There is a 1980 song called “Freewill” by Rush that spoke to my adolescent metaphysical angst about the meaning of life. The repeating snippet that has stuck in my soul since I was a High School sophomore is…
“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
I met my first husband, Tom, during the first week of my freshman year at college. He was tall and charismatic. The leader of his church student group, he seemed so sure of himself. Church leaders trusted him and were molding him to take a leadership role in the group. A confident musician, he sang and played guitar in the worship group during Sunday service. I saw him as talented, smart, and goal-driven.
He Chose Me
We dated in the church-approved way of courting. There was hold handing, but no kissing. We participated in lots of group activities but were discouraged from praying together. Once engaged, we met with other church couples who talked with us about relationships. We were encouraged to attend the Catholic church-sponsored reproductive health class with an emphasis on “natural family planning”. It was exciting to laugh at our goal of having 13 kids–a number that sufficiently traumatized both of our families!
I always figured that the most common reason that people got divorced, was infidelity. Therefore, if we could move through this time of hormones and relationship building under the watchful eye of the church, we were setting ourselves up for a long, loving, and successful marriage.
Happily Ever After
On May 30, 1987, the summer before my student teaching semester, we got married. He still had two full semesters of school to finish before he would receive his degree.
During the summer, he began an apprenticeship at a local accounting firm. He was quickly disillusioned by the work and by the fact that it was taking him so long to complete his degree. The church, and God, had steered him in the wrong direction. He was angry at me that I was graduating after only 4 1/2 years of college. It would take him 6 years. The kicker was that he had sacrificed his education to preach and be involved in church events–activities that he could not list on a resume.
He was bitter and angry. So much so that one Sunday evening in October, 5 months into our marriage, he cut his wrists as he lay in bed and I was in the bathroom putting on my pj’s and brushing my teeth. I called our pastor who came quickly. I figured if he went to the emergency room, he would get counseling. Instead of going to the hospital, I waited at home. When Tom came back with bandaged wrists, I cried on the couch through that night.
Tom spent Monday with our pastor and I went to the elementary school where I was student-teaching in a Kindergarten class. I didn’t tell anyone what had just happened. Not my mom, sister, cooperating teacher, church friends…no one.
I felt so isolated. I was now a team of two. My partner Tom was angry and hurting. He to was upset that he was married and he told me that he felt stuck. Stressed about making money to pay for our apartment, he wanted to check out of the responsibilities that were falling on his shoulders. His dreams of an exciting position at a “Big 8” accounting firm were dashed.
The Job of His Dreams
It ended up that he actually did get a job at the firm he had dreamed of for so long. We moved to Memphis TN where he was away from home 80% of the time. I practically lived at the small private school where I got my first paid teaching position. There was no reason to go home. I would drive him to the airport on Sunday afternoon and pick him up on Friday night. I remember that he was auditing factory chicken farms. He hated the job. Then on April 16, the day after the tax filing deadline, just short of one year of employment, he was fired. I came home to find Tom laying, spread eagle on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He wanted to know if I was going to divorce him. I said, “Of course not.”
Walking on Eggshells
We moved two more times. The hope of a better job and a happier life propelled us forward.
But his mental health began to deteriorate. It was always dramatically evident in our home when he was up or down.
When he was good, we could go to a party, and not only would he be the one with a lampshade on his head, but he could get everyone else to wear a lampshade too.
He took guitar lessons and practiced insatiably.
We rented movies with subtitles, became coffee snobs, and were always on the lookout for a new restaurant to try.
But when things were bad, they were horrid. When I got home from work, I would often gauge his mood to determine how to express myself or my energy level.
Often there were periods when I came home to silence. Small disagreements would turn into weeks of silently living in the same house without uttering even one word to each other.
Tom threw himself into work. He gained more than 100 pounds.
It was often bad around the holidays. My mom was greeted on more than one occasion with “Merry F**kin’ Christmas”. He drank himself into oblivion and passed out in the backyard at my nephew’s first birthday party. It was not unusual for me to cry on the way back home in the car after a vacation or holiday visit with my family.
When I finished my Master’s degree and was offered an apprentice-type position if I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., he told me that “You are f**kin’ crazy if you think that is even an option.”
We began trying to start a family and when that didn’t go as planned, we began exploring infertility options.
It seemed that year by year together, life became progressively more difficult. He continued to struggle with feelings of being trapped–with me and by me. We were living separate lives while living together.
We did try counseling on several occasions. Dr. James Black is/was a gifted psychologist that could get us back together and moving forward. We had a trial separation and I bought my first dog, a golden retriever named Eli. (Women when they are going through hard times might resort to chocolate. But my decadent favorite self-care binge was Eli’s plain cheesecake. The pup I chose was the same color as the yummy graham cracker crust.) But I got off track here. He decided that he wanted to stay married. That weekend, he moved back into our home.
Older and Wiser
Then, one evening, I was out running in October of 1998. It was crisp, but not cold. It had rained earlier and everything was shiny in the light of the streetlamps. I was listening to the popular radio station’s “8 at 8” run of songs. Tom and I were in one of our weeks-long silent times over some trivial disagreement. He had been sleeping in the spare bedroom. It occurred to me that I had allowed Tom to dictate the tone of our relationship from the beginning. I was always reacting. He was deciding.
I felt finished. It was like flipping a light switch.
“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”
All these years I sat in the passenger seat of my own life. I had relinquished so much time and attention to trying and failing to make someone else happy. I had been choosing to not decide…so many things…especially if I wanted to be in this relationship, or not.
After that run, I came into the house and went upstairs. Tom wasn’t in the spare room He was reading on our bed. As I entered and stood looking at him for a moment, he smiled and motioned to my side of the bed. He was ready to reconcile. “No”, I said, “I’m finished. We’re getting divorced.”
With no great fanfare, discussion, or protest, he got up and went to bed in the spare room.
I had finally made the choice…for me.