I am regularly grateful for a small but faithful circle of women that I’ve met and stayed connected with over each of the various seasons of life — and I mention it with some regularity. [FN1: For anyone reading this who doesn’t happen to be in that small but faithful circle, this post probably sums up those relationships and my unending gratitude for them better than anything I could write or anything else I’ve seen. If you’re in the small circle, you’ve seen me post the manifesto multiple times on Facebook!]
But, as it turns out, I also have a remarkable circle of men — generally classmates and colleagues — for whom I’m not sure I’ve ever paused long enough to be publicly grateful. I’m not sure if this is because of some subconscious sense that expressing such gratitude could be seen as a sign of some lack of faithfulness / fidelity to my (now) ex husband; or if it somehow felt like acknowledging help or support from a male, especially if that person was a colleague or a boss, would indicate some sort of weakness or lack of ability to hack it on my own; or if (like now) it just feels sort of unusual to express something so sentimental (as though gratitude is SO sentimental!?) towards male friends rather than female ones.
So I’ve not really done it before, but I just wanted to take a moment to memorialize some really, really supportive stuff that some great guys have done for me in the last while. The first one I’ll mention, just because it’s the most recent, is a law school friend who pointed me in the direction of a national committee on issues related to women veterans. And, in addition to sending me the information, he strongly encouraged me to apply AND wrote — over the course of a couple of hours during a day that I’m sure he was supposed to be billing hours — a really thoughtful and detailed nomination support letter. I have no idea if I’ll be selected for the committee, but it meant SO much to me that he noticed the call for nominations, thought of me, sent it to me, and then wrote a whole bunch of really affirming stuff about me to the acting Secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
I had another law school classmate who was working as a law clerk for a judge that routinely handled family law matters review my mediation domestic violence questionnaire. He provided me with some very helpful editing and some other practical advice about how to approach mediation, but he, too, took a whole lot of time to write a tremendously affirming letter — this time, just to me — at a time when I was in desperate need of just that sort of validation. [FN2: I’m going to include the contents of the letter at the end of this post, because others who have experienced the sort of gaslighting that I experienced confirmed that what he wrote was validating for them, too. If anyone reading this knows of someone who might find his message encouraging, please feel free to pass it along. I have his permission to share!]
I have a former boss who now works for the airlines who gifted me his third “friends and family” pass for the year. The pass allows me unlimited standby flights on the airline that he works for, and allows me to purchase heavily discounted tickets if I need a confirmed flight. I don’t have a ton of flexibility to be able to put it to good use this year (!!) — but I did get the chance to spend a pretty much no-notice weekend with my sister earlier this spring. And during the trip, he made sure to track every step of the travel, going so far as to buy me a flight segment when it became obvious that I wasn’t going to make it as a stand-by passenger on the flight I’d selected to fly home.
And I have a male friend who — completely out of the blue — called today just to check in and see how I was doing. I haven’t talked to him in a year, and he’s not terribly active on Facebook (so I haven’t really exchanged any direct information with him recently) — but we were among a relatively small group of good friends who did crazy things like read all of Shakespeare’s plays together out loud . . . so it meant a lot to know that I haven’t disappeared off of that radar completely. I’m looking forward to giving him a holler when I head home from work tonight.
These, I’m sure, are not the only fabulous guy friends that I have. (Okay, let’s be honest . . . given the extensive nature of my introversion, it’s probably close to all of them. And it’s PLENTY.) But these guys are genuinely fabulous, and I am so, so grateful for their friendship and their support. These were great friends while I was married (their wives are all terrific people, too!!) and I’m especially thankful to have their continued friendship despite no longer being able to be “couple-friends” with them. For whatever reason, today felt like a good day to recognize that.
***Helpful letter from a male colleague in the lead-up to mediation.***
What you describe is disturbing in most ways and unsurprising in others. As you know, I don’t know [ex] (or even his public persona) well at all. But some of the things you identify as sources of his anger — limitations that “married life has imposed upon him” — are ones with which I can identify superficially. I don’t know if it will help at all to hear, but my (uninformed and highly speculative) belief is that he, like many of us who never feel they reach their potential, has placed blame squarely on the shoulders of everyone else but himself. Hell hath no (misdirected) fury like a(n entitled, white, educated) man who has to acknowledge his unexceptionalism. This part I can understand, I think, because I’ve been there as well. See, e.g., How I Ended Up In Law School After It Turned Out I Wasn’t All That Good At Math, Penguin Books, (forthcoming 20??). I think we all build up this idea of who we should be in our heads and it can be very, very difficult to admit that we will never be that person — especially if we can’t figure out why.
When people value that aggrandized self-image and then fall short, we look to externalize the source of the failure for obvious reasons: self-delusion is preferable to the admission of (seeming) worthlessness. If I interpret what you’ve described correctly, [ex] has lashed out concerning not only the academic aspects of his identity, but the marital/religious, parental, and sexual aspects of his identity as well. The pressure to conform to any of the norms imposed upon him and the recognition that he is failing to measure up has led him to reject the validity of those norms — or at least his willing consent to be subject to them. I’m sure you’ve met people who quit games or contests when it appears that they will not be the winner — even if winning is not all that important. [Ex] is quitting the races he’s losing, and asserting that he ‘never wanted to sign up’ for them in the first place as a way of rationalizing failure.
I bet you already knew most, if not all, of that. Regardless it looks like you know the rest: [ex] has lashed out at you, completely devaluing your time, work, feelings, and love, not because those things were lacking — even subjectively, I bet he valued them all at one point — but because he places a greater value on himself and protecting his own self-esteem. That is, it’s not that you did anything wrong or have in any way earned his mistreatment; he has simply chosen selfishness then rationalized his choice by blaming you for not satisfying insatiable (because purposely inchoate) goals.
The goalposts shift by design. Part of the defense to being confronted with a harsh reality (e.g., his anger is a problem) is a constantly rationalizing strategy (e.g., “you aren’t asking in the right way”, “you’re asking for too much”, “be direct”) that is designed to never be met. If you are asked to be direct, you were too direct. If you try to be accommodating, you’re not direct enough. There is not objective, measurable scale, so the result (“you did it wrong!”) is unfalsifiable. Sometimes it’s gas-lighting, sometimes it’s naked unreasonableness. Either way, know that your recollections have no reason to be invalid (I say this because self-doubt is axiomatically impossible to destroy, not because you have necessarily shown a need for external verification of your recollections). Your goals in mediation and otherwise don’t suggest to me that you are trying to self-delude; if anything, it seems you are confronting an ugly reality head-on, and have neither exaggerated nor fabricated the narrative for any bad purpose. [Ex], on the other hand, has ample reason to self-delude, and for this reason his recollections and representations are much less trustworthy.
In that vein, I doubt that a mediator will acknowledge your actions and beliefs as being objectively reasonable. If couples counseling has taught me anything (yep, we’ve been there), a therapist/third-party knows that acknowledging objective reasonableness won’t actually solve the underlying problem: a person shouldn’t need you to meet some standard of reasonableness to treat you well. Perhaps, though, your mediation will have the goal of assigning blame for division of assets, custody, etc. — to that extent, it may be productive to frame everything as you’ve done. I’d just be prepared, though, for a more neutral response in the name of pragmatism.
On the other hand, I’ll take this opportunity to acknowledge what you’ve done. You’ve devoted yourself to your husband and family in a manner that is admirable — though commensurately unfortunate in result. You’ve put in the majority of the work inside and outside the home, provided for the family and its future, attained social status, maintained grace, and cultivated friendships — among which I am fortunate to count myself. You’ve done all of this while fighting hard to keep someone you love happy. That is incredible, [Tired Mama]. Anyone would be lucky to have as dedicated a partner as you.
Unfortunately, [ex] did not, or could not recognize his luck. Despite your best attempts, you have become something separate from him — not for your shortcomings, but by his choice. And he has not explained why. They say that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. And I can see from your narrative that this must be true. That is awful, and I’m sorry.