Psychic change or con job?

I left an abusive husband. Now he's acting like a new man -- or is he just trying to win me back?

By Cary Tennis
November 13, 2012 6:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I'm at a crossroads in my marriage and life and I don't know what to do. No matter how much advice I receive from my parents, friends and one counselor, and no matter how many advice books I read, I still can't seem to come to a decision that gives me peace of mind. I have been separated from my husband (I'm living in an apartment; separate bills, bank account, etc.) for going on four months. The question is whether to file for divorce or reconcile.


We have been married for eight years, together for 13. It's been a stormy relationship from the beginning. To make a very long story short, the issues have centered around his drinking, his temper and anger, his children (my stepchildren), a terminally ill parent, and the fact that over time I landed somewhere on Page 2 or 3 of his priority list.

And my response in times of trouble is total withdrawal. We had many near-breakups following episodes of his heavy drinking and taking all of his shit out on me during those moments. Then he'd swear he was done drinking, throw out all of the alcohol, only to start again slowly but surely. He quit caring about his health altogether, put on more than 40 pounds and quit caring about me, or so it seemed. I hung in there for all of those years, through all the problems dealing with his kids, through the ups and downs of his drinking, through being treated like shit. There was never physical violence, but mentally, at times, it was pretty rough. Over time, my affection and love for him deteriorated. And grew for someone else, but that's another topic. (I recognize already that while genuine feelings are involved in that situation, the chances of long-term success are slim so I really want to make a decision independent of it.)

About two years ago, after the last drinking incident and the promises to quit, I swore I was done. If he started drinking again, I was leaving. He did, and it took me a good year, but this past summer I finally found the courage to tell him that I was done, that I didn't love him anymore the way that a wife should love her husband, and that I was moving out. After a torturous month of him bawling, falling apart at work, threatening to hurt himself, begging and pleading me to stay and swearing he would change, I moved out. In a moment of weakness to talk him off the ledge, I agreed to go to marriage counseling, which we did for a while, until I just couldn't do it anymore.


Much to my shock and, to be honest, annoyance, instead of realizing that we had a shitty marriage and that he was as unhappy as I was, he decided to fight for me and our marriage. Really, really hard! He stayed in counseling on his own. He quit drinking cold turkey. He's lost 40-plus pounds and is still losing. Without the alcohol, he's kinder and patient and funny and fun again. He wants to go on trips and do all of the things we always said we would do and can do (his kids are grown now and we fortunately have plenty of money to play with). He wants to work out with me. He wants to spend our free time together and be best friends, etc., etc., etc.

Well, I am ambivalent at best: afraid to file for divorce, but unable to take the steps necessary to reconcile. We have started "dating" so that I can see if my romantic feelings for him will come back in light of all of the changes. So far, they haven't. I enjoy our dates (usually some kind of outdoor activity, a meal, or a movie), but when they're over I'm perfectly happy to go home to my apartment. I don't want to be in our house. I don't want to spend the night. I just can't seem to flip that desire switch back on. The tricky part is that I'm not convinced that I'm going to feel like this forever. Logically, I think that if the changes he's made really stick, then he would be a good husband and we could have a good life. We have a lot of financial security, especially together. We seem to have the same long-term goals (retire, move to the mountains and ski), similar politics and values. All those are things that are very difficult to find. But I'm not sure how this is going to work if, to be frank, I never want to sleep with my husband!

I'm very torn here, and my husband is losing hope that I'm going to come home. I've told him I need more time to figure out what I want and how I feel but he doesn't want to be in limbo forever. And I really don't want to keep him there. If I really don't love him and it's not coming back, I need to let him go and let both of us move on with our lives. But I'm not 100 percent sure that the love isn't going to come back. Or, that it needs to. After 13 years with someone, isn't the romantic love gone anyway? I also believe on a fundamental level that if there's any way to salvage a marriage, you should try to salvage it. I also truly believe that the grass is not greener and that in the long run, staying married is the best hope for happiness. Except I was sooooo very unhappy. About a year ago, when I was trying to decide whether I should get a divorce, I read a book called "The Secret Lives of Wives." It was essentially a series of interviews of women who stayed with their husbands for 20+ years and had very many down times, but they stayed married, found interesting ways to cope, and in the end they were happy that they stayed married. This book really resonated with me.


I also have a little bit of a weird teenage experience that might be at play here psychologically. I broke up with my first boyfriend/love in high school. I was really insecure and silly at the time (as most teenagers are) and trashed the relationship. We did the back and forth on getting back together for a while, until he moved on. And I spent the rest of high school, and college, and probably somewhere into my late 20s (I'm 40-ish now, so you'd think I'd be over it) thinking I'd made a huge mistake. As I write this paragraph, I realize that it sounds ridiculous. But, the scars are there. I think I may be afraid to cut the cord on my marriage because even if it seems like the right thing to do now, I'm afraid inevitably I will end up regretting it and screw up my life.

So, Cary, after all of this rambling, I'd love to hear your insight and advice. How do I know if it's truly over? Is there anything I can do, and what, and how, to get the love back? Do I need to get the love back? Can companionship be enough? When is it time to just let him go, and would that be the more humane approach? Or, should I be like the women in that book and fight for the marriage with an eye toward the finish line of life? Life sure is easier to go through with someone by your side. And finally, how can I learn to trust myself and stop second-guessing every single thought I have? Oh, and will I ever get over high school?


Supremely Confused

Dear Supremely Confused,

Your husband's behavior sounds more like a campaign to win you back than a genuine psychic change. Something about it doesn't add up.

He lost 40 pounds in four months. How did he do that? Has he switched from alcohol to amphetamines? He sounds like he is on some kind of high. Could he be bipolar? Some people who are bipolar but do not know it use alcohol as a way to "self-medicate." Has he ever had a thorough psychiatric evaluation?


It concerns me that he tried to keep you from leaving by threatening to hurt himself. That's not a good sign. It indicates that he is highly motivated to control and manipulate you. Could he be a sociopathic individual?

Your account raises serious concerns. I think the smartest thing you can do is remain where you are. If you do not give in to him he may resort to stronger measures. He may become coercive or threatening. I think you should hold your ground and see what happens.

You are safe now and you sound relatively happy with your life. Your main concern seems to be your desire to have things settled. In your first paragraph you say you can't seem to come to a decision that will give you peace of mind.  I do not think a decision will give you peace of mind, frankly. I think peace of mind will only come from learning to live in limbo.


Living in limbo is hard but it is also our true and unalterable condition; having things "settled" is only an illusion. The root uncertainty of life remains no matter how much money we have in the bank and how stable our relationships appear.

I suggest you accept that things will be unsettled for a while and concentrate on living as you are living for a year or two.

During this time, you can look back at your life and see some patterns.

You broke up with someone in high school and were alone for a long time afterward. You still carry that hurt. You say your action stemmed from insecurity and high school silliness. But is it possible that this act stemmed from your deepest sense of self, that it was an authentic act of great personal significance? Though in retrospect you regret it, there may be some part of you left behind that you need to retrieve. Perhaps you were acting to protect yourself then; perhaps there was something sacred at stake, as there is now. Perhaps your outside love interest figures in this as well. This may be a pattern you would like to discuss with a psychotherapist who is skilled in teasing out the threads of hidden narratives in our lives, how we are seeking things we don't know we're seeking, how we thwart ourselves from finding the things we genuinely want, how we keep detouring because we are divided, incapable of seeing ourselves as we are.


In other words, it sounds like you're human and could use somebody to talk to. It would be great if you could use this time to honor your previous moments of emotional authenticity and see how they relate to the present, to recognize that though they led to breaks with others, in them lie some keys to who you really are. In admitting these things to consciousness, you may discover that you have been holding at bay some part of your self that needs expression.

You stand at the beginning of a new life. Find someone who can help guide you through this. It might be a therapist or it might be some kind of physical or spiritual practice.

In short, my main message to you is to stay put, stay safe, keep doing what's working, and don't get talked into anything that feels wrong, because you're on the right track.

Cary Tennis

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