I'm sleeping with my ex again -- why?

There's nothing to it but the sex, but he makes me feel worthless

By Cary Tennis
Published April 29, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am a 38-year-old woman having a hidden affair with my ex-husband of 10 years ago. To be completely honest, we're just having sex, no seduction involved. Old feelings are welling up for me, some good but mostly bad, all with a huge side order of guilt and shame. I don't think my ex has feelings for anyone except himself and our children. He's the most selfish person I know while extolling himself any chance he gets as a model of generosity. Yes, he's free with money and he's pleasant and jocular with strangers, acquaintances and friends, but he's stingy with his feelings. I'm realizing (again) that he doesn't seem to have any. He seems to exist on a completely superficial plane and when someone pisses him off he tells them how he feels and is done with them. He doesn't give anyone a chance to reply, just cuts them off. To him any discussion is an argument. He avoids confrontation unless he's the one instigating it. I should mention that he smokes pot daily, several times a day, and has since he was a teenager.

We were married for only two years; our children were quite young when he divorced me. (I unintentionally got pregnant with twins a mere six weeks after I had my first child.) I was in the throes of a serious postpartum depression, which was the horrifying culmination of undiagnosed bipolar disorder that I'd been dealing with since my adolescence. Yes, I was out of control and a terrible person, but he didn't try to get me help. He didn't take me to a doctor, he didn't hospitalize me -- instead he kicked me out of the house and called my mother to take care of me (who, coincidentally, didn't know what to do with me either). I've never really forgiven him for that and apparently he's never forgiven me either. During an argument we had today he told me that I should have been "a big girl" and gotten help myself. When I try to defend myself he tells me that he's done talking and that he doesn't care about anything I have to say. He will say things like "I'm Scottish-Irish, I hold a grudge" or "I was the youngest boy and I was spoiled, I've always gotten whatever I want and that's the way it is." I feel like I'm dealing with my father who would tell me during an argument that he didn't want to hear another word. My dad had some serious anger issues and I see them in myself, though not to the same extent. I feel used, silenced and guilted about the person I was 10 years ago. In other words, I am infuriated by my ex to the point of self-loathing and deep sadness. Why do I need his validation and forgiveness? Why have I been having sex with him for the last year and being devalued as a person? Why do I want to be with him again when we have so little in common and have fundamentally different approaches to life? He has sex with other women and meanwhile I've only been with him, trying to convince myself that I don't care and that I can push my feelings down. I have explained, apologized and asked for forgiveness and understanding so many times and he just asks me why I care about what he thinks. He tells me that I'm beautiful and that I could be with anyone I wanted to be with if I would "stop being so shy." Did I mention that I'm bisexual with a strong lesbian preference and had a girlfriend for six years? We broke up about a year and a half ago. She didn't like kids and had plenty of issues herself – childhood sexual abuse, a serious lack of motivation, etc. She and I are still friends and I can't talk to her about any of this because she would be furious with me for getting involved with him again. I have a date with a new woman soon and in my mind it's already doomed. I'm not out to very many people; I guess I'm a coward. I live in the Deep South and my ridiculously sensitive psyche can't handle the disapproval.

Cary, I feel broken. I've been on bipolar medication for years but I occasionally go off of it. I don't know why, it's just hard to keep up with the routine sometimes. Or maybe I don't want to get better? I don't have any idea how to be a happy, whole, fulfilled person. I feel damaged beyond repair and completely unlovable. I have work friends who want to get to know me better and I avoid it because I feel like a fraud. I am as flawed as I ever was – I still get too angry, I still get too sad and I still feel so separate from everyone around me. I have a successful professional life as an R.N. and I'm good at my job. I can make accomplishments academically and professionally but personally I'm floundering. My children prefer their father because he's more fun but I'm the one who takes care of all of the day-to-day things and am the more responsible parent. What do I do to feel "good enough" and to be more open to life? I see death on an almost daily basis at work and I'm all too aware of how short our time here is. Intellectually, I know what the problems are but emotionally I can't get a handle on anything. Please help. I've tried therapy but only for short periods.

Sad and Struggling in the South

Dear Sad and Struggling,

You are asking for help. You have reached a point of pain and desperation in your own life. This is a great moment. It means you may be ready to undertake fundamental change. It is as if you are at a turning point. If there is any way now that you can turn to someone you trust, or just shout to the heavens, or murmur in the darkness to an unseen presence, or ask yourself, in your deepest reserves of self, for acceptance and help and a way forward, I urge you to do that. Just take some time alone and allow yourself to call out, either aloud or silently, to some force in the universe that will hear your pain and take you. There may be a vestige of your true and innocent self there. There may be some universal power there, the beating of wings, the sound of the surf, a murmur of something that once cared for you and loved you. Call out to that thing and await its answer. Its answer may come immediately as a flood of relief and a sense of pure being. Or its answer may come gradually, later, at an unexpected time; you may be sitting at lunch a few days later and hear a comforting voice or sense of presence, the return of something old and reassuring.

Also reach out to the world. Think of someone you know and admire who has strength and serenity, a way of living that works for them,  a glow about them, and just call that person. Spend some time. Unburden yourself.

In other words, today begin your search in earnest for something that works. And keep at it. There will be ups and downs but you will be on a clear path somewhere. And you will notice the difference.

You were once a beloved child, an innocent child, loved and cared for by parents who at times had their own struggles, who themselves were probably at times just like you are now, bereft and alone. Yet they cared for you. They kept you whole. Such a quality of nurturing and care exists in our contemporary world. It is around us. You see it in your work every day; along with the illness and death, you see that spirit of compassion and healing working all around you. This is true of any hospital. Behind the illness and injury and loss there is constant healing going on, and constant care and compassion and magic.

Find that now. Find that spirit of healing; find that same loving attention that you once had. Seek it out. Prepare your skin to feel its warmth, a warmth like the sun, a coolness like the ocean. Settle into this faint presence when you find it.

You have tried therapy for short periods. Try therapy for longer periods. Try it until you make some progress. Try it until it is a constant presence in your life, until the orderly and courageous examination of your own life becomes a habit. Try it until you have a full, practical, medical understanding of bipolar disorder and what techniques work to moderate its extremes. Try it until you find the right medication. Try it until you find a working philosophy of life. By that I mean some external compass. I mean, for instance, some alcoholics I have known have bipolar disorder and find that the same techniques they use to recover from alcoholism are relevant in mastering or at least living with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. In the course of treating their substance abuse they find also a philosophy of living. By that I mean a set of assumptions about what works and doesn't work in your personal relationships and in how you treat yourself day to day, the things you say to yourself, the way you hold yourself.

So look for a way of living that is different from your current way. Find some people who have a way of living that makes sense. Settle yourself into therapy with someone who seems to have something and know something more than you. Settle in and begin searching for that faint voice of the other. This will help you. This will steady your nerves for the journey ahead.

Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Affairs Bipolar Bipolar Disorder Bisexuality Divorce Parenting Since You Asked