Emotional artists

We saved each other, but all of this struggling to make things work has made me so tired!

Published August 11, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When do you get off the roller coaster?

My wife and I have been married for a year and have been together for three years altogether. It hasn't been easy. Both of us are emotional artists; both of us come from abusive, manipulative and, quite honestly, borderline insane families; both of us tend to, in an argument, rush to our battle stations and seek to prove our "rightness" at all costs.

So obviously we often feel unsupported and resentful, even though we are way too fused.

And yet, we've saved each other's lives. We've helped each other to see that there is a space between who we are and all the abuse we grew up with and continued to invite into our lives. We, or I should say, I, have come to see that misery and anger are a choice, that failing to achieve is also a choice. For more than two years we have been in couples counseling, and it's been great; we've learned so much.

The problem is, I'm just getting so tired of all the work. I figured by now it would be easier, but it isn't. My wife is very demanding and I tend to get distant. We're separated now, by her choice, but living just around the block, trying to see if with physical distance we can make better boundaries.

Blah, blah, blah, blah. That's what it sounds like after a while, all this emotional work. All the struggling has, at least for me, severely smushed the sex drive. Is three years long enough to pretty much extrapolate our future? Should we just call it a day? Part of me is afraid for her if we do that. She is in a lot of pain and keeps trying to hurt those who would love her. There are other, simpler (perhaps) women who would be interested in dating if I were single.

I know I tend to be a bit of a martyr, but how much should I take? I'm getting tired of the roller coaster and I would love to check out the merry-go-round for a while.


Dear Tired,

It's not surprising that you're tired. If you were building a house, you'd get tired, too. But if you quit, the unfinished house would stand on the road like a reproachful monument to your fickleness. You'd pass it every day on the way to work and it would mock you and remind you how you gave up because you were tired and you couldn't take the pain, and it would cause you to question whether you're truly an artist, because if you were truly an artist you'd swallow the pain and finish the building.

You might wish you'd never started on the house. But you did start on the house. Likewise with this relationship. You can debate the merits of having begun. But, having begun, it's almost certain that you will gain more from seeing it through than you will from leaving. Don't you want to see how it turns out in the end? Isn't that what separates art from chaos, a well-lived life from a wasted life? If you leave, think of all the work you're throwing away; think of the floorless rooms, the wires that power no lights, the roughed-in holes for windows and doors. Art is completed work. A well-lived life is a life of completed stories. You have to stick around for the ending.

That doesn't mean you can't take a break. You're engaged in a long struggle. It's not uncommon to think that in two or three years you'll have it sorted out. But it always takes longer than you think. Just when you start thinking it's about time to be done, the real change begins.

Meanwhile, if you're making any progress at all, you're doing well. You'll probably reach periods where you feel you're making no progress at all. That, too, is a kind of progress, but it's much harder to endure. Still, it's progress. Believe me, you're doing very well, my son. If you've found someone you love, who loves you, who's willing to endure the struggle with you, you've stuck gold. Sure, it's painful and maddening. So what's new? If you're an artist, you don't get to take the easy, comfortable way.

Who needs artists who can't take the pain, anyway? What are artists for if not to take the pain the rest of us would rather not endure? Isn't that what Jesus was for when Jesus was big? For those of us who don't have a Jesus, there've got to be artists willing to try to save our souls. How are you ever going to make valuable art and save any souls if you don't have the stamina to keep crawling through the broken glass? How are you going to save any souls if you're not doing daily push-ups, eating the wheat grass, steeling yourself for the long, thirsty march?

I just finished a novel. How long did it take me? Eight years. It wasn't that unpleasant, actually, in terms of suffering: I was physically comfortable during the entire period; I was not withdrawing from drugs or having DTs and I was not impoverished. It just took a long time, and it was confusing and often I felt that I might not ever finish. All I knew was that it would take as long as it takes. And in fact it took just a little longer than that.

But enough about me. The problem of your impatience is the problem of time itself. What is one year, 10 years, 50 years? What does that mean? What is time, anyway? What is your impatience? Your impatience is a wish thrown like an egg against the wall of time. When you're saying, isn't three years long enough? you're just saying, I wish it were over already. And I don't blame you. But it's over only when it's over.

For an artist, duration doesn't mean anything. No one's going to judge one work or another based on how quickly or slowly you did it. Likewise with your growth as a person. You just keep at it, and you trust that the people into whose care you have fallen are the people you belong with. You trust that there's a reason your wife told you to go live around the corner for a while. You trust what's going on in front of you.

I have a good friend who's a painter and one of my favorite paintings of his isn't really a painting at all but a big canvas with one sentence written over and over, line after line, like 10,000 times: Stop thinking about her. Stop thinking about her. Stop thinking about her. I love that painting. Tom just keeps going. That's what an artist does. You just keep going till you get to the end of the canvas.

So hang in there, buddy. Stick with your support group. Don't make any sudden moves. Just keep hammering.

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By Cary Tennis

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