Barrelhouse is always here to help. To that end, we're thrilled to present another episode of our regular advice column, FOUNTAINE OF ADVICE, with Jaime Fountaine!
Before I get into this month’s question (it’s a doozy), I wanted to follow up on last month’s column. My friend and fellow Jaime, the brilliant Jaime Anne Earnest, MPH PhD, pointed out that our letter writer might be struggling with attachment trauma:
Ahhh, the plight of the anxious dater, where longing for a partner who gets us meets paralytic fear that we’re just too weird (or broken) to be gotten. Some anxiety when dating is normal: vulnerability is hard for all of us and the online dating scene makes it easier than ever to encounter ghosters, most-ers, breadcrumbers, catfishers, and general bad relationship behavior.
But sometimes that anxiety is overwhelming, and causes us to fall into patterns where we choose partners who aren’t very reliable or consistent, or who trigger behavior in us we don’t really recognize as our best selves. When we recognize that happening, that’s actually great news! Trouble in our intimate lives is always pointing us in the direction of the places we most need to heal and grow so we can show up emotionally available, healthy, and confident with a lot to give (and get from!) our partners, our friends, and ourselves.
Attachment theory is an evidence-based, scientifically-established approach to understanding why some of us become anxious, over-giving, obsessive, and preoccupied in our relationships, while others seem to withdraw, shut down, avoid confrontation, and ultimately, disappear. The trick is to understand yourself, your past traumas, and learn to move toward the center to a place of security and emotional health, so even when we encounter someone who pushes allllll of those buttons, we can take care of ourselves and have rewarding relationships with healthy boundaries.
It would do many of those Tinderfellas and Tinderellas out there good to read Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find - and Keep - Love by Dr. Amir Lavine and Rachel Heller, MA. Learning about attachment trauma and how it impacts our emotions when dating can be a big revelation for anyone, coupled off or not. Dr. Alan Robarge is a popular, Philadelphia-based psychotherapist with an online community and free YouTube series that many have also found useful, and Natalie Lue’s UK-based Baggage Reclaim website and podcast is also a wonderful, no-nonsense resource for breaking out of our “relationship insanity”.
It was brave and an act of self-love to put yourself out there, Anxious As Hell, and ask for advice. Up to 45.2 percent of the adult population of the United States are single, so you’re definitely not alone. Read up, and make your health and happiness a priority. No matter who you meet out there, you and your best self are always a perfect match.
Like I always say (starting four words ago), if one Jaime doesn’t know the answer, another might.
Dear Fountaine of Advice,
I have been married for almost 22 years and unhappy in the marriage for the past 15 of them. He stopped being flagrantly awful (as in infidelity, general dishonesty, blackout drinking, and emotional abuse) about four years ago, after I first told him I didn't want to continue living with him once the kids were grown. But he can't or won't discuss problem areas in our relationship without first having a massive temper tantrum and then later appearing to have forgotten or misunderstood anything we've discussed. For my part, I've coped by smiling and nodding, focusing on our kids, and being (discreetly and intermittently, but still) unfaithful. That's given me some joy but also - except for the kids part - makes me feel like a sack of shit.
I don't hate my husband, but living with him is about as much fun as living with an annoying sibling or parent. He seems to be into me and he has good qualities - I often feel like he is doing his best - but I just don't respect him and it's hard to live with the whole pointlessness-of-discussing-problems thing. Unfortunately, I can't find seem to find the will to leave if he's not actively making me righteously indignant (as opposed to merely sad). I keep thinking about the inconvenience and pain I will be causing him and, to a lesser extent, the kids (two of whom are already launched and one who is halfway through high school). Still, I can't imagine a future with him without crushing regret. How do I make the break?
Oh, honey. You can’t find the will to leave, because your will has been eroded by the waves of this man’s abuse for the last 15 years. He’s carved rock formations out of it, worn down your edges. You’re a different shape than you used to be.
A person can become accustomed to anything as a means of survival. You’ve found ways to sneak air while he thinks you’re under water, but it’s not the same as being on solid ground. You’ve weathered worse, and so this seems almost bearable. He’s taken the fight out of you.
To tie up the messy string of metaphors I’ve been using: I’m absolutely out of my depth here. The only things I’ve done for almost 22 years are get my period and be a vegetarian (the anniversaries of which are one day apart, because the weekend I turned 12 was very eventful). I’m not responding to your question because I have the right answer. I’m responding because I think you already do. Sometimes all you need is for someone to tell you what you already know.
YOU HAVE TO GET OUT OF THERE.
I hope that doesn’t sound glib. I know that the process of leaving is not a simple one. You aren’t the only person you need to consider. And you’re so fucking tired.
A few years back, my aunt had a carbon monoxide leak in her house. She was exhausted all the time, but thought maybe she was just getting old. In reality, she was being deprived of oxygen. (All of my aunts are extremely young. And read this column.)
Does that sound familiar?
I wonder if part of why you didn’t leave four years ago, after you told your husband you wouldn’t be around forever, is that you didn’t fully believe you’re capable of doing so. Years of being treated like you didn’t deserve good things made you feel like you might not. Emotional abuse is insidious. It seeps in under doors, sucks the oxygen from the room. You have been slowly and steadily poisoned against yourself.
Do you have someone in your life you can talk to about this? A friend, a therapist, a Facebook group? It might feel like admitting a terrible secret, but I want you to tell someone that you’re going to leave your husband. The hardest part of any plan is actually doing it. Saying it out loud might make it more real. Having someone to talk to about it might make it easier.
Even if you’re not ready to tell another person, you should start figuring out how you’re going to leave. You need to get your finances in order, find a place to stay. I wish that everyone in a similar situation had a place to crash and infinite cash, but I know that’s not realistic. If you only have joint accounts, start your own. If you have a friend or sibling or parent you could stay with for a while, start feeling out how soon that could be. You don’t have to say why. Just tell them you and the high schooler need a few days somewhere else, and see how they react.
If you don’t otherwise have a support system, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can connect you with resources in your area.
You know better than I do what your husband is capable of, so please, please, please stay safe, whatever that means for you.
Your letter doesn’t say anything about what your children have seen and experienced, but I’m guessing that even if your husband hid his drinking and abuse and infidelity from them, even if you have smiled, glassy eyed, through all of it, they know that things aren’t right. Have you talked to them about this? If you haven’t, I think you should. And then the four of you need to get yourselves to therapy.
It’ll get rocky. Untying the knots of abuse and trauma is a difficult, time consuming process.
You might not feel any better than you do now for a long time. But, SOS, I really do think that you’ll wake up one day and feel lighter.
Jaime Anne Earnest, MPH PhD is a public health nerd, civil servant, popular science journalist, and connoisseur of the human heart. She’s currently in Washington DC with her dumpster cat Roux, but Philadelphia is home.
Jaime Fountaine writes and tells stories. Her novella, Manhunt, is forthcoming from Mason Jar Press. She lives in Philadelphia, where she co-hosts the Tire Fire reading series with Mike Ingram.