posted by Amy on Jan 17

Everyone wants to be good, to be loving, and to be loved in return. We want happy families, happy marriages, and good lives. But some of us were born into families with limited repertoires for healthy attachment, conflict resolution, Basic Trust, and intimacy. Being vulnerable and authentic are not advisable, because anything real can be weaponized to injure and control. If you want to survive, you have to play a role. You have to present a false self. Your mission is to manage the other people’s moods. Your job is to keep up appearances. If you want any kind of recognition, affection, or acceptance from them, then you’d better play by the rules.

I was in a marriage that started out on very familiar ground. He treated me the way my parents, especially my more powerful parent, had treated me. Let me say upfront it could have been a wonderful marriage if we had been able to learn the lessons it presented us about where our weak spots were and what we needed to heal from and transform. There were a lot of good times. We were well matched in many ways. But both of us were playing roles we had learned in our families of origin. In my role it was my job: to keep him on an even keel, to take the blame when anything did not go as he preferred, to submit to his will, and not to ever show any anger or ask for any different behavior than what he was doing.

For many years I was perfectly happy to live by these rules. It seemed normal. I had been socialized for just such a role, and I was really good at it. He, for his part, did all the things he thought were required of a good husband and father. He had been harshly criticized and punished as a child, and his family was dismissive and disrespectful of women, so part of his role was to mete out verbal abuse to his wife and daughters, and to be dismissive, judgmental, and disrespectful of them. He once told a counselor he thought this was appropriate. My father didn’t respect my mother, and she didn’t respect herself. My marriage made perfect sense.

Until it didn’t.

Little by little, I began to wake up. I began to be dissatisfied with my role. I didn’t want to live inside a false self. I wanted to be safe to be my true self. I wanted my husband to be my ally, partner, companion, friend, advocate. I craved true intimacy. I wanted him to trust me. I wanted him to realize I’m a separate, independent human being and not an extension of him. I wanted him to believe that I was not his adversary, and that by standing up for myself I wasn’t rejecting him but instead trying to put our marriage onto sacred ground.

Around that time he started calling me “Sweetie.” He also said things like, “You’re still my trophy wife.” I’m sure he meant well. He was using the old rules about doing a good job playing our roles to try to shore up our crumbling marriage. But I couldn’t stand it, and I couldn’t figure out how to explain why I couldn’t stand it.

We were in counseling. The counselor asked if there were one thing I would like him to do differently. I said to him, “Don’t call me Sweetie. Say my name.” I think he took it personally that his good intentions behind coming up with a pet name for me were not appreciated. As a matter of fact, I didn’t receive it as affection at all. It seemed more like a threat. He was calling me Sweetie because he had finally noticed I’m not “sweet,” and I had quit trying to act sweet toward him. To me it sounded like a “change back” message. But I wanted to be Amy. I wanted to hear how he said it. I wanted validation that “Amy” was not reducible to the “wife-and-mother” he thought I was supposed to portray in the drama of his life. I think he did quit calling me Sweetie. But he didn’t start saying my name.

He remarried. It seems to be working well for them, and I’m glad. I have only ever wanted the best for him. And I really don’t know her. In over twenty years we’ve had maybe three in-person conversations, and they were not about anything substantive. I suspect “husband’s ex wife” is a stereotyped role in her mind, not requiring any actual data or input from the human being who happens to actually be her husband’s ex wife. At any rate that would be one explanation of her lack of interest in me.

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