"I Can't Forget What He Did"
Claudia: Three years ago, Steve told me about a one-night stand he had a long time ago. He said it is ancient history, but the pain is as real to me now as if the fling happened yesterday.
I'll never forget the night he told me. It was almost 11 p.m. when he trudged through the door and said he had something important to get off his chest. I knew he'd been worried about work. At the time, his union had been on strike for more than twenty weeks, and there was a lot of pressure on him to settle. Steve is the president of the electrical workers union; it's a passel of problems for him, but he's very committed to the cause. When I asked what was wrong, he began to cry and finally confessed that three years before, he'd met a woman at a bar. One thing led to another and he ended up taking her home and sleeping with her. He swore it was just a one-night stand--that he didn't see or hear from her again after that night. And he said that I didn't know her, either. That was six years ago -- but I can't forget, forgive or move on.
How could he do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? I can't shake this deep feeling of betrayal. I don't think about it every second of every day, but the pain and humiliation is always there in the back of my mind. It makes me feel that my whole marriage is a sham. I can't let it go, but it destroys any positive feelings I could possibly have for this man.
We've been married for more than 20 years, but for at least the last 10, I don't think either of us have been particularly happy. The problem is, Steve won't talk -- about anything. In the beginning, I made valiant attempts to get him to open up, to tell me if something was bothering him. Now, I've basically given up hope. He comes home from work and yells at me and our two teenage boys. He doesn't seem interested in spending any time with us anymore. It takes two people to make a marriage work and two people to make it fail, I've always thought. I can't change everything by myself, and he's clearly unwilling to do anything. So over the years, I learned to concentrate on my children and resign myself to living in this pretend marriage.
It's so obvious that family time is way down on his list of priorities. I've never understood how or why Steve manages to find plenty of time for other things. He has his union work, and he's spent hours negotiating over conference tables fighting for the rights of the working man. And though he's the Pied Piper of the neighborhood, playing with all the kids, he rarely has time for a game of catch in the backyard with his own two sons. Slowly, he's pulled away from all of us. The man I fell in love with when I was in high school -- the guy who spoke softly and lovingly to his children when they were little -- is so different from the man who now curses at them and goes ballistic when he sees the mess they make. Yes, teenagers can be messy, self-centered and irresponsible -- and are our boys are no exception. But my husband is so judgmental and so nasty that it's impossible to reason with him. Lately, I've chosen not to speak to him at all.
Moschetta: When two people are this angry for this long, it can be very hard to break out of the routine. They've both come to expect rudeness and disrespect from each other -- and, unfortunately, it appears that their expectations are being fulfilled. Studies show that couples wait an average of six years from the time problems first surface in a marriage until they actually pick up the phone and call for professional help. Claudia and Steve should have done this a long time ago.
Claudia: I grew up in a very unhappy home, the youngest of six girls. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project; I slept on the couch. I vividly remember the constant arguments between my parents. Each time, the screaming fights would end with my mother stuffing some clothes into a shopping bag, walking out the door and threatening never to return. My sisters and I would run after her and beg her to come back, but it would always happen again.
My mother was always depressed; she spent the better part of the day in bed, and I never felt she was a real part of my life. At the time, my sisters and I thought that my dad, who drove a bus for the city, was a saint; it wasn't until we were grown and out of the house that we learned he'd been a drinker and would often gamble away most of his paycheck. Obviously, my mother had far more on her plate than we ever realized. But I still missed her desperately and wanted more than anything for her to take even a shred of interest in me. I had no one to talk to when I was growing up.
Moschetta: Many of the attitudes, behaviors and reactions we have as adults can be traced to our childhood experiences, and this is clearly the case with Claudia. She never felt safe, emotionally or physically. She never felt nurtured or loved, either. With both parents struggling with their own demons, there was no energy or time to support or encourage a child. Without a lifeline, this little girl must have been frightened, lost and riddled with insecurities. Even as an adult with her own family, Claudia is unable to fill the void left by her emotionally unavailable parents. Her self-esteem is so wobbly that Steve's confession has completely unnerved her, and her pain has lingered long after the actual infidelity took place. Steve had been her knight in shining armor, and she had always turned to him for confirmation of her worthiness. When even he betrayed her, she saw it as further proof that she is unlovable.
Claudia: Steve and I started dating when we were teenagers. Believe it or not, we met at a funeral parlor, at a wake for the cousin of a mutual friend. From the beginning, he was such a gentleman -- very shy, sweet and caring. Everyone loved him and I knew that if there were one person on this earth I could count on, it was Steve. We dated seriously for two years and planned to get married when I graduated from high school. But a lot happened all at once: My father got sick -- he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his last year was filled with pain and misery. It was torturous watching him die. Though I'd been a good student, I couldn't concentrate on my studies, and I ultimately dropped out of school. I got my GED many years later, but at the time I found a job as an administrative assistant in a doctor's office.
I was 18 when Steve asked me to marry him -- on Christmas Day, at exactly 12 a.m., in fact. More than anything, he had wanted to get engaged on the holiday; he used to be a totally romantic guy about things like that. So we sat in his car, shivering for two hours, and watched the clock tower in the center of town until it turned midnight. Only then would he give me the ring.
We had planned a summer wedding, but Steve was drafted and sent to Vietnam in the spring. The year he was away, I lived with my older sister, and her three kids kept me so busy that I didn't miss him so much. After he came home, we were married and moved into a small apartment not far from where Steve worked as a security guard. At night, he was taking courses at the local college to get his electrician's license. His firm paid for it.
Life was good for a while. Or maybe I just had my head in the sand and didn't realize what a selfish man he really was. We had the twins -- Thomas and John are 16 now -- and when Steve was making enough money, we bought a small house in the same neighborhood. But when the boys started kindergarten, I realized the schools in that area really weren't very good, so we moved again, this time to a much better school district. Steve gave me a very hard time about the move -- but he had already received several promotions and was making enough money, so I couldn't understand what the fuss was all about. Isn't our children's education worth it? If I had to pin our problems to a certain time, this was when they started.
I don't think Steve had a clue what it was like for me to be home all day with two rambunctious boys. His reaction was out of a sitcom: He'd march in grumbling, then hit the roof if dinner wasn't ready or the laundry hadn't been done. Maybe his mother jumped every time his father blinked, but I'm not about to do that. He rarely seemed to have any compassion for me. Last year, when my mother was ill, and I felt so overwhelmed caring for her and my own family, Steve actually told me that he didn't have time for me and my family. Yet he expects me to listen to him talk about his problems at work and his union hassles? Why should I?
Moschetta: It sounds as if Claudia's anger has pushed her toward self-righteousness. To protect herself from further hurt, she displays a holier-than-thou attitude in every encounter and exchange. Steve is forever cast as the villain: He makes mistakes, never she. Her needs must be taken care of, never his. And no matter how hard he tries, she makes him feel that he can never redeem himself. She needs to understand that the desire for retaliation, though understandable, is really a way to deal with rejection and to rebuild self-esteem -- and a false one at that. It can be helpful to ask yourself: What' s important to me right now? What price am I paying for staying angry? Is it worth it? Discussing your feelings, instead of holding onto a grudge, is a much better tool for problem-solving.
Claudia: Needless to say, we started to fight a lot. There were the quarrels over the small stuff and the huge battles over Steve's explosive temper. I feel worn down. He blames our problems on the fact that I can't forgive him for what he did. Well, it's typical of him to dismiss all my concerns to just that one thing. But I don't think it's that simple. To tell you the truth, I don't even know if there's any chance for us. I don't want a divorce, but even if I could just erase what happened, how can we be close when we've been so distant for so long?
Obviously, I've failed -- as a wife and as a person. The other day at work, I burst into tears when one of the patients got upset with me about a bill. I'm a bundle of nerves. There must be something wrong with me, something I'm lacking. Why else would this have happened?
Moschetta: Claudia is clearly in a lot of pain and conflicted over how to deal with it. Not only did her husband betray her trust, but she has internalized that hurt as further proof that she has failed as a human being. On the other hand, is there a statute of limitations on grudges? At what point will her husband have paid for his mistake?
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