Marriage Of One

November 6, 2013

Disintegration Part 1: Everything IS Linked

Filed under: lifestyle,marriage,relationships — marriageofone @ 8:25 pm

The proverbial shit really has hit the fan.  The camel’s back has been broken.

Life or existence as I normally refer to it, has plodded along predictably enough for the past several months.  I’ve not posted anything new because nothing new has happened.  There has been a mild upswing in sexual activity this year – (5 times so far this year compared to 3 or 4 times per year in previous years!) but that is not what this post is about.

Before I start we need a brief recap of the situation as it stood before the fan got struck with the aforementioned shit.  Readers will know that thanks to a complex web of selfishness, generosity, resignation and stupidity we are a multi-generation household.  We are frequently complimented by people far less knowledgeable than us on how lucky we are to have my parents living with us so we always have ready baby-sitters and don’t have to pay for child care.  Those same people will never have experienced that there is a cost to this arrangement.  Financial, in that we have to pay for mortgaging a larger property than we would ordinarily have to along with the taxes and bills of maintaining such a household.  Emotional, in that we have to strike a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle balance between my parents ideal of happiness, our happiness, and even the children’s happiness.  And their is a “management” cost – what happens when grandparents disagree on how the children are to be raised with the parents?  Parents take priority right?  What if the grandparents openly disagree?  Confused children? Tension in the home?  I don’t think those people feeding us those happy-vision comments see all that – and how could they?  The vast majority of people live alone, or if co-habiting with parents, live in their parents home with an aspiration however far-fetched that one day they’ll be able to move out.  And if they, like us have parents in their own home, the most probable scenario is that one parent is deceased or requires care of some sort due to disability or illness.  Few people (that I know of) have relatively healthy parents living with them – and certainly not on a full-time basis.

I hope that sets the scene for readers as it is important to appreciate the nature of this domestic arrangement in order to follow this post.

It happened about 3 weeks ago.  Susan’s sister Karen unexpectedly made a trip to visit from overseas.  The precise circumstances are not relevant, but Susan was fuming at Karen.  So the first thing to note is that Susan was not on speaking terms with Karen at their first meeting.  I on the other hand shrugged off the cause of the tension – it wasn’t something that directly concerned Susan and I anyway – and tried to make conversation and be sociable to my sister-in-law.  I even invited her to come to our house for a pre-arranged get-together.

In the days following that initial encounter there was a gradual thaw between Karen and Susan, and soon they had buried the hatchet.  (I am not aware to this day of what the terms of the resolution were.)

A few days later, my parents and Susan went over to my in-laws (with whom Karen was staying with her infant).  This is where events started to spiral out of control, although I was oblivious to what actually happened there as I was not present, and Susan’s account is not clear or complete.  Trouble came from an unexpected source – my parents, specifically my Mum.

Now there has always been a small tension between my mum and Karen.  However, it normally is quite civilised with a few pleasantries and so on.   This time it was different.  I don’t know why but the tension was really high – my mum was visibly reluctant to speak to her.  Worse still, Mum wouldn’t even play with Karen’s baby.  I suppose that is no real surprise because you wouldn’t interact with a child if you didn’t want to interact with its parents.  For Mum who loves babies, that was a real tell.

Still the day passed and I had no idea of what was brewing.  Susan, possibly because she was now on fully normal terms with Karen, and possibly because she might have been too busy helping her mum around the kitchen, failed to notice the gravity of the icy interaction between Mum and Karen – and she certainly didn’t tell me if she did.

But things got even nastier after a week or so,  That get-together to which I had invited Karen came round and Karen came with her baby and another of Susan’s sisters to stay at our house for a week.  Susan was aware of the historical tension between Mum and Karen and asked Mum to swallow her pride because her sisters were guests.  It seemed a fair request.  Mum didn’t disagree and we thought that she would muster a few pleasantries and generally leave Karen and us be for the week.

But when the day came for whatever reasons, Mum couldn’t or wouldn’t show any hospitality apart from serving up the food she (and Susan) had prepared.  What followed was a few days of hideous tension in the house in which my Mum not only didn’t speak to Karen, but also successfully alienated Susan and her other sister.

It got to the point then that Karen decided that she could not stay the full week she intended, and left for her parents in just 3 days.  The sisters all piled into our car with the baby and drove off without saying goodbye to my parents.  Susan stayed at her parents with her sisters for the remainder of that week.

Susan of course was rightfully livid with my parents that her guests – her family- were made to feel unwelcome in her home. I should point out that I agree with Susan on this.  But I should also point out that Karen is not an angel either – again I don’t know precisely what passed between them or whether Mum just picked this time to vent her historical dislike of Karen. The upshot is that the entire atmosphere of our house has changed – Susan does not directly speak to either my mum or dad.

A week after this, Susan got together with her sisters yet again for a girls night out.  Now up to this point Susan and I were still on speaking terms, I was expressing my disappointment with my parents. support for her and so on.  When she got back, I was also in her black books.  Now she was partly justified in being angry because – well it’s not particularly important in the overall context of this post.  Suffice it to say that she could have argued with me and we would have in normal circumstances had a “domestic”.  She didn’t, and for around a week after that she just didn’t speak to me.

Now, before Karen came to our house for her supposed week-long visit, Susan and I discussed the potential for some tension between Karen and Mum.  We agreed that taking sides or picking on Karen or Mum would be counter-productive and would actually resolve nothing nor satisfy anyone.  It really was just a question of getting through the week.  In fact even after the week-long stay was aborted and Susan came back from her parents, we still held the same view.  We accepted what the pragmatic course of action was.  The only new thing to add was to try to keep Susan’s family away from my parents for the short term at least – certainly until Karen left – and hope that civility at least could be re-attained at some point in the future.

But after she got back from her own visit, something seemed to have changed – to all intents it appeared she had moved from impartiality and picked a side – Karen’s.  Despite all that we had discussed, and the support I had expressed for her, stated the disappointment I felt of my own parents and the empathy I had shown, it was not enough.

The silent treatment was confusing though – had she somehow rationalised tarring me with the same brush as my parents?  However, I’ve become sufficiently disengaged from Susan’s emotional mind-games to not let it bother me too much, even though it still hurts.  I decided to let her keep her silence until she decided that she wanted to talk.  I wasn’t going to pursue a discussion.  I still recall the days when I was the eager empathiser and I became a doormat.

My perspective is this – and I know it’s not the right one in moral sense.  It’s pragmatism.

  1. This is our house
  2. We have our parents under our roof with no option of them moving out
  3. We have children under our roof who adore their grandparents and whom we rely on for child care at least for the foreseeable future.
  4. Karen will be going home in a few weeks
  5. Susan although she is right, needs to think of the long term.  We both do.  She cannot continue not to speak to Mum and Dad.  It will affect the children eventually – I think quite soon.

So last weekend then, she said to me “Aren’t you going to ask me what’s wrong? Isn’t there something you want to say to me?”

“If you’ve got anything to talk about, of course we’ll talk”, I said.

So a couple of hours later we drove to the car park of a nearby shopping area.  “Right”, she turned the engine off and unbuckled her seatbelt, turning around almost confrontationally. “I want to know what you’re thinking.”

“Hang on”, I said, taken aback a little.  “I though you wanted to say something.”

“No. I want you to go first”, she snapped.

“Well”, I said slowly trying to gather my thoughts and recognising a lose-lose situation. “I’m a bit confused to be honest. I recognise that you might still be mad at my parents, But I thought we had discussed how we were going to deal with that, and I just haven’t understood how it’s got to the point where its become something between you and me.”

“Right.” She said again.  What came out then was a stream that was unexpected yet hugely familiar.  Fighting back tears and occasionally actually crying Susan lamented the fact that we (as a couple) never had “the time to grow”.  That my parents were always at home, hovering when she wanted to entertain or have guests.  That they didn’t go out or do their own thing (have their own social life).  That nobody came to visit or stay – because of them.   And she wishes that we had never offered them the opportunity to come and live with us, and now she just doesn’t want them to live with us any more.

“I’ve been very patient for all these years and I never said anything.  But what’s happened now is the straw that’s broken the camel’s back.” she sobbed.

I didn’t want to get sucked into this unarguable situation, so I was silent for a long time.  I then tried to explain that short of moving my parents to another city, they would always be part of our household – simply because they need the kids and the kids need them – and so in fact do we.  Even if they slept under a different roof, socially and practically to all intents and purposes our home would be their home.

“But at least we would have our own space” she countered. (Readers of the earliest posts will realise that actually the arrangement Susan implies has actually already been tried – around 2008 for a few years we did live in separate houses separated by a 20 minute walk.)

“So you’re going to exclude them from social gatherings at our house? Do we not let them come round at Christmas?”  I tried to explain that yes, we may gain a few hours here and there but fundamentally we would never get the kind of freedom she wants.

“Why can’t they go away on holidays and visit people?”  she said.  I’ve heard all this before and must have sighed in despair.

“So you are only going to invite people to our house when they are not around?  How practical is that?”

“No but if they are at home, why must they hover around?” she said.

“Well I suppose they don’t want to appear unsociable.  If you want to have some time alone, tell them beforehand.  They may take it badly or not, but at least it’s clear to them”, I suggested.

“Why should I have to do that in my house?” she argued.  Why indeed.  But that question doesn’t take us any further does it?

“Because it’s the only way you’ll get what you want.” I suggested.  “Over time they’ll learn when to stay around to socialise and when to give you space.”

She seemed doubtful – but I don’t believe that this conversation was taking place to actually resolve anything. It was a venting session.

“We can’t even invite Karen and her family to come and stay any more.” she continued.

“Maybe not right away,” I agreed.  “But when she comes next year I don’t see why she can’t. We should invite her.”

“She won’t feel welcome” Susan said.

“Well that’s unfortunate and unfair.” I said.  “Karen knows our situation and the circumstances that led us to where we are.  She knows that we would like her to stay with us.  If she can’t see that then she is doing us and particularly you a disservice.”

Susan wasn’t convinced.  “People don’t come to stay with us because of them.

Of course she is right.  It is sad but true that young people will go to where other young people are and where they can mingle without older people and old-fashioned attitudes.  But I would say that anyone who genuinely wants to spend time with us would overlook that as a small inconvenience or annoyance and come along anyway.

“Why don’t they have their own social life?” she repeated.

“That’s a different issue.” I laughed because we’ve definitely been here before.

“No it isn’t!” she shouted, jabbing her finger on her lap and drawing interlinked circles.  “It is all linked!”

“Anyway,” I said.  “We deliberately bought the kind of house we have so we can separate out at times, and most of the time mum and dad just go upstairs come night time.”

“But,” she said throwing in what she must believe is a trump card, ” It’s not the same!

I stopped. I’ve heard the “not the same” argument before – many times in fact.  When I first heard it many years ago I thought, The same as what?  I assumed that she was comparing it to the way her sisters or friends socialised.  But she never mentions that specifically, and in fact she has few friends with whom she can compare.  Karen’s life is completely incomparable to ours – she lives an insular life as an expatriate with no family responsibilities other than her new baby and husband.  I think Susan envies her that freedom to an extent.  Her other sister does have an active social life actually, but she also has far more close friends than Susan.  I don’t believe that her social life revolves around people coming to her home regularly.  The fact of the matter is that even with our own home, we are unlikely to have any regular guests beyond Susan’s immediate family.  I’ve come to understand over time that the comparison is actually against the idealistic suburban home in Susan’s imagination.  Because it is an ideal, nothing we can ever do will meet that standard.

I don’t know why – probably because I’ve had this discussion before and am dead tired of it rearing it’s head every few years – but I didn’t ask “Same as what?”  I didn’t say anything but looked out the window.

She then surprised me. “What do you want?”

“Oh hang on,” I said, “We didn’t come here to talk about me.”

“No,” she said.  “I want to know what do you want. Spit it out.”

I’m afraid my eyes misted over for a second as I felt myself looking inward for the first time in a very long time.

“No.” I said when I regained my composure.  “You’re not getting that from me today.  I’ve been screwed over by the people closest to me too many times.  What I want isn’t important.  My job is to make sure everyone else is happy.”   I have a plan for my present lifestyle imperfect and painful as it is, and a plan for my future but I’m not prepared to tell her – yet.  And for now my job is to keep people happy.  It’s a necessity for my children’s sake.

“Well,” she said assertively.  “You need to stand up for yourself and stop trying to make other people happy”.

I’m afraid I laughed bitterly at that point.  The person closest to me, the one who has broken my trust most severely and most often and yet expecting to be kept happy, was telling me to stand up for myself.  The irony.  But then she wouldn’t see that would she?

“You should not have offered them the chance to come and live with us, and I should have stopped you”, she said.

I looked out of the window.  “Well I had my reasons at the time.” I said softly.  The truth is I had no reason NOT to offer them the option.  Our experiment of living alone (almost precisely what Susan is now insinuating) was a disaster.  It didn’t revamp our marriage and in fact things got worse – a lot worse.  I had given up on marriage and life.  In 2008 as far as my marriage was concerned, having my parents in my house made little difference one way or another.  But for the children it would be a nice arrangement, particularly if Susan started work again.  In short, Susan had given me no good reason not to make that offer to my parents (which I had promised to do a few years earlier).  But I didn’t go into all that.

Susan didn’t seem to pick that up or didn’t want to.

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t have anything new to add to a conversation that was a rehash of countless previous conversations.  Nor were there any new solutions to consider.  The fact is we are trapped.  The only liberation comes not from a change in actual circumstances but in our attitude and response to them.  And the fact is that there is a huge scope for improving our lives – if only she would.

For my part, I’ve learned to build the “right” kind of distance between my parents to give me a feeling of privacy.  In a similar way I’ve learned to build the “right” kind of wall between Susan and myself that allows me to maintain my own well-being.  By “right” I mean what works for me.  I’ve also learned to be much more tolerant about things I don’t agree with or can’t argue against.  I know I can’t fight every issue with Susan or indeed my Dad on which we disagree.  I know that I need to pick my battles cautiously – considering not only the cost of defeat and inaction, but also of victory.

But I can’t help Susan.  “It’s not the same!” Her mental image has not changed in 13 years.  She seems incapable of re-evaluating her own expectations in light of the reality of the situation, and all that has gone before.  It’s not like we haven’t tried to remedy the problem.  We tried, we failed – and not even through lack of effort.  The sign clearly says “You’ve got lemons.  Make lemonade.”  She just won’t accept it.

I don’t know what she expected from me that day.  I had nothing to offer her and when I fell silent she restarted the car and we drove back home.   She is still not speaking to me except when absolutely necessary.

It’s all linked.

I thought about that phrase – that phrase is new.  And it shows the castle of delusion that she has constructed in her mind.  My parents, their personalities, their presence in our home forming a web of events and consequences that trap us like helpless insects, impotent to direct our own activities or attitudes or carve our own lives.  She seems to genuinely believe that everything that is wrong in our marriage, sex life (I assume), social life, family life – everything, links back through a few degrees of separation to them.  I also expect that she believes that if they were not there, and had never come to live with us, then we would have a stronger marriage, better social life, and life would be just short of perfect.

I, on the other hand know that our reality is not quite so simple – we have several complex issues in our lives, but the key problem is that only one of us wants to work on it with what we have.

Everything is linked.  Susan is right but not how she imagines it.  She is at the centre of the web of links.  If she had not sabotaged our marriage from the first months, when (contrary to how she remembers it) we did have time “to grow” alone together, we would have been stronger as a couple when my parents crashed into our lives.  If she had put our marriage at the heart of everything around us, we may have been able to support each other better in that first home we had.  (I calculate that if we had stayed in that house, by now we would almost have paid off our mortgage.  Imagine the financial freedom that we would now have.  We could even in theory have bought a small house for my parents and got everything she now seems to be demanding.)   Instead I felt pushed into moving to our second house in the hope that my parents would see a better and independent way to live, and that Susan would ‘prove’ to me that our marriage had slumped because of parents living in the bedroom next to ours.  And when the time came to move again, it was the fact that Susan had conclusively ruined our marriage that led me to conclude that the whole initial plan had been a failure and that I really was going to have to pick up the pieces on my own and hold it all together on my own.  But all this is in the past.

Everything is linked. Looking to the future I am gradually putting myself in the centre of the web.  Everything is linked to me.  I am now waking up and standing up for myself – quietly because the time has not yet come.  I have begun to push myself over the past year and a half to being the father that I always wanted to be.  It is hard, really hard.  Having given up on life and having no support, friends or family to rely on, with the constant reminders all around me of rejection, betrayal and negativity it is very easy to get demotivated and depressed.  But I have a goal.  I may not ever accomplish it.  I hope I can.  Regardless, I am working towards it.

Now before I go on, let me say that it is not beyond the wit of anyone to realise the consequences of this arrangement and how things could deteriorate in a home.  I certainly did and that is why I bought the biggest god-damn house I could afford.  I’m not so much living in this house as paying rental on a prison.  I am generating little to no savings and any huge expenses will probably cripple me should they arise.  The large house gives space for people to withdraw willingly or unwillingly.  Willingly if they just want some peace away from everyone else.  Or unwillingly if they feel angry with anyone and just need to calm down or seethe in private.

When it came down to it, the size of the house was not sufficient.  The weakness in the system could be papered over by those of us in the house who have developed a sort of unwritten code of conduct – but a foreign agent, e.g. Karen (I would say particularly Karen – who has lived an isolated life without family politics for years) would not understand or be aware of the effect of certain behaviours or even words or phrases and could bring the edifice tumbling down.

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