I understand now that denial was the strongest component in my long-term marriage. I’ve thought it was a “malady” specific to people like me when dysfunction is a personal history. But in my research to understand my own experiences I now understand that denial is typical. It’s self-protection. Sometimes it’s the only thing that takes us from one day to the next. Ultimately, it’s that destructive thing that allows us to not see, hear, or want to know the truth in our relationships, jobs, or in ourselves. (Like me only looking in very small mirrors versus big ones, as if that makes my fat butt not exist.)
When I was about 21, I was in a relationship with an older man, an alcoholic lawyer in Dallas, who was hell-bent on being the most bitter ex-husband in the northern part of the state. His grief and embarrassment was palatable over losing “the love of his life,” a tall, bottle-blonde model who went on to bigger things in New York, finally hitting Hollywood in a few television movies and some short stints on a couple of Aaron Spelling sitcoms.
As he related it, her leaving him was out of the clear blue Texas sky. One day a neighbor called him at the office to ask if he was moving because a truck was backed up to his front door and all his furniture was being carried out. Even as he insisted for weeks that she would come back, his furniture was residing in New York City in the guy’s apartment she’d been seeing for months.
The reality was that their relationship had been fraught with issues from day one and he had many signs leading up to the day she left but ignored them. As he related their relationship to me, ad nauseum, even I understood at that young age that she was gone a long time before she left. When he’d expound on the part when he’d found out about the other man, I would sympathize externally. But my head was really thinking “duh.”
That’s what I think when my mind vomits up so much in hindsight about my own relationship and marriage of 26 years – duh. I can use my standby claim that I had denial by distance since my ex worked out of town most of our marriage. It’s an excuse. At some point, I threw away reason when it came to him and maintained a deep level of denial about so much stuff it is actually laughable. I try to give myself a break. We had a family, a whole life he had very much wanted. I didn’t think he was so stupid to chase more skirts than the entire Navy on shore leave.
During the course of my pursuit of some understanding of the devastation I felt after I filed for divorce, I’ve read some excellent books. One that I’ve passed on to several girlfriends suffering through similar situations is Vicki Stark’s Run-A-Away Husbands which relates story after story of men who walked out of their marriages, seemingly with no notice and typically without the wives realizing most had been having affairs. What most had in common was that once they got through the pain they realized they’d ignored many signs.
Isabel Gillies, writer and actress (Law and Order SUV) wrote two excellent books, Happens Every Day and A Year and Six Seconds about her first marriage break-up resulting from her college professor husband’s affair with a co-worker. Her desperation sustaining the denial, trying to hold on to her family, was heartbreaking. In spite of obvious signs Gillies worked so hard to justify as something else, a few months after they separated he finally confirmed with her that he was indeed living with “the other woman.”
The day I finally got some sort of admittance from my ex, after years of attempting to get him to tell me the truth, I was working at the first job I had after 10 years of taking care of our children. It was a beautiful March morning, but I hadn’t slept the night before because our youngest was sick and I had been trying to reach my ex who wasn’t responding to text messages or calls. By the time I had finished my first appointment selling window coverings (the best job I could get at the time), I could feel the sense of uneasiness rising. When I called the hotel where he was supposed to be working that week and they had never heard of him, I could feel myself beginning to hyperventilate. As I drove to my next appointment, I was gripping the steering wheel so hard my hands had turned white from lack of blood supply and the world was suddenly distorted.
I had suspected him many times. Just a few months before the final straw he had gone to his hometown to attend his alma-mater’s homecoming weekend. He wouldn’t allow me or our son to accompany him, nor did we hear from him at all that weekend. (I later found an old email I had sent to my niece that same weekend stating I knew my ex had gone off to meet his girlfriend. So I knew, but didn’t want to know.)
It was a bitter remembrance months later after I kicked him out, when I found photos his cheating-mate had posted on the Internet of the view from their hotel suite from that same weekend, one he and I had stayed in and made love in numerous times. (He also made me ride in a limo with this truly horrid person to a baseball game a few years before, in which she sat two feet away, glaring at me and huffing and puffing like a blow-fish. Can you imagine their conversation beforehand? “WHADAYAMEAN YOUR WIFE IS GOING?” When I asked him what the deal was with this person, he insisted it was all in my mind.)
That March day, when I finally got him on the phone, all he would admit after a few lame attempts at lying, was repeating what I told him to say, “I’m not where I said I would be and I’m not with who I said I would be with.” What a spineless moron. He then added in a very flat voice, “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”
I kicked him out, filed for divorce, and cried my eyes out for months as much for the pain he’d caused me and for the pain I’d caused myself.
In these situations, there’s plenty of denial to go around. My ex denied he was a heartless, emotionally vacant person. His girlfriend denied she was involved with a married man who was only using her. And then there’s my supreme denial about my entire marriage. There’s no more denial now and, thankfully, no one is lying to me including me to myself.
There’s a great deal of wasted effort and power sustaining denial. Switching all of that to propelling yourself out of a bad marriage, into a healthier, happier life is hugely empowering.