I had a wonderful conversation with my wife this morning. We are now able to be honest with each other in ways that we never were before, to talk about these kinds of things.
And in the hazy aftermath, I get it. I understand how it all fits together. And my part in all of this. And the protective order. And the divorce. It is all the script. The script I’ve been living since childhood.
I have been struggling to make sense of all of this since July.
Today, for me, is freedom day. Freedom from myself and from my past. Because I get it. I get it all.
This is going to be a ridiculously long post. But I need to tell the story.
So that I can move beyond it and just be with my wife.
— § —
I wrote yesterday about my relationship cycle. The one I’ve been in over and over again since I was fourteeen years old.
And today, shortly after sharing this with my wife, she said, “I don’t want to lose you.” It melted my heart. I said she wouldn’t. Because she won’t.
But minutes later, something inside of me clicked.
“I’ve heard that phrase before.”
And then I remembered. Twenty-six years ago, I heard it from T—, my first, so grown up to me at the time, at the ripe old age of seventeen. T— who hurt me badly, who left me waiting helplessly (because I thought I had to) while she dated others, hated me, loved me again, tried to “decide what she felt” about me. While, again, I waited helplessly. For a long time. Until one day, when she said again that she hated me and preferred him (after saying the opposite the previous day), I’d had enough, and I told her I was leaving, and would lick my wounds in solitude before moving on.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she said suddenly, in a panic.
But I was finally done. Completely done. I stood up and started to leave—and she followed and raged at me uncontrollably and physically for “letting her down” until I darted away and hopped suddenly on a random bus and was out of sight for good. In fact, I never saw her again.
— § —
The cycle has gone like this. I’ll recap yesterday’s list, but with a couple of important additions:
1) Intense worship of me, beyond all justification, for the first year or two
2) Followed by a period in which we transition to anger at me, beyond all justification
2a) And repeated hints, when down, that they’ll leave—that they long for another, “better” man
3) Followed by my discovery of secret sexual and emotional infidelity (serial and ongoing)
4) Followed by them expecting me to stay while they “see what they feel”
5) Followed by me breaking off the relationship
5a) Followed by incredible fury and/or irrational, impulsive behavior from them
5b) And, ultimately, their complete disappearance when it’s clear that I won’t play
6) Followed by their begging me to “try again” a year later
7) Followed by my refusal
It’s the “a” and “b” numbers (2a, 5a, and 5b) that are new. And they matter.
— § —
My mom was ambivalent about me growing up.
I was caught between being her salvation and being her biggest insecurity, her biggest injury.
When I was her salvation, I was the best son in the world. My feelings were her feelings. My hobbies were her hobbies. My triumphs were her triumphs. I was amazing, bright, sensitive, incredible; I could do no wrong. I was the sunshine in her sky. I was her protector. I was all-powerful; I could do all the “manly” things, even from a young age. Fix things. Smash bugs. Help take care of the house and the yard and the car. Advise in critical household decisions.
And then, suddenly (something we’ve already gone over in therapy), she would flip. I would do something small, something wrong, something that would shatter her sense of security in my perfectness and goodness and helpfulness. And, I now realize, when this happened, she would feel devastated, abandoned, and unsafe. Not from my father; he is a more perfect man than most. But he was often at work, and being Asian, he wasn’t the snuggly, touchy-feely guy that she wanted at times.
Unsafe from… herself? The world? Something unspoken that only a male could deliver her from?
In any case, she would panic. I was now the worst, rather than the best, her accuser and tormentor rather than her salvation. Something about my falling short reflected on, affected deeply, her own image of herself and her security in the world. And bad things would happen. My entire room would be turned upside down, all contents broken and thrown out. There would be yelling. Extreme punishments—grounded for a month. Television sent to the thrift store. Never again allowed to have X or do Y. Ever. She would totally lose control, lose it, descend into wild flailing and yelling half-mixed with half-sobs.
She would, I now realize, hate me. And she’d tell me that other women had better sons. That she wanted a better son, too.
Of course, none of it would ever stick. Toys would be bought again. Apologies would come for the yelling. The punishments would just sort of… fade out. Forgotten about. By the end of a month of grounding that I very well remembered to be in effect, she’d have forgotten about it for three weeks or more already; it would never be mentioned again. Television would be back. “Never” would turn into “for a little while.” And so on.
She’d forget that I’d let her down somehow in all of her need. And I’d be perfect again. She needed to see me as perfect again. She could depend on me again. She needed to be able to depend on me again. All of the jobs, including being the “man of the house” while my dad was gone, were mine again. And I would pick them back up and continue to do them. And do them well.
— § —
The belt deserves some minor mention here.
For most people who experienced corporal punishment of this kind as a kid, “the belt” came out when dad was angry.
Not so for me. The belt, or the tennis racket, or the broom, or the electrical cord, or whatever—came out when mom was angry in my childhood. Or, more specifically, when she had lost the ability to think of me as perfect. When I’d done something that let her down.
I never thought much about this because I was never physically afraid. I didn’t cower in the corner. My mom is a little woman. Even when pretty small, I was a strong kid. I had fights on the tough playgrounds of the West Side with kids whose big brothers were in Mexican gangs and carried switchblades to school.
Mom couldn’t do any damage; I never felt overpowered or afraid for my safety as I watched her go off, flail wildly, strike me again and again. Sometimes (say, with the broom handle), I even laughed while it was happening, because there was something comical about it. The broom was too big for her; she couldn’t move that much mass quickly enough or with enough force to actually even cause pain. She wore herself out trying, without managing to apply much force to me at all.
Then, she’d stumble out, exhausted. And hate me for my shortcomings. Each time.
So while I never thought much about this because I was never, as some kids are, actually afraid for my life, or even terribly sad or depressed afterward, I now see that it did do something to me. Something incredibly damaging.
It wrote the first chapter of the script.
“Women don’t have stable feelings. They feel something different from one moment to the next. Even if they love you today, they’ll hate you tomorrow, without rhyme or reason. And no matter what it is they feel at the moment, they’ll act on it without any self-control. They’ll use you and try to use you up because they don’t have any strength themselves. Then, when you slip, they’ll want to trade you in for another model. And in the process, they’ll lose control entirely, be totally unaware of what they do and are doing. Until they forget and need you again. And your job is to be there when they do. This need is how you know they love you.”
— § —
I never saw my mom being unfaithful to my father. Even a tiny bit. Or vice versa (I mention that because I don’t want to imply the opposite).
And I never seriously thought she’d harm me or throw me out. She needed me too much, underneath it all, and I always knew that. The same went for when she’d yell at and go nuts at my dad, who never once committed violence against her and only rarely yelled back. She needed him too much.
But the question for me, as I became a pre-teen, was… did I want to be there for her? Did I want to be there for that? Was I happy? Was I okay with the fact that she wanted a different son sometimes? Or the fact that I never knew when she was going to lose it? And that when she wasn’t busy losing it, I would be on the hook for everything, surrogate “man of the house?”
My answer to this was, “no.” And I told her this, ultimately, in no uncertain terms.
“I’m not your savior, and I’m not your husband. You’re weak. I’m sorry you need me so much, but it’s also no fun to be needed by you. And I… I am going to go and have a life of my own.”
So I detached from my family, at around fourteen years old.
This hurt my dad deeply. Very deeply. Coming from a traditional, integral Chinese family, he couldn’t understand any of it. He got verbally harsh with me (not yelling; that’s not his style; more things like saying that he couldn’t believe he’d raised a “piece of trash” that would walk out on his parents, that would hurt his own mother so deeply by abandoning his family), but it never hurt me that much. I knew he was hurting. I’d become one more confusing, overemotional westerner that made absolutely no sense to him, and that had no sense of loyalty or commitment. That just expected him to go and give his all every day while they acted like lunatics around him.
I also internalized this sentiment of his, the one that he had come to have toward my mom. Confusing. Overemotional. No sense of loyalty or commitment. Expecting everything, but reliable for nothing.
— § —
But of course, I was now a fourteen-year-old boy that had more or less sworn off his parents.
So I needed love. And support. And companionship. I became one of those kids that gets involved with the opposite sex at a young age. And what sort of women did I get involved with?
The only kind I knew how to be with.
The kind that needed me, depended on me utterly, thought that I was their savior, that I could do anything, that I was the white knight they’d always been waiting for, that would enable them, now that I was there, to feel safe, smile, live.
And that would feel, at the tiniest slip-up on my part, that I’d abandoned them. That would then lose it entirely. That would need, all the time, to measure my performance and to be drawn irresistibly toward replacing me if they started to sense a weakness in it. Because while they may have cared about me, the bigger need was for a protector. The man of the house—meaning, in fact, the one that made everything okay, always, that took all the pain and unpredictability and insecurity out of life. That they could gaze at with total admiration, and in total helplessness, always.
To shake a faith like that is to shake someone to their core. And shake I always would, eventually.
— § —
And so, the adult cycle. Repeated through so many relationships.
T— at 14.
E— at 16.
J— #1 at 18.
Then came L— #1, at 22. This is my one long-term relationship that didn’t fit the pattern. She actually left me. I was devastated and bewildered. But she again did it in a way that fit with the rest of the script; she got someone else without telling me, drifted away without my knowing it, until the day when she told me. In ways that I couldn’t have even imagined or forseen, I had let her down, and the result was, again, infidelity.
My sins? I cared too much. I was always there for her. Even this seemed like weakness, like a lack of infallibility, and it was apparently unattractive in a man. If I cared that much, I was actually vulnerable, and was thus unfit to make and keep the world safe. But at least she told me, explicitly, and calmly, and then left, rather than assuming that I’d still be there regardless. And that has allowed us to remain close friends since then.
L— #2 at 23.
J— #2 at 24.
T—, E—, J— #1, L— #2, J— #2, all the same pattern.
Then hate, devaluation, and rage intermixed with hints about finding a better man.
Then I’d find that there was a “better” man. Denials. Refusal to admit things until I was sitting having coffee with the better man every day in secret, while they continued to deny everything, to talk about them. And even then, when confronted by both of us, there would be blame and anger. Couldn’t I see that it was precisely this kind of weakness on my part that led them to need a better man in the first place? That it was all may fault? That it was because I refused to trust and connect with them, make them feel transcendentally secure in life, that they’d needed to turn to others? That this is what they’ve been trying to tell me despite the fact that I just never listen to them?
Because if I had been listening, then they wouldn’t feel so damned unsafe. If only I could be enough, they wouldn’t need anyone else. I had it in me to be perfect, they knew I did. I had been at first, didn’t I remember? I was withholding it from them now! They had to turn to someone else now that I was refusing to be the strong, invulnerable, perfect man that they needed. Couldn’t I see that?
And then, of course, the total assumption that I’d still be there for them. And the assumption I’d stay while they “figured it out,” “worked on themselves,” “saw what they felt,” however long that took and however many other men needed to be tried out.
And, as I had done at fourteen in my childhood family, I’d decide I’d had enough. That this was stupid and painful and I wanted out.
Then, fury. Insanity. Impulsiveness. The wild roller coaster. People turning up when you didn’t expect it. Doing things to you and your property that you couldn’t predict. J— #2 actually turned up on the other side of the country in NYC, for God’s sake, implying that she was going to hurt my new friends and my future. She’d rented an apartment and moved there and found me.
She thought we were still together, even as she was busy raging at me, clinging to me, pushing me away, being totally out of control, ignoring me for months at a time, only to stalk me across the country suddenly after that. She thought we were still together. She actually wanted to live that status quo indefinitely, and expected me to do the same.
It felt very much like being stuck in your parents’ house with a mom that loves, hates, loves, hates, loves, hates you, that meanwhile assumes that you’ll always be there for her, except when she’s busy wishing she had someone else instead, someone that never lets her down, and flailing around with a belt, broomstick, or some other bit of congealed panic.
— § —
Happily, J— #2 finally went away. She went away and tried to kill herself, as did others before her—another part of the script, one that doesn’t involve my mother but that has been a part of many of the other relationships.
This, too, matters, and I almost wrote it into the script, given how prevalent it has been to have exes trying to off themselves.
But oh well, at least she was gone.
And with her gone, I could focus on my new life in NYC.
Where I met my wife.
— § —
I was very cagey at first about her, or about any relationships. Just ask her.
I had, by then, had more than enough of all of these women. So I avoided her, precisely because I felt something for her.
I dated a bit, sure. But casually. And I could now see it, see it from the start. The women that I did get involved with at first, instead of my wife, were the same. Needy and out of control, in search of rescue, flailing about. I didn’t take them seriously and I didn’t take the dating seriously. I could now see through it and moderate it all.
I no longer performed on command. And I had zero desire to get serious with any of them. It felt good. I felt liberated.
I had grown up; I could manage myself.
Or so I thought.
— § —
Though my wife pursued me initially, it felt different.
She didn’t need me to rescue her. She wasn’t depending on me for everything in her life and emotional well-being, almost from day one. She wasn’t putting on a massive, embarrassing show of adolescent behavior, just to keep my eyeballs on her at all times. She had her own contacts, her own career, her own ambitions. There were no midnight emergency calls for silly problems that needed solving. There were no sudden, sobbing blowups when I did something unexpected (or didn’t do something that was silently expected). I expressed myself honestly about things and she didn’t freak out. I didn’t have to spend all of my time engaged in saving her or in managing her emotional needs. I wasn’t on the hook for anything.
In fact, we had a sort of avoidance-intimacy-avoidance-intimacy dance for the first little while. Close, but not constantly. Together, but not too together too fast.
And yet, in the end, we wanted to spend almost all of our time together anyway. But she could take care of herself. And I took care of myself.
There was a confusing event when she was in South Africa that gave me pause, a reason to think about things long and hard. To wonder whether I was misreading things, whether I was still on script despite thinking I was over it. And I did think long and hard. And I decided that this was not yet-another-episode in Aron’s maladjusted love life after all, but the real thing, with real humans, who aren’t infallible.
It felt mature. It felt right. We were and are in love. We got married.
— § —
But my script—my script was merely dormant, not gone. And, from what I gather, there were things that for her were the same—asleep, managed, but not overcome.
The first several years were wonderful. No needless drama, no overwhelming expectations, no ridiculous behavior.
Then, the biological clock happened.
— § —
Thinking back, I realize now that the first time I felt once again in the role of the gallant white knight rather than in the role of myself was when she really, really wanted to have a child, like, now. Okay, it wasn’t just want. It was an ultimatum: “Have a child with me now or I’ll find someone who will.”
I’ve wondered why that moment had such an effect on me, why I couldn’t just say “no” and walk away, or “yes” and be happy with it. Today, as of this morning, I now know the answer. Because, even though I didn’t know it at the time, at that moment the script was back.
Even though she didn’t mean for this to happen, and was no doubt in the throes of powerful emotions of her own, I was back, at a subconscious level, to the role of the responsible do-it-all man. I was committed to this woman and it was my job to help her or she would lose it, even as she made clear that I was replaceable. She was clearly in the grip of nearly out-of-control insecurities and feelings. She was, I unconsciously thought for the first time, one of them.
From that moment on, that ultimatum on the train and the previous event in South Africa would at times emerge uncomfortably in my mind, coming back again and again when half asleep or in times of difficulty. From that day on, I would periodically wonder—though not in so many words, much more implicitly—whether I was or was not replaying out the same old patterns, the ones that I’d lived over and over and over again in my life.
— § —
And it was once the kids were here that things really went off the rails for me.
My wife was a new mom. Things are hard for new moms. It’s not all peace and quiet and roses and baby toys. I can empathize completely with her on that front; the overwhelmed feelings, the lack of sleep, the insecurity about performance as a parent. I’d babysat four younger sisters for years, and I still felt it. So having grown up effectively alone, she must have been absolutely devastated and run over by everything that was suddenly expected of her.
Even so, inside me there were moments when she’d get frustrated with our first and I’d suddenly feel the script, without realizing it. She depended on this child’s approval too much. She needed too much from our baby and from me. She’d lose it. And she had been the one that demanded immediate pregnancy or she’d replace me. Rapidly changing, intense needs, matched with massive insecurity and the withering implication that claimed loved ones might just not be enough, or doing enough, for her to be happy—that she might have to move on.
Check, check, check, check, check.
I was on shaky ground.
And then our second was born.
And she said that he had “saved her,” and she absolutely adored him. I didn’t see him as a rival. Without realizing it, I was coming to see him—both of our children—as little versions of me, in need of rescuing. From expectations. From love. From mom.
— § —
It is only now, as I look at this from a distance, that I can also finally understand my mother.
She was a first-time mom, too, when she had me. With a husband that worked long hours. A dire financial situation. A home in a dangerous part of the West Side of Salt Lake City. A girl, in many ways, still, alone with a young boy, confronted by motherhood and greeted late every night by an unemotional Asian husband whom she loved very much but who was, at the end of the day, quite foreign to her emotionally, rather than familiar and comforting.
How ecstatic and fulfilling it must have seemed that, instead of being a burden and a fear, her young boy grew quickly to become, by five or six, another man to take care of her in the unbearable, terrifying task that was her everyday life as a newly minted young adult and young mother—a “man” that wasn’t foreign at all, but was as familiar as could possibly be, and that couldn’t leave her, no matter what. All she needed was for him to be perfect, to live up to the role, and everything would be wonderful.
Life would be safe.
Only for some hurtful reason, he kept refusing to be perfect for her.
— § —
I won’t go in detail over everything since our son was born. I’ll just say that as parenthood demanded more of our time and our individual energy, and created more insecurities for each of us, closeness was hard to maintain.
And this waning closeness and rising resentment, tension, volume, and unpredictability in our interactions can’t be separated—it’s a kind of self-reinforcing circle—from my increasing feeling, which I didn’t consciously recognize until today, though I’ve been living and fighting it for the last couple of years, that we were back on the script. My deep fear that my wife fit the role that I’ve assigned to women in general, since my mother:
– Voraciously, rabidly needy
– Incredibly intolerant of not having needs met or of not having others mirror them
– To the point of unpredictability and instability
– Prone to abandon others
– And generally unaware of their needs
– Always a step away from catastrophically out of control
– And from blaming others and their failure to meet needs when it happens
– Unable to change this dynamic forever, so that it’s up to me to act
Toward the end, she’d ask how I felt, and I’d say that I was “exhausted.” That was no lie. She just didn’t understand, and I lacked the fortitude and understanding to make clear, the particular kind of exhaustion I was feeling. I’d felt it before, and I didn’t want to feel it in my marriage. The very thought made me want to vomit. And yet there it was.
— § —
And so it was that when we had, after a year of flare-ups, a massive, massive flare-up in July, I was triggered.
And when she told me that I was going to suffer, and that she had lots of men paying attention to her and she was thinking about going off with them, since I couldn’t meet her needs, I was massively triggered.
The question has come up over and over again. What did I think was going to happen? Why a protective order? Why file for divorce?
Because of the script.
Because suggestions that I’m not meeting needs, when combined with big, big anger, suggestions that I can be replaced, and hints about infidelity mean that I can no longer tolerate being in the relationship, not because I don’t love the person any longer, but because they no longer love me—or, at least, I can’t tolerate the kind of love that they feel. I can’t live, can’t survive as the taken-for-granted rescuer-laborer with no feelings or safe, supportive places of my own, with only my own performance to mark the difference between good days and catastrophic ones. It’s too much to live up to. I don’t need that kind of love. It’s why I walked out on my family at fourteen years old.
And it meant that things were about to explode.
It’s hard enough to leave when you love. It is almost worse than death. But just as importantly, simply leaving, walking away, even just refusing to meet the standard, saying that I can’t do it any more—well, these also come with other things:
Belts and brooms and electrical cords.
Following people from Los Angeles to New York without telling them, then turning up and threatening them.
Unhappy impacts on children… like the little boy I once was.
Unpredictable, out of control, and terrible things.
Without apology, intent to change, or even basic awareness.
If I am falling short, it means that incredible danger, total mayhem, are about to erupt. And it’s up to me to do something about all of this, from beginning to end, because the history of interactions between us tell me that she, whoever the woman is or has been in my life throughout the years, going all the way back to good old mom, isn’t capable of doing anything rational when the chips are down.
“It’ll continue and get worse until I put a stop to it. It’s gone on too long already. It’ll escalate until I walk out. Am I willing to live this way forever? I can’t. I won’t make it.”
That is the unconscious story that was running through my head.
“I have to stop this, for everyone. Because she can’t. The things that she can do from now on are the things that shouldn’t be done. They’ll be extreme, they won’t make any sense, and the good times are never coming back. You know this. You’ve been here before. Act.”
Some of it was about she and I. But at least as much of it was about childhood and past experiences, for both of us.
And for me, the script. Wanting to protect everyone, assuming that she couldn’t—that she was living in that impulsive, uncontrollable maelstrom that I’ve seen in women for so long.
“She can no longer control what she is doing. She is going to lose it at any moment. And I have not been, and can not be, good enough to stop it. I have failed. Again. And now there are kids.”
So it was up to me. To protect me. And her. And the kids. Because that is my job, always the last job that I do on the way out—protect everyone by ending it, for everyone’s sake. Stop the bleeding. And try to do it while minimizing the incredible damage that is sure to come as a result.
— § —
Today, for the first time, I see the whole picture of my own participation, behavior, and feelings. I have indeed been living the script again, totally apart from anything that was happening in my wife’s actual feelings or in her actual life. Probably for a year. Certainly starting in June or July. I was on-script, playing my role, a role I’ve played many times before.
That’s not to say that she didn’t have a part in this. But this post and this place are about me. I’ll just say that she played her part of the script well.
It takes two to tango. And tango we have.
— § —
Thing is, I’ve still been doing it. I’ve been sitting here the last few days (see recent posts) secretly fearful even without having written the script down until yesterday, that we’re at a different familiar stage in the script, the one that’s the hardest to live with:
4) They expect me to stay while they “see what they feel”
Yesterday for the first time I was able to write the script, coherently. Today, after talking to my wife and thinking about this more, I am able to envision the entire stageplay.
— § —
I have been doing this for too long.
It is time for me to step out of this role. Not out of this relationship.
I love my wife, and I will be here for her until we figure this thing out, whatever happens. I am not walking out, even as I am not going to submerge myself in the role of the infallible white knight. I am here for her, to stay. And I am here as me, nothing more and nothing less.
That is me going off-script. Once and for all.
And for the first time, for the first time since all of this began somewhere in the summer, I now understand myself. Why I did what I did, my part in all of this—something I have been struggling to get hold of for a very long time.
People have asked me what I expected her to do, and why I expected it.
Now I know. I expected mayhem and inappropriate behavior and abandonment and infidelity and threats and an escalating roller coaster of increasingly intolerable, impulsive behavior and situations. I expected violence and suicide attempts and hospitals and drugs. And I expected to have to protect the children from it all. I expected these things because that is what has always happened, since I was a little boy, and because she unwittingly played key parts of the role that I expected her to play, the role that for too long I have most dreaded and also most vigilantly sought to detect.
I’ve never learned to expect anything else, and she didn’t realize that I had already developed a ready list of actions—not consciously, but they were there nonetheless—to take when these expectations are being met. Actions that have traditionally led me to exit, and to want to ensure that the situation is “under control” as I leave, for everyone’s safety.
— § —
It will take a long time for me to not be terrified and triggered at times by where we are or what she does. To not feel as though things are at one of the terrible script stages that I know so well. But while I can’t immediately change what I feel, I can certainly change what I do. And I will.
From now on, I will consciously expect better of everyone in my life, including me.