Thursday, February 09, 2006

This is the End

Around Christmas, my wife began to exhibit some troubling signs. She was uncommunicative and distant. She was drinking--sometimes just a glass of wine or two, sometimes more--every night. After a few nights of relative silence, I asked her what was wrong. "I'm homesick," she said.

Holidays are tough. She hasn't seen her parents in over a year and she worries about her father, who is in his 80s. She hasn't seen her sister--her best friend--or her sister's family in nearly three years. I gave her a hug, told her I understood and let her know that I was there to help.

The holidays passed relatively uneventfully. Lots of toys for AJ, an attempt at a festive New Year's Eve aborted by my sickness. And yet, her mood lingered.

"I'm depressed," she'd say, when I probed her.
"About what?"
"I don't know. I'm confused."

As the blues continued, I began to press her harder and more frequently. Her condition was infecting the whole house, starting to wear on me and, on some level, affecting AJ. She still refused to offer me any answers, occasionally dropping hints about her dissatisfaction with me, but they seemed so similar, so minor, that they couldn't be causing this much anguish. I was concerned, but could only assume it would pass, as she continued to re-assure me there was nothing I could do to aid her.

One night, she talked of feeling like she was going crazy. Like she'd become manic-depressive and needed some counseling. For the first time, I began to get scared, though I said I thought that would be a good idea. I didn't have any answers. She wasn't providing any questions. And I worried ceaselessly for a few days about what was happening to my wife.

On January 21, Saturday night, a few days after that last discussion, my wife told me--among other things--that she was leaving me.


I later learned that there's a process people go through when they formulate an idea to leave, or, as the title of a book I read says, "Uncouple." It's a sociological study, less concerned with WHY people do things than simply WHAT they do. The author studied hundreds of couples to find patterns in the run-up to the end of a relationship. And it was spooky. Like the author had been living in our house for two months.

What must happen for the person (called the "Initiator") to uncouple is a redefinition of self, a process that begins with a secret. For many, it's simple unhappiness. The relationship is not progressing satisfactorily, for whatever reasons. There's a malaise, a distance, a sense of living parallel lives. What then develops is the Initiator begins to focus on this unhappiness, this idea, and starts to turn it into action. One of the keys is that they do this privately, avoiding outside influence so they can shape the information to their own advantage. Even so, clues are present, as they were in our case. Also typical was my reaction: These are small things, easily fixable.

Not getting the attention or happiness at home, the Initiator then begins to express self in other directions, creating something like a new identity to seek validation elsewhere. This outside recognition becomes most important as the Initiator finds new and exciting opportunities for fun outside the home. This move away from family (and toward self) lengthens the distance between the couple, severing ties along the way. The Initiator's social life may now exclude the partner. The Initiator might take a lover or fantasize about taking one, devoting energy to that fantasy, which is expressed more in thoughts than in day-to-day encounters.

Now that the Initiator has transformed this discontent into something more than just an idea, they begin to reconstruct what came before. They become increasingly occupied with the partner's failures, going so far as to re-invent their history together, seeing nothing but a "negative chronology of events." The significance of the relationship is diminished and re-interpreted to be consistent with the way the Initiator is now feeling. Furthermore, still at home, the Initiator only notices the daily activities (flaws) that fit with and feed their immediate mindset.

Often, the Initiator will begin to keep a journal, writing down the bombardment of thoughts, giving them tangible from, turning that unhappiness into an object instead of a vague feeling. They seek counsel, but only from safe sources, people they know who will not disagree with their path, avoiding all those with a vested interest in the relationship. They will make new friends, transitional people, who will help bridge what they are increasingly coming to see as their "old" and "new" lives.

As the Initiator begins to pull these pieces into place, they will become more emboldened, their perceived problems intensified, and begin to transform possibilities into plan. They will withdraw intimacy from the partner, criticize the partner more frequently and in public, transforming the relationship into something bad, to make uncoupling more socially acceptable. The partner's flaws are now an alternate reality, totally removed from the thought process, a litany of negatives developing unfettered. This negative reinforcement helps ease the Initiator into Change. The partner, with all his/her faults, becomes an acceptable loss, is, in fact, dehumanized, more of an obstacle than a person. Such conclusions are used to justify the failure of leaving, of the relationship breaking down. Because the partner is unsuitable.

Throughout this time, the Initiator is building a sense of the self being first priority. The individual must take precedence over the family. The result is further removal from the partner and others associated with the relationship (children, in-laws), turning almost to isolation, where the Initiator can continue to carry out this plan, unabated, for building a new, separate life.

At this point, the partner is aware of what is happening, but likely doesn't know the seriousness of what is being undertaken, as the Initiator continues to operate in relative secrecy. But the clues are there. It may be something symbolic, like removal of a wedding ring or a change in attitude towards the house where you live. It may be physical changes, like weight loss or more attention to beauty (make-up, hairstyle, pedicures).

The cumulative impact is that the Initiator is re-defined as a new entity, validating self and altering the relationship to make leaving acceptable, the upshot of which is, that the expressions of discontent are now focused on convincing the partner that the relationship is unsavable. The Initiator has moved to a new phase of life, largely unbeknownst to the partner. He/she is self-defined as "new," where the relationship is past and wholly negative. This belief stymies any attempts at reconciliation, for the Initiator does not want to turn back into the unhappy person they were, put themselves back into that "negative chronology of events" that was their relationship.


One of the other things my wife told me that night was that there was a guy. His name is Michael and they met at her job the second week in December. He came in to look at an apartment. He passed, but one of my wife's duties is to make follow-up inquiries to people who pass through. She did that in this case as well, but at the end, she added a personal note.

Thus began their daily e-mail communication. She allowed how seeing one of his e-mails in the inbox was the "highlight of her day." And how she "thinks about him all the time." Nothing physical happened, she assured me, just the e-mails. Oh (she says two hours later) and we had lunch once. Oh (she says weeks later) we were together when you and AJ were in St. Louis. And yes, something physical did happen (I will refrain from the symbolism regarding the wife refusing to attend my grandparents' 65th wedding anniversay celebration with the rest of my entire extended family so she could stay home

If you've ever experienced this, you know how badly it hurts. If you're lucky enough to have had this particular albatross pass you by, I can't begin to do the feeling justice. I sobbed uncontrollably. I felt like I couldn't breathe, like I was being ripped into pieces. I'd scream unintelligibly, hoping the effort would touch that place inside of me that felt like profound desperation. But I couldn't--can't--get near it. You can't rub it out, can only wait for it to go away of its own accord.

We talked long into the night, me pleading, cajoling; her, impassive and unemotional. See, that's where the Partner is at a disadvantage to the Initiator. They are on different planes. The Initiator has all the power. The former's first reaction--after sadness (and believe me when I tell you the following day was the saddest of my life)--is to fix things. Whereas the Initiator already sees everything as beyond fixable.

Despite that, I convinced her to cease the e-mails with this Michael. She agreed grudgingly and when his communications kept coming, I asked that she block his address. She refused. And since she began to hide her cell phone, I'm gonna guess the communication never actually stopped.

Over the course of three weeks, I was a volatile and ever-churning mix of emotions: abject sorrow, extreme self-loathing, righteous anger. I never knew which would be at the fore when I woke up in the morning. I always rooted for anger. It felt healthier. And I didn't end up a quivering mass of tears a dozen times a day when I was pissed.

Some nights, we didn't speak at all. Others we went 'round and 'round the same arguments. She continued to be totally unmoved by my pain, had detached herself emotionally in this uncoupling process. I promised we could improve, strengthen our bond. She didn't want to fix it, she said. She lied to me casually, saying this wasn't about Michael over and over, that he was just a "friend." I hammered at her over the fallout of this decision, especially in regards to AJ. How she's putting herself before her child, how she is her first priority instead of her child, how she's letting this feeling--which, I said often, is only temporary, whether she stays or goes--overwhelm her concern for what a divorce would do to our son.

I continually begged her to come with me to counseling, which she dismissed. Still, she is concerned only with seeking opinions of the matter which validate her stance. Outside of me and her sister, she's spoken about it with nobody, including her parents, who are sure to be critical. But I finally broke her down, or, more likely, she just got sick and tired of my suggestion and agreed in order that I would shut up about it. I never got the sense she was going to try to mend our relationship and I expected her to be as unemotional and stonewalling with the therapist as she had been with me.

Between her agreeing to see the therapist and us actually going, I had an epiphany of sorts. I guess what happened was that I realized I most likely was not going to have a wife in a few short weeks. It felt like she was already way beyond me. I couldn't reach her. I was the enemy, an irritating obstacle she must pass to get to her new life. I wondered why I was clinging to her, to our marriage. The hurt she has caused me is immeasurable. She betrayed my most sacred trust. I can not, in all seriousness, ever see her in the same way again. So why did I want her back?

Two reasons. The first is AJ. I'm a child of divorce and my father leaving when I was 12 (to have an affair) was crushing. He came back 8 months later, but the damage was done and he and I spent 20 years at an emotional distance. AJ doesn't deserve this. He should not have his whole life, his security, ripped from him at this age.

The second is related to the first. He also shouldn't have to live in a house where his parents aren't happy, or worse, don't love each other. I couldn't ask my wife to come back if I wasn't wholly prepared to change my lifestyle.

I am at least an equal partner in allowing our marriage to deteriorate to the point where an episode like this could occur. I'm forever distracted by less important matters than family. I'd become inattentive to the needs of both my wife and AJ. I'd been uninvolved in their daily lives, thinking a quick hug hello or hurried kiss goodnight was enough to fulfill my role. And I'm ashamed.

So, regardless of the outcome of this, I resolved to improve myself. Either way, I have to. Not just in family matters, either, but in every facet of my life. I need more effort. I need more focus. I need fucking plans, goals. And I need to be available every single time my wife or child needs me.

This gave me a little bit of a boost. A silver lining, if you will. And I was totally focused on changing these habits. Of course, the wife didn't want any attention from me, so I basically just gave her space at home, responded or queried cheerfully and saved the tough discussions for the sessions. However, even if she continued on her course of action, I would get something out of the experience. I would be a new man.


We walked out of the therapist's office that first day and she said it felt like she was on trial. "She's not on my side," I said, but that statement was met with disagreement.

For my part, I walked out of there with a little spring in my step. The therapist made a couple salient points, taking us down paths of discourse I had not previously seen. The dear and patient wife cried, one of the few times she's shown any emotion toward me during these difficult weeks. I won't violate our privacy by telling you the details, but I will say that some of the therapist's questions aimed at the dear and patient wife went unanswered, much as many of mine have. Yet, for the first time, I felt not like she was purposefully deflecting the questions, but that she really didn't know and answer. That the outward certainty of her decision masked some inner confusion, some wavering of her stated commitment. And it gave me hope.

Despite what Andy Dufresne says, hope isn't always a "good thing" and, in this case, it's most definitely not "(one of) the best of things." Hope has kept me alive the last few weeks, Hope that my wife would wake up, that she would return to the person I've known and loved all these years. What she is doing is wrong.

Nevertheless, she's leaving. Dead set on it. Neither emotional or intellectual arguments can reach her. She looks at me as if I am a nuisance, treats me as if I were a stranger on the street. She has shut me off from her heart, regarded me with increasing disdain and somehow, someway, come to see me as the enemy. She has casually lied to me over the past 10 weeks, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. And I've taken it.

Tonight, I stopped. The writing is very fucking on the wall. No, she will not cease communication with Michael. No, she doesn't want to try to fix our marriage. No, she doesn't see AJ's impending devastation as an impediment to her running from our nearly 6-year marriage into the arms of Prince Charming. She's well beyond my reach. The woman with whom I expected to grow old has become somebody else entirely. A person unconcerned with anyone besides herself (and her boyfriend). I've asked her to leave. I can't look at her any more, can't handle the dull, unfeeling expression in her eyes when she looks at me.

I know I'll be okay. Eventually. It's heartbreaking, this feeling, but my life has purpose:


I've cried myself to sleep many nights in recent days, but I never cry more sorrowfully than when I think about facing my boy and telling him that Mommy and Daddy can't get along any more and that he's going to spend every week of the next 14 years with a ready-to-go backpack, shuttling between two-bedroom apartments, instead of jumping nightly into his parents' bed, safe in his home and their closeness. I've failed my son and I will spend the rest of my life trying to make his life as wonderful as it can be, to make sure he knows he is the one person in the world for whom I would lay down my own life, to make him into a man of strength and character. I hope he can forgive us, climb the summit of this obstacle his imperfect parents have laid in his path. He's a good boy, impossibly loving and giving. I hope he never loses that, not because of me and his mother and our tragic blemishes.

I never thought I would be where I am at this moment. I guess if I had, I may have been able to prevent it. Take this as a warning, friends. Like a vulnerable poker hand, you're never as far ahead as you think you are.