Things weren’t happy in our marriage. Oh, there were some occasional fits and starts where we tried to come back together again, or have a nice vacation together, but these were always short-lived. I seriously doubted my husband loved me, and I made sure SJ was aware of my disappointment in him by finding fault in everything. SJ was maddeningly always polite, always hard working, and always a pacifist–which amounted to conflict avoidance. He dealt with the negativity by increasingly withdrawing and hibernating in his books. It was hard to engage him in communications about the issues in our marriage. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem to find me sexually attractive, why he never pursued me, but I didn’t want to come off as prideful. I realized that I was a highly sexual person who needed lots of touch and intimacy to feel loved; he was not wired this way, but I didn’t understand why not. He seemed completely uninterested in intimacy at this stage, and I began assuming it was a deficiency on his part. I never once considered how my lack of respect and support had shut him down. Eventually I began to think that he was just doing the “responsible thing” and sticking with his vows–probably more for the kids than me.
For as long as I can remember in our marriage, I always had an escape plan in the back of my mind. There were actually some unspoken viable options for me to leave and have housing, and possibly the support of my family. There was the consideration of returning to the Foreign Service where child care and schools would be easier. The fact remained that SJ was a wonderful dad, very involved in all aspects of their lives include baths, bedtimes, coaching sports teams, scouts, and booster clubs. The kids adored him, and I knew that taking them away from him would always paint me as the bad guy (even if this had been possible– I think he’d have fought me tooth and nail). From time to time I think we both tried to bury the hatchet and call a truce, and try to make things “work,” but it was always short-lived. We went to marriage encounters, did Bible and Christian parenting studies, and eventually went to counseling (I should say, I dragged him to most of these). One counselor told me that as long as I didn’t make good on my threats to leave him, he’d not change. I was told that at our stage of life, soon sexuality wouldn’t be so important in our relationship (this in my 40s)! At one point (15 years in?) the counselor told us both that we had used the kids as an escape from our marriage. At the time I saw clearly that SJ had done this, and I felt certain he would never change (I ignored that I too had escaped). Kids had become number one on his list, and I think I couldn’t truly recall when I’d ever felt number one. I recall this being one of the darkest moments for me, and the time I felt there was no healing for us.
In my anger, frustration, and feelings of rejection and abandonment, I had eaten my way about 90 pounds heavier, and my health was starting to suffer. By contrast, SJ watched his diet and exercised regularly. I knew I was depressed and the only thing that kept me afloat was the count-down until the kids headed off for college, when I’d once and for all make my break. I fantasized about a perfect man, maybe an amalgam of the best all of my former beaus. I even attempted reconnecting with old flames through Facebook, who thank God, were happily married and unwilling to go beyond a playful initial flirtation. I didn’t hate SJ, I had no plans on straying or cheating, but I was lonely and felt abandoned, yearned for affirmation, and for the first time in years, felt very unattractive and embarrassed about my body. I didn’t know if there was anything or anyone better out there for me (after all, who would want me in that shape?), but I knew I couldn’t live the rest of my life like this–we both were clearly miserable.
In February 2012 I started a diet that actually worked. Health issues had scared me into finally trying to take control of my weight. I lost 75 pounds in about 4 months, started to exercise, and felt more confident and energetic. Our oldest would be starting college in the fall, and the twins would start the next year. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, the end of our misery.
About that time, I read a best-selling book that was not my “normal” genre… it was brain candy, escapism, and pretty graphic; I was curious and sucked in by the sexuality and eroticism that had been missing in my life. I knew it wasn’t necessarily the type of literature I should read, but it served to open my eyes about a couple things in myself.
First: It was OK that I was a highly sexual being, and there wasn’t anything wrong with this– it’s how I was made. God’s intention for sexual intimacy and pleasure in marriage was crucial for bonding a couple, forming the one-flesh union. Between a husband and wife, intimacy should have no boundaries, no withholding, and take into account the needs and desires of both. I’d been reading every Christian book or marriage website I could get my hands on, and The Gift of Sex: A Guide to Sexual Fulfillment by the Penners was one of the best I came across. Sex was God’s gift to couples! I was fearfully and wonderful made, and I was made to experience sexual pleasure, intimacy, and love with my husband. I had always just expected SJ to know my needs and desires, silently berating him for not “getting me.” Talking about sexuality had always been uncomfortable for us: first it was that I didn’t want to discourage him with suggestions that might sound like criticism; then there were the lies of faking pleasure which were hard to back off from; later I felt like a whore for “obsessing” about sexuality with my husband. When I gained the weight, I felt he saw me as repulsive. Instead of expressing to him my feelings of rejection and deep hurt of his unwillingness to touch me more and explore pleasure together, I struck back.
Second: I realized that despite all my independence and pride, I wanted to be lead by a strong man, someone who would “dare” to take me in hand, someone to trust completely. Over the years of feeling rejection, I went quiet and deadly, and retaliated by becoming angry, dismissive, sarcastic, belittling, and mean. In retribution for his emotional and physical “abandonment,” I in turn rejected and abandoned him emotionally and by withholding the thing that most men crave: respect. I left no room in my heart for seeing him as a leader.
At night we both hugged the edges of our huge king-sized bed and I began wondering when it would be separate rooms. By day we avoided being in the same room together, kept up the charade to our kids of being “together,” but otherwise interacted like strangers, polite some of the time, dismissive other times. We were very, very damaged, and I didn’t think there was any chance we’d recover from nearly 20 years of this kind of hurt.
But something told me to give it one last try, although I did carefully keep my heart guarded to shield against disappointment. I figured I had nothing to lose by playing my final card.