Archive for the ‘Divorce’ Category

Forgiving An Unfaithful Partner Ambivalence Takes Over

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

#divorce #betrayal #infidelity #betrayal #marriagecounselling #brokenfamily @childrenindivorce

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

Truth in the therapist’s office is an elusive thing. I could go all week convinced that I no longer wanted to return to my marriage. I missed my children very much. But every time I checked in with them they were doing fine. They were so accustomed to having me gone that it was normal for their day to begin and end without seeing me. When my wife started bringing guys into the home, they took it right in stride. I was the only one suffering the consequences of separation, or so it seemed.

To overcome my lonesomeness, I taped pictures of my children on the kitchen cabinets. On returning home one night, I poured myself a stiff one and the cork came out of the bottle. I began to grieve. I’d look at the pictures and miss each one of the kids and the times past when we were all together as a family unaware and unthreatened. We were like a lot of families. We were going from one day to the next, taking life for granted, overcoming the problems that came along, and then we’d awake one day and realize that a chapter had come to a close. The time together then was special and now, in the flow of events, it was somehow complete, encapsulated with a beginning and an end. We could never go back, but we could remember it as we pushed ahead confident of the continuity in our lives.

Clustered as in an era . . .

Someday we’d enjoy recognizing not only that we had all grown older but also that we had lived through something special with one another, something that time and the order of things had taken away from us, but once taken, became incorruptible. Our days and months clustered as in an era, each complete with its own distinguishing character that ran through our time like a theme. Perhaps it was as simple as when we lived in a certain house. Or perhaps it was when we were all happy with the fellowship at the church where we belonged. The times would be recalled in their completeness. “Oh, gee, remember that time we were all so excited about moving to Detroit.”

I missed those days. I knew who I was then. Or at least, I was content in letting the roles I filled with others define me. I had a sense of the future and a sense of purpose. Now confusion reigned. I didn’t know my wife any more. I had seen a side to her that I never knew existed. She didn’t appear to regret the separation. I saw no grief in her brown eyes. We had grown accustomed to sharing our feelings. That was gone. I was alone with the desolation I was feeling.

It was those times, those chapters, that caused me to grieve all alone, alone as I never thought I’d ever be, in a dingy furnished basement apartment instead the home with my children laughing as they prepared for bed. Darkness at the end of the day flooded my musty apartment with futility.

Author's family, 1974 - Two years before the breakup. Front (l - r) James, Joseph, author, Eric. Standing (l - r) Bertha Finfrock, Bette Finfrock, Gregory and RAchel.

Author’s family, 1974 – Two years before the breakup. Front (l – r) James, Joseph, author, Eric. Standing (l – r) Bertha Finfrock, Bette Finfrock, Gregory and RAchel.

For all that, however, I didn’t pine for my wife’s company. She had moved out of my life. I knew she was dating other men. My 12 year old son, in all apparent innocence, invited me into the house one night only for me to find her entertaining a man in the living room. I backed away and left before she knew I was there, though I had to wonder about my son’s motives. Perhaps he wanted to see what kind of trouble could be provoked by my unexpected appearance. More likely, he just didn’t give it a thought. Whatever the case, in those brief moments, I realized our house had become hers. Nothing belonged to me any longer. The new furniture we bought was being systematically shredded by the two household cats, and nobody seemed capable or motivated to stop them. I  shrugged. Why not? The ripped up furnishings struck me as a metaphor. Everything was at a distance, dreary testimonials to the faded life we once enjoyed as a family.

But it wasn’t a clean break, even after all the months apart. I could be alone all week and begin to pull myself together, reach moments of fragile resolve that I would eventually come out of my funk. The panic attacks were less frequent. Then, I’d see my wife’s Ford round the corner, and my heart would leap up as it did when I was a teenager – one of those take-your-breath-away down the spine zingers. That surge of inexplicable feeling meant something. But what? Fear? Anger? Love? I didn’t know. Did those emotions feel the same in a person? It felt, at least for an instant, that my head was in one place and my heart in another.

I never resolved my ambivalence. The chance was taken out of my hands when my wife called a halt to everything. She didn’t want to try any longer .I didn’t insist that she continue. Her final decision came while we were working with our third counselors, a couple of my wife’s choosing who practiced co-joint therapy. After spending weeks with them on her own, I was invited to join in. It was the first indication from my wife that she wanted to work things out. During these last sessions my ambivalence returned. I confessed to the feelings I experienced when I encountered her by chance but I didn’t report my confusion in the counselor office.*

Too much uncertainty . . .

Yes, I’d admit, I wanted things to work out. Yes, I still wanted to work on our marriage. I didn’t admit it to myself, but I didn’t want to be the bad guy, the one to walk away. No wonder the psychologist found working with us a challenge. My feelings felt true in the moment but once away from the therapeutic setting my doubts returned. I don’t know how I would have handled things if we decided to give it another try. There had been a time when rolling back the clock and having all the trouble simply go away was what I wanted. Now, that was unrealistic. Too much fear, too much distrust and too much uncertainty had entered in.

Author with Family, 2009 L-R: James, Rachel, Eric, author (seated), Greg Grandson Baden and wife Melinda

Author with Family, 2009 L-R: James, Rachel, Eric, author (seated), Greg Grandson Baden and wife Melinda Joe not pictured)

Restoring trust in our relationship seemed impossible. I don’t think I have ever known at any point in my life the full extent of my motivation for doing anything. There were those moments of abandon when doing something was a joy, when my self -consciousness evaporated, moments when doubt never entered my mind. Yet here I was negotiating my future in the therapist’s office, and I couldn’t trust my own feelings. I wasn’t fully disclosing. Had I been, I would have admitted something like, “While I’m here I feel one way but as soon as I walk out the door, I know I will feel differently.” I was letting circumstances control me. I needed to commit. I needed closure, as much for myself as for everyone else involved – the children, my wife, even my friends who wondered how long things were going to be strung out. I wanted to hear an expression of regret or sorrow over what had been lost – something that resonated with what I was living through. I wanted to feel safe again. My ambivalence kept me from asking her for anything, whether to stop seeing other guys or for an expression of regret or something as simple as more time. It was not a conscious strategy but I wanted her to do as she felt prompted on her own. Perhaps she sensed my ambivalence and that’s why she walked out.

I knew attraction drives a couple forward in their relationship and culminates ultimately in committing one another. It didn’t appear that it was there for us. We had to move to a different place, a place that substituted hope and good will for desire and trust. We could never again ignore the knowledge we had gained about one another.  It would mean commitment. It would require an expression of remorse and full forgiveness from both of us. Trust would take time, lots of it. Every late night return from work would require an explanation. Every out-of-town seminar, a full report. The only reason we’d take the shot would be that both of us thought it was our best chance at happiness – not for the kids, not for our parents, but for us, selfishly. Putting an end to the pain was not enough any longer. Time would take care of that eventually. We had to make a water rescue of sorts, get pulled from the tempest and dry off back on board again with life going on as it had before the storm overtook us. Neither of us was fully aware of what it would take. Guarantees are never part of any proposition, but promises would have to be kept. I don’t think either of us had faith in a solution once we had lost faith in one another.

If we had a chance at all, a good start would be tot acknowledge and  grieve over what had passed out of our lives – grieve to the point of anguish. Gone forever was the dream that together, despite the troubled beginning to our marriage, we could make things work. We’d be the model couple with the liberal beliefs and the beautiful family. Struggling with the low income, with the unrealistic plans and seeing them fail, we still had the courage to put our hearts into it. We had been dear, trusting friends. We lost our sense of magic – the faith that because we wanted it we could make it so. However laughable that may have been to others, it was purity itself to us. Time eventually would wash away our simple script. We would not have noticed it being slowly carried out to sea and merged with the depths that cannot be recalled in the passing of years. But our lives had collapsed in crisis. We had too much ground to cover and too little time. We were suddenly part of the world we had tried to hold a bay. We had worked hard.  Our effort alone was cause enough to mourn. Our youth was all but spent.  If we could have acknowledged all of it – the richness of the days as a family together that others have a lifetime to release at their leisure – and pulled it back into mind, despite the anger and the hurt, perhaps then we could have looked at one another to see if any hope remained. As it turned out, we walked away, wept alone and moved on.

*Each of the therapists we worked with insisted on confidentiality. I respect their wishes despite the passing of years and the death of my first wife. I believe it would be unethical to quote any statements made by either or us and any observations on the part of the professionals.

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Affairs, Fodder for Comedy, Not a Laughing Matter in Real Life

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

#divorce #infidelity #marriagecounseling #betrayal #affair

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

I never thought I’d marry more than once. I remember driving down I-35W in Minneapolis one winter night after my first wife Elaine disclosed she was in love with another guy. I kept saying divorced over and over to myself because I could not get the idea to fit with ny definition of myself . But like a lot of things I never expected in life, it happened.

My wife had her reasons, all stuff I didn’t want to hear. She, too, felt as though life was passing her by. Midway through her thirties, she realized she had missed the carefree years. The women’s movement was in full swing. She wanted to be part of it but felt she had forfeited her membership by marrying as young as we did. There was still time. She was still young and very attractive. She also had complaints about me.

I wasn’t an easy man to live with. Selfish. Controlling. My views of marriage were very conventional, sexist in many ways. I had not made her happiness a priority. I was resentful at being held back in my career by family issues and the burden of providing support. My college classmates were all moving up in the world. I was envious. I finally landed a job where I could make up for lost ground and I was consumed by it. I was unavailable most of the time. I traveled a lot and left her with a house full of teenagers to raise. I took too much for granted.

Shared expectations . . .

Elaine did not share my aspirations for financial success. She grew up in a working class home. If anything, she was distrustful of the upper-middle class values, country club membership, and all the trappings. Other than returning to school to get a degree in nursing, I didn’t know what she wanted out of life. We almost never discussed it.

We tried to take a vacation with the children in the middle of everything. I was reeling from her indifference toward me, sensing something was wrong but not knowing the cause. We took a hike with the kids up one of the hillsides near Dillon, Colorado. I was in terrible shape – overweight, no stamina, short of breath from smoking. I stopped to rest while my wife went on with the children. While I waited, I scratched my name onto a gray rock that fit my palm, and I threw it down the hillside as far as I could. The meaning of the metaphor, hopelessly melodramatic as it is, was clear to me at the time, but the impulse that prompted me to act it out was still buried in my subconscious. I had been thrown away. My self-esteem since a teenager had been almost totally dependent on my wife’s affection and affirmation. That must have constituted a hell of a burden for her. Every time I was unhappy, it was her job to make things right. It was pretty much the same job my mom had as I was growing up.

When we finally got to a marriage counselor, there was so much to sort through that, after a couple of initial meetings, our counselor decided it would be better to work with us individually before tackling the tougher stuff that had our relationship all jammed up. “She can see your anger,” the therapist said during one session. The statement struck me as strange. I didn’t know that I had been all that angry. I was a storm trying to find its center – lots of lightning and violent downdrafts of depression. “I feel like a money-making machine with a dick on it,” I said in one later session and was surprised to see my wife react with dismay.

Ever Been Tempted . . .

“Haven’t you ever been tempted,” the therapist continued. “You’ve been away from home a lot. Haven’t there been any situations where you might have done something?”

“I’ve been tempted often enough,” I said, “but it’s a long walk from the hotel bar to my room. I had time to think things over. Besides, I got nervous. It was something I’d never done. I couldn’t do like other guys, just chuck it and make a move.” The therapist was disappointed. She must have wanted me to admit a comparable guilt. I had nothing to confess. Yeah, I lusted after other women. Found myself obsessing over this one or that. But I never had whatever it took to act on the attraction. I’d be the one guy in a thousand who’d get caught and there’d be a terrible price to pay. The moral injunctions of my Catholic upbringing reigned me in. My emotions got all jammed up. My own history was a restraining influence. I had paid enough for the sexual transgressions of my teenage years. I had profoundly disappointed my parents. I threw away any chance at enjoying carefree years to discover my intellectual strengths and preferences. Marrying shaped my life before I was of age to decide much of anything for myself. The little head had ruled once. I was not about to give it a second chance.

The therapist wanted me to see the human dimension in my wife’s conduct. To see it as a frailty that all of us fall victim to from time to time. I get that today, but at the time, her appeal was misdirected. My mind was elsewhere. My life was falling apart. My self-image had been shattered. I had been living a lie. My wife fell in love with another guy. It was an affair. It had gone on for months. I didn’t know what or who to trust any more.

Less the Flailing and Panic . . .

The Author, 1976 "No idea who I was.

The Author, 1976 “No idea who I was.”

Perhaps things would have cleared up a little for me if the therapist addressed my pain, let me express it and talk it out. I might have been able to move to a more settled place, grab hold of something in the torrent to lessen the flailing and panic. As it was, I was so distrustful that I obsessed on nearly everything my wife said. One business trip to Washington, DC, I felt compelled to walk the streets of the city to control my raging doubt, and as I walked, I obsessed on what she had said as I left the house to make sure that I had understood its meaning and could believe her. At work, unless someone shoved something right into my face, I couldn’t concentrate. I’d close the door to my office and brood. I’d burst into tears and embarrass myself.

My wife, meanwhile, went passively along when all the ramifications of what was taking place swamped my thinking. She didn’t move out. She couldn’t afford it. She didn’t ask for a divorce. She was glad when I went off on business. She was in the driver’s seat but refused to put her hands on the wheel. The consequences were clear for me. Daily contact with my children was at stake. I’d need to change jobs so that I could stay home if she left home? I didn’t know whether I could afford to support myself living alone and the family also? I didn’t know how the children would react. I didn’t want them hurt.

For that matter, I didn’t know what I wanted. If Elaine turned to me full of remorse and begged for forgiveness, I don’t know what my response would have been. The months leading up to her confession had been some of the most unhappy in my life; the weeks after, sheer hell. No. There was no easy stopping place. No timeout. No fix-fix, as if it were all pretend. I needed time to decide but anxiety stole every moment from me. For all I knew she was still seeing the other guy. I finally did the unthinkable. I called him and implored him to stop seeing her until I had a chance to do whatever was needed to reorder my life. I pleaded. He agreed.

My wife was angry at her lover’s decision to put their affair on hold. There was a dimension to her rage that I understood. She stormed about two guys deciding what was right for her as if she had no say. That’s what guys do, right? Stay in charge. The male code called for punching the guy’s lights out. But I wasn’t feeling angry. All I felt was a disabling anxiousness, as if I had been hit across the broad of my back with a baseball bat.

Just Watch Me . . .

It took years for me to understand. I was bottled up. Crippled with anxiety. I told our counselor during our first meeting the I was traumatized. My wife’s betrayal was not the only cause for my severe disorientation. My world was collapsing. All of the avoidance and pretense was crashing down. I was 35 years old and had never been through a disappointment in love. My family was my justification for everything. Being a father, a husband and a moral man were huge parts of my definition of myself and braced me from the outside. On the inside, I hardly knew who I was. I was a pleaser. A chameleon. I sought the acceptance of others even to the point of forsaking my own perspective. I was raising a happy family, unlike my father who ruled a stormy home in which fights broke out suddenly and frightened my sister, my brother and me. I was going to earn more money than he without benefit of professional degree. Just watch me was my mantra. I’d make up for all the disappointment. Everyone would say that I had done all right. I’d been a good son after all. But now everything translated into the indictment that I had failed. I didn’t have the ego strength to remain stable and confident of who I was, all of which should have been the product of taking life head on instead of hiding in a marriage. I couldn’t see it then, but most of my anguish was from a crash of my own making, errors in my navigating my way. Many causes were yet to be discovered,  tasks that had been abandoned or never addressed, but for the moment, I had not equipped myself to cope with a crisis.

To be continued . . .

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Certainty Never a Given in Remarriage

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

#Divorce #Remarriage #Therapy #Doubt

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

“You didn’t!” a friend exclaimed when I told her that I posted my most recent article. “I’d have thought you’d write it and throw it away.”

“Why? It was part of my life, all those years ago.”

“But why now, so long . . . What, over 30 years . . . after it all happened?” she continued.

“Gosh, I was hoping I’d get credit for keeping my mouth shut all that time.” My friend laughed. She knew I was kidding.

It is difficult to know just how far one should go writing a autobiographical piece. I struggled with it, especially when it came to deciding how much of the truth should be told. There is always more. More is almost always worse. Worse is almost always hurtful, or at least embarrassing, to others, if not myself. I had more that I didn’t write. I still question whether I went too far or not far enough. I tried to draw a line between what seemed to me to be deliberate acts – those one makes as a matter of choice – and idiosyncratic behaviors which are habituated to the point of being unintentional, predisposed and a likely reaction given a person’s psychological makeup. To illustrate, most of us learned as preschoolers that lying was not a nice thing to do. Unless we are pathological liars, a rare condition, when we are untruthful it is usually by choice. When I lie, for example, I am usually trying to make myself look better in the eyes of others or to avoid negative consequence of the truth. I think I am very much like others in this regard. (Or the one I really like: What do you call a person who lies 99.9% of the time?  – Answer below*)

My friend thought that I sounded angry in the piece. If that is true, I failed.  I was angry then. I’m not now. There’s a huge difference between who I was at the time the events took place and the guy who is finally writing about them today. If I regret one thing in the piece upon rereading it, it’s that I admitted to any anger at all. I wish I would simply have owned the hurt that fell to me through the actions and thoughtlessness of others.

A Watershed Event . . .

What my friend was probably trying to say is that I should have let go of my anger and my hurt years ago. I’m going to insist that I have. Any conclusion reached to the contrary upon reading my article is evidence that I failed as the author. Those things happened. They happened to me. I wept about them. I stormed around in therapy to overcome them. They are real moments out of my life. Today, I am glad that they happened.

The failure of my second marriage is a watershed event in my life. I would never have found the happiness that has been mine for the last half of my life had all not taken place. I won’t even attempt to imagine what my life might have been like had I chosen to stay put. I had no guarantee my children would have been happier. No guarantee my spouse would have been happier. No guarantee that I would eventually be more solvent financially because, with my marriage stabilized, I’d be more successful at work. No guarantee that I would be happier even if those around me were, although I usually take others into account. Doing nothing would have spread the misery out for years. As it was, I took a short hard dose of it and moved on. If I failed in writing, I failed on the side of not sounding grateful, of not acknowledging the courage it took to move on with my life. I benefit from 20/20 hindsight in all this, but I counter that I was resolved then and ever since never to give up on my own mental health and my own happiness.

Author John J. Hohn and Melinda F. Hohn Married, 1986

Author John J. Hohn and Melinda F. Hohn Married, 1986

Some therapists might want a person to believe that eventually all memories can be stripped of emotion and brought to mind as clinically sterile facts. They should stand stainless on the sanitized slate of a lifetime. I’ll don’t agree. Dump the excess, yes, the disabling tsunami of emotion that sweeps away all perspective and rational explanation, but memories always carry some feeling in them. A person who claims not be troubled in the least about the past is a person who seldom bothers to think about the journey of life and the path it follows.

Most of us, or course, live as our beliefs direct us. We like to think if we live by the rules we will be happy. Sometimes, however, it is important to question the rules. Who made them? Why? Suffer in silence, for example, is really idiotic. Whoever made that rule must have wanted terribly to avoid being inconvenienced by responding compassionately to the cries of another. Best possible interpretation is that we all need to avoid a crippling case of self-pity. But then, how does one overcome self-pity in silence. Sounds like a real challenge to me. Fairness and sense of justice ultimately have a role to play as far as I am concerned. If the victims of cruelty never speak out against their fate, their oppressor is free to move on with impunity to make others miserable.

Up for Grabs . . .

Of course, if you shed all your baggage, including most, if not all, of your beliefs, you encounter life on a different plane altogether. You make a good friend of doubt, not always the most congenial of companions. Where once you enjoyed certainty about life, heaven, hell and all the rest, suddenly everything is up for grabs. It very uncomfortable at first. You may not really be ready to move forward with your life, to grow and expand your horizons, until you confess in all humility that you really don’t know much at all. When you’ve nothing left to be indignant about, it becomes a comfort to know that you cannot possibly be wrong. Doubt, by definition, is never wrong.

Doubt gets a bad rap because people who are certain equate doubt with intellectually lazy. They’re wrong, of course. (I’m certain of it.) What’s really going on is that a belief system relieves a person of the need to think. Beliefs are intellectually slothful, bordering on self-indulgent. Think about it. It’s comfortable  to wake every day to the certainty that life is meaningful beyond question. Your life is on auto-pilot because what you believe tells you that everything will turn out all right. Suppose the thought trots in on little cat feet to question, “What if none of this has meaning? What if man is an accident of nature? What if death is the end of me?” It takes a perverse kind of courage to let tabby back in the house if these are the messages that tag along after her. Doubt is like the coat you took off upon entering the house only to find yourself wandering around wondering where to hang it up. You may go the rest of your life holding on to it. You may go the rest of your life without the comfort of certainty.

What can happen is that doubt brightens a person’s life. It opens doors that stood closed and forbidding. It leads to doors that you didn’t know were there. Doubts, open, intellectually honest doubt, a state uncertainty, leaves the mind and the emotions open again almost as child’s to let the sights and sounds and events of every day register as fresh and new. I’d bet if a survey were taken the results would prove that the most unhappy people around are those who cling to some system of belief as a way of making life make sense to them. Doubts don’t need to make life makes sense. Life is to be lived, not understood. Travel alone, or travel with a partner. The choice is always there but don’t do either because somewhere something is telling you “you’re supposed to.”

*A liar.

To be continued . . .

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Misery is Optional – Oh Yeah! Says Who?

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

#Divorce #Remarriage #EarlyMarriage #Loss #StartingOver

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

I sent a birthday greeting to a fellow senior only to be told that he doesn’t observe birthdays any more. OK.  Next year I won’t say a word. But he’d better not forget mine. I want to recognize all my birthdays from here on. I turned 77 last spring, and it’s a hell of a lot younger than I thought it would be.

I insist on observing all my birthdays because, damn it, it took a lot to get this far. My high school girlfriend gave birth to our first child just six weeks after I turned 18. She was a year older than I. She had to give up college. That was OK then, because – after all – she was a girl. (See my earlier post about pregnancy in the 1950’s). We married and had five kids before we turned 26. Yes, of course, we were Catholic. Maybe that gives insight into my articles about the Church.

The Church and society have changed over the years. But if you’re older, it doesn’t help to realize that much of it was arbitrary all along, like suits, white shirts and ties at the office. No sports jackets, please. Some rules had nothing at all to do with a person’s morality. No meat on Fridays must have helped the Italian fishing industry for decades. Imagine! Going to hell over mackerel. Lobbyists running wild in the Vatican.

All Kinds of Dependencies . . .

My first wife and I broke up after 19 years. I doubt either of us knew where we wanted to go next with our lives. Marrying young can retard a person’s development. Everything I should have learned about relationships and myself were postponed because I was living life under water with my marriage. We had kids to raise. Jobs to find. Bills to pay. We were pretending that we were all grown up. I’m sure either of us realized that all kinds of unhealthy dependencies were being created between between us. Once we separated, and the dependencies became exposed, I started reeling from some gaping holes in my psyche.

John  J. Hohn, Newly Divorced - 1976

John J. Hohn, Newly Divorced – 1976

I wandered around for a year-and-a-half afterwards seriously disoriented and in search of myself. I needed to cram 20 years of maturing into 18 months. I wasn’t very good at it. I recall the afternoon I walked into a meeting with my colleagues at work and finally took over my own body and mind again, a strange sudden sensation that meant, oh my God, I’m me again (or the grammatically correct I am I, although stated thus poses a hell of a paradox as I become both the perceiver and the perceived with distortions entering from all directions). But I’m not talking about a strictly rational event. It was beyond rational. My everyday self, the me I awoke to each morning – confused, grief stricken, angry, hurt – finally slid out from all those emotional burdens and I became the guy I had known myself to be all my life. It was as if I found my long lost big comfy bedroom slippers and stepped into them. I could feel it.

The reunion with myself, although energizing, did little for my judgment. Given the earnest hours in the psychologist’s office, I started deciding how my life would take shape moving forward. It was a second-wind. A second chance. Emboldened, I slammed headlong into another person’s destiny. Throttle to the firewall, I was in the wrong lane. A collision was inevitable. Right, I remarried. Woof! What a mistake.

Into the Mountain Side . . .

That second marriage lasted almost five years, about one year longer than my life’s savings. During those years, I made a number of regrettable decisions. I gave up the best-paying, most satisfying job I had ever held. I moved from a hometown community where I had friends to a new city where I hardly knew anyone. Moving strained my relationship with my kids to the point of open antagonism. I ended up half a continent away from my own parents. When the break up came, it was nothing short of a crash into the mountain side for me.

When I left. I was broke. No place to live. When my car broke down, I walked to work. My peers were running for office at the country club, taking extended Caribbean vacations, and  skiing at Aspen. I had a college graduate’s starting salary at a local bank. Age 44. Broke. Hell yes. With no end in sight. My kids qualified for Pell Grants in college. My ex, meanwhile, drove around town with a bumper sticker that read, “Misery is Optional” And for her, why not?

My Children Taken During the Early Years of My First Marriage(L - R) James, Joseph, Gregory, Rachel and Eric. Detroit. 1966

My Children Taken During the Early Years of My First Marriage(L – R) James, Joseph, Gregory, Rachel and Eric. Detroit. 1966

She was a professional woman with the resources to move on with her life. She remained in the home until she was comfortable with leaving it. She had found an enduring new love interest while were were together and she had many friends to support and comfort her. Ar first, the  bumper sticker struck me as a petty bit of grandstanding as it implied being unhappy was a matter of choice. My experience after my first marriage attested to the contrary. Getting over the unhappiness and tumultuous disorientation of a major disappointment in life is a process, not a decision. Choice may be responsible for a calamity, but once the disaster takes place, it ain’t over baby until the fire is put out and the wounded attended to. That takes time.

The pain of betrayal, the sting of rejection and the despair over failure are real feelings, every bit as real as hunger pangs when starving and fear in the face of danger. They happen as a condition of a person’s circumstances and there’s no wishing them away. Emotionally healthy people don’t avoid or deny feelings. The only way out of the fire walk through it, not pretending that the flames don’t exist. Get a guide, a therapist, a friend who has survived the same passage, or a family member who can be patient and compassionate (often a rarity in itself.)

Anyone reading the bumper sticker who did not know my ex wouldn’t care one way or the other. Anyone who knew her would know that, just as she was proclaiming, she wasn’t miserable. So what’s the point? As a message, Misery is Optional, must have embodied some other intention. Possibilities include, “Others may think I should be unhappy that my husband moved out but I’m not.” Or, “Most people are unhappy when their marriages break up, but I am not.” Or a little more generously, “I was unhappy for a while after my husband moved out, but now I’m not.” If you lost something you weren’t committed to in the first place, yes, then misery could also be optional. You pick. Multiple choice. A little ambiguity is fun now and then. Bumper stickers are a limited medium.

Forget It . . .

What’s really happening, I guessed, is that my ex thought misery was an either/or state. It isn’t, of course. Everyone experiences a little misery in life. It’s part of the human condition. It seemed to me she as declaring she had decided not to be miserable. Great. Pretty heady trick. I didn’t think it could be done. I still don’t. All that she achieved, as far as I could see, was making our divorce a degree less private. I thought the bumper sticker begged questions where none normally would be invited, and at one level, it demeaned the sanctity of grief. The irony is that it was probably slapped on the car under a degree stress.  Doing so, I thought, would never have occurred to a contented person, in which case the message was ironically at odds with itself. Making too much of it am I?. I should put a sticker on my car that reads, “Forget it.”

My Children - a more recent picture L - R: Joesph A. Hohn, Rachel Hohn Gioannini, James M.Hohn, Eric J.Hohn,  and Gregory M. Hohn. Summer 2006

My Children – a more recent picture L – R: Joesph A. Hohn, Rachel Hohn Gioannini, James M.Hohn, Eric J.Hohn, and Gregory M. Hohn. Summer 2006

Given my life at the time, I was pretty miserable. Confused.  Painfully disappointed. Angry? Yeah. A little. Not so much at her or my circumstance but over the way the news spread about my alleged thoughtlessness and cruelty in leaving. I felt I was up against a highly efficient propaganda machine. Over night, friends angrily snubbed me in public.”She was hurt,” the waitress at a local sandwich shop said as she set lunch orders in front of my friend and me. Was this vengeance, I wondered, for there was not a word anywhere about how I tried to exit as thoughtfully as I could — waiting to tell her I was leaving until we were in a session with our marriage counselor and then acceding to her request for two week trial separation. I didn’t storm out of the house. I didn’t fight and run away. I wanted to avoid rancor and blaming. There was no ensuing drawn out court battle. All I wanted was to get over with it.

Nobody seemed to take into account what I had staked in the marriage. I thought that I had arrived. Our big home – five bedrooms and four-four-and-a-baths, two fireplaces, family room and living room, casual dining and formal dining room – large wooded lot. I sold my part ownership in a airplane and my lakeside cabin in Wisconsin to keep up with out life style when my income fell off sharply. I wanted to provide a secure, welcoming home for my children. I wanted level flight for myself for the rest of the way out, but being older doesn’t assure one knows how to achieve a degree of happiness.

The bumper sticker, all ambiguity aside, could have been intended simply to let others know, “I’m over him.” Good! I never wanted to make my ex unhappy. I can be responsible for what I do but not for how a person interprets my actions. I just wanted my own life back no matter what. The trying circumstances during first several months starting out all over attest to how important it was for me to move on with my life.

No. Misery is not an option. It’s a relative state. Perfect happiness is beyond everyone. I chose the road less miserable and that has made all the difference.

To be continued . . .

This is a first in a series of autobiographical postings. Please watch for future entries.

Special thanks for my friend Joe Frisina for his help with this article.

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