habits to this picture. And yet you never break up. You love each other and hate each other at the same time. You are tangled up together. Even when you announce that you’re sleeping in another room, all you’re doing is raising the stakes and punishing him. You’re still invested. It’s not really just a matter of money. It’s not really just a matter of keeping the family together. It’s obvious in the words that you string together to describe your husband that you think he’s the one for you and you always have. Based on his continued loyalty to you, in his own blame-y way, I think he feels the same way.
But you’ve never really acted like adults. You’ve never grown up and made a real commitment to each other. You’ve never learned how to say, “You messed this up for us, but I messed a lot of shit up, too.” You’re not vulnerable with each other. You feel like you can’t afford to be vulnerable with your enemy. But why are you enemies?
You’re both very afraid of telling each other the truth. You’re afraid of having no one to blame but yourself. You’re both hiding from yourselves. That’s part of why you’re still together. You need each other to blame. You don’t want to face yourselves.
Notice how you’re starting to see the good things about your husband, now that you have a job and take care of yourself more. You’re less invested in the battle for the first time, and that makes it possible to relax and enjoy the life you’ve built together, the kids you’re raising. But you’re still protecting yourself by sleeping in another room and staying on the fence about whether to stay together or not. I get that you feel like you can’t reach him, that he won’t open up to you. And you’re taking practical matters into account; that’s probably smart. You can’t afford to divorce, and you don’t like what it would do to both of your lives. But you’re also retreating to the safe, powerful space of “I could leave at any time,” instead of opening your heart and seeing all the potential the two of you still have as a couple.
Your husband needs to go to individual therapy with a great therapist. Why? Because he’s never been able to either take responsibility for himself or tell you how he’s feeling. He argues and bickers and blames instead of talking openly about what’s in his heart. He feels weak so he stays remote, just like you. You match that way.
But if you want him to be vulnerable, you have to stop making yourself superior to everything he does. Reread your letter. Unless you’re complimenting him, you characterize every single move he makes as unlikable or weak or pathetic.
Will he go to therapy? Can he be vulnerable? Can you ask him to be vulnerable without flipping out or deciding the real, authentic, fearful self that’s hiding beneath his whiny angry ineffectual hand-to-hand combat is actually unattractive or unsexy?
Even though you’ve been together for over a decade, it’s almost like you haven’t even met yet, because you’ve tried to proceed, every step of the way, without being vulnerable, opening up, and making a real commitment. But if you lay it all out on the table, hash through the bad stuff, take responsibility, stay vulnerable, and dare to see each other through new eyes, you can work through this and have an unexpectedly great relationship, even now. It’s a brand-new relationship, though, essentially. It will require both of you to grow up for the first time. It will require him to take personal responsibility for his own little patch of happiness the way that you have recently. It will require both of you to address all of the shit from the past while resisting the temptation to hurt each other with it. You can say, “I’m still angry about that, honestly,” without saying, “You really fucked that up because you’re lazy and selfish.”
If you dare to take a leap, you might just be rewarded with an alarmingly passionate, honest, happy partnership. But both of you have to leap. And there are risks. Sometimes, when you really dig deep, you find that you don’t believe in the other person anymore. Because your husband is more fearful and less in touch with his emotions than you are, it’s more likely that he could discover that. But even if he crawls through the shit and learns that he’s done with your marriage, I feel like that might be better for both of you, somehow. Maybe that’s my magical thinking. I just believe that if you honor the truth, in yourself and in the other person, things tend to open up and get brighter.
The first step, ironically, is to make a commitment to each other while also making a commitment to the truth. Being committed to another person means training your heart to accept whatever you see, even when it makes you a little bored or angry or disgusted. Being committed to the truth means entering into a space where your true selves are honored and embraced, even when they’re weak or absurd or selfish. You build with the materials you have, even when they seem worthless. You say, “This is what’s true,” without judgment. Feelings are allowed, even when they kick up equal and opposite feelings. “Your sadness makes me angry, and I don’t know why,” is something that you might end up saying to your spouse, when you’re really living inside this kind of space. The emotions that make you the most reprehensible are not used against you. You are accepted as a human animal with many, many flaws.
I know you love the intellectual comfort you get from the idea that you’re deciding whether to stay or go, but I would argue that this is your fear taking refuge in your neurotic ability to build some structure out of every scary emotion. You like thinking your way toward some arbitrary solution, some shift in the chess pieces. A lot of your big decisions came out of these obsessive “I’ve reasoned it out” efforts at making everything better. But I don’t think you’re deciding. I think you’re finding yourself more and more committed to the REAL man you married. That scares you, because it means that you have to be vulnerable and ask him to show up the way you’re starting to show up. That scares you because it means that he gets to tell you everything that’s made him furious over the past 15 years. That scares you because it sounds messy and tangled and it sounds like THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, and really, you’ve been trying to avoid THE REST OF YOUR LIFE for so long. You don’t want to admit that you need more from sex, or you want more, or you don’t know if you want sex at all, or you’re not sure how to want it anymore. You’re afraid to show yourself.
So is he. But that’s your path forward. You were together for years, but you were never really together. You looked at each other, but you didn’t see each other. You talked, but it was only to prove each other wrong. You didn’t want to surrender to reality, you wanted to be superior within the safe castle of your intellectual exercises and your wishful thinking.
There is another way. You can show yourself, in spite of giant flaws, in spite of so much water under the bridge it can drown you both. At times, you will feel like you’re drowning. But you might find yourself in that horrible moment, lashing and flailing around in the swirling water, gasping for air, ugly and terrible in each other’s eyes — this is reality, this is what you’ve been avoiding, you mirror each other, you are both wretched and divine — and you might feel alive for the first time, and feel seen for the first time, and feel truly, deeply in love and committed for the first time. But you’ll have to be brave.
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