After 14 years, Nita asked Barry to leave. She did so by packing up all his clothes and putting them in his car. He was shocked, hurt and confused, but you never would have known it. He drove off as though he couldn’t care less, thinking he was acting out of strength, but I perceived it as, “running with his tail between his legs.”
He moved in with his mother for a while, but it was no different than living with his wife. She nagged, complained and advised, thinking she knew what was right for him. He promptly moved out and tried living with his divorced brother. A month later, his brother announced, “There’s no room in this one-bedroom apartment for the two of us, particularly when my girlfriend is here.” He packed, moved into a motel, and came to therapy to see if there was some way he and Nita could reconcile. His introductory words were, “If you can help my wife with her emotional volatility, everything will be OK.” All the while, he displayed an almost childlike smirk on his face.
When I described the impression he portrayed by virtue of his smile, he became extremely angry and defensive. “What do you want me to do, cry? I did that several days ago.” It was evident Barry was desperately hurting emotionally, so I agreed that he bring his wife along for his next visit.
During that session, both Nita and Barry verbally described their idealized concepts of love, but it was readily apparent that the love they lived wasn’t the love they shared.
“Why did you throw him out?” I asked.
“I don’t really know how to put it in words. He’s not a bad person. When he’s home, he’ll do anything I ask him to do – take out the garbage, carpool, put the dishes in the dishwasher; but he never initiates anything.”
He interrupted, “Why would I? Nothing I do is ever right or good enough to please her. You can never satisfy her and pretty soon, you stop trying.”
“What was your family like?” I asked Nita.
“My father and mother divorced before I was 5. I really have few memories of him before that time, but my absence of any memories makes me think he wasn’t there. He had visitation every Wednesday evening and every other weekend. But, after a short time, he cut out Wednesdays, and every other weekend became one day every two to three weeks. I’ve long since given up on expecting anything emotional from him. He remarried several times, but none of them ever worked. My mother never remarried. I really don’t know why. One day I should ask her.”
Barry’s family history wasn’t any better. His parents had a tumultuous relationship. There was constant fighting and emotional conflict. On several occasions, their arguments escalated into physical fights. “They finally divorced when I was in high school. I was hurt, but it was a relief. The fighting decreased, and, if it did occur, I wasn’t present.” In his eyes, mother was the villain. She was domineering and a strict taskmaster, who could fly off the handle without any warning.
It’s evident that Nita and Barry both were raised in emotionally dysfunctional homes; where closeness, loving interactions and demonstrable affection were almost absent. Consequently, it’s no surprise that after 14 years of living together, they still were behaving in accordance with the role models they had as children.
Essentially, similar to her father, Nita lived with a husband who, in her eyes, was emotionally absent and incapable of sharing feelings. As a result, she became an angry volatile woman, much the same as Barry’s mother. It’s my belief he unconsciously chose her, so he could blame her, as he did his mother, for being critical and emotionally volatile, which justified his not risking closeness.
Inside, Barry was as filled with anger as Nita, but he refrained from openly expressing it. Instead, he passive-aggressively ignored her. For days on end he’d refrain from speaking and walk by Nita as though she didn’t exist. As you might suspect, she viewed his behavior as rejection. What both of them failed to see was that neither could emotionally afford to be vulnerable or to openly ask for the love they desired. It was easier to find fault and maintain distance than risk getting hurt. He didn’t realize that her criticism was the only way she knew to ask for emotional involvement. She was unable to see that his withdrawal wasn’t an indication he didn’t care, but instead stemmed from his fear of falling short of her expectations.
Behaviorally, they seem to share 180 degrees of separation, strongly supporting the notion that opposites attract. However, emotionally, they are exactly the same. They are wounded individuals who were hurt in childhood and who now are unconsciously engaged in pushing each other away. As long as they stay together, without growing, they never will have to look at themselves. They both can live their lives as victims and play the role of martyrs who want love, but fail to get it, because of the dysfunction.
Each of them feels they have no viable choice. They can either stay together, for the children’s sake, continue to feel disappointed and cheated emotionally, or they can divorce. Should they divorce, it’s likely she’ll emulate her mother by rearing her children alone and never remarrying.
Barry, on the other hand, might follow in the footsteps of Nita’s father: remarry unsuccessfully and finally, reluctantly, choose to live alone.
There is, however, another alternative – a healthy one that requires each of them to look at themselves, recognize that there are no victims, only volunteers, and go about growing, changing and becoming the person they want to be, so they can get the same kind of person they’re become. It is a difficult course to set, particularly when you have been habituated to looking outward and blaming others, in order to justify and blind yourself to your own behavior. The truth is that eventually, you have to learn that, when there is a problem, you first need to look inside in order to get out.
I’d have you believe that Some Marriages Work, Some Don’t, but Yours Can, if you put out sufficient effort. To that end, my most recent book, “Warrior, Wimps or Winner,” can aid you to reach that goal.