Treading water

My wife was secretly furious with me for years at a time and cut off sex in retaliation.

Published October 29, 2002 4:16PM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Since the column is going daily now (three days free, two days Premium), each installment will be quite a bit shorter than the weekly column used to be. So I might chime in from time to time with a prefatory word, a thought or an anecdote to greet the day. Not always, but sometimes. The idea is to make sure that each daily piece is worth your time and money.

In May, I started watching baseball on television. I had never liked watching baseball on television before. But one Saturday afternoon, I found myself watching the San Francisco Giants and slipping into baseball's reverie, susceptible to the magic that you hear people talk about but don't really understand until it happens to you: watching the pitches, hearing the count, doing the calculations, seeing the chess game, getting to know the boys. There was something deeply satisfying, as though some childhood innocence were returning, about watching grown men having fun.

If ever there was a time when it would have been nice to take some drugs and zone out, post-9/11 was the time. But since that really wasn't an option for yours truly, baseball on television was a pretty good second choice. Plus, after the game you could just get up and yawn and you didn't owe anybody any money and nobody was threatening to beat you up.

Strangely enough, the home team ended up in the World Series this year, as a wild-card team, against another wild-card team from Orange County, San Francisco's geographical and cultural opposite. What had begun as a casual and tentative interest, based solely on its being a good, inexpensive way to chill out, became (as it has been nigh the last 45 years for many Giants fans) a tortured and sleepless time during which the gods seemed to have deserted us and all hope was lost.

I had begun not only watching baseball on television but also listening to KNBR 680, "The Sports Leader," in the car. Arriving at home many nights during the spring and summer I sat outside in the car, still listening to KNBR. One afternoon Gary Radnich, one of the voices of KNBR, told us a woman had written in saying that if 12 years ago she had known how much better baseball was than drugs, she wouldn't have wasted all those years doing drugs.

Now that was very touching and sweet and all. But whatever replaces drugs in a person's life -- rehab, religion, sports, sex, whatever -- seems to arrive with a set of demons all its own. And after Saturday's inexplicable and strangely tortured seventh-inning loss to Anaheim, and Sunday's rather dull defeat, the comparison with drugs took a darker turn. Because waking up afterward was much like waking up after some innocent little coke binge had gone horribly wrong, but the kind of horribly wrong that you can't put your finger on while it's happening, because you're still doing the coke, you're still out in the club, you're still ostensibly having fun, except you feel like a dancing dead man. In the case of the coke, of course, you just don't have enough of those happy brain messengers running through the nervous system. But the horrible wrongness of baseball wasn't so simple. It was more about the inexplicable changes in fate that occur despite all we know and all we do.

So, actually, baseball's not better than drugs, it's just different.

I should have known. Not that it would have mattered. Now I just don't know where to turn. I'm kind of ashamed. Is there a 24-hour number you can call? Is that big gathering in the stadium the only meeting, or are there others around town, in gymnasium basements or the backrooms of card shops? I'm hooked, and things don't look good.

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Dear Cary,

What does one do when trust and enthusiasm have been laid utterly to waste in a relationship? We've been married 10 years, we're both 35, and we have no kids. My wife was in love with another man for a while but didn't act on it. She had a secret male friend for over a year that had many appearances of an affair -- he was a confidante for her troubles. When I found out, I threatened divorce. When I threatened, she said she loved me and wanted to stay together. At which point I melted and recanted. At this point I'm pretty sure neither of these were affairs, so let's just leave it at that. Pretty sure.

In marriage counseling I'm finding out that she has been angry at me for years on end, while acting like things were fine. Between secret crushes, hidden grudges, and the withering of our physical sexual relationship, I'm burning out. We fight a lot. We didn't used to fight because neither one of us would act angry when we were angry. But she would be secretly furious with me for years at a time. And cut off sex in retaliation.

We still basically like and admire each other, without trusting each other, and occasionally have good times kind of by accident. We are more honest with each other than we used to be.

How many years of painfully scraping by should we endure? How do you know when fizzle is the diagnosis? I'm sure people used to endure cold, distrustful marriages till death did them part, in the old days. I'm afraid that's what I'm signing up for, because my survival instincts aren't kicking in and telling me to run for my life.

Whaddya think?

Just Treading Water

Dear Just Treading,

I think it's over and you need to find the courage to split up.

You say you threatened your wife with divorce but reconciled. I think in that act is a clue to what has gone wrong. Threats are corrosive. They interpose a calculus of fear between two people at the very moment when what they need is heroic and fearless self-exposure, willful, if momentary, acceptance of a radical truth. When what you need to do is find out what your wife is actually doing, a threat only shifts both your foci to some spectral evil. Whatever hope you might have had of reaching the truth is thereby lost.

The threat of divorce is particularly destructive because it perverts the one thing about divorce that makes it a merciful and life-saving legal remedy. Divorce is not a weapon of persuasion or a lever of control over your spouse, but a final act of surrender, an admission that something has been irretrievably lost and that there's no sense looking for it anymore. It's that moment at twilight when you shrug your shoulders and walk out of the woods.

I think you're at that point. I suggest you divide the assets and move apart. And for once in this relationship, don't press for an advantage. Just let the whole thing go and start over. I have said in the past that I hate divorce, but those words were the words of the child in me. As an adult, I recognize that divorce can be an act of great mercy.

Besides, if the finality of divorce frightens you, think of it this way: You can always marry each other again. It wouldn't be the first time.

By Cary Tennis

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