Sunday, December 31, 2006

Self Dissolution

This is a long, meandering post, but it does have a unifying theme. Stick with me...

A Day Trip to the Small Town
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They're all that's left you
-- Simon & Garfunkel, "Bookends"

I took off work Friday to make a trip to my hometown to tie up an old loose end. My aunt had sold her old house and needed to have it emptied out by the end of the month. She had inherited the house from her mother, who passed away in May of 2004. Because I spent a lot of time there growing up, there were some things of mine that were still there. Since I thought that he might have some items to claim, I talked my brother into taking the day off and coming along with me. He brought his father-in-law, too.

This trip came with a good size amount of anxiety because it meant being able to overcome emotional cutoff. This was the same aunt with whom I had avoided contact for almost a year and a half and whose Thanksgiving invitation I had trouble replying to. If I was to make it through this encounter, I would have to hold onto myself.

We met my aunt at her new house because she had already boxed up the items and moved them. For the most part, she was civil. I just wanted to get the items and get out of there, not wanting to spend too much time dwelling on what was there. For the most part, I succeeded.

However, she started going through some other items in the garage that weren't ours and started talking about them. One of the things was a collection of photographs from a family reunion held over 20 years ago, mostly relatives whose names we heard our grandmother mention but never really associated with. It wouldn't have been so bad had she not pointed out all the relatives she didn't think much of (read: either they were gay or didn't get along with her when she was young).

She also said she had found an envelop in my stuff that was labeled "(aunt's name deleted) attack file" and said that it contained lots of things that weren't very nice. I don't recall having put together something like that together, but it was quite possible. I was angry at both her and my father (her brother) during my high school years, for reasons both valid and foolish. Rather than denying the matter or getting defensive, I caged my inner reptile and said simply, "I was very angry person in my teens. I'm sorry," and left it at that. I'm not going to beat myself up over feelings I had over 20 years ago.

Letting Go of Location
Coming up close
Everything sounds like welcome home
Come home and oh, by the way
Don't you know that I could make a dream that's barely half-awake come true
-- 'Til Tuesday, "Coming Up Close", Welcome Home

After we left her house, my brother said he wanted to grab something to eat at the diner downtown, which is the closest thing that the town had to a signature restaurant. The father-in-law talked about an analogous place he likes to go in upstate New York, as he sipped his first glass of Big Red, a cream soda drink that's was a popular beverage when we were growing up. It's the only eatery I've seen that has the beverage on the fountain.

Once we had finished eating, my brother drove us around town. We tried to remember what things were like when we were growing up. We commented on stores that had changed names or been replaced by others.

We looked with wonderment at the growth in campus size of the parochial school we had attended for the first eight grades. Lots adjacent to the school property had been purchased and the houses thereupon demolished to make room for additional parking. An adjacent street had been closed and overtaken by building expansion.

We drove to a neighborhood where we lived when we were very young. Many of the houses had been remodeled since we moved away back late 1978, so it was hard for us to pinpoint who had lived in which houses. Our own house had its split rail fence replaced with a more contemporary privacy fence. At the nearby park, the softball diamond had been modernized, complete with warning track and electronic scoreboard.

As we wandered through the place we once called home, I thought about the changes that had gone through my life. At one time, this town was the center of my universe. Any extended time away from it brought about anxiety.

At the age of 10, I went to a summer camp not 20 miles away for 5 days, and I remember getting embarrassingly homesick. Even in my undergrad years, I would make a lot of trips home because the school I was going to was only a couple hours away. It wasn't until I worked a summer in Germany in the summer of 1990 that I began to lose the strong emotional connection with home.

During the impromptu tour of our old environs, I wondered silently how I held so tightly onto this place at all.

Breaking ties with a hometown is one thing, losing attachment with a region is another. When I left graduate school in the winter of 1995, I took a job in a neighboring state, but still within reasonable driving distance of home. Because my wife wanted to be closer to family, we moved back to our home state in the summer of 2000, settling down in a larger metropolitan area. At the time, I was excited because I loved the place. I never would have entertained moving to a larger city or the coasts.

Within the past two years, I have been undergoing a very slow transformation that has nothing to do with my marriage. It is an emotional delinkage from the Midwest itself.

I think it started as I started to look for jobs in 2005. With the skills I had, there were a lot more openings in places far away, usually on the coasts. That realization brought into stark relief the brain drain problem I read about in the news.

The job I wound up taking was a small startup company. They had some interesting product ideas, and I thought this might be a way to help counteract my home state's reputation of non-innovation. After a year of going through ups and downs with the company, I'm at a point where I can say at least I tried. Given the development of a couple weeks ago, I don't see this company getting off the ground.

The downside is that I don't see much else going on in this town. The one company that I thought might be a hot job lead is keeping me in limbo. And another startup in town that I know would pay well is an ongoing train wreck. All of the sudden, those far away places, which I wouldn't have entertained as much as a year ago, are starting to look really attractive both from the compensatory and professional growth angles. As 2007 rings in, I will be expanding my job search scope nationwide.

Understanding My Old Self
I don't know what I'm searching for
I never have opened the door,
Tomorrow might find me at last,
Turning my back on the past,
But, time will tell, of stars that fell,
A million years ago.
Memories can never take you back, home, sweet home.
You can never go home anymore.

All my life I never really knew me till today,
Now I know why, I'm just another step along the way.
-- The Moody Blues, "You Can Never Go Home", Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The trip back home had some significance with respect to my therapy work. A few weeks ago, my therapist asked me to start examining the question of what would make me happy. She suggested that I think back in time to remember my childhood ambitions.

So, I went back in time and recalled my first serious thoughts about the future. They occurred sometime in late 1979. At the time, I had a job as a newspaper carrier for the town's evening daily. I started reading the newspaper, developing an awareness of world events. For those who recall that era, the U.S.'s zeitgeist was at a low. I locked into that emotional climate, and I began to worry about my own future. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to. Although I didn't have words to describe it at the time, I had developed a major case of ontological anxiety.

My parents didn't do much to help that worldview because in the late summer of 1981, they separated, with my mother moving away. I was on the brink of entering 7th grade, and I did not take it well. With our mother gone, I took over the role of ersatz parent to my younger brother, so I wound up having to grow up really fast.

The stresses of uncertainty at all levels caused me to take on the mindset of a deprivation thinker. Here is how Robert A. Glover describes this line of thinking in No More Mr. Nice Guy:
Not having their needs adequately met in childhood created a belief for Nice Guys that there wasn't enough of what they needed to go around. This deprivation experience become the lens through which they viewed the world.

This paradigm of scarcity and deprivation makes Nice Guys manipulative and controlling. It causes them to believe they better hang on to what they've got and not take too many chances. It leads them to resent other people who seem to have what they lack.

Because of their deprivation thinking, Nice Guys think small. They don't believe they deserve to have good things. They find all kinds of ways to make sure their view of the world is never challenged. The settle for scraps and think that it is all they deserve. They create all kinds of rationalizations to explain why they will never have what they really desire. (Glover, pp. 157 - 158)

Those paragraphs explain a lot of my behavior between high school and the present. With the notable exception of the phone sex calls, I didn't like splurging on things for myself. Although I typically didn't put a lot of energy into acquiring new things, I did hold onto things... mostly books, photos, and items that reminded me of things that had happened in my life. In my mind, they became an integral part of my identity. I think the anxiety I have exhibited over parting with these things is that I fear that I will lose a part of myself and forget about it.

This penchant for accumulation caused my wife to hurl the epithet of "pack rat" in my direction many a time throughout our relationship. If I needed a reminder of how far back this tendency went, I only needed to look in the boxes I carted back home with me on Friday. As I looked over the books, magazines, posters, music, photos, and mementos, I began to wonder to myself why I held onto all of this stuff in the first place.

Moving back to a couple weeks ago, after discussing the deprivation thinking with my therapist, she hit me with a question that shook me up. The question was: "If I were to walk through your house, what would be there to make me think of you." I thought hard about that one. I said that there really wouldn't be much, save for family photographs on the wall.

The house itself was selected by my wife. Same goes for the furniture and the colors of the paint on the walls. The kids' toys have become a major element of the landscape. Aside from clothes and a few computer and self help books that are near bedside, my possessions are stored in boxes, totes, and shelves out in the garage. But even in the garage, the vast majority of space is occupied by things my wife desired and purchased. The computer I use to post to this blog is tucked away neatly in an armoire that she chose.

A few days later, I stumbled upon a posting at a weblog titled Mind Blowing Insanity which included a passage that echoes my own experiences, modulo some changes in pronoun gender:
Our relationship was a strange one. I am the type of person who wants to make everyone's life better, usually at the expense of myself. I'm not saying that I'm a martyr, I just always put myself last. I then came to realize after all of these years that I had no friends of my own and nothing that I could really call "mine", because I had spent our entire life together being around "his" friends and doing "his" things.

In my case, however, I would call myself a martyr. By trying to keep my wife happy and trying to avoid the appearance of needing things, I created an existence that is not only minimalist but also solitary. Aside from blog contacts, my social interactions are limited to her friends.

This crowding out effect carries over into the bedroom. When sex happens, it is on my wife's terms, and the focus is on her pleasure. My pleasure is secondary, and she actively resists my requests for reciprocity.

It's as if there is no room for me in my own life, period.

Letting Go of the Old Self

I acknowledge that I am guilty for having cultivated this kind of relationship. The question is, can I find room for myself and stay within the confines of this marriage. At this hour, I believe that the answer is "no". Shortly before Christmas, I asked my wife two questions:

  1. Are you truly happy with the way things are?

  2. Can you think of anything that makes you unhappy?

She paused for a moment, and said that she was happy, but qualified that statement by saying she tried to look at the positive things. Given that things work out pretty well in her favor, she probably is fairly happy. That happiness is subsidized through both through my time and money that I earn.

In order for me to take shape and start doing things to make my own self happy, it would require the redirection of resources, something I don't think she will be willing to cede. There are two reasons.

The first is the way she responded to my attempt to communicate with her on the money issue. She responded by deflecting the blame in my direction.

Second, during our marriage counseling she said that she might be willing to give me one night a month where I could set aside for doing things on my own. This is in comparison with the several nights a week where she gets out of the house on her own.

The sheer inequity of the current arrangement leaves me with less chips with which to bargain, so she is likely to cry foul because she will perceive the tradeoff as lopsided against her.

I am left believing that the only route to growth is to move on. Going this route will be anxiety laden, uncertain, and perilous. In essence, it is everything I've tried to dodge in almost 38 years of existence.

It will require me to lay out a vision for where I am headed because to leave this marriage without a plan would be as foolish as stepping into the vacuum of the cosmos without a spacesuit.

But most of all, it will require me to change. Not only do I face the chance of marital dissolution. I certainly face the prospect of self-dissolution. The final chapter of Passionate Marriage seemed way "out there" when I first read it, and I wondered why Schnarch included it at all. However, as the thoughts on my current place in life began to gel the last couple of weeks, I reread the parts about self-dissolution. I've quoted the relevant portions here:
Spiritual awakening is often assumed to involve transcending all desire -- but some desires set us free: desire for wisdom, compassion, justice, honesty, generosity, for greater capacity to love and understand life. Our desire for these qualities drives us to expand our capacities for both the self-direction and communion that ultimately leads to self transcendence and spirituality. This is why (Jesuit monk Sebastian) Moore argues that spiritual enlightenment is marked by the ability to desire more fully rather than the absence of desire.


Sebastian Moore says that desire out of fullness is, in essence, a "death wish": life crises like falling in love, undergoing conversion, or suffering bereavement present the painful and bewildering demand that the "you" whose desire brought this about must die. Boundary experiences arise from confronting the limits to what you can attain as the person you are currently. To fulfill your desires, you have to change in ways that make the fulfillment possible. This means the smaller "you" dies as a fuller "you," a more unique "you," is born. We desire our self to death in the most positive sense.

We can consider this paradox from another perspective: throughout this book (and especially Chapter 12) we have explored the need to hold onto yourself. But holding onto yourself and becoming more differentiated eventually leads to the loss of the self you've been holding onto.


Herein lies an important point that is sometimes hard to grasp: many people who seek self-transcendence don't want to give anything up, and they want the path safe and clearly mapped. However, our unwillingness to give up what no longer fits (i.e., self-dissolution) blocks us from self-transcendence. And once you recognize yourself, as (Ken) Wilber does, as the manifestation of Spirit seeking its own fulfillment, then your refusal to grow is not just a personal shortcoming but also a thwarting of Spirit. This is where sin fits in, according to Sebastian Moore.

Sin isn't about unconfined desire -- it's our refusal to desire and grow, our refusal to believe in ourselves, and our willingness to live below our potential. Sin is our "not wanting to want." Moore suggests that the answer to sin is not self-denial but allowing ourselves to desire more fully. (Schnarch, pp. 396 - 400)

The path of deprivational thinking is what hampers my personal growth. I need to start acting as if I am worth more than how I allow myself to be treated. I need to let go of who I've been and give myself permission to desire more from my life. This is the fruit of my crucible, and it is my resolution for the New Year.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Reflecting on Some of Elise's Posts

Over at ringfinger, elise has a trio of posts that have resonated with me, and I've been meaning to comment on them.

From the Better Future posting:
I get a sinking feeling when I read these things because the majority of people in this world believe, of course, that when you have children divorce is an absolute last resort. That has always been one of my most fundamental beliefs. I went into my marriage with the idea that I would never get divorced unless my husband was beating me. I believed that once I had children that was it, my life was forever signed away. I never expected emotional abuse though. I didn't even expect it when it was in full swing. Course, now I look back and realize that a year ago, or even 6 months ago I had every reason in the world to leave but I was too scared or too stupid.

I took an even stricter view, treating divorce as a complete failure and a repetition of my parents' mistakes. I thought it was an unacceptable option, kids or no kids. Moreover, since so much of my identity was based on what my wife thought of me, I tried to cover up my anxieties and shortcomings. I also refused to recognize the emotional abuse she inflicted upon me. It's only been within the past year and a half that thoughts of dissolution or infidelity started to enter into my mind.
And now, the less scared I feel and the less stupid I am and the further I move away from him, the more my husband improves his behavior. He has been playing the part of the perfect husband. Apparently, he has a new found love for me. And while I don't find spending time with him painful like it used to be. I don't feel energized, or excited when I'm with him. I don't laugh. We don't click. I'm completely turned-off sexually. We are not on the same page and I'm not sure that we ever were. That is the sad part for me. I just think he was a bad choice in the first place.

In my case, I see my wife saying she wants to work on our marriage, but her commitment seems to be only words. Actions are half-hearted or nonexistent. I wonder if there is a part of her that believes that I will not follow through because my own fears will keep me tethered in my present situation.
What do I think? I think I will never love my husband the way that a woman should love her husband. I think it is impossible for me to put both feet firmly in my marriage. It is impossible for me to ever feel like my marriage is a good place to be. But I do still care about my husband. I care that he is making a genuine effort, because I believe he is finally starting to understand what he did to me for so many years. And the thought of actually sitting in front of him and telling him that I don't want to be married to him, knowing that he'll be devastated, knowing that his family will be devastated, knowing that my children will (in the short-term) feel devastated, makes me sick to my stomach. I also know that divorce is a long, painful process. It can scar everyone involved in it. And I'm scared of going through that. I'm scared of making a choice that will have so many negative consequences for so many people.

Similar lines of thinking have kept me gridlocked. In her book The Divorce Remedy, Michele Weiner-Davis talks about the Walkaway Wife Syndrome and the Anytime Midlife Crisis. She argues, much as elise's therapist, that we should give our spouses a chance to change course. The problem is that when your trust in them is so worn down, it's hard not to see the spouse's 180 as anything other than Endangered Relationship Energy.

The more I compare marriage therapy approaches, I think that there are limits to what Weiner-Davis' Solution Brief Therapy can do. Changes in interaction can change relationship dynamics, but these are modifications at the personal edges. Changes have to take place at the cores for the healing to begin. Because Schnarch's sexual crucible deals with the cores, I put more faith in it.

Schnarch has argued that marriage is an effective mechanism for fostering growth in people because it forces spouses to make tough choices and learn to self soothe. Even when things look like a marriage will fall apart, he says that this maturing can bring people back together in a more loving and intimate relationship.

He doesn't rule out divorce like Weiner-Davis, but he refuses to tell you when to get out, unless there is physical endangerment. But he says that recognizing the destructive nature of a spouse and deciding to leave is one possible outcome of the crucible. He cites as an example a passive man who realizes that his wife is a "venom spitting cobra". To get to a place where one can see the abuse, one has to become less dependent on the spouse for validation.

But what scares me more than that is the idea of being 50, 60, or 70 years old and looking back on my life and realizing that I passed up the opportunity to live an authentic, free, and happy life that I chose to avoid the temporary, but intense feelings of guilt instead of choosing a lifetime of true happiness. I would regret that in the same way I regret so many of the choices I've made leading up to today.

I've had this feeling, too, in facing my own two-choice dilemma. One of the textbook arguments used by anti-divorce advice givers is that the unhappy spouse should just buck up and wait until the kids are grown, then get out. In my case, that would put me in my mid 50s. A lot could happen by then. My father had his debilitating stroke at the age of 54. My father-in-law was 59 when he had his stroke. He'll be in the nursing home for the rest of his life. I've been a martyr and deprived myself of living for so long that I don't want to risk that fate.

In writing about two-choice dilemmas, Schnarch says that the two choices we're presented with both entail anxiety. We look at them as no-win situations, chances to make a mistake by commission or omission. The choices are exclusive, we can't choose both options.
I wish there was some magical pill I could take that would free me from the guilt, or some magical man that would move in next door to remind me every day that the life I want is passing me by. But there isn't, and everyday when I wake up there are a few minutes before I am fully awake when I feel free and happy and then, of course, I remember that I live a life in a prison of my own making. And I spend the rest of my day trying to escape. I spend the rest of my day having coffee daydreams, and reading books, and moving quickly from one task to the next just to avoid being in the present. But the problem is, if I keep doing this, then time will keep passing and I will be that 50 year old woman living a life full of nothing but regret.

Schnarch also wrote that when we claim we have no choices, we really mean there are no choices we want. We wind up dodging the dilemma, putting it off for another day. For me, it involves walking in a fog of marital ambivalence, overanalying and regretting the past or fearing the future. I used to hold out the hope that some kernel of undisputable truth would materialize to chase my anxiety away. This blog and my therapy have helped me to accept that the truth may never appear and that I will have to take a leap of faith, believing that living a life of difficult integrity will be more rewarding than a comfortable lie.

When we dodge our dilemmas, we usually wind up acting hurtfully to others in ways we might not expect. If not toward our spouse, then perhaps taking it out on the kids. The more I confront myself, I begin to realize that there is a chance my kids could become the target of my resentment later in life. When we're dodging our growth, we tend to tolerate pain more than anxiety, so it's easier for us to hate someone by attaching the blame for our unhappiness on them rather than run the risk of being hated for living an authentic life.

Something has to change, something has to happen to allow me to do what I have to do to get the happiness that I deserve because I don't believe that a life of regret is my destiny. I believe there is a better future waiting for me. I have to believe that.

Believe, elise, believe... Believe in yourself.

In her Shadows posting, she hits the nail square on the head:
I know where to find the things I long for, but instead I continue to look for my keys under the street light. I wish that someone would come along and help me find them, to take my hand and walk with me to look for them in the shadows so I don't have to do it alone. But, life doesn't always work that way. Some things you have to do alone, and I guess this is one of them.

It's okay to have the support of others when it comes to the logistics of what you do, but the decision must come from and be sustained from your own heart. If you wait for someone to hold your hand to take you there, you run the risk of putting yourself in another emotional prison. The lyrics of the Eagles song Already Gone" are quite appropriate here:
Well I know it wasn't you who held me down
Heaven knows it wasn't you who set me free
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key

The final post was on The Bridges of Madison County. The argument over male/female stereotypes misses the point, I think. The story is just an example of a two-choice dilemma, told in a way that resonates strongly with some. The point is that we can't avoid them, or the pain of choosing, if we are to grow. We have to decide for ourselves whether the grass is really greener elsewhere or if we can achieve that greenness in our own lot by turning on the sprinkler. And, yes, signing up for ChemLawn so you can seduce the delivery guy is probably a dodge of the dilemma.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Same as it Ever Was

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful Wife
And you may ask yourself - well... how did I get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the moneys gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

-- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime", Remain in Light

A couple of regular readers have asked me to write about how my wife and I came to be together.

The Short Answer: We were fixed up on a date by a mutual friend over 14 years ago.

Now for a more detailed answer, which I have been glacially slow about writing because it keeps degenerating into a biography. This post is awfully long, but I think it paints a pretty accurate picture of how things have evolved over time.

Before We Met

My wife and I grew up in the same town. She is a little less then two years younger than I am. We knew of each other when we were in high school because a friend of mine was dating her best friend, but we had no formal introduction prior to our first date.

Neither of us had much experience with dating, and we were flying blind with respect to physical affection, let alone sex. I was certainly curious about sex. Neither of my parents wanted to talk with me about sex, but my mom did give me the book Love and Sex in Plain Language just about the time I was in sixth grade. I learned about masturbation from that book and experimented with it on and off the next couple of years, having my first orgasm 24 years to the day yesterday. It scared the crap out of me when it happened, and I recall feeling very embarrassed.

I accumulated a lot of bookish knowledge during my adolescent years. I recall secretly listening to Dr. Ruth's radio call in show on Sunday nights. I also read a lot of advice articles and columns in my mom's Cosmopolitans. And then there was porn. After my parents divorced, I found my dad's stash of magazines and used them to accentuate the masturbatory experience. Over the next 12 years, masturbation would become my primary means of coping with stress, sometimes reaching compulsive levels.

I had friends in my school years, but I never had anyone I felt safe enough to talk about sexual matters with. I think this had something to do with shame because I was teased and even bullied when I was young for being both overweight and studious. I don't think I ever came to terms with my own masculinity. Disparaging comments about my father from my mother post divorce and then my own anger at him for remarrying a woman much younger than he made me think that men were primarily scum.

I went on a few dates during my high school years, but female friends tended to keep me at the "just friends" level. I had the curse of winning their mothers' approval, which probably meant that I was perceived as "safe". Girls trusted me to listen to their venting about other guys, but for the most part there wasn't any chemistry there. If there were vibes being sent my way, I wasn't picking them up. If I managed to work up the nerve to ask someone out, I usually got declined.

There was one exception. A girl whom I met in a community theater workshop that professed to have a crush on me, but she had some issues (crazy family, ill temper) that made me keep my distance except for a couple of weak moments. We wound up making out one night in the summer before my junior year, something I regretted immediately thereafter. Then later on when I was just about to graduate from college, we had an awkward attempt at a one night stand which flopped because I had performance anxiety.

Perhaps one of the most damaging things I did to myself socially was the decision to go to an all-male school for my undergraduate years. I initially chose the school because it had a sterling academic reputation and had a smaller student body. I wanted to avoid the feeling of being lost in the shuffle. Although I did well academically and grew intellectually, I had zero personal growth in opposite sex relationships. At the time of my graduation, the economy was in the midst of a recession, and hiring for B.S. degree holders in my field was very scarce. I chose to continue my studies and work toward a Ph.D.

I developed a social life with a core group of friends during my first year of graduate school, but had no success in developing chemistry with other women. The closest thing was a female classmate who offered to be "my first" while she was in a drunken state at a party. I didn't take her up on the offer, but the experience put more cracks in an already fragile sense of self.

I found myself spending my alone moments trying to avoid anxiety through masturbation. Now on my own with my own apartment, I turned to phone sex services for company. As I have mentioned in prior postings, I now realize I chose this medium because it gave me a (albeit fake) sense validation from feminine approval without the fear of rejection. In many instances, about 3/4 of the time I spent on these calls did not involve explicit sexual language. Rather, it was an attempt to forge some sort of connection with the person.

Dating and Cohabitation

As I was finishing up my first year of graduate school, the woman who would become my wife was finishing up her third year of college. We were both still in close contact with the mutual friend, and because both of us had complained that we were not having any success in the dating world, the friend offered to set us up on a date. The downside of the date was that it would entail a long-distance relationship. She was spending the summer in my hometown, while I was still in graduate school doing research. The trip home was over 200 miles, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

The first date was dinner and a movie. We had a good time, and we agreed to set up a date a couple weeks later. Over the course of the summer we were seeing each other about every other weekend and talking nightly on the phone. I think that the joy of just finally having someone to spend time with overrode any real quest to find things in common.

Still having little experience at the time, I was a slow mover when it came to displays of affection. The first kiss was a goodnight kiss at the end of a date about a month into the relationship. It was a quick peck on the lips, and it took me every ounce of fortitude I could muster to risk that.

It took several more months for the relationship to become more physical, and that was not without anxiety on her end. The first few times that the making out started to get intense, she got sick to her stomach, something she finally resolved by taking motion sickness pills.

Things started getting more serious as the holiday season approached. By this time, we were engaging in sexual activity (me giving her oral, she masturbating me). We didn't have intercourse until around six months into the relationship. It was the first time for both of us.

The intensity of the relationship made the four hour drive back home tolerable, but I knew it was not sustainable. I also knew she was having financial troubles and still wanted to go back to school. Her other best friend had just moved several hundred miles away, so she was feeling very alone. So in the spring of 1993 (about nine months into the relationship), I asked her to move up with me. She did just that.

I took care of the day-to-day expenses with my stipend, and I had her channel her paycheck into paying off her credit cards. Then in the fall of 1993, she enrolled in some courses at the regional campus of a state university so that she could resume her education. She got better grades and was enjoying the personal attention of the smaller campus.

We were having sex two or three times a week at the time. In addition, I was masturbating daily and still used porn magazines as part of the activity. She did not know about the phone sex activity, which had become rare after we started dating.

As the year came to an end, my Ph.D. candidacy drew near. I was very stressed about this because it involved drawing up a proposal and defending it. The pain level wasn't quite that of a dissertation, but it was much more involved than a master's thesis. Since she was at class and work most of the time, I had time to myself, so I started turning to the phone sex services again.

Even after I passed my candidacy, I continued to rely on the phone sex services, racking up a few thousand dollars on my credit card. In the fall of 1994, shortly after we moved to a bigger apartment, my wife found the credit card statements, and she burst into tears. I went into therapy and a 12-step program for sexual compulsion.

I ratcheted back on my sexual activity in a major way. At this point, I was refraining from any solo sexual activity, and my wife became understandably quite icy for a few months, but it looked as if healing was taking place.

Just before Christmas of that year, I proposed to her on the snowy shores of Lake Michigan at sunset, one of the romantic places we liked to go together. She accepted enthusiastically. We set a wedding date in the spring of 1996. Sex started to return to our lives, happening three or four times a month. At the time, I was so scared of my eroticism that the sex became very bland. Moreover, because I was no longer masturbating, I wasn't as desensitized, so I reached climax very quickly. My wife seemed relieved at this because said she didn't like having long sessions of intercourse.

I achieved nine months of sexual sobriety and learned some things about myself from the therapy. But as I drew near to the end of my fourth year of graduate school, I had another onslaught of anxiety.

First, I had a setback in my academic work. I was beginning to believe that the thrust of my work, using a particular area of mathematics to solve certain types of equations, would not yield the results that mathematicians had speculated. I wrote a paper that tried to make the case for my point, but it was rejected for publication.

Another problem was that I was worried that my thesis adviser would cut me off from funding. Over the years I had worked under him, I had seen how he had mistreated other students, and I was fearful that I would fall on his disfavored list.

Finally, I saw that classmates were having troubles finding jobs because of a Ph.D. glut. The wedding date was about six months away, and we were going to pay for it by ourselves. She wanted a big traditional wedding, so the bills were starting to rack up.

I kept a lot of the stress inside, and I didn't handle it well. I had a relapse and started calling the phone sex services again. In December of 1995, I decided to cut my losses and take a job with a software company a few hours away. My fiancee moved with me and wound up getting a job with the same company a few months later.

Marriage and Children

Phone sex and porn usage aside, the next biggest stressor on our sex life was the struggle over whether to have children and then the quest to have them.

We were married in the spring of 2006. The wedding went off without a hitch, and it turned out to be a pretty good time, even if it was expensive. The honeymoon, a cruise in the Bahamas, was enjoyable, but the sex just wasn't there. We had intercourse once, and she wasn't really into that.

My wife worked in the company's customer service department and had a lot of interaction with the sales department, both of which had a large population of child bearing age women. A good number of those women either got pregnant or gave birth during our first year. My wife, who was 25 at the time, started to get the maternal urge.

During pre-marital counseling, we had talked about whether we wanted children. I was against having them because my own experiences of having to raise my brother after my parents' divorce biased me against wanting to go through something like that again. She said that she did't want any, either, and was happy being an aunt to her two nephews.

Upon hearing that she had shifted her position, I resisted. With the news of coworkers and then friends having babies, she started to get more emotional about the issue. She went off the pill. Even after she found out about my relapse from a couple years earlier, she remained steadfast in her desire to be a mother. Her comments became increasingly spiteful of me. Sex dwindled to once or twice a month, and I refused to do it without protection. That made her angrier. By the time that her best friend had her child in the spring of 1999, she was saying that she was thinking about divorcing me if I remained steadfast over not wanting to have children.

We did both joint and individual counseling on the issue. I was already back in therapy anyway for my relapse, anyway. I agreed to reach a decision by the end of 1999. During those six months, I went into a period of self-confrontation, probably something similar to the crucible that Schnarch describes. I faced down my anxieties over parenthood and came to terms with the fact that I couldn't not eliminate the uncertainties that came with the role. At the beginning of 2000, I agreed to start trying once we finished paying off the debt management program (a combination of my phone sex charges, the cost of the wedding, and her student loans). That would be May of 2001. In reality, we started having unprotected sex a few months before that.

My wife was 30 by the time we started trying to get pregnant, and she was on a mission. We had sex a couple of times a month, namely when the fertility monitor said so. We did this for about a year with no success. Her gynecologist suggested that I have my sperm count checked. The results were shocking. My count was about 1/20th of a normal male. We got referred to a fertility specialist, which thankfully enough was covered by our health insurance.

The fertility specialist determined that we would need to do in vitro fertilization with ICSI. So we proceeded with that in the spring of 2002. We harvested and fertilized a batch of eggs and did two transfers that did not take.

By the summer of 2002, my wife was desperate. She decided that we should go the adoption route, so we got in touch with an agency in town. We did a home study and went on the active list. The plan we signed up for left us was one of the least restrictive with regards to race, so the waiting time was much shorter what most people wait for a birth mother lead.

She targeted her expectations toward the shorter period of the waiting range described in the literature and was convinced that we'd be getting a phone call any day then. It was hard to see her go through the emotional ups and downs, and I tried to gently temper her expectations by saying that things might not always proceed as swiftly as she imagined. Her responses ranged from irritable to hostile.

In reality, it took us more on the longer end of the waiting period, which was six months. The birth mother who picked us wasn't due for another couple months. Again, my wife was just certain that she would deliver early. In reality, our first daughter was born on the due date.

About nine months after our first daughter was born, she started talking about wanting to try IVF again. We still had some attempts available on our insurance, so we decided to give it another try. We did another batch of eggs and this time the first attempt worked. Our second daughter was born in February 2005, a couple weeks early, but healthy nonetheless.

The Growing Sex Debate

As 2001 passed, I held out hope that our sex life would go through a renewal. I had been free of sexually clandestine behavior for over five years. The financial aftermath of that activity was finally cleaned up with the completion of the debt management program. We had achieved closure on the issue of children, and we were making progress toward having them. I held out hope that her interest in sex would renew with the onset of her 30s. One of her friends, who was approaching 40 herself, said that she had gone through a similar awakening. Yet, it wasn't happening.

We took a vacation at the beginning of 2002, and it was a nice getaway. Time alone like this has a way of rekindling passion, but we had sex only once during that trip. She resisted a second attempt later in the week and when I asked her what was going on, she said that she felt like she was being pressured. At the end of the conversation, I told her that to relieve the pressure, I was going to refrain from initiating. I held true to my word, not once attempting to start intercourse over the passage of four years.

When I entered into that moratorium, sex was happening about once or twice a month. This was after she had found out it was darned near impossible for us to conceive by regular means. By the time we started doing the second round of IVF, sex was a quarterly offering. The quality of the act had regressed, too. Not only was it as bland as ever, it was absent any emotional presence from her. She didn't want foreplay and just laid there. Pregnancy just made it worse. How bad? I couldn't sustain an erection and would eventually give up out of frustration. Between June 2005 and January 2006, the only orgasms I had were from rare solo activity in the shower.

During this time, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. We had been through an emotional meat grinder with the IVF and adoption. We also had gone through several losses between 2001 and 2005. Just after we finalized the adoption of our first daughter, her brother died from a rare blood infection. She also lost two aunts, one in an SUV wreck and the other from a heart attack. I lost relatives on my side of the family, too, including two grandmothers and a stepgrandfather. For several months, we had provided lodging for her financially troubled sister and her son as they tried to make a new start in town. Her best friend had a miscarriage. I could see where she might be stretched thin.

However, I was neglecting my needs by trying to rationalize this away. I still had lingering shame about my sexuality. I felt resentment towards my wife and began to wonder if she was really in love with her best friend, who lived just five minutes away. We had moved to that area in 2000 and picked the location because it was so close.

That move really signified the beginning of distance between us because she was starting to do everything with her best friend. Moreover, we did so many things with her and her husband (e.g. dinners together several times a week were the norm), it almost seemed as if we were one family. I remember feeling this very strongly when my wife sent me an e-mail saying that she wanted us to consider moving to a new subdivision where her best friend was planning on building.

For much of 2005, I was starting to think whether I should just look elsewhere while still maintaining the semblance of a marriage. I tried telling her about my unhappiness, but she thought it was because I was depressed. When she offered her quarterly duty sex in October 2005, I was so angry with her I turned it down.

I made one final push to rekindle things in 2006. By then I had changed jobs from my five year telecommuting position to a real office job, so we weren't around each other all day. I took weekly ballroom dancing lessons with her. Sex reappeared, and it started to happen every few weeks for three months, but then it dwindled again with the onset of summer. When we had intercourse only once during our kid free vacation at the end of May, I realized that things were heading for the worse. It seemed like she was starting to get herself involved in other things just to avoid being available. A couple months later, the initial posts on PForum started to appear. The rest of the story is chronicled in this weblog.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Eros Shrugged

Tom Allen responds with a good comment, from which I have pulled the following excerpt:

Please note that I'm not calling Scnarch's approach into question; I'm calling your application therof into question.

I'm not hammering on you, BTW, and I admit that I may be missing something in all this. It just seems to me that in setting a goal or target for yourself - without informing your wife of the target or the consequences for not meeting them - then the two of you are not (and I return to the same expression) playing the same game. While you may call this "pushing your partner to violate her integrity by accomodating you", I'd say that your partner certainly needs to be presented with the option in the first place so she could evaluate it and determine:

a) whether she was actually violating her integrity, or

b) whether the consequences might not be worth an examination and reevaluation of her own goals and targets.

And again, I just want to reiterate that a relationship implies some degree of mutual accomdation; but let's not confuse healthy accomdation with unhealthy fusion. A healthy individual should (IMO) be constantly questioning his own integrity with regard to accomodation and fusion. "Am I giving in to avoid a fight?" or "Am I doing something I hate so I can get laid later on?" or "Am I doing this because I know it makes her happy and it's not really a big deal to me?" are examples of this. Elsewise, the Schnarch philosophy could be misconstrued to be an emotional "Ayn Rand-ianism".

One side note... you're always welcome to disagree with my points in this space. It's good that you've brought these things up because they make me go back to primary sources to see if I may be distorting things.

I'll address your comment from two angles. The first is a recap of personal experience, and the second will use quotations from Passionate Marriage to support my current approach.

Although I have not made my wife aware of the deadline that I set for myself back in August, I believe that there is an understanding that our marriage might be at stake. I'll pull together several snapshots from the past that support this.

The following quoted passage is taken from my account of a conversation I had with my wife in mid-July this year regarding the sexual distancing behavior she was exhibiting.
I told her that I believed she needed to get some help to begin that journey of discovery because I didn't think she could fully enjoy sex until she had the knowledge of what she wanted and was willing to let go.

She started crying. I asked her why she was crying. She said she didn't know. We had been down this road before, and I refused to let myself be baffled by it this time. I paused, and I said to her that I knew I was going to sound insensitive about this, but I was at a point where I couldn't take "I don't know" for an answer.

She said it would be be hard and embarrassing to go to therapy. I told her that many years ago, I agreed to seek counseling when she thought I had sexual compulsion issues, and I spent many an hour talking about sexual issues in front of a therapist.

I reminded her that several years ago, she staked the future of our marriage on whether I wanted to have children, and I went through a lot of counseling to come to terms with the fears I had about parenthood. I told her I felt that this issue needed to be addressed if we wanted to preserve this marriage. I said that I looked at the statistics for marriages with low sexual activity and mismatched drives, and they were grim.

By early August, we were into marriage counseling, and the third session was a rocky one, because I felt as if the therapist was allowing my wife to turn the tables and put the blame wholly on me. My wife sensed that I was close to the brink and sent me a couple IMs to me at work the next day. I didn't respond to the first one. The second one said:
wife: since we can't seem to talk right now face to face, i would like to remind you that approx 3 weeks when you spoke with me you said you would be patient. that we would work through this together. i am not getting the impression that you want to be patient. i have done everything so far that you have asked me, joint therapy and i am doing individual, and i am making an effort to read the 5 love languange book. I wouldn't typically say this during work but then at least i know you are listening. i am trying, please don't give up on us, i haven't.

During the fifth counseling session, she said that she had at times considered divorce.
My wife relented and said quietly that she had considered divorce several times over the past year. She said she wanted me to feel safe to turn to someone to talk about these things.

The admission that she, too, had thought of divorce, was big.

I asked her what kept her from threatening it or following through with it, and she said she didn't like the thought of having to raise the kids alone. I told her that even if we did split up that I would retain an active role as a father. She said that even with that, in reality she would have to do 90 % of the effort.

All of the events above occurred prior to my entry into the Schnarchian growth cycle.
Then in October, when I gave her the letter on what I had learned about our finances, her first reaction was to ask me if I wanted a divorce.
Shortly after getting out of bed, she asked me what I had been doing in the middle of the night. I told her that I was writing something that attempted to express my feelings to her. I didn't want to dodge the topic any more, so I told her that she could read the text herself right away if she wanted to. She asked me whether it was going to ruin her day or make her cry. I told her that I didn't think it would.

She also asked me whether I was asking for a divorce. The thought of divorce must have been on her mind, given that the best friend who set us up on a date over 14 years ago was separating with her husband of 12 years starting this weekend. I told her "no", and handed the papers over to her.

Now let's move on to passages from Schnarch that I believe support my approach. The first comes from Chapter 12, when he discusses the nature of the growth cycle. Boldface emphasis is mine.
Basically, constructing your crucible involves extracting your unresolved personal issues embedded in your gridlocked situation and confronting them as an act of integrity. You do this unilaterally, without counting on your partner to do likewise, and without getting lost in what he is or isn't doing. Sometimes this involves owning up to your projections, even when your partner doesn't reciprocate. You focus on yourself instead of "working on your relationship" or trying to change your partner. You stop trying to make your partner listen, validate, or accept you; you listen to yourself. It's not easy, but this act of integrity is possible when you let the best in you run the show. (Schnarch, p. 334)

The second quotation comes from Chapter 13, where Schnarch talks about what induces the growth cycle, a process he calls reaching critical mass. One of the hallmarks of critical mass is a independence upon ultimatums.
Ultimatums are rare. People avoiding self-confrontation push their marriages into crises all the time. Yelling and screaming to intimidate others is one way to hide fear of losing control of the situation. There is no need to issue threats and ultimatums if you are serious -- and it's a foolish strategy if you're not: ultimatums are only binding on the person who issues them. If you don't follow through on your ultimatum when your partner does not comply, you violate your integrity -- and your partner knows you are not serious. People who issue frequent ultimatums have little integrity. Those who want to keep their integrity and their marriage intact settle down when they arrive at critical mass. (Schnarch, p. 371)

The process of self-confrontation is supposed to help you become aware of how you contribute to the negative dynamics of the relationship and decide what a "solid yet permeable self" looks like in your situation.

I have decided that if the state of our relationship at the deadline requires too much permeability from me, then I will need to withdraw from the relationship in a way that is both respectful to my wife as a separate human being and mindful of the well being of my children. That might be the only thing that can push my wife toward her own growth cycle, given that my invitations to have a dialogue, or at least learn more about me, have been met with some lip service and little action.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

How Would I Respond if Learned My Wife Was Having an Affair

Elise writes in a comment:
I think that your wife having an EMR of her own is a good possibility that you should explore. How would you feel if that were true?

This is a good question. Although it's impossible to predict what my true feelings would be in that situation, I am going to say that I would actually feel a sense of relief.

At the beginning of Chapter 9 of Passionate Marriage, Schnarch recalls a session with a young married couple, Stan and Florence. One of their conflicts centered on Stan's admission that he thought of other women during sex. Florence responded with indignation. Stan countered that everyone does it. He accused Florence of doing it. At first she denies it, and then backpedals a bit. Stan gets really angry about this.

Schnarch cools Stan down by asking him, "If you believed what you said when you insisted that Florence thought about other partners too, why are you so upset when she finally agrees with you." (Schnarch, p. 241) Stan replies saying, "I guess I wanted to believe her denials. I knew she must do it, but hearing it confirmed makes me feel insecure." (Schnarch, p. 242)

Schnarch then goes on to say that we may state our desires for fidelity in terms of the commandment about not coveting a neighbor's spouse. In reality, we're usually thinking in terms of idolatry. Our spouses are supposed to "worship" only us.

Although Schnarch was talking about where our minds are during sex when he wrote about that, his question to Stan generalizes well. Having struggled with the longings myself and having read about other's struggles, I can empathize readily. There is no room for indignation if I were to learn that my wife was having an EMR.

Simply put, I'm at a point where my desire for truth outweighs my narcissism.

Resolving a Paradox

Tom Allen comments:
And here's where I disagree with the Schnarch-ness of what you're doing: Yes, on one level you do not want to violate her integrity by making her do things for you. OTOH, a relationship implies mutual accomodation; it seems that you're secretly hoping that she just gives you more ammunition in order to justify your leaving.

To my way of thinking, the more honest approach would be to tell her your own feelings on the situation ("It makes me unhappy that you would stop therapy, because I don't think that we'll be able to fix things on our own. Or because it makes me feel like fixing our relationship is not as important to you as it is to me, and that makes me feel nervous and vulnerable."), because without some resonable expectation of accomodation, then neither of you are playing the same game.

Tom brings up a good point, and upon first glance, it would seem that Schnarch's approach is either insane or sneakily manipulative. I'm going to pull out a couple of excerpts from Passionate Marriage that I think illustrate the motivation for not applying pressure on my wife.
Fusion fantasies and indirect self-acceptance make intimacy -- meaning other-validated intimacy -- the contemporary Holy Grail. In truth, we've embraced a Siamese twin model of intimacy. The image of two people fused at the hip captures the essence of emotional fusion, as well as our common approach to intimacy. Think about how you would treat a Siamese twin. Every single movement would require consensus. If you didn't have your own twin's validation and acceptance, you'd be in deep... well, let's just say you wouldn't want to frighten or anger your twin. Reciprocity would be the Golden Rule. Empathy wouldn't be a choice. You'd be constantly aware of the tremendous impact your partner could have on you, even by doing self-destructive things
The same emotional fusion that underlies our Siamese twin model of intimacy shows up in the familiar "we're in the same boat" notion of marriage. This idea gives a false sense of security because once you believe you're in the same boat, the next question is who's going to steer?! When you think you're cast adrift with a lunatic -- because your partner sees things differently than you -- your likely to try pummeling him/her into steering the direction you want to go. But when you realize spouses are always in two separate boats -- and could sail in opposite directions (unless one grabs all the "supplies") -- you're more likely to be kind and friendly to your fellow captain. (Schnarch, pp. 108 - 109)

and later on when he talks about two-choice dilemmas:
Such dilemmas arise from our human nature: we are fundamentally separate life forms who value both attachment and autonomy. In Chapter 4, we unmasked the illusionary notion of "being in the same boat." Once you realize you and your partner are in two separate "boats," you understand the nature of your dilemma: you want to steer your own boat and your partner's, too. We call this "togetherness" -- as long as you are steering for both of you. When your partner does the same thing, however, it's called "control." If you want both absolute certainty of your partner's course and certainty that you're not controlling him or her. You've just run into a two-choice dilemma. (Schnarch, p. 297)

By making it very clear that the ball is in her court without issuing warnings of consequences, I am choosing the latter option of the two boat dilemma. I am acknowledging the separateness of her boat and giving her the option of steering it in the direction that aligns with her true self. From that, I must decide whether I will go the same course under free will or go my own way altogether.

A cynic might call that "loading up on ammunition", but it is not my goal to seek war against her. I want a peaceful parting should it happen. I will not make a mad dash for the "supplies", and even if she decides to make war on me, I will not retaliate in kind.

Schnarch says that fusion within a marriage leads to a state of emotional gridlock, where couples aren't able to disclose themselves. At that point, Schnarch says one of the four things will happen (Schnarch, pp. 118 - 119):

  1. Push your parnter to violate himself/herself by accommodating you.

  2. Turn yourself over to your partner by accommodating him or her.

  3. Separate emotionally or physically.

  4. Confront yourself and become more differentiated.

If I were to state my potential reaction to what I would consider an unfavorable outcome, I would be following option (1). By taking the Dr. Laura route of playing sports and waiting until the kids are grown, I would be following option (2). Going straight to divorce or an EMR, I would be choosing option (3). My therapy and this blog are an attempt to choose (4), and the fruit of those labors was the differentiated thoughts posting.

Why do I put so much weight on Schnarch's writings? There are two good ones:

  1. Nothing else I've tried has worked.

  2. I've seen strong echoes of the dysfunctions he describes in my own marriage.

Pulling another paragraph from Schnarch:
Expecting trust, validation, and shared reality only encourages fights about "what really happened." If you and your partner are constantly fighting about "reality", you're probably dependent on other-validated intimacy and you're really arguing about whose reality will become the dominant reality and whose anxieties will prevail.

You can see this kind of reality clash occurring as recently as the mercy fuck conflict from a couple weeks ago. She's used to fighting the reality dominance war and has become quite adept at using both table turning and emotional fragility as weapons. Audrey, the woman in Chapter 12 of Schnarch, used a lot of the same kinds of techniques to bludgeon her husband Peter into accepting her reality.

By refusing to fight the reality war any more and by stating my beliefs without expectation of validation, I am becoming more differentiated.

That's the basis for my actions. If I have misunderstood the nature of your comment, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Most Bizarre Rejection Notice I've Ever Encountered

After a little over a month of no followup on that job lead (scroll to the paragraph that starts with "I got a call back from a recruiter") for which I took two online exams, I decided to get in touch with the recruiter who had contacted me regarding the position. When I reached her by phone on Tuesday, she said she had heard nothing from the client but would get back with me. Here is the e-mail message I received from her this morning.
From: (headhunter's name removed)
To: (2amsomewhere)
Subject: RE: following up on Friday's C++ exam
Date: Wed, 20 Dec 2006 09:24:43 -0500

I finally got word back from (company name removed). They are definitely interested but right now they are really looking for stronger C++ developers. They would like to consider you once they find that person. She asked me to keep touching base with her periodically and remind her to continue asking for feedback.

I guess that is good and bad news!!!

Ain't that some of the most contorted HRspeak you've ever seen?

The Anonoymous Friend Clarifies

In a reply from the anonymous commenter we read:
You and your wife are at a point in your marriage where you are resenting each other breathing air, let alone, picking apart every word and action you each make. It's a normal progression of a marriage. There's a few choices to make -- fix the marriage and move on; get a divorce; take on a lover.

Note: There's some variations on this theme in the prior posting.

Fixing the marriage is probably too ambitious of a goal because there isn't consensus on how it's broken, and it's becoming increasingly clear that not only does she reject my viewpoint, she doesn't want to offer up a coherent viewpoint of her own. Without that, there really can't be talk of a compromise. The closest thing to a "fix", I think, would be for me to give up what I want altogether. I've developed too much of a backbone to settle for that anymore.

So that leaves divorce or EMR. Discovery of an EMR would not be well received, I believe. If the mere thought of me having erotic phone conversations with anonymous women twelve years ago made her sick to her stomach, just imagine what an IRL situation would do?

Further bolstering my case against an EMR would be the remark she made to me earlier this year when she found out one of her best friends had busted her husband in an EMR of his own. She told me that if I ever wanted to do something like that, I should just tell her right away so she could leave me then.

For as much anxiety and shame as it brings about, seeking a divorce seems to be the least awful of the list.
Now... the question I posed to you is exactly what I asked... Is it possible that SHE has a lover?

Before you close your eyes, shake your head voraciously and shout No, No, not her!! Just think about it. Don't get angry about it, just think about it.

When a person is unhappy with another, they close this emotional door to them slowly. However, most times, we'll open that door to someone else and are vulnerable to having feelings for someone that acts just a little bit more happy to see us.

Now please, I have no idea about you or your wife, I'm just talking out of my ass here.. but I'm talking about my life, as a woman who had severe marital trouble, an affair (or two) and somehow figured out what happened. I can tell you I have not had an emr in many years. Not for lack of suitors ;p... just hasn't happened.

What I'm saying, is I've been there where I was unhappy at home, but had a great lover, so I didn't mind being home, and I didn't care whether I was nice to the H or not. He, his opinions, and his bullshit really had no effect on me whatsoever. He just needed to be home to babysit and take out the garbage, as far as I was concerned.

I was getting my emotional needs met elsewhere (and physical).

soooooo.... is that a possibility?

(pauses to reflect)

OK, now I understand what you were trying to say.

Given the circumstances, I would have to say "yes, it is a possibility." The only thing that made me discount it was a matter of timing. She gets out of the house a lot, but I've never been the type to demand a full accounting of where she's been or what she's done.

But she has a few friends who might be able to help her (wittingly or unwittingly) with the logistics of having a lover while being a mostly SAHM. But on further reflection, there have been a lot of weekends where she takes shopping trips that she says will take x amount of hours and it winds up being sometimes as much as twice as long.

If she is getting her needs met elsewhere, that's fine with me. I would just be grateful if she could level with me that this is how she wants it to be, because then I could make my choices with concrete information. I don't think I would go off on the paths of overanalysis had I had a clearer understanding of what was going on.

Thank you for offering your comments. This blog has thickened my skin and thinned my skull, so I can handle blunter remarks better than I used to. I have learned a lot from my readers.

Maybe I Need a Blue Ribbon Panel for This?

Anais writes:
At one time I felt as though I should remind you that when the deadline you set for yourself arrives, you are allowed to decide to give yourself an extension of time (and not make a decision or take any immediate action). However, having read what Sophia wrote makes me want to root for you to leave your wife as soon after your deadline as you can. But yeah . . . you have eight more weeks to try to make a go of things with your wife. And she may surprise you yet. Good luck to you, whatever happens.

You're right. My deadline is a little under 56 days and 16 hours away. I also agree that I shouldn't give myself an extension because that's just dragging out a choice I've long been avoiding.

The comments from Sophia , the Drunken Housewife, and you have led me to a state of resignation. Sometimes even changing yourself isn't enough.

When your spouse isn't interested in hearing what you have to say or reading what you write and shuts down any attempts to open a dialogue on change, that's a good sign that he or she is not only happy with the way things are. He or she wouldn't have it any other way. At that point, maybe giving up on the marriage and moving on is the thing to do because what the other spouse wants really isn't a marriage after all.

The decision is not final, but it's enough to start sketching out the exit strategy. The pressure is on me because not only am I working against a "defecate or abdicate" deadline on the marriage, I'm trying to decide what to do about employment options. To me those decisions have some degree of overlap.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2am Responds to Differentiated Thoughts Critique

An anonymous commenter left a response to the the list of differentiated thoughts.

I agree with much of what she has to say, but I wanted to offer up a few notes to clarify my intentions and to get a better understanding of what she had to say.

First, the statements that begin with "It was wrong..." are my attempts to own up to mistakes that I made this summer in trying to raise issues of sexuality with my wife.

You asked:
Why are you heading to the vows?

This summer, I wrongly invoked a reference to our wedding vows because I was taking the view that wedding vows were a promise of monogamy to one another. In a fused relationship such as mine, that promise took on the form of a mental shackle which fueled my resentment against her. I've since learned to take a view of monogamy as a promise to one's self, and that both my wife and I have a choice to decide whether we want to remain under this arrangement. Withdrawing from a marriage may be difficult, but the choice is there. I was being a martyr by acting as if divorce would be an unspeakable act.

You posed an interesting question to me.
The question you need to ask yourself is... is she just as unhappy as you? Or is her world just fine with a lover in it?

The unhappy question is a good one. I am trying to become aware of her unhappiness, inviting (but not demanding) her to open up to me, to let me know how I might contribute to that unhappiness. The second part of your question perplexes me though. What do you mean by her world being "just fine with a lover in it"? Could you please explain that a bit further?

Finally, I wanted to clarify what I mean by integrity in this statement:
By all of this, I was expecting her to act in a way that was not in accordance with whom she really is, thereby compromising her personal integrity.

When I use the word integrity on this blog, I'm not talking about it in a moral sense. In this context, I mean when someone's actions are in agreement with whom they are. Invoking the wedding vows as I did this past summer was an attempt to challenge her moral integrity (bad). Acknowledging her boundaries and saying that she has a right to her own sexual preferences is an act of respect for her action/being integrity (good).

No need to apologize for posting your thoughts. This is a place where I'm trying to confront myself, and the challenges of commenters help me to see other perspectives and let go of distortions that keep me from growing. Please do come back.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lyrical Insight on Integrity

One of the concepts that gets chewed on from time to time in this blog is integrity, which in this context is defined as the alignment between what one is and what one does. I tend to think of it as a form of honesty about one's self. It comes up in my therapy work because I am questioning whether my past actions were more about keeping others happy than being true to myself.

The songwriters of country music seem to have a profound gift for twisting metaphors and cliches into something new and profound. I heard the song "In State" by Kathleen Edwards while driving to work today, and one of the lines made me think really hard.
You wouldn't even be yourself if you weren't telling a lie

This assertion challenges my thinking on integrity because Edwards claims the person about whom she is singing has dishonesty so ingrained into his nature that he could not possibly be true to whom he is and tell the truth at the same time. Integrity is fundamentally unachievable because honesty is a betrayal of himself.

This inspires a couple of affirmations for me to use:

  • Needless anxiety keeps me from being true to myself.

  • I believe I can be honest if I don't let the wounded part of me run the show.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Feeling Blue Today

It's been a quiet day today. We were supposed to have a gathering for my side of the family at our house, but because three of the kids who would have been there are stricken with illnesses, we made the decision to postpone yesterday evening.

I've been in a blue frame of mind the past few days, and I don't like it because I believe it's the wounded side of me talking. I feel trapped and gridlocked.

The recent developments at work have been occupying my thoughts a lot. To my credit, I refreshed my resume at the major job boards and set up a few automated search agents (including one for technical writer, in case you're wondering DH).

The mercy fuck clash from earlier last week was a downer, too. She hasn't cracked open the copy of Schnarch that I offered to her on Tuesday night. I had asked her to read a couple of chapters to help clarify what I was trying to express in the list of thoughts. The book will probably sit next to Weiner-Davis' The Sex Starved Marriage, which is forever bookmarked somewhere near the end if the first third of the book. That's her choice. I have to live with it.

I also worked some on that historical posting I promised a couple weeks ago. Retracing the past hasn't helped my spirits much, either.

I am approaching a crossroads, and I don't know what shape the future will take. The Weiner-Davis/Schlessinger last resort (stay in the marriage, smile, give up the sex, and pick up a hobby) is no more practical than a celibate priesthood (apologies to the Catholic faithful). The "alternative arrangement" suggested by the Drunken Housewife is probably a non-starter given the way that my wife spoke the phrase, "It sounds like you want to go out and have sex with a hooker," on Tuesday night.

The desperately insane side of me toys with the idea of just shaking up my whole life by moving out on my own, seeking an amicable mediated divorce, and taking a job someplace on the coasts, where there are many more jobs for my skill set and the salaries are 1 1/2 - 2 times what I make here. I'm a low maintenance person, so even with the higher cost of living, it might be possible for me to support both my family and myself on my income.

Today, my wife asked me to write some notes in the Christmas cards that were to be sent to my old high school and college friends. I've never been big on year-in-review form letters, preferring personalized messages. It was torture for me to come up with things to say because I feel like so much of what is going on with me can't yet be shared with the world. Indeed, the very thought of announcing a pending change in marital status to friends is a source of anxiety.

I've started reading Flow, a book recommended to me by an insightful commenter writing under the nomme de net of sixdegrees. I think the book is going to be very helpful in the next phase of my therapy, which involves moving beyond the dissatisfaction of the past and present. Expect some posts on it in the days to come.

I'm heading off to bed. I need to regroup emotionally and prepare to face my anxieties with the conviction that I've got what it takes to weather them. I've come too far to lose hope now.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

More Work Stress

On Thursday afternoon, the other developer informed me that the Executive Vice President, who is also one of the company's founders, planned to resign her post that afternoon. He said she was taking on a contract position elsewhere. It was unclear whether she was retaining her stake in the company. The announcement got postponed until Friday. Then on Friday, it got postponed yet again since our CEO stayed home due to illness.

The EVP's departure is not a good omen. The two remaining founders -- the CEO and CTO -- are the less disciplined members of the team. I believe that they are banking the future on whether they can get a deal with the client for whom they prepared a demo last week. That puts my development efforts in limbo. I believe my job search just transitioned from feelers to pavement pounding.

Soothing comes hard at times like this. I must improve my resilience.

Friday, December 15, 2006

How Do You Detect "Mercy"?

John raises a good question in the comments:
"I just wanted to be with you, and you didn't seem to be initiating sex lately."

OK, I give kudos for the ability to have what, from this entry, sounds like a productive and difficult conversation. But the above quote just doesn't strike me as the language of someone initiating a mercy fuck. Particularly because she saids she wanted to be with you. She didn't say "You must be horny" or "I know you want it" or something more along those lines. I'm curious if there was something else that clued you into feeling it was a mercy fuck.

It was a mixture of factors.

Words and Actions Did Not Agree: After my wife got home from dance class with the kids on Tuesday night, she told me about a conversation she had with some other dance class moms regarding how much their husbands do for them in terms of taking care of the kids, cooking, cleaning, and such. She said that all the moms were "wanting me" because I did a lot more than their husbands did. She then said she wanted to "spend some time alone" with me that night. After I put the kids to bed at 9 p.m., she vegged in front of the TV with her laptop for another two and a half hours. She didn't express a desire to interact with me until right before bedtime. During this time, I was doing nothing other than reading a book. I was in the same room as her, and I made sure that I was nowhere near a computer. I was making myself readily available to her without moping around like I wanted her to have sex with me.

Now compare that behavior with past history. When we were discussing sex this summer, she said that she would be more receptive to sex if it took place when she was less worn out. That is, sometime after the kids were put to bed at 9 p.m. rather than just before she went to bed, which was usually sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight. It has also been past experience where she will talk about having sex later on and then decide at bedtime that she's too tired or has lost the mood, so I was prepared for that to happen again. I thought it would stand to reason that if she was serious about what she was saying, she would have made her move earlier rather than later.

She Exhibited Avoidance When I Asked to be Pleasured
: Assertiveness has been a problem for me in the bedroom. I've always been generous about pleasuring but uncomfortable about asking to be pleasured. During the last few encounters, I have been trying to take a more active role in asking for it, starting with something that isn't too difficult. If I'm not at full erection during foreplay, I ask her to pleasure me with her hands.

I've tried this with three different approaches: a polite request, assertive role play, and an a direct expression of desire. Her response one time was that she wasn't sure how much longer her mood would last, so she just wanted to get on with the intercourse. The second time, she said she was losing the mood, sounding as if she was getting bored. The third time, she just caressed my thighs, coming nowhere near the groin.

I could understand why she might have issues with oral sex, but stimulation by the hands seems like something pretty down to earth. If she can't get past that threshold, then there isn't much that she can do in terms of direct pleasuring. Because at one time earlier in our relationship she had been able to do this, I interpret this as a form of withholding.

Her Defensive Reaction Seemed to be Out Of Proportion: When I realized that she was avoiding my request to be pleasured, I asked her in a calm, measured, and concerned tone whether the request was causing anxiety in her. She immediately broadened the scope of the query to all instances, and answered, "sometimes it does." Then rather than risk vulnerability in discussing her anxiety with me openly, she changed the subject with a guilt inducing tone:
I just wanted to be with you, and you didn't seem to be initiating sex lately.

Translation: "I'm doing you a favor, so you should be grateful."

In Schnarch's view, mercy fucking has two aspects: withholding and anxiety redirection. In a fused relationship, the mercy fucker can toy with the partner's reflected sense of self and make that person settle for half-hearted sex. It is an act of differentiation to decline a mercy fuck because it shows that you won't tolerate sexual slacking.

Chapter 11 of Passionate Marriage contains a story about a couple (Peter and Audrey) where the wife acts out the same kind of anxiety redirecting tactics on her passive husband. It allowed her to avoid admitting that the real reason she didn't want to have sex with her husband: she didn't respect him because he was so passive. Audrey developed this kind of dysfunction as a child, dealing with a mother who refused to be confronted with her undependability. I believe my wife developed similar skills in dealing with her father, who refused to be confronted for his dishonest treatment of family members. The pattern is to change the subject and then put the other side on the defensive.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another Definition of Differentiation of Self

This little idea has been bouncing around in my head. I'm still not happy with the way it is phrased, so I may post revisions in the future.
Differentiation of self is when you let go of the hatred that you have projected onto those for whom you sacrificed in the past and then summon the courage to risk the hatred of others by being true to yourself in the present and future.

Feel free to post your own phrasings. I won't hate you for it. ;-)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

2am Discloses to His Wife

Last night, my wife initiated sex. During foreplay, as has happened the last couple of times prior, I requested that she pleasure me with her hands. She resisted. It was at this point that I stopped things in their tracks and I asked her whether the request stirred up anxiety in her. She answered, "sometimes it does." She then went into deflection mode saying with an accusing voice, "I just wanted to be with you, and you didn't seem to be initiating sex lately."

I realized that I was dealing with a mercy fuck in the sense of Schnarch's book. Quoting from Chapter 11:
Mercy fucking withholds the sweetness of sex, breaks your partner's heart (if he or she catches on), and leaves little recourse... The goal isn't doing your partner -- it's getting done with it so you don't have to do it tomorrow.
Well-differentiated people can have sex when they aren't really in the mood, but it's not mercy fucking. It's another form of mutuality, and it doesn't have the withholding, sadistic quality of a mercy fuck because there is no sense of loss of self in responding to the partner's preference.

So I read to her the listing of thoughts that I posted on Monday. It was an exercise in confronting my own anxiety because I was revealing a lot of thoughts that she had no idea of and I had no idea of how she would respond. My voice wavered at times from the emotion.

After I finished reading the listing, she said it didn't make sense to her. On one hand, I was respecting her right to not have sex with me at all, but on the other I was retaining a right to have sex and not accept her refusal to work on her sexual limitations. She said it sounded as if I wanted to go have sex with a hooker, which wouldn't be the emotionally engaged sex that I said I was seeking.

I told her that the collections of thoughts owned up to my mistakes and mapped out the two-choice dilemma that I was facing. Both options induced anxiety in me, but I needed to break through the indecisiveness. She said she just wanted me to be happy, whatever I decided. I told her that I was working on learning more about myself to be a happier person, but I also needed to respect her as a separate human being.

I told her that I had not initiated sex because the Schnarch talks about how high the desire partner needs to demobilize to cool things down and mobilize in other areas where he or she is the low desire partner. I had been doing this for a month or so. I offered her my copy of Passionate Marriage and said that if she wanted to become familiar what I had been working on, she could read Chapters 11 and 12. She said she would. She then asked about whether I had posted things in my blog. I told her that there were four or five postings there already. She said she would take a look at that, too.

Why did stop the sex act like that? I needed to refuse the mercy fuck as an act of integrity. Quoting further from Chapter 11:
People who accept mercy fucks rationalize that it's better than no sex at all, but is it really? If you accept mercy fucks "until the good stuff comes along," it never does and never will. Your partner knows you will settle for lousy sex, so there's no reason to deal with the problems blocking better sex.
But watch what happens when mercy fucks are refused! The marriage becomes unstable: if there is to be no sex with out real connection, there may be no sex at all -- at which point anything can happen. It also means partners have to want each other for sex to take place. The partner offering mercy fucks gets furious! (mercy fuckers may want to avoid sex, but they want to avoid wanting their partner even more.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Digesting Schnarch

Tom Allen, blogging at The Edge of Vanilla writes in a comment:
Wow. Like, um... wow.

You're really taken the Schnarch stuff to heart, havent' you?

I've gotten partway through the book; I find that I need to digest a bit after a couple of chapters.

I've got some disagreement with a few of your assertions, but for the most part, it could well have been written by me. Or rather, perhaps something similar one day will be written by me.

Yes, I would say that Schnarch is my primary therapeutic roadmap. His approach is so grittily pragmatic, going much more deeply than most books on relationships and sex. I sensed he must be onto something because our marriage therapist didn't like the book (she said she had read it as part of a graduate level course).

I agree with you on the books digestibility. It took me two weeks to work through it. Take your time.

For the sake of my own enrichment, I would be interested in knowing what points you disagreed with. If you'd prefer to share them privately, let me know, and I will send you an e-mail for replying.

sixdegrees Gives Third Degree to 2am About Blogging at 4:31 a.m. (and Other Pressing Matters)

sixdegrees posted a comment with some interesting items:

First of all, I did notice the time that you submitted your post: 4:31 AM!!! Do you wake up early in the morning, and can't get back to sleep because of the overwhelming notion that your life is going in the wrong direction - or are you the stay up late at night kind?

I think this may be an issue of time zone display. Lately, I have been trying to come in to work an hour or two earlier than my usual time because I've got a bit heavier to-do list going on. I figure by working a some extra hours in the morning, I can avoid an all-nighter crunch next month.

I started that posting at 7:31 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and that's what shows up when I view my blog posting's timestamp. I suspect that Blogger might adjust timestamps on postings depending on the reader's time zone setting. Check the time zone settings for both your computer and your Blogger account.

As for the stay-up-late versus get-up-early issue, I have been all over the roadmap. When I was still telecommuting (up through Nov. 2005), I was a night owl. Switching over to an office job thereafter, I started to keep less exotic hours. That changed as troubles within my marriage began to come to a boil. During the mid-to-late summer, I was staying up well past midnight a lot of times. Once I started coming to my senses and focused more on changing my own life, I moved back to a normal schedule. I'm in bed most nights sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Whatever it is you are doing, keep it up. I can see your self-awareness growing by leaps and bounds. In some of your earlier postings, I felt there was a strong vein of self-centeredness. Necessary, but over-reaching. Now the pendulum is swinging back to a more balanced viewpoint.

I agree with what you're saying. I would go one step further and say that I was engaged in too much self-pity as well. Once that awareness set in, the thinking behind this blog took a major shift.

In your second to last paragraph, you talk about the dissolution of your marriage. Don't be too quick to prejudge the outcome. Yes, you absolutely must talk to your wife about the degree of your unhappiness - making it your own, not hers. But be prepared to listen to her - I'll venture a guess that she is also deeply unhappy - maybe not about sexuality but about some other aspect(s) of your relationship. Not that you are responsible for her unhappiness. Maybe she will decide that she truly wants to stay married with you and will work on serious change. From the picture you've painted, I don't think that she has been serious about personal changes and growth - but this may still happen.

Another good point.

Since August 2005, I have made four concerted attempts to talk with her about my unhappiness. Admittedly, the first two of these were awkward because I was expecting her to validate those feelings. She not only invalidated them, but she also said that I was just depressed and needed to go on medication.

As I began to wise up and own up to my own issues, I made efforts to let her make herself known in a safe environment. During our marriage counseling, she touched on this a little, saying she didn't think I was sufficiently empathetic. In another instance, she said that she didn't think I spent enough time with her and suggested that we do the grocery shopping together instead of me staying home with the kids.

A couple weeks ago, I gave her a big chance to voice her issues with me. One of the recommendations from Schnarch (Chapter 12) is to "look at both sides" of a two-choice dilemma by examining what your spouse says about you that you vehemently dispute and then finding ways to see that it might be true. He said that the spouse will most likely be all too ready to help in this area. I read the paragraph that describes this to my wife and asked her to come up with a list for me to work on. It's been two weeks, and nothing has come forth.

In the other direction, taking becka's advice from a couple weeks ago, I started a private blog that is addressed to her.

The goal of the blog is self-validated intimacy. I'm revealing my own innermost thoughts and feelings, especially those which I have been reluctant to do in the past out of fear that she would not agree with them or retaliate.

She signed up for an account and she has access to it, but I don't know whether she's read any of the posts I've put up there so far. I told her that commenting is not required, but it appreciated. I'm not going to badger her to read the blog because it's more about me disclosing than it is about her reading, understanding, and responding. I can't force her to know me; I can only give her chances to know me.

I have to keep dissolution on the table because sometimes that's the only thing that will force an entrenched spouse to go into his or her own crucible. Schnarch says that sometimes one has to go so far as to "test the waters of divorce" to bring the unwilling, yet fused, spouse to his or her senses.

What will make YOU happy?

Once again, you and my therapist must be trading notes. As part of the session on Monday, I read her the contents of the differentiated thoughts post. She recommended that I start taking a look at what would make me happy and what I really want from my life.

Might I suggest that you read "Flow" by Czentimihaly (I probably misspelled his name, he is at the University of Chicago). He has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly is "happiness". Rather than focusing on your unhappiness, find the things that make you happy and make the time to pursue them.

Book recommendations are always welcome! I found the description page for a couple books by Csikszentmihalyi at Amazon:

and both books are available at the local public library, so I've put in hold requests for them.

Again - keep up the good work. I've been meaning to take a closer look at the Schnarch book - hope to find some time over the semester break to lose my self at Barnes and Nobles.

Thanks, and thanks for the feedback. Be forewarned, Schnarch is a dense read. Set aside plenty of time for it.