Friday, June 30, 2017

Open Marriage Watch, Week One

In our most recent counseling session, DW and I agreed that, despite whatever reluctance either of us had about tackling our sexual incompatibility issue (Note, the reluctance was entirely on DW's side), we needed to push forward with it. Since this session fell on her birthday, DW felt even more trepidation than she would have under less loaded circumstances.  Going in, I promised her that she could ease up or stop the discussion if she felt too uncomfortable.

After sharing some catching up with the therapist (we hadn't seen her in two weeks, during which time I'd started my new job), we told her we wanted to dive right in and deal with our sexual issues. I then introduced something I'd been thinking about for awhile, which was to talk about sex without using the language of sex. This was similar to what I wrote about a couple of months ago.  At first, DW was skeptical and said, "Let's just talk about it."  However, with a little context and some cajoling from me, she agreed and the therapist indulged it.

I established the foundation: imagine that XYZ (not using the real name here) is our favorite restaurant, where we have gone regularly for many years. I asked DW to identify her favorite dish at the restaurant, which was a pasta dish she ordered almost every time we went.  I said, "I love that dish, and every time you order it, I take a little bit from your plate, don't I?"  I then asked her to identify my favorite dish.  "You don't really have one," she said. "You order something different every time." It was then that the analogy began to sink in for her, and she smiled and nodded.  "Now," I continued, "imagine that, when we first started going to XYZ, we both ordered different items off the menu, and we shared them with each other.  But, after awhile, you found this pasta dish to be your favorite and you ordered it every time.  Which would have been fine, except that you insisted that I eat only this dish too. It was all you liked, and you didn't want all these different menu items to be showing up at our table.  And imagine that this goes on for many years. Every time we go to XYZ, all I get to eat is this one dish, even though I also like almost everything else on the menu."

"I see where this is going," DW said. "You've been thinking about this awhile, haven't you?"

Asking her to keep indulging the analogy for a little longer, I went on. "After awhile, eating this one dish left me a little unhappy.  Maybe a little bored too.  And I would tell you about it. But you continued to insist that this would be the only way we could keep going to XYZ, our favorite restaurant. Eventually, though, even you started getting bored with it, and we started going a lot less often. And then, one night, while eating at XYZ, the dish made you sick.  We never finished dinner, and we left the restaurant, and we haven't been back since. I asked you a few times to go out with me, but you refused because now the food made you sick and you were no longer interested.  Imagine," I emphasized, "how it must feel for me not to be able to go to my favorite restaurant for more than two years because that one dish made you sick, even though there might be other menu items that you might actually like if you tried them again."

She sighed.  I abandoned the analogy, having made my point.

"You've asked me for more than two years to go without sex, knowing how much I love it. This has felt, for me, like asking me not to eat. This is why I used the restaurant analogy, by the way. Sex is a part of who I am, it is central to how I identify myself as a man."

The discussion at that point turned to her sexuality, as the therapist had asked if she could ask DW some questions about her sexual development.  She revealed that her first awareness of her own sexuality was when she'd lost her virginity to her first boyfriend, at age 18. This admission confirmed for me what I'd long suspected: that DW had had very little sexual education as a teenager.  She said she had never had an orgasm through penetration, and felt a little defective for not being able to do what a lot of other women she knew were claiming was "the best orgasm ever." 

She also revealed that, while she was excited to have sex with her boyfriend, it wasn't so much the physical sensations which excited her, though she liked them.  It was the closeness, the love she'd felt for him, and the belief that sex "was just something I ought to be doing if I wanted him to be my boyfriend."  I said then that I had long believed that sex between DW and me was always "purpose-driven."  For her, while dating, sex had been about emotional bonding and intimacy, and then, after marriage, it became almost exclusively about making babies, and that once the babies came, it became about, as DW had put it years ago, doing it "because the relationship required it."  Not because it felt good to be naked and making love just because she wanted to make love, but because I wanted it and the relationship needed it. Like periodically driving an old car around the block to keep the tires from rotting in the elements. "One of these days we'll get rid of this old car, but for now let's just run the engine and take it for a spin to keep it in shape."

Until she stopped having sex, she had come to think of the physical part as something she could take or leave, but she liked the closeness and the intimacy. This was when I asked, "What if you're really asexual, honey? Because that's a pretty accurate description of  asexuality." She shrugged and said, "Could be.  But what do we do now?"

We didn't have much time left in our session, but I wasn't going to hold back any longer. Both of us had agreed during the session that resolving this issue would either propel our marriage forward or end it. I was determined to move it forward, and I believed she felt the same way. I said, "You told me last New Year's Eve, six weeks after you'd found out what I'd done, that one of your goals for this year was to 'come to terms' with your sexuality. I told you that I thought that was a great goal, but that it was going to take work. And it will. Your sexuality isn't going to find you, you need to find it. But I want to take that journey with you. I think it can be eye-opening for both of us. And as I see it, there are really only three outcomes here."  I went back to the restaurant analogy.  "One is that you and I go back to XYZ and you sample all the different menu items, and you realize that you love all the food as much as I do. Two is that we go back and you realize that that one pasta dish is all you like and you're happy with that.  And three is that we go back and you decide that you've had enough of XYZ forever.  I guess there'd be a fourth outcome, which is that you decide not to go back to XYZ after all and you're fine the way things are. Which is where we are now. Whatever outcome happens, though, I'm OK with it. If this is who you are, I accept it; I have to, if I want to stay married to you."

"But it goes both ways, doesn't it?" she said.

"It goes both ways.  You need to accept me for who I am too.  I've already done all my grieving about the end of our sex life, and I'm going to be OK, so long as I still have an outlet for my sexuality. Because I can live in a sexless marriage, but I can't live with a sexless life. I won't. You can't insist that I give up sex because you're done with it. Not if you want to stay married to me."

It. Was. All. Out. There. I had finally said what had been burning in me for so long.  And DW could no longer hide from the truth, or hide from what needed to be done. The survival of our marriage would very likely mean that she would have to accept that I was someday going to have sex with other women. I assured her that nothing would ever again be done in secret. "There's no benefit to that anymore," I said.  "We'll work something out, discuss it offline."

Then -- without any warning -- she dropped a bomb on me. "I've been thinking that one way we could start this was to maybe invite someone else to join us. Someone we both trusted."

I picked my jaw up off the floor and laughed, which was probably the wrong thing to do.  I apologized, but I said, "How am I supposed to react when you hit me with a revelation like that?  You've never, ever discussed anything like this before."

"It's been on my mind a while."

The session was then over, and we had to stop the discussion. Because it was her birthday, DW asked that we not discuss this issue again for the rest of the evening.  I was cooking dinner for us and the kids, and there was cake.  I had the kids light the candles and together we sang for her.  I have a great pic of her and one of the kids blowing out the candles.

We haven't talked about it since therapy. I asked this morning if she'd like to discuss it tonight. She said yes, so long as "we're not exhausted, and there are no kids around." Basically that was a no, since she's always exhausted, particularly after the kids are asleep. I'm a little frustrated that we haven't discussed it some more, but she can't escape it for long.  Next week we have another therapy session, and you can bet that, in that little room, I'll bring it up.

Next week is the Fourth of July.  "Independence" is taking on a new meaning for me.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Where am I?

Dear Readers --

This will be a very long post. 

I know you have all been wondering where in the hell I've been these past couple months.  What's going on with my marriage?  This post will, I hope, catch you up on the goings-on in my home and elsewhere.

First off, I'm still married, and I'm grateful.  When I last posted, I wrote about listening with empathy.  I finished the post with this: "To be a good listener, which is an essential part of survival in a long-term committed relationship, a man must be empathetic toward his woman. Empathy completes the connection, creates intimacy, and builds trust. The end."

Since this post, so much has happened, both in and out of my marriage and our counseling, to test my resolve to remain empathetic.

Four days after that last post, I got a call from the big boss -- the managing director of the unit where I worked. I was being dismissed in a "reduction of force," which is a nice way of saying that the company was laying me off. On the surface, this didn't shock me. The company has been circling the drain for a while now, and since I was the newest hire in my business unit and required an office closer to home and separate from HQ (which was 45 miles away from home), I was unnecessarily expensive.  Further, problems at the executive level required the decision months earlier to preserve capital, which meant that my business was going to suffer.  And it did; it immediately dropped 80 percent from the end of the third quarter 2016, and by the end of the first quarter of 2017, it had dropped to zero.  I had started looking for work in early March after an announcement was made that a business unit that represented half the company was being sold.  They tried to spin it as though the people who remained behind would see an opportunity to expand their business, but I knew the real truth: the company was being readied for sale.  That would not be good for me.

I knew the drill, as I'd been laid off once before. They had to give me 60 days' notice by law, so that meant my official last day is going to be July 1. But because my work generated revenue for the company, they weren't going to let me stay on and solicit business that I could take with me to my next job. So, I was given until the end of the week to finalize whatever I'd been working on and then clear out.

My last day was very weird. There was no one in the office when I usually arrived, so the place was empty. I was going to have to turn in all my keys, my computer, my ID badge, and my parking passes.  I had to park half a mile away on the street and walk to the office. I cleaned off my desk, threw away non-essentials, shredded some sensitive documents, and placed all my company property in my desk drawer and locked it, leaving the key on a co-worker's desk with a note.  I was done within 30 minutes, and felt a sense of dread leaving the building that it was not going to be easy to find a new job, even as I outwardly expressed confidence to anyone who would listen that I'd find a new gig in no time.

On the day I was laid off, I told DW that I wanted only one thing from her. I needed her not to freak out.  She has always been very nervous around money, and believed that any type of setback like this meant that we were going to be homeless by the end of the month.  Forget the fact that we had enough cold cash to last us the rest of the year with zero income, plus a huge investment portfolio and a home with tons of equity. If things were desperate we could go ten years with no income and still have something left. I told her I felt OK that I'd find a job within a few weeks and we'd be back on our feet soon. She listened, and she told me that she'd keep it together and not panic.  I believed her.

We told the kids that night over dinner.  They were pretty level-headed about it, even though we told them that we were going to drastically cut back on expenses for non-essential things so that we could preserve as much of our cash as possible.  We'd be eating meals at home every day and night and weekend until I started working again. We wouldn't be buying anything unnecessary like gaming stuff or movie tickets (we had Netflix and HBO and Amazon Prime so that would have to be enough).  We wouldn't be traveling this summer unless grandparents were footing the bill.  We couldn't fork over cash to indulge a new hobby.  We only bought one ticket to the awards banquet for my younger kid, the athlete, and said that mom and dad couldn't go because money was too tight.  We arranged for a friend to take the kid to and from the banquet (it all worked out; the kid had a great time without us).  The result was that our normal monthly expenses dropped about 40 percent, which was pretty amazing.

I got to work immediately, telling the family that my new full time job was finding a new job.  I had made some fantastic connections during the last job, and I leaned on a couple of them to network and make connections with other companies. I also dug deep and reached out to former colleagues I hadn't seen or talked to in 15 years for job leads.  I refreshed my LinkedIn profile and really reworked my resume so they matched each other.  I got notices from LinkedIn's job search engine, uploaded my resume to Monster and ZipRecruiter. I applied for unemployment so that I could at least get something while I did this work.  And I researched an Uber gig to see if there was a way to make even more (though I decided against it in the end given how much wear and tear I'd have been putting on my car).  This was all in the first week.

I came up empty, everywhere.  The connections I had went nowhere, other companies weren't hiring even though they said they were expanding their business goals for the year. Former colleagues were no help. The LinkedIn and other job notices were for jobs for which I was either grossly overqualified or under-qualified.  Not one call back for an interview. And I learned that these online applications did not come with a method for follow up. The only way to follow up would have been for me to call the company's main number and be routed to HR, then talk to some faceless person who probably didn't even know I'd submitted a resume or applied for the job.  All in all, very disheartening.

I started feeling really anxious, and I started withdrawing. Even though DW and I were continuing counseling, I felt like I was going through the motions.  She'd wanted to pause the work we were doing due to the expense of it, but I insisted that we keep going.  But I was hiding from DW how I was feeling because I wanted so much to project an attitude of "I got this under control." I figured I could clue her in after I'd nailed down a job.

Two weeks had gone by.  I managed to snag one interview, with an old colleague who was now running a busy unit at a competitor.  I only got this interview by inviting him to lunch to talk "networking."  He said that the company had just wrapped up an acquisition and that he wasn't sure there was a budget to bring on someone else, despite the fact that I came with a serious book of business that could increase his bottom line by a minimum of 15 percent.  He said he would talk to the president and see if he could get permission to hire me.  But I wasn't counting on it. 

It was now three weeks since being laid off and I had no good prospects for work. Even though we had cash and assets, I didn't want to get to the point where we had to tap ourselves out, sell the house, etc. DW's income, which always dropped to nearly nothing in the summer, would in about three week be going away for about two months. We were digging deep into our savings.  We managed to snag a few thousand dollars in help from family members so we could put the kids into camp for the summer.  The younger kid's athletic facility waived about a thousand dollars from our obligations there, saying that after paying for over seven years there they wanted to say thank you.  Our synagogue waived a few thousand dollars in religious school and membership dues.  All told, the fall had been well-cushioned, but neither DW nor I were under any illusions that this would continue.  I started researching how much we could get in rent for our house, how much we could sell it for, and what other houses in our area were renting for.  A good friend had just rented out his three-bedroom house for over $4,500 a month, which was nearly our entire housing payment now.  Our house was much bigger and in a better neighborhood, so I felt we could get at least $7,000 for it.  That would give us about $2,000 toward rent in another house, making our net housing payment about $2,000-$3,000 a month.  A big nut, but much less than what we were paying.  No plan of action was forthcoming, but I wanted us to be informed just in case.

At the end of the third week, I got a call from my old colleague at the one place where I'd had an interview.  He said that he was going to talk to the company president about making room for me, but I wouldn't know for about a week.  I kept my fingers crossed while we hosted my parents for the weekend to celebrate a sibling's birthday. At the end of the weekend, I'd found a short stack of hundreds in the kitchen; my mom had left a note saying she and my dad would be there for us, whatever we needed.  I was feeling quite humbled.

But still, my connection to DW was faltering. Our early morning ritual of holding each other had dropped away, and I was too depressed to talk about it, or much of anything.  On top of that the kids were nearing the end of school, and the stress of final exams for my ninth-grader was intense.  The middle-schooler was also having some end of the year pressure to complete some projects that had been put off till the last minute, and some extra credit work to bring up the grades.  I would say that the overall mood under our roof was bleak.

The following week, I was hanging out with a very large gathering of male friends, one that tended to be powerful when we all started talking and sharing what was going on in our lives.  One of our gathering stood up and shared a lesson he'd recently learned. He was my age, and had been married for over 30 years.  He said that when he was younger and up until a few years ago, he believed that he needed to keep certain details about himself from his wife, for a variety of reasons: some level of mystery was good in any long-term relationship, and he needed to have emotional space of his own, of which he was fully in control, and to share his deepest and darkest stuff just with the men in his life.  These resonated deeply with me and I agreed with all he was saying.  He continued that, now that his children were older and moved out of the house and it was just him and his wife, he realized that the level of intimacy he needed to have with his wife absolutely needed to deepen.  He realized that he needed to be as open with her as he had been all these years with the circle of men in his life. Otherwise, there'd be almost nothing to talk about and they'd slowly just drift apart.  That last thing hit me pretty hard, and I felt awakened to a pretty harsh truth: I'd kept a lot of stuff close to the vest when I was with DW, and that wasn't going to serve me anymore. I needed to open up, to be as intimate with her about what I was feeling as I was with the men in my life.  I knew she felt jealous of how much I shared about myself to the men, and that she only got a small amount.  She said she wanted as much as I gave to them.  I got home that night to find her asleep, but as soon as we woke up the next morning, I took her in my arms, kissed her, and told her what I'd realized. "Thank you!" she said, "I've been desperate for the last few weeks not knowing what's been up with you."  Since that day, we've been far more connected as I've been far more open with her about what's been up.

The next evening, she and I were at a school event for our ninth-grader, when my cell phone rang just before the event got underway.  It was my old colleague.  I ran to a quiet place to take the call.  "I just wanted to give you a quick heads-up," he began, "that an offer is coming out to you in the next couple of days. It'll take a couple of weeks to do the background check and get things ready, and you'll start just after mid-month." It was as we had discussed when we'd met a couple of week earlier.  He managed to convince the company to cough up the funds to hire me. I felt ecstatic!  After saying thanks and that I wouldn't disappoint him, I ran back to DW and my smile gave me away.  We held each other and tears just started streaming down my face. All this time I'd been unemployed, doing all this work to find a job, and nothing was working.  My head told me it was my age, my level of experience, or the fact that I'd had too many jobs over the past five years, that were in my way.  It could have been all of those things too.  I held it together for weeks trying to keep up a positive outlook, but the truth was that I was terrified that I was going to find nothing.  In fact, I'd come to the conclusion that my career was over, and that I'd probably need to spend the next few years transitioning to something else, perhaps less lucrative.  Well, now I had a job! My kid got the news a minute later, seeing DW and me holding each other, and we shared a high-five and a big hug as well.   Through all of this, the kids had been awesome, but I know that seeing their dad not going to work every day took a toll on both of them.

The big lesson for me here is that, in truth, that layoff did really end my career. For years I've worked under the pretense that my hard work in corporate America was someday going to lead to a major executive job, in charge of dozens if not hundreds of employees.  But in over 30 years, I've never even come close. Working with money in my current capacity is really as good as it's ever going to get. I'll make a decent living, but it no longer gives me pleasure or feels fulfilling.  Therefore, every position I hold from this point forward will simply be a job, one that I have to do well in order to survive and provide for my family. There will never be anything more from it.  So the next two to five years will be spent researching and creating an opportunity for me to open and run a successful business of my own, something that brings me joy, that means something to me, and that is something I can give away to my kids if either of them wants it.

As for my marriage, therapy continues. We spent the next week with the therapist talking about the fallout from being unemployed, and I learned more about how my actions affected everyone else.  I was able to tie my behavior to the worst aspects of my dad's personality that I'd inherited, stuff that I had hoped never would be something I would pass onto my kids.  It was a breakthrough of sorts for me, and DW thanked me, through her tears, for sharing that with her.

All of this is good, and I know we'll continue peeling back layers. But we must soon get to the crux of what got us into therapy in the first place, and that's our sexual incompatibility.  The truth about where I am versus where she is has not gone away; she's not all of a sudden finding any desire to be sexual with me, and I'm not consenting to a life without sex.  So discussions have to happen to bridge that gap and find a workable solution. The long-term survival of our marriage depends on it.  I imagine that this will begin at the next session.

Thanks for reading this very long post.  More to be revealed.