Background: My husband and I are staying together after his affair. It’s been a long time since D-Day, but I am still going to an individual counselor because it just helps me cope with him and other issues. (Let’s just call my therapist Max the Marvelous, because he truly is a marvelously compassionate and insightful therapist — or perhaps just Max for short.)
Max has told me that he sees my husband as very passive aggressive and highly manipulative, based on what he’s pieced together about him. That doesn’t put me off my husband, because I agree. It’s actually very validating to know that someone else sees what I see, beyond the good-guy facade (or — as I think of it — the real but shallow nice surface over a very needy personality). At least I have more faith in my own perceptions now.
So we’ve talked at the last few counseling sessions about the healthiest ways I can live my life in this marriage, including some ways I can cope with how my husband acts. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll call hubby “H” for the rest of this post.) Max is definitely not urging me to leave H, because I don’t want to do so and it would also cause other problems that I don’t choose to create for myself and my daughter. It’s been a long-thought-out and rational decision, and it feels right on both emotional and practical levels. Max seems to understand, agree with, and support this, which I appreciate.
That decision alone doesn’t help me cope with marital issues, my personal issues, or H’s issues, however. So Max is working with me on several levels. Right now he is helping me to realize H is very unlikely to change, and so we are working on how to reduce my expectations, my frustration levels and my stress so I can have a happier life with H. Because all I can control is myself, right?
It’s definitely helping. There’s a learning curve, but I’m getting better at this.
Max conveyed a particularly insightful way of looking at things during this morning’s session, although it’s hard for me to boil it down and relay the message clearly. I’ll try! I was recounting a few recent positive and negative interactions with H. Max pointed out that I was assuming things about H in those instances, and that my assumptions affected my expectations of H (and those disappointed expectations lead to my frustration and stress and anger). Instead, Max suggested that I just look at the interactions and try NOT to make the shoulda-coulda-woulda assumptions.
Hard to wrap my head around that, but I’m still mulling it over.
I have three examples we discussed:
Example 1: My younger daughter got me a small, cheap, wonderful little firepit for Christmas. I’ve been asking my husband for literally MONTHS to pick up some firewood for it, even listening to him quibble about the size and type of firewood to get. Whatever; just get some, dude. Please! So a couple of weeks ago, I saw some small bundles at the convenience store and bought a couple for $10 total. I know from experience that one of H’s mind games with me is to offer to do something and then delay doing it. It frustrates me and gives him power. I’ve always assumed this is unconscious on his part, too, but maybe it’s not. I also know that he gets irritated or pouty when I just do for myself whatever he’s delayed doing. In this case, my expectation was that he will meet a need of mine (for firewood) if he knows the need exists. Erasing that expectation was the solution.
So on impulse I got the firewood, left it in the trunk and forgot about it for about a week of our rainy weather. Then H found it and carried it inside, giving me a tight-lipped grim blaming look, probably for spending the money or for doing an end-run around him. When I told Max about this, he laughed and said he would just want to strangle my husband for that whole passive-aggressive stuff. YES! It’s so frustrating. We agreed that more of me doing things for myself, without asking H (or without reacting if he pouts or acts mad) is the healthiest path going forward.
Example 2: H and I had a really nice supper at a local Mexican restaurant last night, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Some of the night was him just sitting there, smiling at me in a dopey lovestruck way. This morning, H said he really enjoyed the evening. I mentioned to Max that I enjoyed the evening too, but it also irritated me for some reason when my husband was just beaming at me and how he was making a point to talk about the happy evening. My husband does that whole “beaming smile” at me sometimes, like he’s trying through sheer persistence to transmit radiant happiness to me when I’m feeling mildly happy or neutral; sometimes it feels really insincere. It’s irritating. Sometimes I also just get mad because I hate that I now doubt his sincerity and motives even during the happy moments.
Max, however, asked, “Why did you assume he was genuinely having a good evening?” I was dumbfounded and said so, and Max explained that maybe I should just enjoy the evening without guessing or assuming what H was thinking or feeling, because H could just as easily be manipulating me to accept some other bad behavior in exchange for giving me a nice night out, or he could be doing it to position himself as a “good husband.” Max was quick to say he wasn’t implying that was the case with H — but that it was a possibility. He suggested that I just enjoy the good times without making bad OR good assumptions about my husband’s thoughts, feelings or motivations. That will help me have fewer dashed expectations. (So weird to think that way. But I will try it and see.)
Example 3: I had a terrible day this past Saturday when I sat with a couple of very painful triggers about the affair’s discovery day (D-Day). I moped in bed, crying or reading, until almost lunchtime. I’d actually been triggered about a week earlier and it had been lingering. The first two days of the week are my busiest at work, Wednesday was the day H had some oral surgery and he’d been recovering since then, and we’d been busy getting our daughter off for her spring break trip with a friend. Saturday was just the first time available to me to sit alone to sit with the emotions and thoughts and deal with them while H was at work. Eventually on Saturday afternoon, I texted H about my bad memories of D-Day, how he’d dealt with me that day, and how his behavior affected me going forward. I asked if he’d been reserved since then because he didn’t trust himself to contain his temper. Etc. (I know texting sounds impersonal, but he finds face-to-face so confrontational. It seems to be easier for him to read.) He responded with something like, “Sorry you are having a bad day,” and then changed the subject about how his current “reserve” was due to how he’d been sick with a cold and recovering from the dental work. Not exactly an on-point response.
I found his response not only cool and unsympathetic, it was also very dismissive/avoidant, saying that *I* was having a bad day … way over there, me by myself … not that I was in pain because of something he did. (See how he positions himself and distances himself from my pain?)
When I was talking with Max about this incident, he asked, gently, “What did you expect from him?” I said that I keep hoping H will answer the questions about the affair that he has always avoided, or that he will at least say something honest and validating and direct like, “I know that when I physically overpowered you and took my phone away from you by force, that was scary for you. I’ve always said I did it because I was embarrassed at what you would read in my texts. There were several intimate emails to her, and I was ashamed because I knew I did something terribly wrong. I also didn’t want to hurt you any more than I already had. It’s no excuse, but I panicked. I know that it was irrational and wrong to do what I did in the moment, and I know it was scary for you to realize that I could and would use my physical strength on you in such a moment of panic. I SO wish I hadn’t made you feel helpless and scared. I’m so, so sorry, and I understand why that’s such a bad memory for you. For me too. I’m ashamed of that, and I wish I could ease the memory for you. What can I do to help?”
That’s all it would take for me. That and a hug and I’d get on with my day.
That’s what I wanted. But I also told Max that what I really expected was exactly what H did — either deflect, or turn the focus to himself. (He did both.)
Max also asked, “So what would you do differently if you could?” I said I would not have written to H or spoken to him about how triggered I was feeling, because (based on experience) I can’t rationally expect H to give a supportive response he’s never given before, or to provide information about the affair that he’s never willingly given before. What I would do differently is to get out of bed and do some difficult and mindless chore around the house. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, and I don’t have to deal with the frustration and anger of getting an unsatisfactory response from my husband. It works off the pain and anger and soothes my failing sense of self worth. Or I would talk with a friend, or Max, or do something else that helps me or makes me happy. I would also think about how I will respond in the future if I ever encounter that panic or anger or whatever it was from H again; being prepared helps me feel safer.
Max told me it would help me a lot if I could stop myself at times and ask, “What is it that I’m expecting from H? What is he likely to say/do? Will his response help me or cause me more stress? What can I do instead for myself?”
That is SUCH powerful advice. And he’s right. The coping strategy we’ve found that seems to work for me is to lead a more independent life from my husband, while still with him.
I said that this sounds like a more shallow relationship than I want, and Max agreed. He also said that it’s a realistic assessment of how to remain functional and relatively happy in a marriage where I can’t reasonably expect change from my spouse. He said it’s probably what will give me the least stress in this marriage. And he’s right about that, too.
I can take my own personal power and be responsible for my own happiness.
Here’s to scary independence. Here’s to not relying on someone else for my emotional support. Here’s to whatever the hell this new way of living is. And here’s to me.