I’m an artist. Being an artist is my salvation. I decided on that path when I was 7 years old. It allowed me to escape when my sisters were screaming, and pleading “Daddy please stop! Please stop.” When it wasn’t me that time. There was only once when he broke into that secret world and raging he threw a scissors at me. It stuck me in my face. My early marriage was supposed to save me. My young husband was my white knight. Instead he married me to save him – I just never knew what I was supposed to save him from. So I buried myself in my own little world of art and poetry and my children. And I didn’t dare ask myself if I was happy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Understanding a Straight Wife

                          Copyright - 2016 Maureen Kavaney Tillman

January 2016 - Ten years ago this month I was in court for my divorce. I was with him for 39 years. In truth marriage for me was lonely, confusing and neglectful, yet I could never admit to myself how unhappy I was. It took years after divorce to understand why.

The past decade involved six years of therapy with three different therapists. I am convinced that no one can understand what a straight wife goes through except for another straight wife. Family and friends, although well meaning, have no idea. If I hadn’t found my straight wives group online I would not have had anyone who understood to talk to about the pain I was feeling.  Family and friends long ago decided I should have just moved on. Everyone told me to get over it. Would anyone have said that to a widow who had loved her husband unconditionally for many, many years? I don’t think so. And yet my husband is dead to me. The man I was married to for almost four decades, whom I gave my youth and my life to, never really existed.  The man who was the father of my children and whom I believed would be there for me in our old age never drew a breath. I have struggled to reconcile the loss of my husband with the fact that he was a fraud.  Our marriage was a fraud. And I was in mourning as every other widow but grieving a phantom. It was crazy time.

Upon acceptance, a straight wife slowly comes to understand she had been living with a complete stranger. For me there came along with that an overwhelming dread. The potential for abuse is real at that stage, at least it was for me. As with any stranger anything could be possible especially in a period as volatile as fighting over a divorce. Hatred boiled over.

A cheating husband, a straight one, betrays his wife with his affair.  But I doubt he ever married her under false pretenses. He probably did not wed her with the intent to be unfaithful.  A closeted gay husband marries his wife knowing he cannot love her like a straight man could. Maybe he hopes she can cure him, or save him, but when she can’t or as he sees it she won’t, he begins to hate her. He comes to resent her presence and his confused wife feels it but does not understand why. Her husband knows he needs her in his life to hide behind so the circle of crazy takes root.  The wife of a closeted gay man slowly begins to feel that something is “off “ but she does not understand what it is. If she looks to her husband whom she loves and believes loves her for an answer – he tells her nothing is wrong. He tells her it is all in her head even though he rejects her sexually night after night. Little by little he drags her into the circle of crazy. He needs to keep her there so that she continually looks to herself for being the problem and does not look to him for the answer. Something must be wrong with her. The longer he can keep her there and the crazier things become assures him he is safe hiding his clandestine life.

My husband shut me down countless times over the years by saying he had no problems. He would repeatedly say that he had no problems except for me – I was his only problem. It became his mantra and my unrelenting ridicule. That was one of the most insufferable insults to come to terms with after the extent of his revolting, promiscuous issues came to light. He was secretly so flawed and myself so blind, it was appalling. Unforgivable.

As it turned out, he had locked me out of his increasingly compartmentalized life ever since we exchanged our vows – those empty promises. Being a na├»ve 20 year-old-bride I believed it was my duty to get him to open his heart and allow me to enter.  I wanted more than anything to be a good wife. I believed if I could just find the right key we could find the happiness that was waiting for us. I committed myself to urge him to let me love him. I trusted that he loved me - after all, he married me.

But after five years of sexual rejection, night after night, with only the rare successful consummation, I felt the last of my sexual self-esteem die one night when I was just 23 years old.  I would never feel desirable or lovable. The constant sexual rejection proved lethal. But still I loved him and clung to the belief that he loved me. Anything else was unthinkable.

Never did I understand that what he kept me locked out of was a closet – his closet.  I just understood we were never in the same place. He was cloistered in his own self and I was always somewhere outside of him. It was where he wanted me. I used to compare it to the nursery rhyme, Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater. “ Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Had a wife and couldn’t keep her, So he put her in a pumpkin shell, And there he kept her very well.”  All I knew was that I was never where I thought I would be with him.  Where I should be, but lost. Lost in the circle of crazy as it turned out.

For four decades he continually stuffed all the garbage from his secret life into that closet with him. I could never identify the source of the stench. He denied ever smelling it. After all that time the filth spilled out and obliterated the family I had spent so long building and trying to protect. I had come from a dysfunctional family and it was foremost in my life to create a stable, happy family. What had been a dream suddenly looked like a dung heap because of him.

I do not believe a cheating husband creates this express kind of damage. He does not make your marriage a fraud from day one. He does not make it impossible for his wife to trust her own perceptions for years after he leaves. He does not marry his wife without any intention of loving her the way a straight man would or by stealing any possibility  of a fulfilling love. He does not lie to her every day of his life, or turn all her happy memories into lies. He does not cover her world with all the waste he had hoarded in his closet for years and then just walk away, and yes saying he has no problems.

It took years post-divorce for me to break away from a lifetime of denial and allow myself to begin to see the truth. It was so much more than the admission he made to me of “minor” gay activity over the course of our marriage always denying he was gay. So many memories began to make sense. Two months into our marriage when he was continually rejecting me sexually, he said, in tears, that we were doomed simply because we got married. That was the only moment of truth in our four decades together until that one night when he dropped his control and opened the door just a crack. But he would never tell me what he thought doomed us. It meant that he knew he came into our marriage with a secret that doomed our marriage. It also meant he married me under false pretenses.

So the memory of the phantom husband is slowly fading. It has left me with a filthy residue that was once our marriage. I am grateful for my children and grandchildren. Together we are creating a new family, wonderful but wounded still.  I may never get over it completely but for me I realize this is what moving on looks like.