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.
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