Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.5]

The day we took Jax home, I knew there was no way I would be able to go back to work and leave him with strangers. Chris didn’t like the idea either, so I pitched a possible solution. Our company needed chemists like Chris to work on all three shifts. Maybe he could switch to second shift; that way he could stay home with Jax during the day while I was at work, and then I would come home and take over for the night when Chris went to work. Surely we could manage this schedule for a few years, until Jax was old enough for preschool. As it happened, there was a vacancy on second shift, which was the least desirable of all the shifts to most people anyway. They let Chris switch over almost immediately. This turned out to be an amazing arrangement for Jax, which made it an amazing arrangement for me. Chris had the more difficult schedule. I worked 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and he worked 3:30 p.m. to midnight.

Chris and I saw each other in passing during the week and spent the weekends trading Jax off between us so we could catch up on sleep. I think it threw Jax out of sorts to have us both in the same room together because Chris and I had such different parenting styles and ways of interacting with Jax. He seemed fussier and it was difficult for us all to get in a groove. Sometimes, I felt like Chris was vying for my attention at Jax’s expense, which annoyed me.

Then, around Jax’s second birthday, I began to notice some changes in Chris. He increasingly complained about everything and everyone. He got angry at the “jerks” on TV, the “idiots” on the radio, his coworkers that never did their jobs right, and even my parents although they’d embraced him whole-heartedly always. He became the world’s worst critic of everyone and everything. He’d find one issue with the service or food we’d received in a restaurant, and refuse to go back there. For his thirty-fifth birthday, I planned, from A to Z, an extensive trip out West that included a surprise visit to his father’s house and nighttime astronomy gazing in the desert. Chris complained about the traffic, the airport procedures, the wait for the rental car, the hotels, the people, the food, and everything in between.

As usual, I tried to ignore his attitude and put on a happy face for all of us. I tried that much harder to point out the good in everything…until I became utterly exhausted and completely lost it on him. I pulled over in the desert and told him to get out of the car. Chris then stopped wanting to take vacations altogether or visit any of his relatives, not even his father, brother, or sister. I felt suffocated and restricted. But, it forced an epiphany about just how one-sided this relationship had become and how unhappy it was really making me. Honestly, at the end of the day, I would have enjoyed every minute of planning and executing the details of that vacation, if only Chris would have come along with a positive attitude and shown a tiny bit of gratitude. But he didn’t.

So, by the time we’d returned home, I’d made a conscious decision to stop all future efforts, big and small, to make things better for Chris and our relationship. Things had never been fifty-fifty. For years, I had: paid all the bills; managed all of our investments; took care of insurance selections, claims and payments; did all the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry and house cleaning; purchased every item for our house; made all the appointments; and was responsible for coordinating all the logistics of our daily life, including any trips to dinner, museums or the park, volunteering at the school, and all holiday and travel plans. I’d done it all with the best of intentions for all of us. But instead, I’d been leaning so far forward, I’d fallen on my face.

And, I’d never stopped trying to improve the marriage. Over the years, I’d purchased books about becoming soul mates, passionate marriages, hot monogamy, and night-after-night of romance. Chris wouldn’t read or discuss any of them. I bought a hot rock massage kit and staged elaborate overnight “get-aways” for us. It seemed like all Chris wanted to do was sit around the house, watch TV, drink beer, and stay mentally “checked out.”

Resentment for Chris kept silently building in me. It was compounded whenever I tried to share something that mattered to me about work, or something I was personally writing, or when I would try to talk about a child-rearing book I’d read or share something wonderful Jax had done. Chris would not pay attention, show interest, or contribute anything significant to our conversations. Sometimes it threw me over the edge to think that I was the only person thinking about Jax’s development. We began irritating each other more and more. For every grievance I had—and there seemed to be a steady flow of them—he rebutted that I was “controlling” and “difficult to love.” However, instead of taking initiative and participating in the decision making, he became passive-aggressive, deliberately dropping the ball on something he knew was important to me but acting like he’d innocently forgotten. The tension between us became unbearable.

But the real torture for me came whenever Chris would make an advance on me sexually, which he began doing more frequently when Jax was about to turn three. I dreaded it, and I could tell when he was working up to it. He would start groping me out of the blue or try to pull me close to him all of a sudden. It was a purely physical pursuit—by his body, of mine. And, for some reason, I couldn’t muster the courage to reject him that way, so I always gave in and ended up in bed hoping he would finish fast. There was no kissing anymore, and often I covered my eyes with my left arm and tried to disengage from my body. If not, my head would mess with me; my skin would crawl and the pain would intensify. Occasionally, a wave of nausea would come over me.

If all this wasn’t enough, Chris developed a strange pattern of blurting out nonsense. He’d combine words in a strange way or make up something ridiculous and blurt it out in a silly voice to make Jax laugh. If it got Jax’s attention, he would repeat the phrase over and over and over. I tried to ignore it for a while, hoping he would stop on his own. But it usually continued and became so annoying by the fifth or sixth repetition, I’d point it out to Chris and beg him to “quit it.” He wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He’d repeat it up to forty or fifty times in a night. It grated on me so badly I’d lose it and yell at him, or take Jax and go to another part of the house. Chris would deny having said it that many times, or he’d laugh or tell me to loosen up and stop telling him what to do.

My anxiety began to increase, knowing Jax would soon be turning three and going to preschool, which freed Chris to switch back to first shift.

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