It hits me in small ways. The sense that things aren’t right. Like today, walking around looking at household furnishings, lamps, stuff that even on a good day I struggle to work up much interest in. Yet I caught myself several times thinking things like “that lamp would go well in my place”. My place meaning the house I live in – alone. I’ve mulled this place over in my head over several years; I know it well by now.
It has three bedrooms, this fictional house. Any more than that would probably be unaffordable for a man in my situation who still has a family to provide for. Any fewer, and I wouldn’t be able to make the kids comfortable when they stay. In this fantasy, the ugliness of custody arrangements has been bypassed and we have a 50/50 arrangement that works well for both of us. We are on amicable terms, both of us having acknowledged and accepted that though we want the best for one another, that doesn’t involve being together.
If you asked me where it began, it is of course impossible to know for sure. However I feel like it goes back to the earliest stages, when rather than be brave enough to say “is this right for me?” I instead chose to answer the easier question “is this what makes her happy?”. So yes, it’s my own fault I ended up here. I sold her a false bill of goods. I keep imagining how horrible that would be, to discover that your partner has for years concealed or tried to ignore their own needs simply to keep you happy*. How clearly it would explain the occasional explosive reaction when it all became too much.
Not that I haven’t tried to come clean before. To tell her that my needs aren’t being met. The response there, especially in the early years, was to tell me how selfish I was. I had no frame of reference for this so I just assumed she was correct. In turn I doubled down, tried harder to suppress the needs that weren’t being met. Needless to say, that approach failed.
Eventually though, I began to look further afield. To educate myself. I began to discover that much of what I craved in a relationship was not necessarily abnormal. That in fact, many women enjoyed sex just as much as their husbands. They didn’t view it as a chore, or something they had to “give” as a reward. They were as happy to be affectionate as they were to receive affection. Somewhere along the way I discovered that maybe my needs were not completely ridiculous, but actually were fairly fundamental to a relationship where reciprocity was not a dirty word.
There was – and continues to be – some serious ostriching going on from both of us. Over the years the biggest arguments – the ones over money, sex, religion and the associated education of our children – have never really been resolved. They’ve been spoken about but when I push for resolution, some half-hearted compromise that satisfies neither of us is grudgingly agreed upon.
Back in 2015, when her father had fewer than three months to live, I had a conversation that we’d been avoiding for years. By that time, it had been 7 years since we’d shared a bed, and I was getting fed up of sleeping on the couch. That was just one issue. Our sex life had become dull and perfunctory. We barely talked except to make arrangements for the kids. She refused to acknowledge that we were haemorrhaging money because “we don’t spend anywhere near as much as *insert whatever friends or family we’re being compared to this week*”. The wife in her had all but disappeared, replaced by a mother – an excellent mother – who had no time in her day for me.
Naturally I got nailed for the timing of my message. Now, I chose to bring this up? Now, when her father was close to his deathbed? How selfish. I acknowledge that in many ways it was selfish, however my thoughts at the time were about dealing with the problem while we both cared enough to do so. Another two, three, six months without saying anything, and I’d have walked, the pent-up pain of being ignored except as a provider too much to take.
The things I brought up then – the lack of affection, the money concerns, the sleeping arrangements, the sex life on life support – they’re the same issues we’re dealing with today. That’s why a few months ago, struck with the realisation that it would soon be ten years since we shared a bed, I decided I had had enough. I did what I always do when my thoughts are a jumble and I need to get some clarity on them: I wrote. I wrote to her, telling her why I couldn’t take it any more. It was only latterly I realised that once again I was showing myself to be a coward for the manner in which I approached it – and I only realised that once it was pointed out to me.
No, I didn’t make the decision to end my marriage in isolation. Multiple factors converged to make it an inevitability. Internal factors such as almost no change having happened in our relationship in the two years since we’d last discussed needing to make some big changes. External factors such as realising that I’m not bad or wrong for having desires and needs that she doesn’t have any interest in fulfilling. The thing that made the answer crystal clear for me was realising that I felt happier about the thought of being alone than I did about being with her. And given the years this had gone on, conversation after conversation never really changing any behaviour (from either of us), I felt it was time to end it before it turned ugly.
She refused to accept me leaving. When I told her I don’t love her anymore, she told me she would make me fall in love with her again. When I told her that no matter what, I would ensure she and the kids were looked after and had everything they need, she told me if I really meant that then I wouldn’t be walking away from my family. Heavy blows, delivered with a gentle voice. I had no counter to them. The guilt – always, the guilt – of being the one responsible for my parents’ disastrous marriage; of my own lack of courage to speak up every time I should have; of the impact that my leaving would have on my children: it hit me like a wave and, as ever, I chose the path of least resistance. What makes her happy, as opposed to what I really want.
So here I am, months down the line, having agreed to give making it work another try, when all the while I’m thinking about decorating my imaginary three bedroom house, my kids coming to visit often, and both my wife and I in a better place, knowing my leaving was the right path for us to have taken. And I’m left asking the question, why did neither of us care enough until it got so bad? I’ve made promises to try, and so I try. I’ve been here before, using the conscious to overwhelm the unconscious. To make the exception become the norm. The unusual the usual.
However, hers is not the face I see in my dreams. She’s not the one I think of when I wake. Neither distance nor time without contact really matters in that respect. My heart belongs to another, and I can fool everyone else about that, but I can’t fool myself.
*The irony is not lost on me that this is exactly what is now happening with my lover. I must not let that happen.