Image Credit: Carsten Lenz
There are four tunnels on the drive between the house I grew up in and the house I live in now. Four hours of black asphalt with solid yellow lines and broken white ones. Four hours of painted barns and billboards for milk. Four hours and four tunnels. When the kids sleep, we can do the trip without stopping.
Traveling east, from the city where I was born to the suburbs where we are raising our family, the last tunnel spits us out onto a wide curve of road that bends left and opens up to a majestic view of a valley below. The valley is filled with swathes of green and gold pastures dotted with farmhouses. The view has not changed in all the years I’ve travelled this road. I remember it from when I was a child rolling around with the luggage in the “wayback.” But I am the mom in the car now, holding on to life as I know it with clenched fists and a lump in my throat.
We’re on that curve, starting the descent into the valley, when I take a chance. My husband is driving. The kids are asleep. The conversation has been tense.
“But what if you’re wrong?” I ask tentatively.
It’s not an accusation. I’m not mad at my husband. He is not mad at me. I’m not even sure he’s wrong. But I’ve started to suspect he might be.
My husband and I have been dissecting the same issue for years. Sometimes it’s a conversation, sometimes it’s a debate, sometimes it’s an argument, but the words are mostly the same, it’s just our tone and volume that fluctuate.
I tell my husband I’m not getting enough from him. Enough connection. Enough intimacy. Enough gratitude. And he tells me it wouldn’t matter how much he gave—how many smiles, how many hugs, how many times he said, “Heck of a job, Brownie!” or simply “Thank you.” I would always need more.
“But what if you’re wrong?” I ask tentatively. “What if you’ve never actually tried to give me what I need? What if there is some level that is enough, and what if it’s a perfectly reasonable level? Is that possible?”
He knows about the dreams I have. The ones in which I glow. They are not frequent but they stay with me for a long time. The glow is invisible; it’s a warmth, a radiance, and it comes from me, but it is not of me. It’s created by the gaze of a man who isn’t him. It’s created by the gaze of a man who appreciates me. The dreams don’t make sense: once it was an ex in a grocery store; another time it was a friend’s boyfriend in a cafe. It’s not the men that are important, it’s the gaze. I need to be seen. When I’m juggling my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, employee, writer; when I’m planning the next six weeks so everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there, I crave that gaze. Instead I get a sneer: somehow my functionality is an affront to his apathy.
My husband drives the car, just under the speed limit, but it feels like we’re hurtling through space. Everything has felt like this since our first child was born nearly a decade before. Then, defying the space-time continuum, things sped up when our second child was born three years later. Somehow we ended up here, fourteen years married, twenty years together, and not sure what we’re doing on this road I’ve travelled my whole life.
The issue of my insatiable need for praise (his term) and positive reinforcement (my term) is one category of ongoing strife for us. The other goes like this: I’m upset my husband did (or did not) do something. I tell him I am upset. He gets defensive and offers justifications: a list of all the reasons he did (or did not) do the thing. I become increasingly upset that he has not apologized or taken responsibility for what he did (or did not) do. I get loud. Then we have an argument about how loud, abrasive, and exacting I am. We never address the fact that he has (or has not) done the thing that he said he would (or would not) do.
These are the two fights we have, the two fights we have been having for the last ten years, maybe more, but I can’t remember back that far. They are the only two fights. We fell for each other for good reason twenty years ago on that blind date at that New Years Eve party standing alone in that kitchen, watching those fireworks explode in the distance, while everyone else crowded around the TV in the living room to watch the ball drop. But that was so long ago. Before we knew what it would take to sustain a life together, raise a family together, move across the country together (twice). We were in our twenties, but we were kids. We thought liking the same things and disliking the same people was love.
In turns out, we are tremendously well matched in many ways. We don’t argue about money, the way many of my married friends do, even though we never seem to have enough. We don’t argue about chores, having found as much of an equitable split as I can imagine in a two-working-parent household where both adults are also creatives. We don’t argue about politics, even though we don’t always agree on some of the finer points. I tried telling myself that if our marriage was a Venn diagram and the areas in which we were compatible were the overlapping part — nearly a circle — then we were doing quite well. But the areas outside the overlap — the waxing and waning crescents, those slivers of curves where unfulfilled needs lived — they were plaguing us.
“What if you’re wrong?” I asked tentatively. “… Is that possible?”
And that day, on that stretch of highway, emerging from that tunnel, on that curve, my husband said, “Yes. That’s possible.”
I have always been a head-down-grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it girl. I pride myself on being able to endure most things. I am also fiercely loyal and the product of a very unhappy marriage that fell apart the same summer my husband and I married. Someone like me doesn’t see the difference between a good marriage and a bad marriage, because I accept that most marriages are hard, so who’s to say when it’s time to leave?
In the decade that led up to that conversation on that wide turn of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I never once thought of leaving my husband, because I was afraid if I thought it, I would do it. Together, we did talk about divorce occasionally, rationally, never in heated moments of anger, always in quiet moments of desperation.
We knew something wasn’t right. Why, if we were so compatible in so many ways, were we not joyful? We couldn’t say if being apart and raising our children separately would fix what was wrong because we couldn’t identify what was wrong or if anything were actually wrong at all. Maybe this was just how it was supposed to feel. Maybe it was our expectations that were wrong.
And then there was the overarching question that two feminists married to each other must grapple with: Was it a bad marriage or was marriage itself fundamentally flawed? If so, we could either get out, or stay the course, understanding it was the institution, not our partnership that was the problem. We could reset our expectations and do our best.
It was after one of our quiet, desperate talks—the ones we had while the kids were asleep in their beds and we were bracing for the moment one of them would wake and insist on getting into our bed—that I told a single friend of mine I saw marriage like I saw the Amazing Race (a show I’ve never been able to sit through): You pick your partner in the comfort of your regular life (for me that was being a relatively happy, unencumbered twenty-something in Brooklyn) and then you end up halfway around the world (or, in my case, a suburban mom of two in her 40s on a highway in rural Pennsylvania), realizing you may have picked the wrong partner.
Do you try to find a new partner in a strange place who will bring all of their pros and cons with them, none of which you can accurately identify until you’ve traveled halfway around the world with them? Do you go it alone? Or, do you stick with your partner, assuming you’re better off with someone you know, and confident you’ve learned all there is to learn about them during the journey you’ve taken so far?
If you’re me—because you can’t know what the right choice is, or even if there is a right choice—you put your head down, grit your teeth and limp, coupled to your partner like participants in a backyard, three-legged-race, to the finish line. Even if the finish line, in this analogy, means dying in an unhappy marriage, or at least getting the kids off to college before you’ve destroyed each other and them.
I don’t fault others for getting divorced. In fact, during that decade of indecision and paralyzing fear that led up the conversation we had as we descended into the valley, I watched with awe and jealousy as friends left marriages that weren’t working. I was too scared to ask them how they knew it was time to leave. I was worried they would tell me, and then I would have a road map. Or, I was worried they wouldn’t have a clear answer. And then I would know it was possible to leave, even if you weren’t sure.
“What if you’re wrong?” I had asked.
“Yes. That’s possible,” he had said.
Everything changed that day, but not in the way I would expect things to change if I were reading this essay. My needs were not suddenly valued and met. I did not immediately feel seen. I did not glow. Instead, the relief I felt at finally being validated after all those years turned quickly to anger: at him, for spending so much time convincing me I shouldn’t need what I knew I needed and at myself, for spending so much energy on the mental gymnastics necessary to believe him.
If this sounds like gaslighting, it should. But it’s not the malicious gaslighting we hear so much about these days. It’s an unintentional gaslighting born out of desperation and fear. My husband hadn’t been lying to me all those years to control me. He had been lying to both of us in hopes of surviving. He was working so hard not to see himself, he couldn’t begin to see me. Because, as we soon learned, that’s what anxiety-brain can drive you to do.
Several months after he acknowledged that it was possible I wasn’t insatiable, that maybe my needs weren’t the problem, at least not the only problem, my husband left the therapist who had been downplaying his symptoms for years, and found a new practitioner. He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He leaned into therapy, uncovering untapped veins of trauma and work yet to be done, and then he got to work doing it. He was medicated. After years of confusion and several months on a new road, he became the person I fell in love with again.
We still like the same things and dislike the same people, but it’s more than that now. It’s the kind of love that makes me grateful, rather than resentful, that my husband is better at soothing our kids than I am. The kind of love that makes him proud, rather than jealous, that my writing has taken off while he’s moved on to other things. It’s the kind of love that takes into account what we have to offer each other, knowing that the other’s strengths do not define our own shortcomings.
Now, when I speak in a sharp, exasperated tone (I know, I’m working on it), my husband doesn’t escalate things by telling me how mean I am, he simply tells me something seems off and asks if I want to lie down for a bit. I almost always do want to lie down, and now I take that time for myself rather than trying to prove I can conquer everything with or without his help or sleep.
I no longer feel like I’m enduring my marriage the way you would a televised reality show about winning contrived challenges thousands of miles away from home. Now, again, my husband is my home.
But I’m still occasionally angry.
The other day I made a joke and he laughed.
“It turns out you’re funny,” he told me. “All those years I thought you weren’t funny, but really, I was just depressed.”
We both laughed, but then I took a sharp breath. He knew why. It’s our new place of friction.
In the good moments now—when the sex is fun or we’re laughing with our kids—I can’t help thinking about all the years I believed surviving was enough, when thriving seemed a bridge too far. I had always been funny, I had always been satiable, but I had allowed a person I loved to convince me I wasn’t and never would be. I was gritting my teeth so hard that I didn’t stop to ask the most basic questions: “Are we OK? Is he OK? Am I?”
My husband was suffering and instead of seeing it, instead of naming it, instead of helping him get healthy, I focused on getting past it to some imaginary finish line, the one where we both die in an unhappy marriage and call it a win.
When I tell my husband I fault myself for missing the signs, for prizing endurance over everything else—his well-being, the health of our relationship, the happiness of our family—he tells me to be kind to myself. That’s what his therapist tells him. It’s what my therapist tells me, too. She helps me name the traumas that have shaped me and identify the coping mechanisms I have put in place because of my lived experiences. She reminds me that the traumas are in my past—that I have outlasted and outgrown my need for the coping mechanisms I created. The ones that put distance between me and my husband in the first place: the ones that make me quick to anger, frustration, and disappointment. But I can’t always separate who I am from how I cope.
My father was an addict, not that anyone named that at the time. Instead we maneuvered around him and accepted his normal as our normal. When he stole my identity to access my spotless credit, I could choose to collapse or I could choose to cleave. I chose the latter, becoming the girl who loved my father and expected him, and everyone I loved, to let me down eventually. I segmented my life, putting things that filled me up in one box and things that scarred me in another, even when those things emanated from the same person. You might think this has made me skeptical or walled off, and it has, but it has also made me someone who is willing to forgive any transgression, someone who knows that being fallible is inevitable and does not render one unlovable.
Now, when my husband seems to be struggling, when things start to feel disjointed, and I start to feel unseen, we work together to identify if an oversight—meat left out on the counter rather than put in the fridge, the deadbolt left open while we sleep—is a simple mistake, or a sign of anxiety that could blossom into a spiral. On occasion, a series of absent-minded slips has in fact turned out to be a harbinger of something larger: a notice to stop and regroup, check medication levels, identify triggers. I’m not proud to admit it, but these moments are comforting. I don’t always trust the smooth sailing we’ve been doing, but when we work together to stave off disaster, that feels like a real sign of growth on both our parts. Experiencing connection in moments that would previously cause strife is something I can hold on to. It almost feels like a glow.
There are four tunnels between where I grew up and where I live now, but there are countless mountains. We make this trip several times a year. We go up and down and then up again, scenic vistas of bucolic farmland on either side with an occasional addition of a modern wind turbine.
I’ve travelled that road for forty plus years, never realizing until my last trip—which I did solo, no stops—that a tunnel is a shortcut, a kindness, an innovation. A monument to a moment when someone looked up and said, “This mountain is too high. Let’s stop gritting our teeth and make a change.”
A year ago, when my husband looked up and made a choice to get better, our family doctor warned me a newly healthy partner can disrupt the rhythm of a marriage. I didn’t understand what she meant, but now I do. When you realize someone’s been asking you to scale mountains for a decade rather than suggesting a tunnel, it’s hard not to curl up in a ball, letting bitterness and sheer exhaustion wash over you. When you realize you could have been the one to start digging, it can stop you cold.
My husband’s practice of unintentional gaslighting was a coping mechanism, not a conscious affront to me or our relationship. The reality remains, damage was done. I keep asking myself, “How could I, a feminist married to a feminist, allow myself to be minimized in this way?” Some days I think I’m a hero for sticking it out. Some days I think I’m to blame for not realizing where we were headed sooner.
Now, in every laugh I share with my husband there is the silent echo of all the laughs we missed out on. Every time my husband thoughtfully thanks me for something I’ve done for our family, I am haunted by the years my efforts went unnoticed or my competencies were vilified. Now, when I’m clear about what I need and he gives it to me, gladly, I am slightly unmoored by how effortless he makes it look, after years and years of struggle. Each sweet, unprompted text he sends me reminds me of the grunts and one-word answers I had settled for. He never told me I wasn’t worth more; I made that leap on my own.
I am grateful for the views on this side of the mountain, and for the tunnel my husband has dug to get us here. He is grateful for my support and the part I played on his journey. I only wish we would have stopped to assess the true nature of the mountain sooner. I don’t blame my husband for being depressed, but can I forgive myself for the denial I clung to while calling it fortitude?
Jamie Beth Cohen, a Pittsburgh native, currently lives on the line between suburban and rural Southeastern Pennsylvania. Her debut novel, WASTED PRETTY, a coming-of-age story set in 1992, was published by Black Rose Writing in April 2019.