Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.8]

Not long after our visit, it became increasingly clear to me that I wasn’t going to be nearly as brave or strong as I’d like to be “waiting” for Jonah to leave his wife. I justified our situation like hell to myself with all the logic and grace I could muster. I tried to tell myself that we each had our own journey to travel. I so desperately wanted him to come to me on his own time and terms. I wanted no part in controlling it. I only wanted to be in his life and to be what he needed. I thought I could endure just about anything with him.

But no matter what games I played with my head, I couldn’t stop the pain. I yearned for him and for contact with him constantly, yet there were simply times he couldn’t be available when I would have liked. There were times, like when he traveled with Amy over the holidays, we got painfully “out of synch” emotionally, and without good opportunity to sit and resolve things face-to-face, I felt insecure at times that the distance was taking its toll on us. Feelings of hatred grew in my stomach for Amy. Moreover, feeling dissonant all the time was starting to take its toll on my relationship with Jax. Distractible, antsy, and always stuffing my emotions made it difficult for me to engage with Jax the way I always had. I was becoming someone I didn’t like. Something had to give.

Still, I knew his kids didn’t deserve to be a casualty of our affair. There were other—innocent—lives at stake. Would I want the kind of man who would abandon or shirk his responsibilities as a father? Part of why I loved Jonah was that thing in him that caused him to put others before himself, to delay his own gratification, to sacrifice his happiness for the people he’d made commitments to. Admittedly, his own lack of self-worth had often resulted in him doing this to a fault, but still. I mean, how were we supposed to make this work? Would I uproot Jax, take him away from his father and grandparents, take him out of his small Montessori community and support system and put him in a new school when he’s utterly thriving in so many respects? Do I quit the job it’s taken me years to find, the job I love, the one that allows me to grow and thrive? Is it fair to expect Jonah to quit his job, ruin the financial security he’d struggled to build for over a decade for his wife and kids, and relocate someplace that was a five-hour drive away from his children, knowing he would be totally miserable without them in his daily life, knowing he would be tortured without them?

The “un-workability” of the situation became more and more apparent to both of us and the reality of waiting YEARS set in and began taking its toll. I attempted to bargain for a compromise. Was there a way for Jax and me to remain where we were and for Jonah to stay in his town, at his job, close to his family, but find a way to divorce Amy so that he and I could at least be free to talk on the phone, visit on the weekends, take the occasional vacation, spend a holiday together once in a while? I tried for months to get Zen and just float. But I kept sinking…and panicking. I felt my sanity slipping; I was split in two and hovering above myself again—dissociated.

Jonah and I engaged in a series of intense chats about the future. Ending his marriage seemed so complicated because, unlike Chris, Amy would not try to make things pleasant. Nor would her family. In fact, outright hostility and nasty legal battles over financials and child custody would most likely ensue. And, whereas in my divorce, I would get primary custody of Jax, Jonah would most likely not get to see his kids every day. The more clear it became that Jonah was going to have to “choose,” the more he unraveled. I spoke with him on a Friday, and he said he felt like he was coming down with the flu. By Monday, he was vomiting blood.

This affair—lying to his wife, compromising his values, living without me, knowing he was tearing me in two, fearing he would hurt his children—had given him a bleeding peptic ulcer, and it was rupturing. I could hear the pain in his voice and sense it in his written words. He told me he felt he was hovering above an “abyss,” a deep, dark one in which he could look down and see his tiny kids looking up at him. He admitted to wishing they were all grown up, to actually resenting them. Amy had recently had a mild heart attack, and he confessed to feeling a “horrible pang of hope for us” when she did. He was tortured. It was unbearable. In a sacrificial offering, I steeled myself and gingerly pushed to end things, unsure of whether I was really doing the right thing. He resisted for a while, but then out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to end the pain, he accepted my offer. We tried to say good-bye.


I cracked into a thousand pieces. I instantly regretted ending things. I was baffled that he could just shut down the “power-grid” and leave me standing alone in the blackness like that. The feeling of total abandonment was ferocious and came in waves throughout the day. Each one choked the breath out of me. The extraction of Jonah’s soul from mine obliterated every cell in my body. I couldn’t perceive my life force anymore. I lived in a haze. I dropped fifteen more pounds. For a month each night, I woke up around 3 a.m. gasping, sobbing, with instant, unstoppable tears, and would find myself running toward the floor of my closet, crawling to the back under my winter coats, curling into a ball in an attempt to keep my guts together. I wept and moaned and shook.

My first strategy of coping involved trying to stay connected to Jonah somehow. I listened to our music and reread our conversations. I carried his book around with me, randomly reading little excerpts to touch him somehow. I wrote to Jonah often, first in denial, then trying to bargain, then trying to accept. I told him I was prepared to wait if he’d let me. I no longer cared how long that would be. Jonah replied to my e-mails—gently, kindly—telling me he still loved me as intensely as he always had, that a love like ours was forever, and that nothing had changed. I was still the love of his life. I still had his heart and soul. He’d just realized that he didn’t have it in him to live a double life anymore or hurt his children. He was fully prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs.

So, my second strategy involved telling myself he didn’t exist, that I hated his guts for betraying me, and that I didn’t want him anymore because he’d lost his mind. I forced myself to leave him alone and pretend he never existed. Then, after a month without contact, I reached out. Within forty-eight short hours, the affair was back on. Jonah divulged that his strategy of telling himself he didn’t need me wasn’t working. He was as miserable as I was. He said he felt dead inside and wanted me back in his life, that lying to himself was worse than lying to Amy. He didn’t want to lose me again. He couldn’t bear the thought of life without me. When I asked how he would handle the dissonance when it returned, he had rationalized to himself that as long as he and I kept the affair strictly virtual and eliminated all physical contact, he wouldn’t hate himself so much for “cheating.” Of course, I knew this was a lie as well as a very powerful form of self-deception on Jonah’s part. But I also wanted the pain to be over, so I selfishly reengaged in the affair and tried to pick up where we left off.

But something was different. I detected restraint in Jonah this time. He wasn’t as communicative and didn’t make himself as available to me. I initiated most of our interactions. I tried to wait for him to reach out, but the intervals between contact were much longer than before, and sitting in that space of insecurity, wondering how he could block me out of his daily life at times, caused me pain and had me climbing the walls. I spent 90 percent of my consciousness regulating my emotions.

I tried so hard to do everything right this time and not put any pressure on him at all. I tried to open my heart and mind and body again, but I didn’t feel equal reciprocity, so our souls didn’t meet in that secret place anymore. I could see how Jonah was the limiting factor in this. He had convinced himself he was content just having any little part of me. He refused to allow himself to want all of me. That way, he could keep his commitments to his family, but not lose me. He said he was afraid of ending up on that precipice again—that place where he was terrified of breaking up his family. I went from feeling like I was at the center of his world to feeling like a satellite. I told myself I was satisfied with this and that his mere return should prove the love hadn’t gone away—and a part of me was happier. I just didn’t yet fully understand how deeply his betrayal had crushed me and that some of the damage couldn’t be undone.

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