Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.9]

After a couple months of trying to keep this modified relationship with Jonah together, I finally got truthful with myself and acknowledged that I was miserable with the way things were. I didn’t have the power to fix the problems. Jonah held all the power; he set all the boundaries. And the more I accommodated him, without feeling an equal return, the more I began to resent him. On top of lying to his wife, Jonah was now lying to himself and denying me. This new dissonance was no better than the old dissonance; in fact, it felt much worse. The only way I knew to eliminate it was to end it. So I called Jonah.

I relived the trauma of separation once more. The emptiness fully returned. But, interestingly, I realized I was not grieving for the second-time-around Jonah but for the original one. Knowing I could not change Jonah and that he certainly wasn’t going to change himself, I focused on doing everything I could to accept that it was over. I told myself the old Jonah was gone for good. Jonah had made a choice to “kill” him. It was futile to hold on.

Jonah tried to keep a friendship going with me, and at first, it was too difficult. So I left him alone for two more months and then e-mailed him a brief hello, for no other reason than I missed him. To my surprise, he soon shared that he’d started therapy and was ready to deal with his life honestly. He’d known all along, but finally admitted—out loud to his therapist—that he would never be happy with Amy. He could finally see value in his own happiness and was now ready to explore the possibility of divorce. Jonah knew he needed to evolve for his own sanity. He was just scared and needed time.

I was hopeful. He seemed willing to take more risks, explore different solutions. Repeatedly, HE asked ME to wait for him, and he declared with new gravity, “It’s painful because I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I’m going to hurt some people. But, Michelle, it’s not a matter of if I’m leaving, it’s when. You are the love of my life. I have realized how critical you are to my happiness. And how critical I am to yours. Life is too short as it is, and I don’t want to spend years of it without you. I just need to get through this period. Then we can begin our lives together, my Love. Please bear with me. I just need to figure out a way to disentangle with the least amount of damage to my kids.”

Not only did Jonah’s words change, but so did his behavior. He stopped exercising any restraint. He made himself available to me again at all times. And instead of keeping a safe distance, he began calling to hear my voice and he insisted we Skype for the first time. As emotions escalated, so did our desire. Our compulsion to see each other reached epic proportions. He suggested we meet soon and arranged for Amy to extend their upcoming vacation in California with the kids while Jonah returned a few days early for “work.” I saw glimmers of the original Jonah, and it felt like his loyalties had shifted back to me again.

The weeks prior to meeting were grueling and difficult for both of us. There was a mess of lust, love, anticipation, and fear always right under the surface of our interactions…we were almost burned-out when the day finally came. Seeing him again was a mix of relief and turbulence. I just wanted the ache I’d been living with for so long to stop, like it had when we were together on our last overnight. But this time it didn’t. It lingered in the room with us. I felt intense love and desire in my head—I’m sure I did—but my body felt tight and my heart was heavy. All I wanted to do was crawl under the covers, smoosh as close to him as humanly possible, bury my face in his neck, and just soak in his furry warm aliveness. I desired him sexually but couldn’t let go enough to enjoy myself. Were there walls in the room with us? Inside me again? I apologized. He said he understood.

The next morning, we were awakened by his cell phone. Amy had called to request that he pick up something from a local shop in the town where she thought he was visiting, a place four hours away from where we actually were. Jonah turned white and hung up the phone. I think he knew deep down his wife may have suspected an affair. He couldn’t help thinking this was her way of gathering evidence. I could tell he was rattled. We walked a few blocks for breakfast and Jonah couldn’t eat. On the walk back to the hotel, Jonah stopped three times to vomit. By the time we were back at the hotel, he was in a full-blown panic attack, choking on rising bile about every ten minutes. He was torn in two again. For a few hours I tried to calm him, problem solve with him, address issues in a way that might help him feel okay but still get at some truth we could build on. But…he was beyond repair.

He had spiraled into a place of sheer dismay, repeating over and over how terrified he was of hurting his children. I sensed his terror of Amy, too, although that wasn’t spoken. He was simply unwilling to conceive that divorce—and especially divorce from Amy—could ever produce anything but a disastrous outcome for his kids.

It became apparent to me after a while that I’d tried everything I could think of. I’d dug as deeply as I knew how to dig. I didn’t know how to get traction and still allow Jonah to be in control of his destiny. There was nothing left for me to say or do that could bring him to me and away from his family of his own volition, and that’s how it HAD to be done—without coercion from me. It was also apparent that Jonah couldn’t handle continuing our affair either. So, once again, I steeled myself and pushed to end things—but less gingerly this time because the presence of something new was in the room with us, the clarity (or maybe acceptance on my part) that Jonah truly did not possess the ability to ever leave his wife.

I thought I’d sensed the evolution necessary for him to come to that place, a place of action, a place I thought he’d already come to on his own terms because he truly believed it was what was best for everyone in the end. But if I was honest, I was only fooling myself. No matter what I said or how hard I loved him, Jonah simply couldn’t value having happiness for himself if it came at the perceived expense of others’. The tradeoff was too big. And I had to admit he didn’t value me enough, either, to go down that difficult road. I needed to face facts that as much as he said he loved me and couldn’t live without me, I was the one he was choosing to hurt. At the end of the day, his loyalties were clearly, understandably, but regrettably somewhere else.

The worst realization of all for me was this: somewhere along the way, long before this visit, I had stopped believing Jonah’s words. Hundreds of expressions of love had passed between us, but because I took great pains to align my actions to support my words, Jonah could count on the truth I spoke—150 percent. It’s not that I thought Jonah ever deliberately deceived me. I genuinely believed he always spoke the truth as he was capable of perceiving it. But something was deeply amiss or this moment wouldn’t be happening. Intentional or unintentional, Jonah had been reckless with our emotions, and I could no longer have unequivocal trust in him. I needed to let go of the fact that even though I’d given all the unconditional love I’d learned to give, it simply wasn’t enough. I needed to let go of Jonah. I couldn’t stand to look at his face while I packed to leave—the pain of self-entrapment and martyrdom—is so very sad to see.

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