A Critical Year

My wife first asked me for a divorce on April 29, 2003. She changed her mind and stayed for a near year before she told me, in March 2004, that she had decided to leave. Through that year, I faced the question of what was wrong with me, to make my wife, Jan, want to leave. While more delicate writers might speak of our discomfort with one another, she explicitly said there was something wrong with me.
I knew that I had become uncomfortable with her family and I had started to realize that she was needy, but I loved her. When I found out what she thought of me, I realized that I had to get away from her and get on with my life.

When I met Jan in 1982, she had a business degree and sold mutual funds. Her father Ray was a psychiatrist. Her mother Dorcas was a social worker. Her aunt Carol was a teacher. Her younger sister Sharon was a professional dancer (ballet and modern dance). Her brother was a medical student. They appeared to be a reasonable and happy family. Her mother and her aunt seemed to be somewhat distant towards my blue-collar immigrant family. That wasn’t unexpected but it didn’t endear them to me.
It took me a several years to learn that most of the members of her family had esoteric beliefs. Dorcas and Carol believed in spiritualism and paranormal events. They were always reading the latest New Age bestsellers – Shirley MacLaine’s autobiography, or The Celestine Prophecy or Mutant Message from Down Under. They learned and practiced oddball therapies like ortho-bionomy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Reiki. Ray was unconventional is his professional life. He did not like prescribing psychiatric medication, he favoured off-beat theories (Bateson’s double-bind theory about schizophrenia) and experimented with hypnotism to retrieve memories. He spent a great deal of time on inventions. He thought that pointing microphones and speaker cones on the planes of a tetrahedron allowed for recording of sound that would reproduce the aural space including information on the location of sound sources. He read professional and near-professional scientific publications. He thought he was on the edge of a scientific breakthrough, and felt that he was an unheralded genius.
I think they all knew that other people found them to be eccentric, if not outright crazy. They didn’t talk about their eclectic beliefs openly. I made it clear that I was generally skeptical and not interested. It seemed to me that we had had an accomodation – they wouldn’t try to involve or convince me, and I would mind my own business.
In the early 1990’s Jan’s sister Sharon was injured in a cycling accident and received a disability income for several months. She spent some time alone and emerged have written a book which contained a channelled message commanding her to seek out the pop star Sting, the Dalai Lama and the Pope to reveal a new message of transcendental liberation. Everyone in her family was revealed to be the reincarnation of one or more famous persons (I was Nostradamus, by the way). I thought she had suffered a brief psychotic episode. Jan’s parents thought that she was not suffering from psychosis when she came out of her isolation, which she described as “seclusion”. Jan’s parents travelled with Sharon to England and to India, and they pursued Sting’s agents and recording company. They tried to advance their ideas when they spent time with a community of Tibetan monks in exile in Northern India.
I was being treated as an outsider in Jan’s family at that point. I don’t know what they really thought about Sharon. Jan told me that she and her parents were open to the idea that it could be true but was waiting for proof. Sharon said the proof would come when the messages were fulfilled – just like “if you build it, he will come” in the movie “Field of Dreams.” I think that Jan’s parents did not fully accept Sharon’s vision, but they had a hard time rejecting it when they were wedded to similar ideas.
I once asked Jan if she was being told that her presence, or mine, was required in Europe or India to help fulfil the prophecies, and she if she thought she would go if asked. I believe her answer was that she was open to the idea. I said that she would have to consider what I might do, and how I would care for the children while she was gone, and what might be left for her when she came back. She held that against me ever since. When she explained her reasons for leaving in the last year and a half, she complained that she could not be herself around me. She has said that she did not have a voice around me. I believe this means that she was afraid to discuss her irrational beliefs with me.
Jan seemed to me to have a high need for attention and approval, and she seemed to be specially needy for her mother’s approval. I was uncomfortable with emotional displays, and it wasn’t my style to throw compliments around. I didn’t realize that Jan didn’t understand this.
Jan and her family were always concerned about how people saw them. Because I was critical, they were all secretive about their beliefs, and they often rewrote history or forgot about last year’s fads. They consistently denied that their beliefs were unusual.
Jan’s mother and aunt introduced her to various New Age healers and therapists. Over time, she become a devotee and practitioner of energy medicine, spiritualism, channelling and other esoteric beliefs. They all become involved with Network Marketing in the mid 1990’s. My wife initially presented it as an idea that would allow her to work from home, and develop a business – and it was supposed to be money-making enterprize.
I was critical when the Network marketing started, and when the business continuously lost money in spite of nearly full time work. Over time she spent more and more time on Network Marketing and New Age activities. This took her away from me and the children. She thought of herself as a successful business woman, rather than a stay-at-home mom, and resented the routine chores and housework. I raised questions about whether her choices and beliefs were reasonable. She was persistent and ignored my feelings. Our conflict was never loud or open. When she did not respond to my questions and criticism, I retreated into cold silence. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Jan, Dorcas, and Carol were all being supported by the Network Marketing company, and members of the network, and by some of their New Age counsellors in some beliefs about “respect”. They defended themselves against criticism of their actions and beliefs by insisting that people who criticized them did not respect them.
I can’t begin to list all of the eccentric things that happened as they all became more immersed in that life. I think it escalated when my wife’s parents and aunt all retired from their careers. They became isolated from ordinary people and increasingly attached to a small group of like-minded people. Jan was part of that. I could see it, I was unhappy with it, but I did not know how to respond. I went to the cottage with her, but I minded my own business. I was stressed by being with them – and they noticed. Apparently they discussed my problem among themselves and had some theories about it. Jan was increasingly unhappy with me. When I suggested that she blaming me for the frustration of being in a business that never made money and in which people almost always declined to buy the expensive product or to join the network – at the bottom of the pyramid – she disagreed and asked me why I had such a problem with being blamed. When I said that she needed to have a career independent of her mother, she said her mother was her best friend and that I was jealous of the “closeness” of her family.
She was becoming worried because both of our children were having behavioural problems, but she blamed me for the problems. She said we were not spending enough positive time with the kids. I listened to her, and I went on with the business of making money to support the family. I know today that she meant that I was doing something wrong. She never identified it more precisely. I think her focus on the positive things was more of a statement that she felt that she wasn’t getting enough praise herself – and I wasn’t prepared to praise her for the things that were going on in our life at that time. Meanwhile, my business and professional life was challenging and stressful.
She came to see me as sick because I did not lavish her with praise, and because I responded to her unreasonable behaviour around Network Marketing with criticism. In 2002 she began to insist that I had a problem and that I needed counselling. In April 2003 she told me that my skepticism about her interests and beliefs was intolerable for her. I had been having the sense that she had been weighing and judging me, and her decision to leave was not unexpected. She said that she felt that my attitude amounted to emotional abuse and suggested that I was a narcissist. Jan has said that she believes that I loved her but she described my love as possessive and sick.
I said that I had been depressed and I asked for time to work it out. She agreed to give me time to see if I could change. We started a year of trying to work it out on the assumption that I had a fundamental psychological problem. That assumption has become increasingly troublesome. I think that it would be fair to say that had become withdrawn and mildly depressed. I had been hiding out in my own home, taking care of basic needs, reading, and drinking a few beer and few glasses of wine every day. I wasn’t drinking during the working day or binging – I was just drinking something every day. But I don’t know if that explains it either. My life was stuck, I was unhappy and those drinks had become a part of an unhappy routine. In the early stages of our attempted reconciliation I tried to convince myself that I fit into the patterns of addiction as explained by addiction counsellors – that I was drinking in response to childhood trauma. I went through a painful examination of my childhood and briefly identified myself as a survivor of childhood abuse. Later I tried to frame the issue in terms of relieving stress and depression.
I knew that I had some problems and I wanted to make some changes and I worked on them. I had not been looking after myself properly. I had gained weight. I was tired and depressed. I began to exercise regularly and vigorously and lost weight. I cut back on my consumption of alcohol. I went into therapy. I think I hoped to convince myself and Jan that drinking was the issue in the marriage and that if I could take care of that, we could be happy again. Jan responded to these changes, but it didn’t seem to be what she was looking for. The things that moved her and drew her interest were praise for her and affirmation of her beliefs.
At the time, and for parts of the next year Jan disclosed some of her feelings to me. She felt alone in the house. She felt that the only person in the house who loved her was the dog. She had been visualizing a house, built on ecologically sound principles where she might live. She would be able to exercise, and practice New Age healing, and sing. She would be able to take care of n. She said that she had been afraid to talk to me before because I was too sensitive to criticism and reacted with anger and silence when she said something. I think that was a neat way to blame me for all the secrets she kept.
In June, July, and August 2003, our attention shifted to n. who started to run wild, then ran away at that time. We both began to learn more about drug addiction. My wife believed that I had caused my son’s problems by being addicted to alcohol myself, and because I did not have a positive relationship with n. She thought that I had taught both children to disrespect her, and blamed me for her inability to enforce rules and to require good behaviour.
She agreed to see a marriage and family therapist around the issue of n’s addiction and rebellion. In February 2004 when our conflicts over her involvement with Network marketing and New Age therapy were mentioned in therapy, she refused to discuss the issues. She said those things were important to her and I was the one with the problem. Later, I began to realize that my efforts to blame my mother, my family, and myself for my wife’s anxiety and misery had been absurd.
It had taken me a long time to realize that Jan’s complaint was exactly what she had said in the first place – that I was skeptical about her New Age beliefs. My wife and her parents had become immersed in New Age practices and values, and my wife had developed strong beliefs about her place in the world. She saw herself as person of deep spirituality, called to a special mission in life. I regarded this as an empowering life metaphor. She needed to have people accept her life mission fully and literally. She said that the people involved in Network Marketing and New Age spirituality were her friends and that she needed their support, and that she could not see me with them.
It became clear at that time that Jan and her parents and their friends had built up a joint belief system and that they found my disbelief to be literally intolerable. My wife was getting support from her parents and friends for a decision that would remove the pain of my critical attitude from their collective lives.
I realized that I had been overlooking the damaging role that my wife and her family were playing in my life. Her interests and activities had alienated my friends and family, leaving me socially isolated. I realized that for the past several years I had faced personal and professional problems without her support while she faced her own issues through New Age practices and found her own friends on the loony fringe. I realized that her devotion to irrational beliefs, dubious therapies and marginal ventures was intolerable for me.
I realized that her feeling that I was not giving her enough positive attention and praise was genuine. I realized that I could never respond to her need for praise and affirmation. She had reached the point that anything that went against her wishes was perceived as disrespectful, abusive and sick. I realized that trying to change myself into a New Age type to make her happy was self-destructive.
While I had come to an intellectual awareness that the marriage was probably doomed, I still loved my wife and had the irrational hope that she might be able to find a way to chose me over the emotional comforts of the New Age.In March 2004 she said that I was still skeptical and critical, and that she needed to leave to be free to be herself. When my wife left, I was hurt and angry, but I was able to start making decisions about my life again. Her decision to leave has been a healing and liberating decision for me. I started to talk to people and to hear things about my wife and her parents, that no one had wanted to tell me during the marriage, which have validated my sense that their beliefs and actions are unusual.
We have been left with very little in common. Since Claire is an adult, and n. is living on his own, we do not share custody or decision making about the children. We are left with a few financial connections. It’s time for me to stop worrying about her needs. She has to grow up and take care of herself. I am ending my connections with her and her family.
I feel guilty about many things in the marriage. I was preoccupied with my career and not aware of my wife’s feelings. I did not recognize her need for affirmation and praise and I did not provide her with enough praise for her accomplishments. I did not recognize that she had a legitimate emotional need for spiritual experiences and support it before she turned to the New Age. I did not communicate my needs and expectations clearly when she became entangled in her mother’s Network Marketing venture. I played a part in the conflicts that ended the marriage. My weak response to my wife’s family’s craziness encouraged them to label me as sick.
I also feel guilty about other parts of my life. I did not take care of my health. I made bad choices in life. I was an ineffective parent. I did not leave when my wife’s insistence on pursuing her irrational beliefs created an intolerable tension, and I let the children live in a home full of tension and conflict. I did not work on sustaining my relationships with my brothers and sisters and friends. I may be able to repair some of those things.


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