Tragic Grand Opera or Neurosis?
We were talking about divorce and first marriages and this being a dinner party in 21st century America, most of us at the table were qualified to chime in.
Never having been married himself, our host smiled.
“A bachelor,” he said, “is a man who doesn’t make the same mistake once.” And pouring me a club soda, he went on: “But you, Bill,” he said, “didn’t you do it twice?”
Thinking of how my first marriage began, I felt a bite of memory—nostalgia, sweet and bitter at the same time.
A summer weekend on Fire Island, taking the ferry back Sunday night, we got in my car.
“Let’s stay the night at my place,” she said.
I said something about work waiting for me at home, needing to get done before a 9 am meeting with my boss at the office. I was driving 60 mph. She opened the car door and tried to throw herself out.
I can remember the moment; the lawn we sat on afterwards, how shaken we were, the moon above and how beautiful she looked. We were both 22 years old. I asked her why she would try to jump from a speeding car. She said unhappiness made her reckless.
“’I have this fear of being abandoned. Bill, you have to take care of me,’ she said.”
“Magic words,” said Marianne Peck, another guest at the dinner party; an old friend and psychotherapist (MA,MFT. Modesto, CA, 209-631-7099) who specializes in codependency treatment. “And you, Bill,” she said. “When she said that, it made you feel–?”
“Someone as beautiful as she, needing me that much? Preferring death to life without me? Thinking about it today, it sounds very much the way a junkie feels about his meth. Coming home that night from Fire Island, I could have picked her up and carried her to the moon in my arms.”
“Like a tyro gambler winning $10,000 his first day at the track,” said Marianne. “And after the poetry was over, how did the marriage go in everyday terms?”
“It was suffocating. She needed me ever with her; couldn’t even go to the grocery alone.”
“And you went along with being ‘needed’ so much? Bottled up your resentment? Did nothing to change the basic bargain?”
“She was so helpless without me.”
“I still remember the opening line of your first novel,” said Marianne. “‘I don’t know how other guys feel about their wives leaving them,’ it said, ‘but I helped mine pack.’ Was that autobiographical?”
“She met another guy.”
“In effect, she got you both out of the mess?”
“She was less paralyzed by co-dependency than you. Or less addicted to it.”
“Addicted? I wasn’t drinking—that came much later.”
“Gamblers don’t necessarily drink either,” she said and played back one of my favorite ideas. “Addiction is behavior that may have begun as fun but now goes on even though it adversely affects your life and happiness, your finances, relationships and health. The thrill is gone, you hate it, swear you’re going to stop, but you never do.
“Bill,” said Marianne, who knows me perhaps too well, “you were addicted to co-dependency before you were addicted to alcohol but with Wife No. 1 gone, those feelings never got resolved. No wonder No. 2 also ended in disaster. You’ll never be entirely whole until you recognize your part in what happened. She may not want to forgive you, but you must forgive her.”
“I suppose you want me to pray for her too? You’re not a priest; you’re not even my therapist!”
“You’re my friend. Where’d the anger come from?”
“That’s resentment talking,” Marianne said, “an ice cold flame you guard in your heart. Feelings like that will keep you addicted…to alcohol, gambling, food or even to lousy relationships. We bury our feelings and stay tied to the other far longer than is healthy.”
“We know the relationship is suffocating and wrong but we stay in it anyway? That’s what we resent—knowing better but not putting our feelings into action?”
“Resentment is like drinking poison,” Marianne said, “and thinking it will hurt the other. But –“
She did not have to finish the thought. You can hear it at any AA meeting anywhere in the world: and resentment will get you drunk.
To clarify my feelings, I had a more formal talk with Dr. Etty Garber, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“What does not square with the idea that Wife No. 1 was co-dependent on me, that whole marriage seemed to hinge on the reverse: on her taking care of me. If I sat down to read here, she would say the light was better over there…if I put on a blue tie she’d say I’d look better in the red. I felt these infringements too petty to argue with—”
Etty was smiling. This was old stuff to her.
“Whatever you were doing, she wanted to be a part of it…to override your wishes and have you live out one of hers, right?
“It became more serious when she said I was so good at my job it was unfair for the company not to give me a raise. ‘I want you to go into your boss’ office Monday and demand a 10% hike.’”
“She knew nothing of what your boss actually thought of your work, the present-day status of the company’s finances, or that maybe there were others in the office who’d be only too happy to take over your job?”
“She knew none of that but the nagging would not stop. ’I’m only thinking of what you deserve,’ she would say over and over.”
“When someone becomes attached to that degree of codependency, it becomes an obsession. They are determined to take over, manipulate and control the other person. They become so entangled in the other person’s life to the point of being emotionally and sometimes physically parasitic. They portray themselves as sacrificing themselves for the good of the other person while convincing them it is for their own good. Only with insight can they recognize what they are doing—all this controlling—is really for THEIR own good, and that they are not really helping anyone else.”
“I remember saying to her I didn’t like her constantly watching me, even if it was supposed to be ‘for my own good.’ And when I added that I could use a little ‘benign neglect’—”
“She became angry?”
“Blew up in a storm of rage and tears, accusing me of being ungrateful for all the work, care and love she showered on me.”
“You were threatening to take away her image of herself—not as the sad, pathetic soul she suspected she was, but as the noble woman she pictured herself to be, sacrificing herself for your good.”
“If I understand you,” I said to Dr. Garber, “in a codependent relationship, whatever the other does is not good enough unless mediated by the CoDa’s self-insertion into the other’s life.” Read more “the fix”…