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Uncoupling

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS


 

A year ago, I wrote a series of columns for Nerve about the breakup of my marriage. The first was about the night my husband moved out, the last was a flashback to the point when our marriage began to falter. In between was a fair amount of sorrow. The basic problem for me and my husband seemed to be that he didn’t want to have sex with me. What I’ve since learned, however, is that not wanting to have sex with someone is only a symptom. The actual problem has taken a lot more time to pin down.

    Meanwhile, we haven’t divorced. We’ve stopped seeing other people. We see each other on weekends. Often we’re depressed in one another’s company, yet as of this writing, neither of us is willing to leave the marriage. Possibly we remain confused. Possibly the whole world can see that we don’t belong together and must part ways. Possibly, though, the whole world is wrong.

     Last November, I went to San Francisco to visit my uncle. He’s young, only seven years older than I am, and very hip. He owns two bars and has had more girlfriends than anyone could count. Several of them have been long-term. But none of them ever became his wife because he doesn’t intend to get married. It’s just not something he believes in.

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    One night my uncle took me out to dinner. We talked about my marriage. He said he was concerned that I would run back to my husband if I couldn’t find anyone new to love. He said it would be lonely and scary to be on my own, of course, but that returning to my marriage wasn’t the answer. At one point I tried to explain to him that just because marriage is hard doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying. He interrupted and said, “Oh, don’t give me all that crap about The Struggle! Married people always talk about The Struggle. What’s so great about it? When things get hard — that’s when I leave. Things don’t have to be that hard.”

     This conversation really struck me. And it has stuck with me. To struggle or not to struggle — which is best? Which is right? Where is the line that indicates how much struggle is bearable and productive, or, conversely, how much is likely to result in diminishing returns? Unfortunately, I can’t really know the answers to these questions until my husband and I reach our final decision.

    What I do have a sense of now, however, is why married people struggle. In some ways, I think it’s pretty basic. A marriage can feel very valuable — especially when you’ve invested eight years in it — and you don’t really want to start over if you don’t have to. So you look into things. You go to counseling and see which parts of the problem are your fault, then try to fix them. My husband and I did this. We were in counseling for a year before he moved out, then I continued alone after the separation.

   

Who wants to divorce someone only to go out in the world and find that there’s no one better?

When we first started seeing the therapist, she said, “I’ll either help you stay together or help you get divorced.” I thought this was an interesting announcement. It really covered all the bases. Her point was that whatever happened, hopefully she would at least remove the element of panic, which my husband and I were experiencing to a fairly severe degree. And she succeeded. She replaced the panic with struggle. My husband and I became too focused on solving our various problems to worry about whether or not we were getting divorced.

    It’s a shaky prospect, undoing a marriage. Even the state of New York seems to understand this, as they won’t let you divorce until you’ve been separated for a year. For people who like being married — who are capable of making a list of pros, along with the cons — that year is pretty important. It forces you to examine your situation thoroughly. It allows you to avoid mistakes.

    And who wants to make a mistake? Who wants to divorce someone only to go out in the world and find that there’s no one better? Or, go out in the world, find someone you think is better, then after a year, realize you’re right back where you ended things with your now ex-spouse? You struggle, too, because there’s always the chance that you’re being unrealistic. That you’re expecting more from marriage than marriage can give.

    Marriage can give a lot: stability, security, comfort, companionship. That sort of stuff. It can also take away a lot: sex, independence, sex. All I’ve done for the past couple of years is sit around and think about having sex with other people. I do it most when I think my husband and I are going to stay together. That doesn’t sound very good, I know. It doesn’t bode well for our future.

     As I said, though, lack of sex is a symptom. A pretty bad symptom, granted, but a symptom nevertheless. Maybe I’ve struggled because I need to know the real reason my husband and I have no sex life. I no longer believe it’s because he isn’t attracted to me, as I first wrote in my columns last year. I mean, I do believe he wasn’t attracted to me, but I think he was also angry with me, and no one wants to have sex with someone they’re angry with.

    Why was he angry? He was angry because he lost himself in the marriage. We both ended up living my life, instead of him living his and me living mine. His feeling was that if he didn’t do things my way, I would get mad. My feeling was that this was possible, but that that would have to be too bad for me. His feeling was that he couldn’t live with me being mad. He was too afraid of it. So we never really got anywhere under that system.

     Eventually, though, my husband got over his anger. He said he didn’t like any other girls except me, and he wanted to try again. I said okay, then promptly went out of town and screwed someone else. When I came back, I told him the truth (after first attempting to lie), and he went off and found someone to screw, too. We came back together one last time after Christmas and have remained so ever since. That is, neither of us are seeing anyone, yet neither are feeling particularly great about seeing only each other. It’s a weird state. I’m not sure what we’re doing here, but it feels like part of The Struggle.

     My husband’s position, despite how poorly things seem to be going, is that he wants the marriage. Period. My position is somewhat different. I am the one having attraction problems now. I am having these problems because, through our various interactions, I am acutely aware of the fact that my husband remains afraid of me.

     When I fight with my husband, I turn into a monster. I might start out fairly reasonably, but then I smell my husband’s fear and it all goes to hell. To him, it’s not just a dumb fight, it’s the End of the World. He becomes defensive, he creates new, diversionary fights — his whole being seems to center on finding a way of not being wrong. He rarely gives me the option of getting over something. Instead, he pokes and prods me when I am unhappy about a situation, because in his mind it’s better to keep me engaged and increasingly furious than to let me go off by myself and calm down. Going off by myself, to him, means I might never come back.

     Except I’ve been here for eight years now.

     Recently we went on vacation to Britain to see if we should still stay married. The week went okay. There was one sad night when we were pretty sure we would have to get divorced, but then the feeling passed. There were a couple of fights, but those ended, too. There was no sex, which was depressing, but at least we didn’t force ourselves.

     On the plane ride home, we were back in the mindset of inevitable divorce. It put my husband in a particularly bad mood. He was already in a bad mood from flying, since he’s very tall and his legs never fit comfortably in his seat. On top of that, his earphones didn’t work. I offered him mine, but he refused to take them. Later, he fought with the flight attendants because they told him they had chicken dinners for us but really there was just crappy beef. After dinner, he yelled at them for saying they would move their cart so I could get out and go to the bathroom, then not moving their cart fast enough.

     After each incident, I attempted to calm him down. Having missed my birth control pill the day before, I had just taken two and was all pumped up on estrogen. It was as if I were Florence Nightingale, soothing and cooing. When I told my husband this, he said he wished I could take two pills every day. I felt similarly about his behavior: why did the slightly charming asshole only appear on the scene once he thought the marriage was over?

     We liked each other so well on that weirdo plane ride that we had a decent rest of the ride home. We even had kind of a nice week, as I recall. Then the estrogen wore off, and he got nervous again, and we were back to our bad system. The one that doesn’t work. The one where I get mad about something and he panics and I feel like a monster and all is lost.

     But still we haven’t said no to each other. We continue to struggle, even as the odds seem increasingly against us. We have hope, I guess. Maybe too much of it, but what can you do? Even if you’re only inching toward something, you get caught up in the inching. Progress is progress. And how amazing to look over and see that there’s still someone trudging along beside you.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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.

 

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©2003

Alicia Erian

and Nerve.com