Monthly Archives: November 2016

Darth Vader Mom

Do you remember the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke fought Darth Vader in the tree on Dagobah? He asked Yoda, “What’s in there?” “Only what you take with you,” the Jedi Master replied.  

The Skywalker father and son saga has always scared me a bit, especially the story of Anakin. A good man turned into a hateful monster, ultimately committing large-scale infanticide before spending all but the last few seconds of his life as a servant of evil. Corny though it may sound, it freaks me out to think of the parallel with my own life. I too started as an innocent child, and then gradually let hate and an irrational obsession with changing the past — changing the unchangeable, controlling the uncontrollable — lead me down a path to crimes my spouse and family could scarcely imagine.

Today, instead of Anakin, I learned to identify with Luke as well. He went into the tree to confront his father, finding his own face inside the image of Vader’s severed head. Themes of struggle against one’s father are more common in our lives than just the work of George Lucas. Uranus, Kronos, and Zeus come to mind.  

But, what about a son struggling with his mother? When I go into the cave and slay my mother, will I find my own face on her severed head? Probably. She is me, and I am her. The mental illness, judgmentalism, obsessive-compulsive tidying, obvious lack of self-esteem, tension between Victorian values and a desire to live a “normal modern” life, underdeveloped empathy, self-pity, and fear of trying new things; all these things are her. And, they are all me.  

Luke entered the tree with fear and anger. And, that’s what he encountered. When I call my mother or — horror of horrors — visit her, I cling to fear and anger. I fear her judgments, her shrill and childish anger, and her never-ending perceived wounds and grudges. I am angry at her for raising me in a Victorian prison, and for poisoning my mind with pettiness and self-doubt.

But, I must leave that fear and anger behind me when I confront her. They will only burden me and cloud my judgment. I’m 46-years old, and married with two sons. My mother’s anger, sighs of disappointment, and petty judgments can’t really hurt me — not unless I allow them to hurt me.

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What’s wrong with Esther Perel?

Here is a new Economist article on Esther Perel that makes her views on infidelity much more clear than previous things I’ve seen posted to infidelity blogs and forums.

As I’ve said before, many of her premisses on why infidelity occurs are in line with those of Rick Reynolds of AffairRecovery.com, it is what she recommends doing about it that goes in a completely opposite direction.

Like her views, hate her views or something in between, that is completely up to you. But, at least know what she really believes before making that decision.

RELATIONSHIPS
WHAT’S WRONG WITH INFIDELITY?
Americans are increasingly intolerant of adultery, but Esther Perel believes they should take a more European attitude. Emily Bobrow met the country’s most celebrated – and controversial – relationship guru

EMILY BOBROW | DECEMBER/JANUARY 2017

Seth and his girlfriend of many years were already engaged when he discovered she had cheated on him. It was only once, with a co-worker, but the betrayal stung. “I had jealousy, insecurity, anger, fear,” he recalls. “It was really hard to talk about it.” He wondered whether his fiancée’s infidelity meant there was something fundamentally wrong with their otherwise loving relationship. He worried it was a sign that their marriage would be doomed. He also still felt guilty about an indiscretion of his own years earlier, when he’d had a one-night stand with an acquaintance. “I knew that what I had done meant nothing,” said Seth, a New York-based entrepreneur in his early 30s. “It felt like a bit of an adventure, and I went for it.” But anxiety about these dalliances gnawed at his conscience. How could he and his fiancée promise to be monogamous for a lifetime if they were already struggling to stay loyal to each other? Did their momentary lapses of judgment spell bigger problems for their union?
For help answering these questions, Seth and his partner went to Esther Perel, a Belgian-born psychotherapist who is renowned for her work with couples. Her two TED talks – about the challenge of maintaining passion in long-term relationships and the temptations of infidelity – have been viewed over 15m times. Her bestselling 2006 book “Mating in Captivity”, translated into 26 languages, skilfully examined our conflicting needs for domestic security and erotic novelty. Recently she has taken her work further, into more controversial terrain. Her forthcoming book “The State of Affairs”, expected in late 2017, addresses the thorny matter of why people stray and how we should handle it when they do. When Perel is not seeing clients in New York, she is travelling the world speaking to packed conferences and ideas festivals about the elusiveness of desire in otherwise contented relationships. After Seth saw Perel speak at one such conference, he sought her out for guidance with his fiancée.

“Esther helped us understand that perfection is not possible in relationships,” he explains to me. With Perel’s help, Seth and his fiancée have come to embrace a relationship they are calling “monogamish” – that is, they will aspire to be faithful to each other, but also tolerate the occasional fling. “It just never occurred to us that this is something we could strive for,” he says. “But why should everything we built be destroyed by a minor infidelity?”

This view may sound sensible, but it remains heretical. Attitudes towards sex and sexual morality have changed dramatically in the past few decades, with ever fewer Westerners clucking over such things as premarital sex or love between two men or two women, but infidelity is still seen as a nuclear no-go zone in relationships. In fact, studies show that even as we have become more permissive about most things involving either sex or marriage – ever ready to accept couples who marry late, divorce early, forgo children or choose not to marry at all – we have grown only more censorious of philanderers. In a survey of public attitudes in 40 countries from the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, infidelity was the issue that earned the most opprobrium around the world. A general survey of public views in America , conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972, has found that Americans are more likely to say extramarital sex is always wrong now than they were throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Younger generations can usually be relied upon to push sexual morality in a more permissive direction, but infidelity is the one area where the young and old seem to agree. In this broadly tolerant age, when so many of us have come around to accepting love in all different shapes and sizes, adultery is the one indulgence that remains out of bounds.

“There is no subject that elicits more fear, gossip and fascination in the realm of couples than adultery,” says Perel. Back when divorce was a shameful prospect, couples grappling with an affair typically found a way to muddle through. Now, however, men and women are often made to feel ashamed if they try to move past a partner’s infidelity, instead of “kicking the dog to the kerb”. This view is particularly popular in America, Perel adds, where “cheating” tends to be seen in purely moral terms. Critics of Hillary Clinton, for example, have long seen her tolerance of her husband’s infidelities as a blot on her character, rather than as a sign that she prioritises their strengths together over his personal weaknesses. This is a problem, Perel explains, because we have never been more inclined to stray.

Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women. Now that more women enjoy financial independence and jobs outside the home, the gap between philandering men and women is narrowing swiftly. “There is not a single other taboo that is universally condemned and universally practised,” says Perel. Basically, cheating is something we don’t want and don’t like, but it is something we do and do often.

Nowhere is the prohibition against infidelity in the West more severe – and the consequences more dire – than in America. “People in the States are massively hypocritical,” says Perel. “They don’t cheat any less than the French. They just feel more guilty about it.” Perel argues that this is because Americans not only have more puritanical views of sex and deceit, but also because struggling with self-control is central to the national ethos. “Everything is exaggerated here, everything is world-famous, the portions are gigantic, it’s all about excess and control. In Belgium you don’t sit and eat a meal and talk about all the things you shouldn’t be eating because it’s bad for you. Being bad is a pleasure.”

Perel wants to change the way we think about infidelity. Instead of seeing it as a pathological and immoral impulse that invariably leaves trauma and destruction in its wake, she wants us to understand that extramarital yearnings are all too natural, and that affairs are terribly, perhaps even inevitably, human. “Monogamy may not be a part of human nature but transgression surely is,” she says. “And sometimes even happy people cheat.” If, like Seth, we want to build relationships that will last, then we may need to share his realism about what such a relationship might look like, and what kind of imperfections we are willing to tolerate. “It’s not that monogamy is impossible to pull off, but a lot of people don’t and many more won’t,” he says to me. “The whole point of this is to maintain a relationship that can exist in happiness for decades. Esther’s been instrumental in helping us figure this out.”

“Infidelity was always painful, but today it’s ‘traumatic’,” says Perel. “This notion that ‘my whole life is a lie, I don’t know anymore what to believe’, or that you apply PTSD to infidelity? That’s a completely recent construct.” Raised in the Francophone Jewish community in Antwerp, Perel speaks with the kind of lilting French accent that could make a shipping forecast sound alluring. Between sips of kale juice at the Soho Grand, a chic Manhattan hotel near her apartment, she is explaining to me why time has hardened our view of adultery.

“It’s because fidelity is the last thing left that defines a marriage,” she says. “You don’t need to wait to have sex, you don’t need kids. You don’t even need marriage anymore. The only thing that distinguishes it is that, after years of sexual nomadism, you suddenly say ‘I have finally found the one. You are so extraordinary that I am no longer looking for anything else. For you I promise to be suddenly exclusively monogamous’.” The only hitch, says Perel, is that sexual nomadism doesn’t prepare you for exclusivity. “It’s not as though you got it out of your system. Love and desire aren’t the same thing.”

Perel has a refreshing way of talking about sex. Particularly in America, where schools still tend to advocate abstinence and where talk of sex swiftly veers into either smut or sanctimony, her non-judgmental ease with pleasure and desire is rare. Her delivery is also well-served by the fact that, at 58, she is still arrestingly attractive, with misty blue eyes, flaxen hair, an easy smile and an unapologetic way of carrying herself. Dressed in a stylish outfit of flowing bronze silk, which sets off her late-summer tan, she sits with her legs wide and leans forward, her elbows resting on her thighs, her finger- and toe-nails painted the same blood red. “Esther is one of the sexiest human beings I’ve ever encountered,” says Lisa Thaler, a psychotherapist in New York who asked Perel to be her supervisor after hearing her speak. “The way she thinks, the way she inhabits her body, she’s captivating.” When Perel says things like “Good lovers are made, not born,” her seductive confidence makes her easy to believe. Unlike past sex therapists who have become famous, such as the grandmotherly Dr Ruth Westheimer, Perel seems like someone who not only understands sex, but also is very, very good at it.

Seekers of marital advice also like the fact that Perel is still married to her husband of over three decades, Jack Saul, an American psychotherapist and the director of the International Trauma Studies Programme at New York University, whom she met while they were both graduate students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “My husband deals with pain; I deal with pleasure. They are intimately acquainted,” she writes in “Mating in Captivity”. Together they have two sons, both in their early 20s. But Perel typically deflects attention from her personal life, and is quick to say that she is not holding herself up as a model. “Longevity doesn’t make a relationship a success,” she tells me. “My family life and my choices happen to work for me, but my choices aren’t what I am selling to anyone else. There are just as many reasons why I could not be together with him as there are that I am.”

Such humility is unusual among peddlers of relationship advice, particularly in a country where such guidance tends towards the moralistic and where only the happily married seem allowed to dole it out. Yet Perel is eager to make it clear that she is not selling dogma, but rather commenting on the romantic conundrums of our age. “What works for one couple may not be what works for another couple,” she says. “I really don’t think it’s one size fits all.”

Most people – including many couples therapists, particularly in America – assume that if you stray outside the marriage, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the union itself. But Perel argues that our motivations for affairs are far more complicated than that. “In an age of consumerism, an age of entitlement, we are never meant to feel satisfied,” she says.

Past generations may have been able to settle for fairly good marriages and so-so sex. “The old guy was happy to have a women lend him her vessel; the whole thing took four minutes, about as long as it takes to boil an egg. A soft-boiled egg.” But we now live in a culture in which we feel we deserve to be happy, we are entitled to it. “Everyone wants desire these days,” she says. “What is desire? It’s to own the wanting. I want. That’s the essence of consumerism.” Awkwardly for marriage, we rarely desire what we already have.

This is not a new perception, as countless women’s magazine stories entitled “365 ways to bring passion back into your marriage” can attest. What’s interesting about Perel’s work is her nuanced view of the erotic. Infidelity, she believes, is rarely about sex, or even about the other person. Rather, it’s about recapturing “a feeling of aliveness with someone, of playfulness and curiosity, of selfishness” – that is, the very feelings that time and the mundane necessities of life tend to erode in marriage. When we are unfaithful, Perel explains, “it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.”

Desiring people other than our partner is fundamentally, unsettlingly natural. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, argues that adultery even makes evolutionary sense, as affairs allow males to spread their seed, and females to diversify their gene pool and collect a little extra help on the side. But what we once tolerated as an unfortunate fact of life, we now see as traumatic. This, Perel argues, is because we not only expect our carefully chosen soul mates magically to satisfy all of our needs, but also rely on them to anchor us in an otherwise rootless and existentially lonely world.

“Never before has the private domain been the central place where people have to find the answers to all of the important questions of life,” Perel tells me. “People used to have religion, people used to have a community, people used to live with three generations of their family. But today I want my sense of belonging, my sense of identity, my sense of all the big questions of life located in my relationship with my partner and my children.” If our partners have essentially become our bulwarks against the vicissitudes of modern life, then it makes sense that infidelity has become rather more destabilising than it once was.

Yet Americans have a uniquely narrow-minded take on infidelity, says Perel. “Most Europeans see it as an imperfection, and not something worth destroying your marriage over.” But Americans, who tend to see sex as corrupting and approach pleasure with scepticism, often view affairs in more binary terms. “Here there’s a persecutor and a victim, these are the only two options,” Perel says. “The language is criminal. I think that speaks volumes.”

Perel of great price
Esther in her library
Perel’s parents were both the only members of their large Jewish families to survive the Holocaust. Her father, the only survivor of nine siblings, went through 14 Nazi concentration camps and ultimately saved 60 people by creating a black market with a friend in the kitchen of one camp. Her mother made it through nine camps, outlasting every member of her Chasidic family. “If they had done what they had been told they wouldn’t have been alive,” she says. “What’s right isn’t always what people tell you, and the rules are sometimes corrupt and cruel. Those stories came with mother’s milk.”

The story of Perel’s parents is essential for understanding her and her work, she says. Yet she recognised this herself only after she turned her attention to sexuality. Her parents, she explains, emerged from the camps wanting more than just to have survived; they wanted to make the most of every day. “I began to understand eroticism not from the sexual modern definition, but from the mystical definition, as in maintaining aliveness, an antidote to death.”

Couples therapists in America, who number more than 50,000, rarely talk about sex. Most assume that if they fix a couple’s emotional problems, good sex will follow. “Therapists are humans and sex is a topic a lot of humans are uneasy about, so it’s no surprise a lot of therapists are uneasy when it comes to talking about sex,” says Ian Kerner, a New York-based psychotherapist and sex counsellor. Because couples therapists “receive very little training about sexuality and sexual diversity, their social beliefs often end up intruding into their practice without them being aware of it,” adds David Ley, a New Mexico-based psychotherapist who offers sexuality training to mental-health therapists around the country. Sex therapists, on the other hand, mostly deal with the medicalised and pathologised kinks of sexual performance. So couples who wish to talk about their flagging sex life or the appeal of a non-monogamous – or monogamish – relationship often struggle to find a willing therapist. As for infidelity, the lion’s share of America’s therapeutic literature focuses on the needs of the harmed partner and condemns the philanderer.

Perel’s approach is different. Not only does she get her clients talking about sex, ever mindful of the relevance of sexual desire in relationships, but she also sees infidelity as a complicated business that often lacks a clear villain or victim. “Betrayal comes in many forms,” she says. “You can be the person who has steadfastly refused your partner for decades, but then he cheats on you and you’re the victim? The victim of the marriage is not always the victim of the affair.”

Instead of treating an affair like a traumatic wound one partner shamefully inflicts on the other, Perel gets people to talk about why they strayed. “Before I tell a person you have to stop, I want to know: What is it for you? How mesmerised are you? Who are you in your affair?” Rather than punish people for their selfishness, their shortcomings, their lack of self-control, Perel wants to know what made them do it, what they were looking for, and why they felt they needed to stray to find it. “The debate is that once you make it complicated you’re trying to be a moral relativist,” she says. “But working with infidelity is about working with the existential dilemmas that surround commitment and loyalty and fidelity and love.” Sometimes, she adds, if a couple can be guided to ask the right questions and listen for the answers, a crisis of infidelity can help them talk about sex and intimacy in a way that brings them closer together.

This approach has its detractors. “Infidelity is a violation. And when you do something that destroys the well-being of the other person, it’s not neutral, it’s not fair, it’s not love,” says Janis Abrahms Spring, a Connecticut-based psychologist and author of the bestseller “After the Affair”, one of the first books to label infidelity a psychological trauma. “The reason my book has been so successful is because it provided a language that captured the heart of the hurt party and made them feel less crazy and alone. For Esther or any therapist to in any way minimise that pain is to retraumatise the traumatised patient.”

Others criticise Perel for her view that loving couples might struggle with desire. Psychologists who promote the attachment theory of human relationships argue that our most fundamental need is to create secure bonds with others, and it is only when we feel secure that we achieve emotional and erotic satisfaction. “Exclusive, positive-bonded relationships are the opposite of ‘captivity’,” argues Sue Johnson, an Ottawa-based clinical psychologist and couples therapist. “And secure attachment really precludes active deception. To suggest that people in happy marriages seek affairs is all kind of a fabrication. People have affairs because they get lonely, because they can’t connect with their partner. They tend to be into thrill-seeking and not into long-term relationships.”

John Gottman , a well-known American psychologist and researcher on marriage and parenting, sent me an e-mail in which he condemned Perel for having “very little clinical sensitivity, so her intuitions about people are almost always way off the mark”. By way of example, he recalled a video Perel presented at a professional meeting in which she treats a couple after an affair. “She asked the hurt wife to empathise with her husband’s pride at his prowess at sexually satisfying his affair partner. ‘Go ahead,’ she told the wife, ‘validate what a great lover your cheating husband thinks he was toward the other woman.’ We thought this was not only misguided but unethical and abusive. So she’s dead wrong. Basically about everything she says.”

Perel is not alone in proposing that we are guided by often conflicting impulses; the work of psychologists such as Stephen Mitchell and David Schnarch has paved the way for her. Evolutionary anthropologists such as Fisher have also found that humans are quite capable of feeling a deep attachment to one partner, an intense romantic love for someone else and a desire for hot sex with quite a few others. “We don’t have one fundamental human need, we have many,” says Perel. Or as Kingsley Amis once said of his own libido: for 50 years it was like being chained to an idiot.

But Perel’s charisma has raised the profile of this approach. She has become a mentor to many in her profession. When we meet in her Fifth Avenue office, just above Manhattan’s Museum of Sex (remarkably enough), she has just finished addressing nine established therapists who have sought her out for guidance – her second monthly meeting with therapists that day. Afterwards she will hop on Skype to advise a group of psychologists based in Israel, Hebrew being one of the nine languages she speaks fluently.

“Esther is really defusing the ticking time bomb at the heart of so many of our long-term relationships,” says Dan Savage, an American pundit who coined the term “monogamish” and is the author of “Savage Love”, an internationally syndicated relationship and sex-advice column. “We define cheating as a relationship extinction-level event, and then we stand around with our thumbs in our butts wondering why marriages don’t last.” Perel’s aura, adds Savage, helps spread her message. “When I say maybe you shouldn’t have a heart attack and die if there’s one or two infidelities over the course of a 50-year marriage, I’m one of those gay people who can’t keep it in his pants. When she says it, she’s a nice married lady who has dedicated her life and a great deal of her work to marriage counselling and trying to save relationships. I’m in awe of her. I just think she’s a genius, and incredibly insightful.”

Does her approach work? The question is irresistible, but also unanswerable, because “work”, in this context, can mean any number of things. Some couples never get past an affair, says Perel. Infidelity can become “a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge and self-pity”. Others use adultery to expedite the collapse of a failing relationship. But after years of following up with couples she has treated, Perel has found that the ones who continued to thrive were those who used an affair as a catalyst for change. Of course it is natural to react to a betrayal with interrogations, injunctions, and near-forensic searches of phone messages and credit-card statements, she warns, but such things never quite allay anxieties that a partner will cheat again. It is only when couples stop scavenging for the sordid details and instead ask more probing questions about the meaning of an affair that they can figure out whether their relationship is based merely on exclusivity or whether it is grounded in the rarity of their connection.

“Maybe you really work to build a lifelong relationship that strives for monogamy but doesn’t expect it, at least not perfectly,” says Seth. “Talking about these things can be very scary at first, but it’s a process of getting rid of neuroses and insecurities. An irony is that infidelity actually makes your relationship more stable. Your partner is thinking, ‘Oh my god what other relationship am I going to find where someone is this secure that I can wander occasionally and still come back.’ It becomes another reason why you stay together.”

Although Perel became an American citizen in 2013, she remains a perennial outsider – a Jew in Antwerp, a Belgian in Israel, where she went to university, a European in America. This distance, and her way with languages, lends some heft to her observations of universal urges and local idiosyncrasies. Marcelo Bronstein, a friend of Perel’s for over 20 years, recalls going to a Spanish bookstore in a small Chilean beach town some years ago and spotting a sign that read “Sorry, we are out of ‘Mating in Captivity’.” “I thought, what is it about this Belgian woman that she can speak to these people in Chile? It’s as if she sees the patterns of humanity across cultures.”
Perel’s status as a foreigner also seems to give her licence to say things that might be off limits to insiders. She can be amusingly merciless in her take on her fellow Americans, and the naive way we seem to think “there’s a solution to everything.” In France, she explains, “a smart book is a brilliant ramble. The smarter it is, the more unintelligible it is. Here the art is about simplifying things. Six steps, seven steps – God forbid you go above seven! But the dilemma of modern love is a complicated situation, it’s not five steps!”

It will certainly take time before Americans soften their view of infidelity. Seth admits that he rarely talks about his “monogamish” relationship, “because it’s so taboo”. Yet he says that when he has opened up about it, at least among more progressive friends, “it’s almost like we’re heroes, like we’re inspirations to people who are thinking the same thing or are curious about it.” The fact that he and his fiancée have a good relationship and “are not like some hippy, dippy couple out on the fringes” often reassures people, he adds. “People seem glad to know that it can be done.”
This makes sense. In a country with so little tolerance for human frailty, where the pursuit of perfection often yields more shame than satisfaction, Perel’s message offers some solace. Perfection, she says, is impossible in even the best relationships. “A great relationship”, Perel insists, “is an imperfect one.”

“Rock bottom” is not the bottom, it is the tipping point

Chapter 27 of Recovery Nation continues talking about compulsive rituals and compulsive chains. But, I found some welcome nuggets of wisdom:  

“Over extended periods of time, the patterns become so ingrained that often, only the most significant of negative emotional events are capable of triggering a willingness to eliminate these behaviors from their life. Many have come to identify such an event as “hitting rock bottom”. . . . A person’s life can always get worse; just as it can always get better. And so, ‘rock bottom’ becomes the time in a person’s life when the positive emotional stimulation received from engaging in such behaviors become incapable of balancing the overwhelmingly negative feelings that the person is experiencing. Catastrophic events such as divorce, imprisonment, passing life milestones (e.g. age, career, family) — ironically, events that are often the consequences of the very behaviors they were comforting themselves with — are all capable of producing emotions strong enough to trigger a ‘rock bottom’ situation. Not the possibility of these events, mind you…but the events themselves. For these patterns to change, the person must experience the realization that the choices that they have made in their life were wrong. Not morally, but wrong for the life that they want to live. Most often, this is accomplished at a time when they realize that no amount of compulsive behavior will allow them to re-establish a sense of emotional balance.”

The foregoing paragraph is a good description of the role D-day played in my life. D-day is what we call the day my wife discovered that I had been deceitful and adulterous. For me, that was rock bottom because it made the possibility of losing my wife, my best and only friend, real and urgent.

The exercise for this chapter asks me to give two examples of compulsive chains in my life. As with chapter 26, I think I have exhausted what I have to say about compulsive behavior in my life. I’m eager to move on to the next unit of Recovery Nation.

Skeletons in the closet 

Have you ever thought seriously about that old figure of speech? “Skeletons in the closet” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that today is the first day in my 46 years of life that I actually imagined — fully imagined — how I might feel if I were to actually come across a skeleton in my closet.

Picture it. You’re moving about your house, perhaps getting ready for work or school in the morning, or maybe making breakfast with your family on a weekend. You’re happy, or at least content. You’re a bit groggy, working on your first cup of coffee. You’re talking about world events, family business, and things you share only with your spouse and children. In this pleasant state, you walk to the bedroom closet to look for something you need quickly. Alone for a moment in the slightly dark closet, you suddenly brush against something cold and hard, something that should not be there.

Your blood runs cold. A chill runs through you. A wave of shock hits you in the head. As you turn and look around, you find yourself face to face with a human skull. Panic wells up throughout your body. You suddenly remember with increasing clarity the moment, years ago, when you had hidden that skeleton there, assuming neither you nor anyone else would ever find it again. You get a flash of crystal clear memory of the moment you had placed that skeleton there, five years ago, quickly and carefully hiding it in a part of the closet no one but you ever accessed.

You’re caught red-handed. And, you are the person who apprehended you. You find yourself in the surreal situation of remembering that you had a double life, that there once was another you, that you were once a different person.

That happened to me on a recent weekend morning. I was making breakfast with TL and our two young sons. We were relaxed. The tone was happy. TL pleasantly and matter-of-factly recalled the day, probably five years ago, when we had taken on a new babysitter for the boys, one whom we all recall fondly. We had called her into service that first time because our previous babysitter had cancelled only a day or so prior to a big event TL and I were to attend together.

Right then it hit me, the heartbreaking memory of what I was doing and where I was at the moment the old babysitter had called and texted that she had sprained her ankle. At the time of her call, I was driving back from having searched for a prostitute.

I still can’t recall whether I had indeed found a prostitute that evening. But, I was definitely driving back from the area where they commonly walked. There I was, pulled over to the side of the road to see who was calling and why. At that moment, my two double lives collided. As I was sneaking my way home from a hurtful, dangerous, illegal, and selfish endeavor, I was suddenly snapped back into thinking about how to arrange babysitting so TL and I could go out together to do something special to us as a couple.

That memory popped up the other morning when I least expected it. I had not avoided it. I had forgotten it was there. My heart stopped for a moment. I had a sinking feeling. I was flushed with fear and shock simultaneously.

I was briefly so very happy to hear TL remember such a good time in our lives, as we prepared for the big event. At the same time, I was heartbroken to recall that under the shadows, in that same day I had been so deep into a shameful, hurtful, wasteful double life.  I envisioned Sadness touching the memory vessels in Inside Out and turning them blue.  I cried. Inside, to myself, I cried.

I knew I had to tell her. I feared how it would affect her. I remembered my promises, to find those memories and share them. I remembered her pleading for more memories and me knowing that they would only come like this, in shocking, unexpected assaults in the darkness as I stumble through the minefield of life, the minefield of memories.

But, that’s how I find those memories. I actively search for more. But, when I actively search, I find nothing. They are too deeply buried in 46 years of love, hate, fear, joy, and everything in between, including punch-drunk numbness.

The memories I find to share with TL almost always hit me like this, when I least expect them. That’s when I know they are genuine and clear. That’s the moment when fear and shame about the memory meet up with a small dose of relief that I did find a memory, and a small dose of hope that sharing the memory with TL will help restore her sense of safety and perhaps bring us a bit closer together.

I guess this memory is actually creating a new memory, even as I speak and write about it. The new memory is sad, tearfully sad, but little streaks of wisdom and even hope appear if I strain my eyes.

How do I know I love my wife?

This is a tough question. I am firmly convinced that I love TL. I also believe I did not understand how to love anyone, including perhaps myself, before D-day. I believe it took post-D-day shock and studying for me to learn that love is not judgmental and that love is wanting the best for the other person.

Can I prove to anyone, myself included, that I love her? Can I explain to anyone, myself included, how I know I love her? Maybe not. I don’t know.

I know how I feel. I want to be with her. I’m attracted to her. I’m proud of her. I depend on her. Yes, ironic though it is for me to say this, I trust her. I feel safe with her. Being with her is being “home.” I can relax in her presence, mostly. I share almost all of her opinions about politics, religion, society, and the world.

I do want the best for her. I do want her to be safe and happy. She is the single most important person in my life.

It will undoubtably remain difficult now for me to prove to TL, or to observers, that I love her. As a beginning, I can prove to myself that I love her by remembering I want her safety and happiness above all else.

Did I consciously seek to hurt or humiliate my wife?

TL is firmly convinced that I actively and consciously wished to harm her and humiliate her. I am convinced that is not true, and that instead I thoughtlessly hurt and humiliated her through my self-centered and non-loving behavior. To use an analogy, I was not a cold-blooded murderer, but I was a dangerous drunken driver. That’s not to say that my actions were beyond my control. No, I was in control and my choices. But, I chose selfishness, not premeditated attacks.

I cannot prove my contention. I could even be wrong about it. Maybe in my sick jealousy and feelings of inferiority vis a vis my wife I subconsciously wished her emotional harm. Maybe that is what happened. I don’t really know.

I believe my actions came from selfishness, self-centeredness, and disregard for my wife and everyone else. Why can’t that be the answer? Must it be that I consciously chose to harm and humiliate my wife, not just as a result of my actions, but also as a motivation for my actions?  

This is not a rhetorical question. I’d really like to hear some other points of view on this.

My therapist says it’s not uncommon for people as sickly selfish as I was to make irrational choices. I think she’s right.

To remind the reader of some examples, I humiliated my wife by going out in public with an affair partner in settings where friends and colleagues might very well have figured out what I was doing. In another example, I slept with dangerously unclean prostitutes in a disease-ridden environment and then failed to use protection with TL.

Was a desire to hurt and humiliate my wife the motivation for such behaviors on my part? I don’t think so. I sure hope I’m right about that. Right or wrong, I regret my actions and I will do anything I can to attempt to repair the damage.

“The work:” reading, practicing and journaling 

On another day without Internet today, what can I do next in terms of introspection and “doing the work?” I suppose the Internet is not essential for this work. I was again stuck in a long portion of Recovery Nation that seemed to me to be redundant. 

I need to think of something deeper, new, and innovative. But, those types of thoughts don’t come often, and they can’t be manufactured.

In my last post I left off talking about starving the bad wolf. That, if I recall from my behavior psychology class, is cognitive conditioning. I do think it is helping.

So, how should I devote time to it each day? Reading, on the topic of recovery, seemed to make sense to me. That’s one thing I liked about Recovery Nation: that it provided a structure for relevant (somewhat) reading.

When unable to use the Internet for reading, I think “practicing” or “exercising” good thoughts and good behaviors makes sense. Isn’t that why many people of faith — any faith — use prayer and meditation?

I suppose the other thing I can do, and am doing, is journaling. I think that’s partly what I’m doing with this blog.

Taking stock: how far I’ve come and where next

I’m not going to list all the work I’ve done here. But, let me metaphorically take my pulse.  

I have no desire to do anything selfish, dishonest, adulterous, or hurtful. I have no doubt that I am in control of my decisions. I have built as much transparency into my life, work, and marriage as I can. I have organized my time and my priorities in a way that focuses narrowly on the most important tasks relating to family, work, and maintaining a healthy mind, body, and soul. There is so much light and so much focus in my life that there is no room for selfish thoughts or pursuits. More importantly, my decisions are motivated by integrity, loyalty, and compassion.

So, what now? What work should I do now? And, how and why? I believe I’ve identified the thoughts, or types of thoughts, that are the prime risk factor, motivator, or cause of my long history of conscious decisions to be selfish, dishonest, adulterous, or hurtful. Those were thoughts of self-pity, associated with feeling inferior, jealous, or threatened with regard to sexuality, sexual history, and sexual experience. Those were the thoughts that made me angry, and made me feel entitled to “catch up” or “correct the imbalance.”

So, I feel confident, as I said in the beginning of this writing, that I will not respond badly to such thoughts of anger and entitlement. Is my next task to reach a point where such thoughts never even come to mind at all? If so, I’m making good progress. The last time I was really pursued by such thoughts was approximately June of 2014.  

Is that good enough progress? I hope so. But, I don’t know. Since I don’t know, it might be best to keep trying to develop a way to prevent such thoughts from ever recurring. How do I do that? One good therapist talked a lot about the value of creating new neural pathways. In other words, practice makes perfect. If I exercise my “good thinking muscles” they may become stronger. If I neglect my “bad thinking muscles” they may atrophy. I should feed the good wolf. That seems quite logical to me.

Can I kill the bad wolf by starving it? Maybe. Should I? I think so. Why not? These questions are a big part of my work going forward. Does that seem like the right direction? 

(Yes, I should ask my current therapist too. She, by the way, contends that therapy should be finite. I’m not yet sure why.)

Passive-Aggressive

Wikipedia references several sources on PA behavior, I’ve included three that seem to really hit home when I think of MindlessCraft.

In conflict theory, passive-aggressive behavior can resemble a behavior better described as catty, as it consists of deliberate, active, but carefully veiled hostile acts which are distinctively different in character from the non-assertive style of passive resistance (Simon, 2010).

Passive-aggressive disorder may stem from a specific childhood stimulus (e.g., alcohol/drug addicted parents, bullying, abuse) in an environment where it was not safe to express frustration or anger. Families in which the honest expression of feelings is forbidden tend to teach children to repress and deny their feelings and to use other channels to express their frustration. For example, if physical and psychological punishment were to be dealt to children who express anger, they would be inclined to be passive aggressive (Johnson,1999).

Children who sugarcoat hostility may have difficulties being assertive, never developing better coping strategies or skills for self-expression. They can become adults who, beneath a “seductive veneer,” harbor “vindictive intent,” in the words of US congressman/psychologist Timothy F. Murphy, and writer/practicing therapist Loriann Oberlin (2005).

Murphy and Oberlin (2005) also see passive aggression as part of a larger umbrella of hidden anger stemming from ten traits of the angry child or adult. These traits include making one’s own misery, the inability to analyze problems, blaming others, turning bad feelings into angry ones, attacking people, lacking empathy, using anger to gain power, confusing anger with self-esteem, and indulging in negative self-talk. Lastly, the authors point out that those who hide their anger can be nice when they wish to be.

Besides the fact that Mindless is discussing this topic recently, I bring this up for another reason. I think I have known for a long time, deep inside, that part of MindlessCraft’s acting out was meant to get back at me, at women in general, without those in his real life knowing anything about it. PA really explains it well, really clicks in a way nothing else has. It also explains to me why I am stuck in moving ahead. On some level, possibly (maybe even probably) subconsciously, he wanted to cause me this pain, he wanted to break me. Now that it has happened, he wishes he had not done it, had not held onto to so much anger and angst about the opposite sex for so long. But, I paid the price for him having to learn what he should have learned years ago.

And, I’m broken and I don’t know how to pick-up those pieces. And, now I see a man where a scared, angry boy once stood. And, now I see a man, a husband, a father who wants to heal the damage he has caused. And, now I see a woman who is a scared little girl who just wants to hide away in her cocoon. And, now I see a woman who so wants to be strong and lift herself up yet again, be the mom her children need, be the woman she needs, but who is just too tired to make it happen.

References:

Johnson, JG; Cohen, P; Brown, J; Smailes, EM; Bernstein, DP (July 1999), “Childhood maltreatment increases risk for personality disorders during early adulthood”, Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 56 (7): 600–6, doi:10.1001/archpsyc.56.7.600, PMID 10401504

Murphy, T. and Hoff Oberlin, L., (2005), Overcoming passive aggression: how to stop hidden anger from spoiling your relationships, career and happiness, New York: Marlowe & Company, p. 48, ISBN 1-56924-361-1, retrieved April 27, 2010

Simon, George (2010), In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, Parkhurst

 

 

Values-based decisions, not emotion-based decisions 

Chapter 25 of Recovery Nation starts to sound relevant again. “Because when all is said and done, there is no such thing as compulsive behavior. At least, compulsive to the point where you have no control over your actions. As you will learn, all behavior has the potential to be broken down at the time it is experienced. All “compulsive behavior” can be stopped. All can be turned into rational, values-based decisions…rather than perpetuated as an emotional response. Any person who acts ‘compulsively’ is in truth, acting through emotional immaturity.”

I was also struck by this passage, which addresses the observer’s incredulity that I did so many things that were not only selfish, but also irrational, illogical, and self-defeating. “Because you are relying solely on your emotions to guide you, you are unable to engage in a rational decision-making process — something that is key to a long-term, healthy, fulfilling life. When basing your decisions on emotions, you are unable to consider the long term consequences of your actions in your decision-making process. You are unable to see the reality of the situation that you are facing. Intellectually, you may very well understand the consequences of your actions, but emotionally…they don’t register. And they won’t until those consequences are put into play — which by that time, is almost always too late to be useful.”

The homework, if I understand it, is to list the elements of one of my own compulsive rituals, perhaps with notes about the beginning, point of no return, and end of the ritual. Let me try one.

Compulsive ritual: tidying or “to-do listing”

I see something untidy or think about the several things I want to or have to do. (Beginning)

I feel overwhelmed and anxious.

I tell myself it won’t take long to tidy a certain area or to complete a certain task.

I begin the task. (Point of no return)

I run low on time for higher priority tasks, rest, or investment in relationships.

I feel overwhelmed and anxious. (End)

Passive-aggressive personality disorder 

The New York Times “Health Guide” has an article by this name. It lists the following symptoms:

Acting sullen

Avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness

Being inefficient on purpose

Blaming others

Complaining

Feeling resentment

Having a fear of authority

Having unexpressed anger or hostility

Procrastinating

Resisting other people’s suggestions

From the foregoing list, these key words stand out as familiar to me:

Sullen

Blaming

Resentment 

Fear

Anger

Resisting 

Trying not to be passive-aggressive, part 2, revisited 

Upon further reflection, maybe there are a couple more possible subconscious passive-aggressive behaviors I have used.

5. “You just want everything to be perfect.” “When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated passive aggressive strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely, but unacceptable manner.” I didn’t think this one was applicable, but maybe it is. TL has long told me to fully scrub all dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. I have often said I would do so, only to later get sloppy and stop doing so — or to stop doing it thoroughly. I didn’t do this to spite her. But, I think I did it because I valued my laziness more than I valued her rule.  

7. “Sure, I’d be happy to.” Again, maybe I did do this. I believe I have stopped. But, in years past, I had a habit of offering to get together with someone socially, to host something, or to get the tab at a restaurant while assuming, and perhaps hoping, the listener would politely decline. Maybe this was also a subconscious passive-aggressive behavior. I don’t know. I had always thought it was just a bad habit, learned partly from my patents. When it comes to paying the tab at a restaurant, I learned my lesson about that long ago, on my own. But, I suspect it did take me longer to learn to not offer social commitments insincerely. In any case, I don’t do this anymore

Trying not to be passive-aggressive, part 2

In my last entry on this topic I talked about a terrible example of me promising to protect my wife, promising to use condoms, and then, subconsciously succumbing to my own inner selfishness and laziness, failing to honor my commitment. Just as an aside, another stupid aspect of this is that I suspect condoms would actually improve our sexual experience because I tend to ejaculate too quickly with TL without condoms. Anyway, while I hope I’m not too late to find some way to demonstrate my genuine concern for TL’s safety — greater than for my own selfishness — let me consider other examples of bad behavior that could potentially be labeled passive-aggressive.

4. “I didn’t know you meant now.” “On a related note, passive aggressive persons are master procrastinators. While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with passive aggressive personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.” Is this what I did when I failed to get a therapist immediately after our most recent move, failed to keep up on “the work” after our move, and failed to get a vasectomy until reminded? Consciously, no. I clearly remember that I did not create a conscious strategy for avoiding or delaying those tasks.  

But, did I subconsciously delay as part of a habit of passive-aggressive behavior? Maybe. How can I tell? What can I do about it? I’m not sure. I hope that awareness of my own tendencies and habits goes a long way toward helping me recognize such things in the future and nip them in the bud.

5. “You just want everything to be perfect.” “When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated passive aggressive strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely, but unacceptable manner.” Though both my mother and my wife have accused me of this behavior, I am sure I never did this. Nonetheless, I should probably watch myself for this in the future.

6. “I thought you knew.” “Sometimes, the perfect passive aggressive crime has to do with omission. Passive aggressive persons may express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information when it could prevent a problem. By claiming ignorance, the person defends inaction, while taking pleasure in a foe’s trouble and anguish.” Again, I have not done this as part of a conscious strategy. My many lies of omission were motivated by either cowardice or by an active (aggressive-aggressive) intention to deceive. Again, I should watch myself for this behavior in the future.

7. “Sure, I’d be happy to.” Have I ever said something like this, knowing I would not follow through? I have never consciously done this in my marriage. If I ever did it in another context, it was so far in the past that I don’t remember it. Again, I should watch myself for this.

8. “You’ve done so well for someone with your education level.” No, I have always hated when other people said things like this, and I have always actively tried to avoid saying things like this.

9. “I was only joking” “Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive person who expresses hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways.” Yeah, I’ve done this before. It wasn’t until D-day that I began to look back and realize just how much I had done it and just how inappropriate it was. And, I have made a concerted and — I believe — successful effort to stop doing it.

10. “Why are you getting so upset?” “The passive aggressive person is a master at maintaining calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his or her indirect hostility, blow up in anger.” No, this was not one of my behaviors.

Trying not to be passive-aggressive 

This week we talked a lot about passive-aggressive behavior. The first thing I noticed was that the examples in the articles I read seemed quite familiar, unlike when I read about sex addiction or sexual compulsion, narcissism, or sociopathy. I can see examples of passive-aggressive behavior in my past. It really appears childish. In fact, it is frustrating when I see it occasionally in our children too. I recognize I need to be vigilant, watching myself for this kind of behavior, and to keep working to eliminate it. At the same time, I think I’ve improved measurably on this issue in recent years.

I read “10 things passive-aggressive people say,” by Signe Whitson. Here are the top three things she listed.

1. I’m not mad.” “Denying feelings of anger is classic passive aggressive behavior.” It has been so long since I’ve done this that I can’t even recall a specific example. But, I’m sure I’ve done this in past years. Now, however, behaving with integrity and courage are two of my highest goals. I consider integrity and courage as guiding values when I decide how to conduct myself in daily life. I don’t avoid people when I leave the office in a timely manner. I don’t hesitate when someone asks me any question at work or in public. I don’t wait to tell people I disagree or that I feel mistreated.

2. “Fine.” “Whatever.” “Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive aggressive person.” I certainly recall being, correctly, criticized for pouting when I was a child. Though I can’t recall specifics, I remember feelings of sulking and pouting in the course of our marriage. I vaguely remember feeling so afraid of or exhausted by discussing disagreements with my wife that I sometimes just capitulated, while growing bitter about having done so. I try so hard not to do this today. The last time I did it was so long ago that I can’t recall.

3. “I’m coming!” “Passive aggressive persons are known for verbally complying with a request, but behaviorally delaying its completion.” This is the behavior that really seems worrisome to me. I know my wife and I continue to be disappointed by specific instances of me saying I would do something and then failing to follow through.  

The most timely example is about condoms. Here’s the gory, but necessary, background. This is the inadequately short version of the story. Ten or so years ago I got herpes from a prostitute in an undeveloped and unclean country, I hid the fact from TL, using a variety of dishonest tactics, until final D-day. I did not begin using condoms or medication with TL, telling myself that careful timing regarding outbreaks would be adequate. It was not.  

Two-and-half years ago TL was diagnosed with herpes. I continued to have sex with her, rarely using condoms. In the past couple of months we have talked a lot about my failure to use condoms. I purchased some condoms and vowed to never again have sex with her without condoms. Yes, she already has herpes and we have both tested negative for all other diseases tests can find. But, we, including doctors, don’t know what we don’t know.  

The reason I describe all this here is to question whether my failure to use condoms was a passive-aggressive act. Was I consciously refusing to use condoms to hurt TL? No.  

Was I consciously refusing to do so because I innately valued my convenience and my pleasure more than her well-being? No, not consciously.  

What about subconsciously? Maybe. On some level, I had apparently chosen my convenience and pleasure over TL’s physical and emotional safety. It was not a conscious choice. Nonetheless, it was my choice.  

Does that make me someone who can never again be trusted to choose TL over myself? I don’t know. I hope not. At least, unlike before, I now see what I have been doing, and can watch myself for similar failings in the future.  

Is it enough? Would she be safer leaving me? I don’t know. I hope I’m not too late, again.

Sexual compulsion still?

Lesson 24 of Recovery Nation says:
“I. Create your own Wheel of Sexual Compulsion that is more closely related to your behavior. This can be done by simply listing the cumulative elements involved in your compulsive behavior. This shouldn’t take you more than five minutes. List these elements (associated with no particular ritual — but more your addiction in general) in your recovery thread.
II. Choose a real-life example of EVERY major sexual ritual that you engage in (these should be compulsive rituals, not healthy) and break each down into their smallest elements (based on the elements identified in your wheel of sexual compulsion).”

I’m really done with sexual compulsions. It has been approximately 50 months since I have viewed porn, masturbated, or touched a woman who is not my wife. 

Is it possible to study a compulsion that I left behind years ago? 

Is it helpful?

More measuring 

Lesson 23 of Recovery Nation said: “In your recovery thread, share a brief summary of what practical uses the skill of measuring compulsive rituals can have in your recovery.”

I have to confess I am having a hard time seeing where this lesson is going. I look forward to seeing future lessons tie it together more. For now, I guess the value of measuring compulsive rituals in my life might be in reminding me that certain things I do — like mindlessly tidying and following a to-do list — are indeed compulsive rituals, and reminding me to watch myself for such behaviors

Intimacy

How the fuck do we find passion and intimacy (not just physical, but emotional) in our marriage? I just cannot stop thinking about how MC used other woman like they were simply means to achieve an end. And, I know I was no different to him. And, even with all the actions and work he does, how can I believe that I am not just some blow-up doll. I don’t feel intimacy when we are intimate.

I want to experience intimacy and passion with him, but just feel dead inside. And, I believe sex is sex to him. He doesn’t really feel a difference within himself in the emotional component of our sexual life from before d-day to now. He says he knows he loves me. He says he knows that sex with me is more physically fulfilling than it was with others and always was. Emotionally, however, he really cannot express or find any differences in the emotions he experiences during sex with me since d-day, versus pre d-day. Isn’t there supposed to be an emotional difference in our intimate life? I do know it is not all him on this issue.

My heart is still too often filled with anger and resentment. I’m trying to find my footing. I still contemplate anti-depressants, but I don’t want to turn into my mom and, frankly, in our current location access doesn’t seem likely. And, here I am not wanting to be my mom and, yet, I often spend half my day in pjs (unpacking boxes from our move, but in pjs). I haven’t really gone to gym or pool in a long while. I am just tired of being knocked down AGAIN and again in my life and the thought of lifting myself up AGAIN to yet AGAIN be knocked down by the next something else unknown in the future (likely not even related to MC) is not really enticing. I’m so tired of being knocked down, so I am having a hard time just standing back up.