Inferno: Descending Circles

We marry our unfinished business…

She is a warm and intelligent middle-aged woman with a clear gaze and a quick smile. She’s also angry. She tells me that she was married for twenty years and had three grown children. Even though she and her husband have been divorced for ten years, she is still feeling angry towards him, grieving for the family she lost, grieving for the pain it caused her children. This sickens and confuses her, and she wants to be free of it. She doesn’t understand how she could still be so angry at a “nice guy.” He wasn’t abusive, didn’t drink or do drugs, and didn’t cheat on her. “It really wasn’t his fault. We just didn’t fit, that’s all. So why am I still angry?”

As we talk it becomes obvious that she has been angry at him not just since the divorce, but in truth since their early marriage. She was deeply committed to their marriage and refused to give up on it year after year even though she felt lonely, sad, and frustrated. “I never wanted a divorce, but I was so unhappy. I thought that if I stayed any longer I would get sick, I would get cancer or something. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but that’s the way it felt.”

And she still can’t understand what the real problem was. “We were two decent, intelligent, responsible people. Why couldn’t we be happy?” She thinks for a minute. “Or I guess it’s more to the point to say, why couldn’t I be happy? He seemed to be fine with the way things were.” She sighs and says ruefully, “Basically he wanted me to just shut up and be happy.”

We talk about her yearning for connection. “I tried for all those years to build a real relationship. Doesn’t everyone want that? Connection? Trust? Support? I thought that if only I could make him understand, we could be happy. I tried being gentle and supportive, I tried books, I tried seminars. I dragged him to four marriage therapists over a period of ten years, but nothing ever worked. For a long time I actually believed that I must be not smart enough, not attractive enough, and that’s why he ignored me. Later I believed that we didn’t have the communication skills that we needed. Eventually I believed that he couldn’t tolerate being close. Just couldn’t do it. How can I be angry at him for that?”

We talk about how common it is for one partner’s desire for emotional intimacy to run smack up against the other partner’s desire to avoid emotional intimacy, and the resulting vicious circles, e.g., the more she pursues, the more he runs away, and the more he runs away, the more she pursues, etc.

As we’re talking about the patterns in their relationship, she suddenly sits straight up with wide eyes. I give her a moment, and finally she says, “Oh my god. I thought that he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t understand, that that was just the way he was, like he was handicapped or something. But that’s not true, is it? The truth is that he wouldn’t do it. He chose to avoid any real connection.”

This has obviously rocked her, and I give her time to think about it. After a few minutes she looks at me and says, “He simply wasn’t going to do it, no matter what, but neither was he going to come out and be honest about that. That’s what he did with pretty much everything. I’d ask him to do something for me and he’d say okay, but he would never do it. Eventually I’d just do it myself, to avoid the unpleasantness. I didn’t want to be a nag. It was like he wore a ‘nice guy’ mask, but his unspoken message was, ‘I won’t come right out and say no, but I will never, ever, do what you want.’”

We talk about the childhood wounds that drive these cycles. He had a depressed, alcoholic mother, and his pattern was: I won’t rock the boat, I won’t challenge anything, I’ll be a nice guy. I will pretend to be caring and cooperative on the outside, but on the inside I will hide myself behind an insurmountable wall. Women are weak and sick and needy; women are contemptible; women are dangerous.

And her pattern was rooted in her relationship with her own raging, rejecting mother: If I’m a good girl will you see me, accept me, love me?  

“I intentionally married someone who wasn’t violent like my mother,” she says, “but no matter how hard I worked at being a supportive and loving and patient wife, I felt abandoned, alone, resentful, unloved, unseen, angry, hopeless, and powerless. Just like I did with Mom.”

When I ask her to consider what her own unspoken message was, she squirms uncomfortably. “My unspoken message to him was, ‘You’re not loving enough, caring enough, present enough, open enough, smart enough, capable enough…’ Basically, it was, ‘You’re not good enough’, which is probably how his own mother made him feel.”

She gets teary. “All these years I thought it was about a lack of love or a lack of skills. But the deeper truth was that there were these little child parts of us that were afraid of being hurt, criticized, and abandoned.

“I’m not angry anymore.” She sighs. “Just sad.”

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