Break: Scenes from a Separation

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Part Four: Push and Pull

On June 9th, the day before my eighth wedding anniversary, I found out that my husband was getting heavily involved with another woman. He didn’t offer the information; I pushed him for it. I was hysterical and crying. I kept saying that I needed to know what was going on to be clear in my head. After he told me, though, I became even more hysterical. “You always make me do this!” he yelled. “You always manipulate me into saying things I don’t want to say!”
     The next day, I went shopping. I felt like some sort of typical divorcée. The phrase “retail therapy” kept going through my mind. I told one saleswoman that it was my eighth wedding anniversary, and she congratulated me. Then I told her, no, that I was separated. She had just helped me pick out all these exercise clothes, and now she was wrapping them in bright orange paper. “Well,” she said, “whatever you get next will be better. Trust me.”


     In the evening, I went to an open-mike night with my friend Alissa. I even participated. I went up on stage and said, “I’d like to read this in honor of my eighth wedding anniversary, which is today.” A woman in the front row said, “Aww.” Then the piece was about how screwed up my marriage was.
     In the cab on the way home, when I started to sink into depression, Alissa said, “Remember: you don’t want him back.” And she’s right. I don’t. David may not be attracted to me, but there are things I don’t like about him, either. The main one being his charge that I manipulate him. That I am all-powerful. That he is toast in the face of my gargantuan will.
     I have a friend who once said, in describing the occasionally frustrating push and pull she experiences with her husband, “The thing is, I need to be with someone like him. Someone who fights. Anyone else, I would roll right over.” This was the problem for me and David, in a nutshell. I was too much for him, he was too little for me.

I prefer the idea of the occasionally frustrating push and pull. This sounds to me like a kind of heaven.

     It is out of this dynamic, I am certain, that his lack of attraction for me grew. It was not that David liked me very much but thought I was ugly. It was that David had difficulty asserting himself with me, and gave up trying, and became increasingly angry about his lack of power in the relationship. There was no frustrating push and pull. He simply opted to agree with me about most things, and I took him at his word, and there was nothing sexy for him about any of this.
     He said to me recently, “I was watching this Stacey Keach movie, and there was this woman in it who was really terrorizing him. Then her boyfriend showed up, and he was fine with it. He didn’t seem to mind at all. Stacey Keach asked him how he could stand it, and the boyfriend said, ‘Oh she’s all right. I just ignore her when she gets like this.'” David was quiet for a second, then said, “That’s the kind of man you need.”
     I’m not sure I totally agree with him, though his point is well-taken. I would certainly like someone who doesn’t feel so intimidated by me. On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in being ignored. I much prefer the idea of the occasionally frustrating push and pull. This sounds to me like a kind of heaven. Winning a few fights, losing a few, but getting to have sex all the while.

I don’t see David that much anymore. When we’re together, I get tense. The main problem for me is his love life. He has become a member of an internet dating service (the charge showed up on last month’s credit card bill), and is actively seeking romance in this way. In my head, I understand that he is only trying to be happy. The rest of me can’t seem to stop chafing at the thought that I never warranted such hot pursuit.

You can’t help but think: This guy is glad to be away from me.

     We did get together a few days before our anniversary for dinner and a movie. The movie wasn’t a problem because it was dark and we didn’t have to talk. But dinner was harder. My husband looks very good these days. Thinner than ever, well-rested, smiley, relieved. It’s a tough thing to sit across the table from. You can’t help but think: This guy is glad to be away from me. You can’t help but start to cry into your plate of Cambodian food. You can’t help but not believe him when he attempts to explain that it’s nothing to do with you.
     I guess it’s just a lot not to take personally. I do try, though. It’s not that the women my husband is dating are better than I am, they’re just better for him. It’s not that I’m somehow deficient, it’s that my husband had a hard time holding his own in my presence and needed to find women he was more comfortable with. Okay. Got it.
     And I do have it, to some degree. I won’t pretend that I don’t. I understand that just because David isn’t with me, doesn’t make him automatically against me, as George Bush would say. But let’s be realistic here: how can it not have at least something to do with me? I’m not Joan of Arc. I’m not Florence Nightingale. I have plenty of problems. In my lowest moments, I seem to me like someone who’s quite worthy of being run from.

Last February, six weeks before David moved out, I drove up to New Paltz to visit my friend Holly. We went out for drinks at her favorite bar. She told me I could talk to anyone I wanted except this guy Brett, who she had dibs on. I said okay, but then Holly got sidetracked by a strapping Dutchman, leaving me and Brett on our own.
     So we talked. Brett was cute and attentive, which I definitely appreciated, since at that point my marriage was all but over. He told me a long and confusing story about how he’d once fallen in love with a woman with one leg, and I told him a story about how my marriage had started to unravel after I’d had an affair with a man who’d escaped from the World Trade Center. At the end of the evening, I wished I could’ve kissed him goodnight. I had a sense that he felt similarly.

It would be nice if I could think, there was a time when I truly drove him wild. Except there is no such time.

     Then I got separated, and suddenly Brett and I were without our comfy barrier. It was wonderfully awkward. I would go up to New Paltz and visit Holly, and Brett would be there, and we would act like shy high-schoolers around each other (Holly had graciously removed her dibs).
     Two weekends ago, though, we were less shy. There was a bit of making out, then some e-mailing after I drove back home. In one of these messages I invited him to visit over the coming weekend, but he declined. He said he had “things going on.” He added that the night before, he’d further entangled himself with some woman he’d been messing around with prior to messing around with me.
     I was irritated by this e-mail. Even so, I did not for a second take it personally. How could I have, when he had always seemed so attracted to me? I just thought he was scared. I thought he had further entangled himself with some other woman in an effort to create a new comfy barrier. Period.
     It would be nice if I could manage to be so sanguine about my husband. If I could think, Well, even if he is with someone else now, I know there was a time when I truly drove him wild. Except there is no such time. There is only my shame—try as I might not to feel it—in not having been the one to turn him on.

It angers David that I am so upset about his dating when I am going on dates of my own. I think he would very much like to think that we are in the same position now. That we are, in fact, both relieved to be free of the marriage.
     I can agree with the latter. For the most part, I am relieved. No matter how much depression or anxiety or panic might set in, I don’t generally have any regrets about the separation.

It just didn’t seem reasonable to break up over sex. Except we weren’t breaking up over sex.

     I do not, however, think we are in the same position. Not at all. I did not marry someone when I knew I wasn’t attracted to him; I did not hand over the reins of my life to that person because I was too afraid to assert myself; I did not spend ten years quietly undermining my partner’s self-esteem. David actually told me that he didn’t think he was hurting me by staying in the marriage because he frankly couldn’t conceive of anyone else being attracted to me.
     This is another way in which we are not in the same position: It has never been hard for me to conceive of other women being attracted to David — even now, when I am so often upset by him. He is tall, handsome, and charming. He is intelligent and generous. He listens carefully and has no difficulty with either light conversation or intense discussion. His laugh is one of the most appreciative sounds I’ll ever know. On the more practical side, he does plenty of housework and is a great cook. When he sets his sights on a task, he always completes it. For the last eight years, that task was our marriage.
     But that’s just it: it was a task. A problem to be solved. And I think for a while, we both thought we could solve it. It just didn’t seem reasonable to break up over sex. Except we weren’t breaking up over sex. We were breaking up because, as David says, we didn’t bring out the best in each other. More than anything, he needs to be with a woman who won’t overpower him. And more than anything, I need to be with a man who is up for a fair amount of sparring.
     The facts, unfortunately, don’t make any of this any easier. Especially when it comes to David’s dating. If I’m not vigilant, I will literally spend hours picturing him with these women from the internet. What must it look like, after all? I can’t get enough of the wondering.
     The weird thing is, I used to imagine the same exact scenes when we were married. Often, while David was at work, I would sit on the couch and try to picture him with another woman. Really kissing her, really getting into it. When I thought I had his facial expression just right, I would swoon. It was truly exciting. Finally, in my daydreams, he became the man I wanted to be with, even if he was with someone else. 

Part One: Lost Cause
Part Two: Light Arms
Part Three: Stumbling
Part Four: Push and Pull
Part Five:
Forced Perspective


Alicia Erian is the author of a novel, Towelhead, and a collection of short stories, The Brutal Language of Love. Alan Ball wrote and directed a film version of Towelhead, which will be released later this year.


©2003 Alicia Erian and Nerve.com