Sunday, March 31, 2013

Anatomy of dysfunction and divorce

I had a conversation with the ex-husband the other day about his grievances versus mine.Technically, he's not ex yet, but I'm trying to get used to saying and thinking it. It's getting surprisingly easy for a number of reasons. If you've been in any kind of long-term relationship, there will be grievances but ours had attained mythic proportions because they festered for years. He'd sent me a lengthy email citing chapter and verse and I wanted to give him my take on his complaints. It could also be called the last word if you wanted to argue about it. The conversation was an amazing revelation. We have memories 180 degrees apart. How do things like that happen? In our case, it was because we never talked about anything of substance. Ever.

It started with his Vietnam experiences. Off limits from Day 1. I met him a few years after he returned to the States but even in the early days of being together, when it seems people share every memory and experience they've ever had, it was obvious this topic was off the table for discussion. That should have been the canary in the coal mine but I was starry-eyed and only saw this wounded man that I thought I could make better if I loved him enough. When you start to tread lightly on shaky ground with one topic, it becomes easier and easier to avoid all other shaky ground when it appears beneath you. It was especially true for me because he turned cold and distant when asked about anything he didn't want to discuss, and the last thing I wanted was to be banished from his orbit. What a silly, naive, trusting, needy girl I was because nothing ever got better or resolved and I came to accept this as normal. Not good, of course, but normal. Our story is textbook dysfunction. It's a wonder we lasted as long as we did. I used to joke it was because of inertia but that pretty much sums it up.

I read not long ago that some marriage therapist could predict which marriages would succeed and which would fail just by observing how couples relate to each other during a disagreement or argument. The primary predictor for failure was what the therapist called Stonewalling. Well, shut the door. That is exactly the problem we had. If he didn't want to discuss it, it didn't get discussed. When another problem arose I thought I'd get even by refusing to talk about it, and around and around we went. Whatever issue we had became the elephant in the room, until one day one of us would say something innocuous like needing to get cereal for the kids, and then we'd talk to each other again. So not only were we not talking about the problem, we got to where we would not say a word to each other for days at a time. Yeah, we were a mess.

Here's the point of this confessional. If you think you want a lifetime with that great guy who's charming, charismatic, and attentive, take notice of his behavior when conflict arises. Give the courtship enough time to let conflict arise. Then run like hell if he shuts down on you, if he withholds attention. It will not get better. Trust me on this. I kept hoping we would get back to the magic of the early days, when I was silly, naive, trusting, and needy, when I thought his brooding was sexy and attractive, and didn't know it takes more than just having my skirts blown up, to quote a friend, to make something of meaning last. His memories of my wrongdoings against him stopped at the point his feelings were hurt and he shut down rather than be subjected to more of the same, but he also missed out on remembering any attempts at all to make things right. I truly believe my memory of the same events is the correct one, if only because I can still hear the words in my head and picture where we were and what we were doing. I could be wrong. As has been pointed out to me, that was often the  case, but if we could have shown each other our vulnerabilities with the trust that we wouldn't be betrayed by them down the road, would things have turned out differently?