By Jamie Carmichael
It’s 6:50pm when I pull in to the condo complex in the minivan. My 12-year old daughter is next to me and her toddler sister is in the back. The timing is deliberate. I don’t want to be home too early and I don’t want to be back so late that we have to stress through the nighttime routine. The large white van is parked in front and I sigh. He’s home. Not surprisingly since he usually gets home between 330 and 5 but still. Once in a while he’ll work late and I’ll be giddy with the quiet space that will welcome us. I can unload the bags. The girls will shake off their coats and let out some energy. We’ll eat whatever we picked up from McDonald’s or the pizza place or I’ll make something and then put the dishes in the dishwasher, fold the laundry and just be in peace.
But those days are few and far between.
Usually what happens is that we’ll come back from the library or the grocery store and my husband will be upstairs in the bathroom where he spends an inordinate amount of time doing whatever it is that he does. I’ll be in the kitchen or helping with homework with our older daughter and then at some point he’ll come down instantly ramping up the tension.
Will he acknowledge me or go straight to asking the girls how they are as if I’m not there? Will I greet him in a measured way so I’m not being superficially upbeat but also not ignoring him? The thing is that I’m not ever entirely sure where we stand that day.
Partial disclosure: We have been married for 16 years. We haven’t slept in the same bed for 12.
Full disclosure: I had an affair 6 years ago and filed for divorce. After confessing both to my husband said he eventually said he wanted to stay together. I didn’t think it would work out but the fact that he wanted to stay together automatically made me want to too.
We did couple’s counseling but nothing changed. Our relationship continued as it started: insecure and desperate. A year went by with the pressure of having to answer to him about why it happened or what did he do to cause it to happen. Nothing made it better. Our bond was only through the kids. The nature of our relationship would be him finding me to start an argument or him hiding out in the basement or bathroom until he would send a text asking for sex. And even though it was predictable it was also out of the blue since as far as I knew he didn’t want anything to do with me; the last interaction would be something like him saying, “I’ve had it.” When that text came I would either ignore it or say no. This would make him angry. He didn’t seem to understand that barely acknowledging me or accusing me of continuing to cheat on him didn’t make me feel accepted or safe let alone close to him. And definitely in any way wanting to be sexual. More years went by. More fighting in front of one girl and then when the other came along more fighting in front of her too. More tension and maneuvering schedules to avoid each other. I have so much stress and anxiety I started therapy on my own and was prescribed anti-depressants as well as anti-anxiety pills. I don’t sleep either and use over the counter sleep aids as well as teas and magnesium cream that are all supposed to help. They don’t.
My husband asks for sex often. And when he does and it doesn’t happen it leads to no good. I don’t say yes because I don’t feel okay about it when just the day before he was accusing me of seeing someone behind his back again. And even though there isn’t anything going on, that he can check my email or my phone or social media or follow me around in a car he still doesn’t believe it. But when I’ve exhausted myself pleading that nothing is going on he’ll say, “So what’s the problem then?”
It’s become something I can’t deny anymore. I can’t keep pretending that it will change, that one day he’ll come down from the bathroom genuinely happy to see me without the question of sex to follow. I also can’t pretend that I love him either. I’ve become numb to even wondering what a normal relationship is because I don’t know. And I don’t think I’ve ever known. Whatever it is that we have can only be likened to a game of chicken; who will walk into the head on collision first?
So why stay together?
I can only quote what he has said when I begged him that very question. “Because I will not get divorced.”
I believe him but I also believe him when he says he doesn’t want this either. “This is the rest of my life,” he exclaims to me and also in front of the girls. His life being that we are a married couple and we don’t have sex often enough. He asks over and over again to have sex and I say no over and over again because I feel like it’s an obligation and I don’t feel comfortable with him and now I feel like sex has become a commodity.
As for my reasons:
I could say that I’m a child of divorce and therefor don’t want to do that to my kids. Or I could say that my father not only participated in said divorce but then on an impulse with two guys he’d just met at a bar decided to move 1,000 miles away to Florida so he could have freedom at last. Those were his exact words written some 37 years later in a letter I asked him to write. He had not one thought about the 2-year old that he was also leaving behind nor does he think of me now.*
But I was already prepared to divorce, whether against broken homes or not. I had enabled myself into an affair for any or none of the usual reasons, but really just to see if I could feel anything besides fear and stress and therefor knew that filing for divorce was the inevitable next step as hard as it was to physically walk into the courthouse and ask for the paperwork. I had no money. I was a stay at home mom to our 7-year old and worked for minimum wage at the library a couple shifts a week. I was living with my husband at his parent’s house for the second time since we simply could not get our shit together financially or otherwise. And a word about having an affair while living under the same roof as not only your spouse but YOUR IN-LAWS: It takes nerve and the ability to not only be duplicitous but act in the highest form of disrespect. In short, it’s something not many people could or would do. Just so we are clear, what I did was if not absolutely vile then the closest thing to it.
And yet, the parents didn’t shun me from their home when my husband screamed the details of my affair while they were right there. His parents were surprised and disappointed and wondered how the hell I could file for divorce without any money (which was an odd thing to focus on) but they never unleashed the kind of anger and judgment I felt I deserved.
I didn’t want to hurt anyone, not my husband who in all his attitude and snooping and general anger at the world was a man who was committed to me. And not his parents who for the last 18 years were almost like a second set of parents since I grew up without my own.**
There’s a lot to be said about childhood and how it influences how you live in the world and there’s also the biology theory and then there’s just plain bad behavior with no excuse whatsoever. What I have discovered is that I have a history of searching for a feeling of validation and feeling worthy of love. As a teen I eagerly welcomed attention from boys even if I didn’t feel the same back thinking that I wasn’t entitled to have a boundary. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced self-worth of any kind so I found it in what others thought of me. I didn’t know how to be alone. I didn’t know how to confront being me and accepting who I am as I am. But if a boy accepted me I was tricked into feeling whole. This played out in having boyfriends that I otherwise wouldn’t have been with because something was better than nothing and also if I said no I feared I wouldn’t be given another chance.
This emotional restlessness played out in various ways. Such as fixating on food and my body wanting to regress into being small, so small that I was hospitalized at age 13 for 3 months. This played out in binge drinking phases and drugged out weekends followed by extreme guilt and the strict sobriety that would follow. It played out in obsessions with exercise where I would run miles on top of miles all to keep me from dealing with being still. And devouring book after book because I wanted other worlds other situations instead of real ones.
Eventually it played out in spontaneous elopement because I didn’t know what else to do. The marriage led to a child and more debt and eventually to this tiny, tiny voice that was often ignored or denied because it said that something had to change, that I’m not doing anyone any favors- mainly myself- by existing in this what I can only think of as fraudulent way. That voice shows up at night when once again I’m unable to fall or stay asleep. It says that I have to accept the change that will come and then I can finally be real. It says that I can’t keep being scared. It says that this marriage, which brought me two completely innocent beautiful daughters, is not working and never has because I was never fully engaged in the commitment.
It says that I need to admit this out loud.
It says that I might have had two parents who rejected me and wasn’t ever modeled how to have a functional relationship or feel loved or loved myself but I can and continue to love my children the way I wasn’t. It says I can be honest now and stop letting the fear- that has guided my every move for as long as I can remember- continue to run my life. I can stop being scared of being disliked or hated or forgotten. I can stop having to apologize for the affair because it doesn’t matter that it happened 6 years ago or 60, he will keep using it against me since it is something that can’t be healed because we were broken from day 1. This means letting go this man who has been hurt beyond what can be helped.
This will be excruciating for two reasons: dissolving something that has been so much my identity for 18 years and discovering that I there’s a new identity in which I get to reveal to myself and the world. It is terrifying. But if I want a chance at something healthy and normal for myself and my children it is also necessary. It will be something I will have to recommit to every day. Disallowing others to give me my self-worth or validation is something I learned somehow a long time ago. I can unlearn it. I can say no and accept whatever happens next. Not trying to be what others want me to be and accepting what others are will be a process but a healing one.
This includes specifically my mother and father. I can stop blaming my mother for her slow decline into self-pity and rejection of motherhood and I can stop hating my father for walking away and then be less than interested in a relationship later on. This new act of responsibility and figuring out myself is my own kind of freedom that doesn’t require a trip to Florida and leaving my family behind. This freedom will be terrifying but it will also be invigorating to know that my self-worth won’t be in someone else’s hands. Being on my own will be one of the hardest things to do, emotionally and financially but remembering that my grandmother was able to do it as well as give me a secure home when I needed it for as long as she could I can do the same as I continue to be the mother to my girls that I never have and show them how worthy they are of love
*My father got arrested and sent to prison not long after reaching the southeast peninsula. He said it was for drugs and the offense repeated so he spent upwards about 15 years incarcerated. He eventually got in touch with me through Facebook some 30 years later. I was literally shocked but accepted the request and immediately my brain flooded with questions and wonderings and then as each message I sent was responded with vague answers disappointment started to creep in. I found myself overwhelmed with a desire for connection. To have that male presence in my life that I am half of when I’d never experienced it before was confusing but an urge I couldn’t ignore. I wanted to know him but more so I was hurt that he showed no interest in wanting to know me. We even moved down there for about a year. I thought that maybe being close by geographically would foster something. But the only thing that grew was the realization that I will never have the relationship I was looking for. That he would show up at our door once in a while in his cut-off jeans and bring up that he was still paying the state of Connecticut back child support and do I think they’ll let that go at some point? The night we loaded the moving truck to go back to Connecticut he came to say goodbye but instead of giving a hug and saying he’d miss me (or miss the idea of a daughter down the street) he said that he had three important people in his life and went on to list names I’d never heard of but that he’d wanted me to meet. My husband shook his head and said as the El Camino blew dust as he turned left out of the driveway, “I would have thought the three people would have been you and the girls.”
**My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just before the divorce and she brought up the disease a lot, like it was her only identifying characteristic. “I was dealt a shitty hand,” was her refrain. My earliest memories of her involve being locked in my bedroom where I cried looking out the window while I defecated in my dolphin shorts since she wouldn’t open the door. Another was getting in to her plastic drawstring bag full of medication. She rested her eyes a lot; fatigue being a hallmark symptom and one time my curiosity led me to shoving a handful of bitter chalky pills in my mouth. She woke up and yelled at me once again sending me to my room. My mother didn’t know what to do with a child. She seemed to thrive on jealousy and bitterness at not being healthy like everyone else she saw. So I spent many weekends with her mother, my grandmother where I was given the chance to just play outside and wake up to a Flintstone’s vitamin next to a glass of grape juice in the morning. I wasn’t scolded or told to go to sleep at 430 in the afternoon or force fed a can of food. When I was at my grandmother’s I wasn’t a nervous wreck about anything. It got to a point that when her silver Toyota turned the corner into the apartment complex where my grandmother both lived and worked , I hid under the dining room table feeling my stomach clench and the pressure build up under my eyes where tears would threaten to stream down. My grandmother had already raised 3 children. She lived alone after having had 2 marriages herself – the second one leaving her in an institution after having a nervous breakdown with her own issues of anxiety and agoraphobia. Both husbands left her and she had happily lived alone for a number of years. “I’ll take her, Tracy,” my grandmother said and at age 7 she became my official guardian. So even though she filled the roles of both mother and father I never had the experience of having both a mother and father who cared about me. My husband’s parents had welcomed me into the family and had been happy to have us even live with them.
Jamie Carmichael is an almost 40 year old who is learning life at a 5 year old level. She hopes to get her GED at some point. She’s mothering two young girls who are her reason for waking up every morning. She writes and reads almost obsessively and takes her 3 year old for long walks when the weather cooperates. She resides in Connecticut.