Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.7]

I was thankful to get contract work as an instructional designer at an e-learning company. The money wasn’t great, but I only worked twenty-five to thirty hours per week, which became priceless for my sanity. An enormous weight had been lifted and within a couple months I felt hope and happiness returning. I went back to the gym. I joined a writing group. I savored the extra time I now got to spend with Jax. But, as my joy began to return, the contrast between Chris’ and my demeanor sharpened. This marriage wasn’t healthy for me anymore. It was sucking joy from my life in a big way.

I started therapy and focused the discussions on whether my marriage could be saved. The therapist honed in our sexual dynamic, or lack of it, and I began to see how it could be a significant part of our problem. My major resistance to Chris was his lack of tenderness and emotional intimacy in between our sexual encounters. But the therapist said that, for men, sex is a conduit for expressing emotions. That meant someone had to take the first step. I was willing and hoped that Chris would meet me halfway. If he could agree to work on expressing more day-to-day emotional intimacy, perhaps I could feel more willing to pleasure him in bed.

To cut to the chase, I kept my end of the bargain and he didn’t keep his. When I would remind him of our deal, he would say he was trying, I just wasn’t noticing. When he advanced on me for a third time after not showing an ounce of interest in me for weeks, I stonewalled him. I simply refused and said “no”—and I held my ground. This pissed him off and he called me “a frigid ice queen.”

I took this to heart. Was that what I was? Perhaps I was a bigger part of the problem than I thought. I recommitted to staying open to him, and as he sensed me being more open and receptive to sex, he went out and bought a porn video, then several pieces of lingerie for me to wear. He showed me pictures of a beautiful, big-busted, dark-haired porn star on the Internet and made a lame attempt to point out our similarities. I tried hard to share his enthusiasm for these things, but I couldn’t help feeling ridiculous and a bit humiliated in three-inch feathery heels.

After several months of Chris’ escalating fantasies, he said he’d found a place in town where we could watch a woman masturbate in front of us. My insides revolted against it, but I thought if I went in an effort to show him how willing I was to stretch my boundaries for him, it would motivate him to stretch his for me. So one evening, we found a babysitter for Jax and went for drinks. I drank several shots of vodka in nervous anticipation.

Around 10 p.m., we went to this place and met an adorable young woman who was about twenty years old. She recognized Chris and he recovered by saying he’d stopped by there only one day after work to check the place out. We followed the woman into a scummy room, sat on a scummy couch, and watched her undress and sit on a scummy coffee table with her legs open to us.

I couldn’t help but make small talk. I only wanted to be sweet to this young woman, who appeared to have brains and a personality. I wondered what her story was. Chris asked her all kinds of questions about her vagina, clit, and how she liked to get off. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her below the neck, and at some point I began thinking of a strategy to get this over as soon as possible without making the girl feel bad. I prompted Chris to tell me what he wanted me to do. He pulled me onto his lap, facing him. He told me to play with my breasts and masturbate, while he watched her do the same. He told me to show her my breasts, and then he asked her if she liked them.

I could tell he was feeling out her boundaries, and at one point she said, “You guys seem like such a nice couple. I wouldn’t have a problem if you two wanted to do it with each other,” and then added seductively, “as long as I can watch.” I’d worn a long, black velvet skirt, so Chris lifted it up and we had sex sitting on the scummy couch. My back was to the girl, and I locked in on a spot on the filthy wall behind Chris because I couldn’t bear to look at Chris’s face watching her. I did what I could to get him to finish quickly, and then I cleaned up and walked out of there in a daze.


Something did freeze up inside me after that night. I felt a new intensity of resentment toward Chris that bordered at times on disgust and rage. It became more and more difficult for me to hold these feelings in around Jax, which bothered me deeply. I told Chris I wanted out of the marriage. Surely he could tell I wasn’t happy, and he walked around acting weird and miserable most of the time. To my surprise, Chris cried and apologized. He admitted that he wasn’t happy either and that he was the problem. He wanted another chance to change, “for real” this time. He didn’t want to leave me and Jax. I felt sorry for him—I really did. I remained open for a few more months, on the off chance that my threatening to leave might have rattled him enough to take radical new actions.

And he actually did change a bit. He began helping out more around the house—doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming, grocery shopping. I still took care of all the finances and kept orchestrating the rest of our lives for us, but I was genuinely grateful for his help. What didn’t change was his cynical, negative attitude and how he behaved and communicated with me.

After several months, another miserable vacation ruined by his criticisms and inability to enjoy anything we did, and a few trips to my parents’ where he acted rudely and sulked, the tension had built back up and crescendoed in another attempt on my part to end things. The conversation went in circles. This time, nothing he said meant anything to me. I could only repeat that I couldn’t live with his negativity anymore and that he wasn’t taking the actions to fix things he should have.

I didn’t wish him any ill will. He was far too unhappy and miserable to hate. I just wanted free of him. I felt so bogged down and drained, it took real effort to experience any joy when Chris was around. I knew I was done unless something drastically changed, and I knew there was no chance of that happening. My number one priority became to wall myself off emotionally from him in a way that would prevent him from ever sucking anything more from me. Finally feeling the strength to do this, I told Chris flat out that I was officially done being his “wife” and that I didn’t consider him my “husband” anymore. And, I wasn’t having sex with him ever again, so he’d better not expect it or ask me for it. Chris didn’t protest anything I said. He just rolled over and looked pathetic. I asked him if he wanted a divorce and he said “no.” He wasn’t going to take any moves in that direction. If I wanted one, I was going to have to orchestrate that, too. It was like trying to push a wet noodle.

I did have compassion for him as a person and respect for him as Jax’s father. At the end of the day, I couldn’t bring myself to throw him out or start divorce proceedings. In fact, it felt like I’d be throwing my own son out if I did; Chris was completely dependent on me. I told him we could try to continue living together because I saw benefits—financial, logistical, and for Jax—to that. At the same time, I said I wouldn’t listen to his negative crap anymore and that if we couldn’t stop bickering, we’d have to separate officially. So we began living totally separate lives.

I went back to therapy and realized a few things. You know how people say you marry one of your parents? Freud would have said it was the opposite-sex parent. Well, I metaphorically married my mother. But, I’m not sure it was to undo past wrongs or strive to get love from someone like my mother, thereby healing old wounds of rejection. Those factors could have been at play, of course. But, what was a real “aha” to me was that my relationship with my mother had helped me develop the perfect coping skills for dealing with someone who couldn’t give love to me. What I’d learned from loving her was: it’s noble and kind to love a damaged person because we were all one step away from being damaged so they are perhaps more deserving than those of us who weren’t; damaged people can’t help the way they are and are a product of their environments, and therefore shouldn’t be blamed or held responsible for their behavior; if I want to be a kind and unselfish person that does no harm, I should give as much love as I can—and ask nothing in return; I shouldn’t take it personally that the damaged person can’t love me back; just give to be a giver, not for a return; my needs are not what’s important; love unconditionally.

But it had taken its toll. The more I tried to be “loveable,” the more it hurt when nothing I did made any difference. Not being appreciated, or touched out of tenderness, or loved and cared for by the people I wanted to love me the most had kept me wondering… “Was I really even loveable at all? By anyone?” I seemed to myself to be the common denominator among so many failed relationships. It pained me deeply to admit there was a great chance that the fatal flaw laid deep within me. What I didn’t realize until later was that I had truly come to believe I was un-loveable. I gave up on thinking I would ever be loved or adored or appreciated. It was then I dedicated myself to fulfilling my life with joy on my own.

Some of the tension did go away, especially inside me, once I eliminated all expectations that Chris should meet any of my needs. I gave less energy to his negativity. It bothered me, but I didn’t get “hooked” in as much. And there was great relief now since I no longer had to worry about being stalked for sex. Chris had always been the detached one, and once I stopped initiating all engagement, there was really nothing left between us, other than mutual respect for each other as parents of our child.

Whether Chris believed it or not, I knew things were over for good. I’d gone beyond a point where I could ever return. My feelings for Chris were dead long ago and I’d already grieved for the loss of his love and my marriage. I knew a chapter of my life was closing. And, oddly, I was at peace with it all for the first time. I felt a compulsion building in me. I needed something to symbolize the release from my marriage as well as something to always remind me that all the pain and heartache was worth it. I could never hate Chris, or regret those years, for he gave me Jax. I drove to a tattoo parlor and had an artist design a replica of the birthstones on my wedding ring—Chris’ red garnet with my yellow topaz—with the addition of Jax’s green emerald birthstone sandwiched in the middle. She inked it on the inside of my forearm, right where Jax used to lay his head and look up at me as a baby.

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