Get Out of the Bitter Barn

The four-year anniversary of my divorce comes up in April 2016. After six years of separation and three-plus years of divorce, my ex, Eric, remains bitter and difficult to communicate with. Sometimes we get along, share inside jokes, or talk about work, since we have an incredible ten-year-old boy to raise. But when one person from the breakup lives in the bitter barn, co-parenting sucks, to say the least.

I keep thinking that as time passes, Eric’s bitterness will fade. If anything, he’s angrier now than he was in the first couple years after our split. I can’t control his feelings, but I have to deal with them on a daily basis. He refuses to discuss our relationship, which I think would help us move past the pain, and if I text him about anything besides parenting, he ignores me.

When Eric and I were a couple, we were two solders fighting the same war. We had hundreds of inside jokes, traveled to New York City, North Carolina, Las Vegas. We’d cultivated a beautiful friendship and were deeply committed to each other. He supported me through grad school, and I supported him through his undergrad. We were on our ninth year of marriage and still like honeymooners.

After we had our baby, however, we fought. I had postpartum depression that lasted two years after our son was born. Now I see that my depression, which confused Eric, helped lead us toward an ending. But my childhood was rife with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, which has kept me in therapy for more than 20 years. I barely understood my triggers, so how could Eric? When he found me at home, sobbing in my bedroom, drinking too much wine, and scribbling in my journal like a fiend, he never asked what was wrong. But I wouldn’t have told him anyway. I was terrified that if I admitted I was attracted to a guy at work, Eric would have dumped me on the spot.

Before I had the affair, I sensed the doom that was headed our way. Eric was busy with graduate school; and I was so depressed that I reveled in the attention of this unhappily married man from work. Before the affair I sought advice from my psychiatrist who said, “Just let the crush takes its course. You have a solid marriage.”

The affair started and after three weeks, the guy dumped me like yesterday’s trash. And that’s exactly what I felt like. I chased him around at first, unable to accept that I had been used and abused by a man who wasn’t half the man Eric was. I hid the truth for six months. And because I have no good poker face, I felt like Hester Prynne, with an A on my forehead.

I confessed to Eric largely because no marriage counselor would see us if I didn’t. And I didn’t want to get divorced. Not at first. After I confessed, Eric went blind with rage and despair. We lived in the same house, with lots of screaming and drinking. Eric phoned the seducer’s wife and told her about the affair. The seducer got a “Get Out of Marriage Free” card.

Both Eric and I come from homes where infidelity and bitter divorces led to poor relationships and strained co-parenting. Neither of us has adequate coping skills. We went to marriage counseling, but Eric kept calling me names, and I ran back to the affair guy for emotional support.

I had confessed in March, and by October, Eric moved out. He filed for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. He took half my retirement, gave me the house, left me with thousands of dollars of debt, and I paid $280 a month in child support for the first two years. As my lawyer said, “Eric wanted a ‘pound of flesh.'”

Looking back, there were signs that Eric might react the way he did. He once ignored his mother for eight months until I begged him to make up with her. Some members of his family haven’t spoken to each in other in more than a decade.

I have forgiven Eric for his drunken rages, the name calling, even the pound of flesh he took. But he refuses to forgive me. While before we had been two soldiers fighting together, now I’m waving my white flag and he’s shooting cannons in my direction.

They say time heals all wounds. But a person has to be willing to let the wounds be healed. Eric says I’ve trapped him in “relationship purgatory,” but doesn’t see that I’m right there with him.

The affair is the single biggest regret of my adult life. If only Eric realized he doesn’t need to keep punishing me. I’ve spent these years falling on my own sword.

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Yankee Swap Not for Everyone

Fifteen years ago at a family Christmas party, I played my first game of Yankee Swap, AKA, Dirty Santa, the White Elephant gift exchange, etc. You know, the game where you bring a gift already wrapped, pick a number, open a present and get your present stolen. This game has become a staple at holiday parties, and I’ll be darned if I can figure out how it embodies any type of holiday, generosity or giving spirit.

You may say, “Oh, it’s all in good fun,” or “Have a sense of humor,” but every time I’ve been to one of these parties, I’ve witnessed hurt feelings, under the breath comments, or out-right yelling. Now, that might be a regular ordeal at some holiday dinners with family, but family is crazy. We all know you can’t choose your relatives. But you can choose whether or not you wish to be involved in a game at Christmas time where you steal presents.

At my first Yankee Swap, I received an adorable Mikasa candy dish etched with snowmen. I was delighted, and I had no idea how the game worked. No poker face. My boyfriend’s mother “Lola” planned to steal my gift. When she reached for it, I held it tight and said, “Please don’t take this. I have so few nice things.” Lola laughed and made a remark about how she knew where my daughters got their whining from. Lola let me keep the Mikasa candy dish. I still have it, and I use it every Thanksgiving and Christmas to hold olives. I always think of Lola and her remark when I place the dish on my dinner table.

I married into a family where my sister-in-law, “Margie,” loved Yankee Swap, organized every Christmas gift exchange, with a $50 limit and a strict rule: no gag gifts. My last Yankee Swap with the family was a doozie. Of course, Margie ended up with number 1, which meant she got to inspect all the gifts at the end of the game and steal whichever one she wanted. I had received a beautiful wrought iron wall hanging. Margie stole it, which coincidentally meant I ended up with the gift I had brought. When I said that out loud, she leapt up in front of the crowded room and yelled, “I’m so tired of this bullshit!” She ran over to her husband and insisted he take her home. He refused. At the end of the long silent night, I left without the wall hanging. After the new year, when my husband’s grandmother called me to come get the wall hanging, I donated it to a silent auction for charity. That was last time I participated in Margie’s Magical Christmas gift exchange.

At my last Yankee Swap, there was a $20 max for the gifts. I brought a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer set of figurines: Hermie, the Bumble, even Cornelius, from the perennial show. The person who received it kept waving it in the air, saying, “Someone steal this, please.” I should have. One person brought in a bag full of used books that stunk like mildew. Every gift I received–wine, gift certificates, pewter trivet–was stolen. I tried desperately not to get attached. Incidentally, my best friend stole the trivet. All is fair during the war on Christmas I guess. Another friend asked me if I was the person who brought the hookah. Wow, I thought, what am I putting out there? I left the party with a note pad and water bottle.

When I looked up who invented Yankee Swap, I couldn’t find a particular person. But the rules emphasized that the game was light-hearted, just for fun, and whimsical. Isn’t stealing a bit greedy and mean-spirited? I see nothing wrong with the boring old Secret Santa, or making someone a gift just for them, or sending them a card that says I love you. But then again, I spend most of my money on books, vintage clothing and dog treats.