setting your marriage on fire

She Set Our Family On Fire

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A few months ago my ex-wife and her odd husband sold our marital home for over a million dollars. Last week she asked if I would cosign on my son’s apartment at college. To the tune of $28,000 in liability. “Um, no.” 

Lack of Self-Awareness Kills Relationships

We entered our relationship with a few irregularities. We had known each other in high school. And when we ran into each other 20 years later at a neighborhood coffee shop, the affection was quick and easy. She’s very smart, very pretty, and also a writer. The first hug rubbed her perfume on my neck and I thought about her for the rest of the afternoon. (Hey, maybe this is really what perfume is about?)

We went on a few lunch dates. We began furious flirting via text messages. And… I didn’t know it, but at the time she was living with an older gentleman. Wait, what? She was taking sexy flirts and lunches with me AND living in another man’s house? I didn’t know this until about three months in, when she invited me to lunch on a weekday. “Uh oh,” I thought. “A dear John lunch.”

She said she needed time to sort out her relationship with someone else. She never revealed she was living in his house. She asked that I not contact or text her. And that was it. She was gone. (Blue Cartoon’s She’s Gone, is my reflection of the moment. Maybe the closest song I’ve ever had to a hit. So thanks ex.)

A month or so later, near the end of the summer, she called me on the phone. “I’m done,” she said.

Wonderleaping Into Parenthood

It was clear from the early moments of our negotiations that we both wanted kids. We were in our late thirties, so the timing was of the essence. (Thinking about it, perhaps this is what killed her relationship with the “other man.” He was older and didn’t want kids. Of course, I don’t know that.) But, I do know that her focus with me was on having kids, ASAP.

A few months into the reunion, she was moving into my house. We were taking a walk around the lake and she asked about the timing of having kids. I said, “I don’t think we need to rush into things. We are here. We are committed. Let’s have a little time to just be together.” She burst into tears and then into a rage. “You told me you were ready to have kids! It’s important to me. There’s not a lot of time.”

“There’s not a lot of time.” Hold on to that phrase for a minute, we’ll come back to that urgency.

Within a few tumultuous years, we had two beautiful kids, with 9-11 in the year between them. It was a hard time for everyone. We cocooned and thrived. We built our world around our children and our relationship around being cool and fun parents. I was able to get a new job after 9-11 collapsed my web development business. We struggled over the ocean waves of life. But we were united in our quest to be a great mom and dad. And our kids thrived as well.

The Parenting Transition

At some point, your kids go to school and both parents are left to contemplate their available time. I was working full-time with a one-hour commute both ways, so my time was pretty wrapped up. When the kids were old enough to ride the bus that stopped in front of our house, she began volunteering at school and seeking happiness. She was looking for some meaning beyond being a housewife and mom.

Our “deal” had been for her to be able to meet the bus after school. So, that’s what we did. She worked part-time and was always home to meet the bus at 3:20 pm each day. She found her purpose in being a mom. She volunteered at the school. She dabbled in painting again. She wrote some poems and a short story. Still, she fished around for the joy of life beyond being a mom.

It’s not easy. There are the chores, the bills, the screaming kids, and a husband who occasionally wants to cuddle. But it was my naps on Saturday or Sunday that actually drove her bonkers. “We can’t nap. There’s so much to do. We don’t have time to nap.” Substitute sex for nap and you can see where this is heading.

And then she was unhappy. Very unhappy. I tried consoling her. I got a nanny who could cook and do laundry and take the kids in the afternoons. And my wife continued to thrash. She wanted to be creative, to be happy, to be more than a mom. But she was unable to pull herself out of her own morass. And in this period, when things were hard but not terrible, she came to believe that I was the reason she was unhappy.

Economic and Emotional Collapse

In January of 2009, I was laid off from Dell with a six-month severance package. The first Monday I didn’t have to drive to Round Rock, my wife asked for us to have lunch. “Uh oh,” I thought. I was right.

She did not want me to take a month off. She didn’t want me to take any break at all. “You’ve got to find the next job. Six months is not much money.” She had lost her part-time role at the same time. There was no real discussion about her finding a job. But the crisis was real in her mind. Her husband lost his job. Oh my god, she’s got to find a way to get him back on his feet and out the door, so she can continue her protected life as a full-time mom.

We could’ve done it. We would’ve needed to pivot a bit, maybe sell the house and move to something less perfect. Or, maybe she could also start looking for a job. We could figure it out.

We did not figure it out. Well, to be honest, I sort of figured it out, but she never came out of her fury. She was mad that she wasn’t happy. She was mad that she no longer had a Dell husband providing everything. She was really mad about her own internal confusion, but I was an easy target. So, she focused on how I was the reason she was unhappy. If I’d just find another good job, things would be okay.

The Next Big Job Didn’t Help

After a number of months of austerity, I did get the next big job. On day one I was flown to San Francisco to meet with the head of creative. I was in a fight with my wife the moment I arrived in SF. The company had not put a CC on file for the incidentals yet. So, I gave them my card.

“You promised! No more credit card spending!”

“Wait, what the actual f*ck? I just got the job, honey! We’re going to have money. We’re saved.”

“You are spending money we don’t have!”

“Honey,” I said, trying to de-escalate. “They are going to replace my CC tomorrow. No hotel charges are going to go on our card.”

In her mind, I had lied to her. I was actually being quite transparent. Perhaps she was more afraid that I’d found my “job” and now she would be forced to follow and actually try to get a job. She’d made one or two applications. She’d contemplated becoming a “coder” and tried to get accepted into a university accelerator, that you paid to get trained. I don’t think her freakouts were really related to me or the money. There was some torrent of fear stripping her of her previously confident approach to life.

I was in San Francisco for a few days. I was happy. I was blissful. The creative director didn’t like me. So what. My boss was a bigger boss back in Austin. I was good. We were good. We were saved, all of us.

“Honey,” I said, excitedly. “Come to San Francisco! I’ve got a sweet room. My mom has agreed to take the kids. It would be like a second honeymoon. We might need that about now.”

She wouldn’t have it. Her attention was somewhere else. She was stuck with her big blue ball of yarn, trying to unravel her life’s consequences and what had gone so terribly wrong. She refused to consider my offer.

learn from each other

The Other Person Might Just Be Unhappy

As a man raised by women, I was really susceptible to wanting to rescue or help my struggling partner. I wanted to offer a solution. I wanted to give her more opportunities to “find herself.” But I was not willing or able to suffer the abusive anger that began to flare up at odd times. She was mad. She stayed mad. Heck, 13 years later, she’s still mad. She’s still, somehow, convinced that her unhappiness is my fault.

Perhaps the idea of “happiness is an inside job” has not arrived in her soul or therapy. My ex-wife is extremely unhappy. She’s remarried to a seemingly equally unhappy man. Perhaps that’s working for both of them. The way it played out in my kids’ lives, is she stopped involving me in parenting about two years in. Just decided she no longer needed to include me in anything about the kids or school or doctors. Nothing.

When she asked for a modification to our parenting schedule so she could sync with her boyfriend. I agreed. She didn’t get any happier. But she did take her focus off me for a while. She looked happy in the wedding photos the kids shared. But that honeymoon had a short fuse.

It is possible that some people are oriented to unhappiness and blame. If they don’t seek and get help, I suppose, they lead relatively unhappy lives. That is no longer my problem, but it is my kids’ problem. I’m always surprised when my ex-wife or her husband does some destructive shit to the kids. Still, as college-aged young adults, she is sabotaging their independence. She is still the RESCUE mom.

Here’s the thing, they don’t need rescue. My ex-wife does. She needs to be the rescuer. Perhaps that provides a moment of escape from her joylessness. How do I know? I don’t. She’s just unhappy and mean. And her husband is just like her. Perhaps they magnify each others’ OCD qualities. They have made it impossible to have a conversation about our kids, about anything. I suppose that’s the way both of them want it. Marginalize me.

I Win

I am still a loving and happy presence in my kids’ lives. I’m super close to my daughter. I’m repairing with my son, but Mom is still in there sewing *bs*. That’s okay, we’ll get through it. I’m not so optimistic about my ex and her husband. I can imagine us glaring at each other at a future wedding, baptism, or celebration. It’s a shame that the two of them can’t see the benefit of being a decent human being to the father of the two kids. But then they’d have to examine why they have always treated me so poorly. Perhaps that’s why they rage, isolate, and maximize evening avoidance with substances both legal and illegal. Not judging. Much. (grin)

She still sets our family on fire. Someday, she will either burn herself up or attain enlightenment.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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