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

#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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3 Responses to “Affairs, Fodder for Comedy, Not a Laughing Matter in Real Life”

  1. Philip Kenney says:

    John you are a brave man and a model for the change in masculinity that must occur in our culture if it is to become more tolerant and humane. You are courageous when sharing the terribly painful marital fracture but your contribution grows even more important with the thorough examination of your own participation in the demise of the marriage and the taking of responsibility for the reality of your emotional and psychological state. Many of us, including yours truly, will learn from the open willingness to be vulnerable you have expressed. Please do continue!

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