I spent the evening with a girlfriend who is in the process of separating. She has pretty much done what most women I know do, she made her life the backdrop of her husband and children’s lives and is now kinda waking up at 45 and wondering what the fuck is going on. She loves her kids and doesn’t hate her husband. He is a good person but just not a good partner for her. She has known this for a long, long time. It is just hard to marry up realizing that the person you pledged to spend the rest of your life with is not really gonna do it for you in reality.
She is not alone. Given my place in life and also my job, I literally see this every day. I am not going to talk about the men now because they are a blog in and of themselves. So I ignore them today intentionally to talk more about the women.
The story is really the same.
1. Woman meets man.
2. Woman falls in love with man.
3. Woman marries man.
4. Woman has children with man.
5. Woman doesn’t force or pursue her career due to 3 and 4 above.
6. Woman feels like she is doing everything right.
7. Woman wakes up years later feeling disconnected from everyone including herself. She has no idea where she went or how to get back to herself. Her children are growing and she sees that soon she will be alone with Husband again. She doesn’t want to think about that. Or she can’t stop thinking about that and it scares her.
8. Now here is where the affair comes in if it is going to come in. Woman will cheat because she is bored, doesn’t know who she is, is desperate for someone to pay attention to her and really see her. Her sex life with Husband is stale and uninteresting or even non-existent. Men do it for the same reasons. (Again, I am going to write about them and this process another day.)
9. If she has the affair, she becomes consumed with that. She is easily distracted from the pain of her marriage and self abandonment. Woman will either leave Husband for the new man, continue to see Lover on the side for as long as she can, or the affair will further injure her self esteem and she will run back to Husband and vow never to stray again.
10. If she doesn’t have the affair, she is lonely. I mean like think about killing yourself lonely. She lacks enjoyment in all her activities. She feels lost, invisible and alone. All the things that mothering small children covered over are stripped bear in the parenting of adolescents. These children that were once loving and demanding but grateful are now moody, entitled and hard to love sometimes. She loves them but feels more often than not that she is living amongst aliens that she is related to but wholly does not understand.
So this is where we end up. Middle age. We wake up as if from a coma, from the time when we were interesting and vital young women who knew what they wanted and felt somewhat self directed. We land squarely in middle age with children we love but find hard to parent, men that we once loved but now either feel unseen by or worse take for granted by. We want things. We need things but have been on a trajectory of sacrifice and giving for so long we do not even know how to ask for what we need anymore. We do not even know, if we were to summon up the courage to ask, what to ask for.
It has taken me a long time to realize that men do not do this to us. Men end up in middle age with their own existential crisis. One that I will discuss on a different day. But we men and women (I am sure this also happens in same sex couple - Lesbian bed death is a real thing but I am not in a same sex relationship so I won’t opine about that) do something to each other in our years of marriage that contributes and in fact causes us to be where we find ourselves. We don’t mean to do it. We certainly don’t intend to do it but we do it nonetheless.
So what is it that we do?
We marry believing that this other person is what we need to be whole. We think that if we find the right person, then we are good to stop seeking and learning and inquiring. Somehow the inquiry feels like a threat to the couple. We have to shelve some part of ourselves to stay in the couple or so we believe and we start keeping secrets. We stop listening first to ourselves and then to each other. We become like moveable pieces of furniture in each others lives. Sometimes we are the comfortable old arm chair that feels so good to sink into and other times we are that same fucking chair except it is the thing we stub our toe on in the middle of the night and begin to resent its presence. It happens slowly. It is a slow erosion. We allow the wonderful things about the person we marry to become tangential and sided. We focus on other things. We stop talking about dreams, sex, pleasure and intimacy. We stop playing with each other. We stop being curious. We allow the demands of working and parenting to become the only thing we have time for, given attention to and find fulfillment in.
I have always been a self directed person. I was not the girl in high school who had a steady boyfriend that she met at her locker every day at lunch. I hated that. I dated boys from other schools just to avoid that. I wanted closeness but I also wanted autonomy. I valued loyalty but I needed to be on my own. I never seemed to be able to find a boy that could get that. I didn’t need to be single so much as I needed to still be a person while in a relationship. I needed to remain two - not be one.
So I tried and failed a lot. I tried to date and maintain myself and my dreams and desires. I did great at that until I fell in love and then it was like I became possessed by aliens and became inhabited by pod people. I, without realizing, consenting or owning it, began to carve off parts of myself that I was worried would not fit into the relationship. I aligned myself with coupled friends. I stopped hanging so much with my girlfriends. I did couply things and stopped traveling alone. I was either at work, with my significant other or out doing things that enhanced the relationship: cooking, cleaning, shopping, nesting. It is not so much that that the men I dated demanded this from me, I just did it. I did it willingly, without thinking about it and it became an avenue of escape. It became who and what I was.
Now why the fuck would I need to escape from a relationship that I was intentionally committing to, enjoying and working hard towards satisfying? Because the relationship was not about me, it was at least in part about me escaping from me. I feel like the whole of my life has been feeling stuck with someone that I don’t know what to do with except it is myself that I feel this way about. I am stuck in this relationship that I am afraid of, don’t know what to do with and feel somewhat trapped by. It was easy to tell myself that what was missing was the other half...the man, the guy. Once I had that, all those parts of myself would fall in line and I would be more comfortable in my own skin. Spoiler alert - this did not happen.
I thought that my life’s purpose - that all of our life’s purpose was to find a person to share myself with. To partner with, to love and to support and cherish. For me, this did not work out. Relationship, marriage and commitments always resulted in me forgetting, ignoring and largely disconnecting from me which left the man standing there holding the proverbial relationship/commitment bag thinking he is holding the hand of his partner when I was not really there to begin with. To this day, I cannot tell you where I really was. It is a mystery even to me. I was there. I was building something. I was making promises that I intended to keep. But there was this part of me that was not present. The absence barely noticeable even to the person whose body she inhabited.
So I landed at 45 in a marriage that wasn’t bad. In fact, I would judge it fairly typical. And I wanted to die or scream or run or I don’t know what! It started off quietly at first. I would think things that I would be shocked by. Sex dreams about other men, dreams where I was alone and loving life. I would look across the bed and realize that I didn’t want to know this person - that I didn’t really know this person and I wasn’t even interested in inquiring further. I didn’t want to have sex with this person because it was such a game of pretend. I had all these needs and fantasies and desires but I lacked the ability to tell him and feel safe. I did not fundamentally want to be vulnerable with him. I wanted him to give that to me but I had no ability to do that with him.
The years wore on and I was more and more dissatisfied. More alone. More discontented. It was easy to blame him. He was not perfect. There were lots of things I could point to. Lots of reasons it was all his fault. I began to resent him. Be contemptuous of him which resulted in me feeling horrible about both of us. I began to kind of hate him and in turn myself for allowing myself to be where I was. I did what I think most people do, ignored the feelings. I buried the thoughts. I became hyper involved in other things: the kids, animals, household duties, social obligations. I became a kind of domestic automaton - I showed up everywhere I was supposed to be, dressed the way I should be dressed, talking about what I was supposed to be talking about but it wasn’t me. Inside there was this person who was dying. Every interaction or conversation began being a window into my own oppression. I felt like crying and running and screaming a lot. Of course, I didn’t do that. I tried to talk to a friend one time about how I felt. She was busy doing all the same things. She didn’t hear me. She couldn’t hear me because hearing me would mean that she would have to confront her own middle age existential crisis and that would be largely inconvenient, scary and interrupt the larger plan of having the perfect life.
But as the years passed and I retreated further and further to a place that I could not acknowledge, own or explain, I began to sink. Mentally and physically I began to give up. I would have these moments where I would feel engaged and alive and vibrant and then I would come home and I would be crushed by the serious complexities of my life and I would stuff myself inside myself and get to work. I did this for years. Until one day, I just couldn’t do it anymore. If I had to swallow one more thought or feeling that didn’t have an avenue to be expressed in my current life, I was going to implode. My guts, brains, heart and interior splattered all over our pottery barn kitchen. I had no idea what to do next but I knew that I could not go on living the way that I was one more minute.
I walked out of the Pottery Barn kitchen through the Restoration Hardware living room and into the hybrid bedroom that I shared with the man I married but did not love. I walked in and said, “I do not love you anymore. I can’t go on like this. I think I want a divorce.” I picked an external explosion rather than an internal one. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was terrified. I was alone. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of my life. A conscious self oriented life. I kind of died that night but was reborn the next day. I awoke knowing nothing except the one true thing that beat in my chest: I was going to be just fine.