Funny how we can look back at our own histories, thinking of the old familiar stories from our lives, and suddenly see them in a different light with the perspective of years.
My first husband and I met in college, dated all four years, went out of state for his advanced studies for two years, and moved back to his hometown for another two years. Then we divorced. It was a long time coming, and you could feel the rumbling on the tracks long before that train pulled into the station. My friends felt the rumbles long before I did; some told me later that they tried talking me out of the wedding, but I was so hopeful that I must not have listened. (I don’t even remember those conversations!)
I met him the first week of my freshman year in college, after having the worst year of my life. (My senior year in high school was a long story that I will tell some other time; let’s just say severe ostracism was involved). I didn’t realize just how vulnerable I was or how thirsty I was for SOMEONE’s approval.
Well, he approved. A lot. The next four years went by in a blur of sex, garter belts and bourbon.
We had our differences, and I think the only reason the relationship lasted as long as it did (eight years, total) was that the sex was good, he looked at me like I was someone who mattered, and I wanted so very badly for it to work. I was volatile, with a hot temper, prickly to anyone who tried to disrespect me, and resentful of any type of control or disapproval. He was judgmental and controlling. For some reason, it felt like twice the validation to have a judgey guy approve of me.
Not a seriously bad guy, though. We just had really, really incompatible traits at the time. We were both “only children,” if that tells you anything.
For many years after the marriage, I looked back with disgust at him, because his eventual rejection was such a deep, deep wound. (I spent more than one night afterward, in a plain little apartment by myself, crying that I wanted my life back. I missed him too, but more in the way you miss a comforting habit. I missed the familiarity of having someone who was “mine” in my daily life.)
I don’t blame him so much anymore for the death of our marriage. He had his flaws (serious ones), but so did I. I think he had several narcissistic traits, but he’s not what I would call an evil guy. Bad guys don’t agonize over their decisions, worry about hurting people, or try to do the right thing, and he did. And I carried a shit-ton of baggage into the relationship myself.
There were some notable incidents before the marriage:
- The “bring me my book” fight: He let me drive his car back to my dorm one night because it was late and he didn’t want to drive. About 45 minutes later, he called me to bring the car back so he could get a textbook from it. It was really, really late. I asked if I could do it in the morning. He said no and insisted. I got furious. I think it was because I felt bossed around, and the inconvenience was particularly sharp to me because he couldn’t be bothered to take me home after he picked me up earlier that night. HE had created this situation. So I was fuming when I got dressed again and drove to his apartment. I walked in, hurled the textbook at his head, dropped his keys, and walked home in the dark. After midnight. On a dark and lonely road. (Really, really smart.)
- The mooning incident: We were packed into a car with some of my girlfriends, and he was driving with me in the passenger seat. One of those in the backseat was a cute little blonde gal who rolled down her window, pulled down her pants and panties, and mooned another driver. I don’t recall what was said, but I remember that a little vein started throbbing on my boyfriend’s temple — not in anger, though. He was turned on. Something got said (I don’t recall what), but I’ll never forget his response. He gave a sideways grin and said, “Mmm. Smells like a blonde.” Even my frank gal pal gasped at that. (How visceral can you get, to remark on a woman’s scent when she lowers her panties.) I was a mixture of amused and annoyed at both him and her.
- The time-off suspicion: I took off a semester from college to care for my mother, who was recovering from a serious illness. He spent a LOT of time with another female friend of mine while I was gone; they were in a college organization together. They both acted a little weird around each other when I returned, particularly her. I figured they’d messed around at least a little, but I never had any proof, and I wanted to believe the best of my friend. (Funny that I didn’t have any trouble believing he was capable of it, though.) Maybe they were both totally innocent. (It just now occurred to me that he probably messed around with someone ELSE, and my girlfriend didn’t want to hurt me by telling me. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to consider that as a possibility. She is a truly lovely person, and I always hurt to think she might have done this.)
- The sexy roommate situation: I sublet a duplex with an acquaintance who needed a roomie one summer when I was trying to cram in some of the boring courses and get them over with. I often got horrendous, blinding headaches back then, and I was suffering through one of those on an afternoon when he came over to visit. I begged off and went to my bedroom to put another cool wet cloth over my eyes and nap. He lingered in the living room for a long, long time, chatting in low tones and laughing intimately with my roommate. It wasn’t just that he was having a conversation with another woman; I have never been the jealous type. It was that he sounded super interested in her and vice versa — that kind of warm, lingering tone that potential sex partners use with each other. You know what I mean? I wanted to tell him it bothered me, but I didn’t want to be an ass. So I lay there, smoldering.
There were some notable incidents during the marriage, too:
- The “shielding me from my mother” nice thing he did: While we were living out-of-state, my needy mother called me often, expressing her loneliness, sadness, anger at my alcoholic stepfather, etc. She missed me as her “sounding board” (one of her favorite phrases). It used to make me so blue I’d sit and cry afterward. One time, he gently took the phone away from me and told my mother not to call anymore if she could not be positive, because she was upsetting me. I felt amazingly protected by that. It was a firm boundary, and he showed kindness to me.
- Stresses of poverty, environment and school: He began to criticize me heavily, and we argued often. We were so poor I sometimes had to wash our clothes in the tub instead of feeding quarters into the washing machines downstairs. We had no furniture besides a sofa that folded out into our bed, an ironing board (that we used as a dining table pulled up to the couch) and sturdy cardboard boxes that previously held cases of Gennessee Twelve Horse Ale to stack up as our end tables, TV stand, etc. I was working full-time at a department store, and he was a full-time grad student and part-time bartender. We had one car, and when his schedule didn’t allow for him to take me to work at a department store, I would walk about eight blocks to the bus stop. We got snappish with each other. A studio apartment made our stresses worse, because there was no getting away from each other when one of us needed private time. The downtown location put us in the midst of several fire stations, ambulance stations and police stations, so the sirens were always wailing. I locked myself in the bathroom of our studio apartment once, crying hysterically because I couldn’t stand the stress of our marriage and our circumstances. He got really tired of me at this point, but he was trying. We moved to a better apartment with help from his parents, and it got a little better.
- Flak for small failures: When we moved back to his hometown, we both went to work in his father’s business. With help from his parents again, we bought a small house. The marriage got steadily worse. Apparently, one of the ways I exude stress is to get severely forgetful, because I locked myself out of the house multiple times somehow. He would always pop his cork or just give me that tired, contemptuous look. At one point, I was so fed up that when I locked myself out of the house again, I just picked up a brick lining our garden, smashed in a pane of the kitchen door’s window, and reached in to twist the lock knob. I was more ready to pay for a window pane replacement than to call him and ask for help again. Another time (same situation), I was trying to get into the front door, which was unlocked but which had the little entryway chain on it. My wrists were slim, and I thought that MAYBE I could unlatch it without squishing my arm too much. I tried for a long time. When he got home and I was still struggling and wildly irritated with the chain and the door and my own forgetfulness, he started upbraiding me for locking myself out of the house again. We argued, and he criticized me then for getting mad and fussing with him on our front steps; he said he was embarrassed the neighbors would hear. The fight escalated. I started swearing, and he told me to shut up — the neighbors would hear. So I screamed FUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKKK several times. He was NOT happy.
- Marriage counseling: We tried. I was unhappy that the guy revealed his strong religious leanings early on, and he didn’t like that the guy had a disdain for football, because that made him an “asshole.” We didn’t go back.
- His unwillingness to let things go: Sometimes I would tell him about a thought or a feeling of mine, and he would ask me questions about the origins. (Not in the “Oh, tell me more, I want to understand” kind of way. It was in a kind of attacking way, as in, “If you REALLY feel like that you should be able to defend your viewpoint” way.) I wasn’t always able to give a concrete answer and sometimes I said I didn’t know why I felt a certain way. He would keep saying, “Of course you do. If you feel something, you know why. If you don’t, you don’t feel it. Tell me why. C’mon, tell me. Tell me.” He would NOT relent until I snapped, and then he would get a smug look on his face from stirring up his personal hornet’s nest (me).
- His patronizing attitude: The worst fight was the night that I got completely fed up with his superiority complex and how he used to patronizingly correct me. We were talking about replacing some supplies on the rickety old used ski boat we’d recently bought. He smugly told me they were called “life VESTS,” not “life JACKETS.” (Does the word really, really matter? Apparently. He very seldom could admit he was wrong. And when he was right, he insisted that I acknowledge it.) I got furious and he was astonished that I resented yet another correction. The argument raged from the carport into the house and then into the hallway. I don’t recall the words or the topics, but it wasn’t just about life jackets; it was about the marriage. He was ready when I tried to kick his balls in like I was kicking a field goal. He held me far enough away. Then I got quiet and still, and I told him — with one of my mother’s cold-eyed lethal smiles — that he should just go to sleep, and I’d cut his balls off. Go to bed, really — I’ll wait. With a dull, rusty butter knife. STARE. He recoiled in horror, and I wanted to laugh. He slept in the master bedroom with the door locked, and I slept in the guest room. I put a butter knife on the floor just outside his door because I was still mad but thought it was a little bit funny. He apparently thought i was completely nuts by then. I was just so tired of being not smart enough, not nice enough, not skinny enough, and not generally good enough for him that I wanted to make him fear me just a little. It worked better than I expected, unfortunately.
- Abuse by diary: I tried to make sense of my life, who I was, who he was, and why we were so unhappy and fighting so often. Sometimes when I was mad at him, I would write in my diary to try to work it out. (These were the days before the Internet, folks.) I’d do it in the living room where he was, because if I went into any other room where he wasn’t, he would find endless excuses to walk in and disrupt my train of thought. If I happened to glare at him because I was still mad, he would yell that he was tired of me writing in my diary about him and trying to make him feel bad by doing that so ostentatiously. It probably started out for the reason I mentioned (facing the disruptive person rather than enduring his disruptions) and kept happening because I found out how much it annoyed him. Very juvenile of us both.
- My blisters didn’t punish HIM: Like my current husband, my first husband would always drive recklessly when he was angry at me. He did it one time too often, and I hopped out at a stop sign. I was barefoot, and it was the middle of summer in the Deep South. There were no sidewalks in that part of the small rural town, and there were stickers (prickly grass/weeds) in the turf. So I walked about three blocks home, blistering my feet from heel to toe on the hot pavement, just as an act of defiance to him. He drove alongside me for a block or two, yelling at me to get in the car, then pleading, and then honking and driving away. (And yes, I dressed the blisters at home that night in front of him. I guess I thought I was really showing him by hurting myself. Dumb!)
- My injury and his lack of sympathy: The cracks in our marriage really showed when I severely injured my feet in a workplace accident. I was off work for weeks and couldn’t walk for part of that time. He made me go back to work two weeks earlier than the doctor recommended, because my absence was costing his father money at the family company. Meanwhile, he would sigh and carry on if I asked him to get anything for me, and he would get irrationally angry at me for “not feeding the dog” (I had), for “looking dowdy,” or for committing other sins. While I was still wearing huge bandages on my feet, he insisted that we go to a Halloween costume party. I went and stayed there for a couple of hours, dodging people’s feet so they wouldn’t step on my wounds and make me scream. He was livid when the throbbing got to be too much for me, and I said I was in pain and wanted to go home. He drove me there and was snarling at me, driving too fast, jerking his little sports car around corners. When we got home, I told him to go back to the party for a little while if he wanted, and I could take care of myself. His mood improved, and he left. He came back a long time later (I think it was like 4-5 hours). I was furious he’d stayed gone that long, because when my feet hurt it was hard for me to walk and do things like get drinks or walk down the hallway to the bathroom. When he came into the bedroom, I threw my (clean and empty) plastic bedpan toward his head, but it hit the wall instead. (It was nuts of me. I was pretty flipped out within the marriage by that point.)
- The denouement: At last, we were visiting my mother for Thanksgiving during our final year of marriage, and he coaxed me to go for a drive with him the night before. We pulled up in a quiet parking lot, and he proceeded to tell me that I needed to make some changes if were were going to stay married. He even had it broken down by categories: Two major problems of mine and five minor problems of mine. The two majors were irresponsible financial management and weight gain. Both were true, but they were mild and could have been resolved in a healthy marriage. He also told me he’d talked all those over with his mother and she agreed. (Oh, that did not help at ALL.) I listened quietly, with a growing sense of humor and outrage warring for first place inside me, because his general tone was that these were the areas in which I was to improve if I wished to retain the privilege of remaining married to him. (Not his exact words, but accurate.) I also felt a growing peace that at last I knew with 100% certainty what I needed to do. He stopped talking eventually and waited expectantly for my response. I said, with a small sad smile, “No, thank you.” And he drove me home to my mother’s house. We spent Thanksgiving apart. And I gathered my essentials and moved out within 1-2 weeks. (I didn’t want to remain working with at his family’s business and had no reason to stay in his hometown.) I searched for a job for two weeks while staying with my mother. I moved a few hours away, and he paid an employee at his father’s company to drive up and deliver the rest of my belongings. (A decent gesture.)
It was a civil divorce. We shared a lawyer, and it cost us $500, which we split. He kept the house, because we had virtually no equity in it, and I agreed that it was fair for him to sell it, repay his parents their $6,000 gift that we used as part of our down payment and give me half if there was anything left over (there was not). He also agreed to pay for part of our credit card bills, although it took more than a year and a shaming letter for me to get him to make good on that promise.
We’ve only spoken a few times since, and there’s been no lingering tension or animosity. I’ve married twice since then, and I think he has too. (Mutual friends give the occasional updates.)
Weird, isn’t it. I look back at all those incidents of my first marriage with the detached eye of someone who’s no longer invested emotionally in the relationship, and I can see more and more that I had a part in the dysfunction. Back then, I thought I was a wounded victim and he was the oppressive overlord.
Why in the heck am I thinking about all of THIS today? I don’t miss the drama, the selfishness, the fights or the crushing self-doubt when I didn’t measure up. I don’t miss HIM. But I don’t hate him either. So that’s something.