Saturday, January 24, 2009

The many faces of 'No'

I talked with my counselor Sharon about the latest revelations about users and usees and a mysterious emotional engine that drives the whole thing. It seems a common dilemma in western culture, or at least white American culture. It's a featured plot in many a sit-com: the lengths adults will go to avoid saying 'no' to each other. It's spawned a whole genre of books and workshops on self-assertion. So I know this isn't just me.

I'm wondering if it's that moment of tension that follows a 'no', or anticipating that moment of tension that generates the phobia about setting boundaries. I've been trying to examine that moment. What are the elements that make it so difficult to endure that people will do most anything to avoid. Oftentimes people do things they don't want to do rather than face that silence after 'no'.

'No' is an assertion that I am not an instrument of someone else's will, or a means to their ends. It's a declaration of differentiation.

I started this blog to document the journey through my decision whether to stay in a marriage or to leave it. This is because I've realized that a relationship is not a relationship unless there are two separate people engaged and able to negotiate their differences effectively. If one (or both) of the parties see the world as an extension of themselves, there is no relationship. There is merely anger when one's 'extension' mutinies. There is also enduring resentment. This results in an atmosphere between the two which is not what a loving marriage provides. It follows that children raised in the field generated by mutual parental respect, affection and friendship have an advantage children raised in a context of mutual dislike don't.

I've come to realize that a person who sees the world in terms of him/herself is not apt to change. Change requires insight, which requires a degree of individuation from the environment. One has to be a fish that can examine water.

If the act of saying no is a rupture, opening a separation between what others think they can expect and the reality, perhaps the discomfort springs from that moment of breach. I experience it as a gap of some kind, which seems imperative to fill with something: a reason, an apology, a promise to grant the other's request later. If I don't have a reason, or I'm too honest to offer an apology if none is warranted--and I'm too honest to offer to fulfill the request later--then the gap stands naked. It's very awkward. And I feel tremendous pressure to fill it. Sharon characterized the impulse as wanting to build a bridge, between my Self that has pulled away, and the Other who is now left standing exposed. Or perhaps it is my own exposure I'm anxious about, the breach in a simulacrum of oneness.

I told her about a current decision we need to make. One that I feel an inexplicable 'Yes' in response to.

Our house has no garage. We've lived here three years without one. With the deflationary trend, materials and labor are cheaper. Mortgage rates dropped. It's possible that we could refinance our home and remove some equity to build a garage without increasing our monthly overhead by much. I am in agreement that this makes sense, and would be a good thing to do.

Yet, this flies in the face of my determination to leave the marriage. For me to leave means another place to live. My intention is to keep this house as joint owners where the boys live full time and the adults rotate according to a half-time custody arrangement. We could share the second home. It doesn't have to be large, since it's not intended to be a home for the kids. It would make sense to buy a place, so hundreds of dollars a month aren't pouring into a rental black hole. At least we'd be increasing our assets. Sadly, it means that a chunk of earnings that could be devoted to improving our present property would be diverted. That would be one of the costs of divorce.

We are reasonably comfortable financially. We don't have much debt, but it is expensive living on the ridge we live on. There is no way that Gary's income could cover an increased payment for a garage, and a mortgage on another place.

So, my feeling of 'Yes' to a garage is kind of incompatible with the need for another place to live when I leave. Another incongruity is the strong 'No'-sense about returning to my field of work. There are some concrete reasons: Scott's situation is stabilizing but not entirely secure yet; my boys need my availability come sickness or holiday. Additionally I hesitate to return to a physically demanding job that I'm not sure my 9-years-older body (since I "retired") is equal to. It's more than this, though. I continue to have a consuming need to be alone to reflect and try to increase my understanding. This is when I'm happiest. If only there was some way I could do that for a living, or something that brings Quiet joy.

A possibility that might reconcile several of the incompatibilities is to include a living space in the garage we build. This would solve the income problem (unless Gary loses his job), and the child-care problem. We'd be able to concentrate assets on improving this property, rather than dividing them. It means that much of our living situation would not be appreciably different than it is now: basically Gary leaves before the boys get up, and he returns well after dinner and not long before bed. The main difference would be that we not sleep in the same house. Perhaps this would minimize disruption for the boys. I would continue to do what the at-home parent usually does, child care and home making. I'd be rather more like an employee, except for my status as co-owner. It's not as if I'd be a housekeeper. I would have the alone time on school days that I cherish and that's a compelling thought.

The question is, is it enough separation? Does the arrangement so resemble the marriage we have that the benefits of separation are undercut? I want to stop the pretense. I want to quit modeling a zombie marriage--living dead--for my kids. I want to end the dose of poison the boys breathe in from this atmosphere day in and day out. I want to end the confusing double message they're receiving: marriage is supposed to be about love, yet in reality the feeling is of mutual dislike.

Sharon suggested there was a metaphor between this decision and the current insights I've getting about 'No.' 'No' says, "I am not you, and I choose to not cooperate with you in getting whatever it is you want." 'No' puts distance between; it separates. My decision to leave marriage with Gary is 'No'. Which is particularly apt since he has persisted in seeing me as a (rather faulty) extension of himself.

So where does the idea about building a garage/studio that we can rotate in and out of come from? These are the questions I'm going to be mulling over. Does it represent an anxiety about that void that's opened with separation ('No')--and the imperative to fill it with a bridge of some kind?

Or, is it a credible, viable, and reasonable solution?

As I write this I realize that it boils down to an issue of money. If I had an independent source of income I would have already left, we would already have a second living place, and it wouldn't be right next door. Custody arrangements would be more formalized since I wouldn't be available at a moment's notice on days they were with Gary. Childcare on his watch would be his problem. Is it better to widen the void between, rather than bridge it? ...The issue of an independent income is in my hands. I'm really getting this as I write. If I was willing to return to the professional world I would have it. Maybe this is a subject for another blog post: What's behind the strong 'No' when I picture myself back in the work force? It's certainly fodder for some journal work, the next time I can be alone.


Lori said...

"This is when I'm happiest. If only there was some way I could do that for a living, or something that brings Quiet joy."

We most definitely share DNA.

So many questions here. You do so well at sticking with something until you untangle it. You are not an ADHD thinker.

You keep getting closer to your answer. This post seems like a big leap.

Naomi said...

I agree with Lori that this is a watershed type of post. You are uncovering rich ground here.

My thoughts regarding going back to work:
1. It will change your relationship with your husband. No matter how much time and blood energy you spend cleaning, cooking, chauffering, shopping, caring, tutoring, and volunteering for your sons, the primary effort that your husband understands and relates to is time and energy spent in outside work. That is his point of reference. That is his point of value. I've seen it with my own parents. He will be much more sympathtic and empathetic to the time pressures and physical demands of outside work than to what you endure at home. Your relationship may actually improve.

2. It will change your relationship with your sons. You will be more than the live-in maid, the "go-to" person whenever there is a problem. They will take a real interest in your work and want to talk about it. It will be a point about which they will develop greater respect for you. They may even see you as stronger and more independent.

3. It will allow you to negotiate from a position of power. I've seen this with my sister-in-law, my own mother, and other women friends with young children. As soon as they are working and have their own means, they are free to act--in their own interest. They are able to "buy time" for themselves, or move away from unhappy relationships. Not going back to work pretty much forces you into the status quo.

4. It will help you weather the inevitable fact that things will change. That is the one great constant in life. Difficult changes like parental aging and sickness, or even our own sickness or decline will occur. Breaking away changes like your sons spending more time with friends, and getting ready for college will occur too. A cushion, or your own means, will help ease these changes.

5. It doesn't have to be forever. You can try it for 6 months to a year and if it's not working out for you, you can stop. You have the great advantage of being in healthcare too, which is always in demand, and provides great flexibility.

RE: you and your husband being poor marital role models for your kids, I had the shocking experience last night of being asked by my grade-school daughter: Why do you and Daddy get along so well? I was quite stunned by the question and didn't know how to answer, as that is not my experience of our relationship, but it is hers. Your sons' reality and experience of your marriage may be quite different from your own.

RE: the reasonableness of a garage/studio apartment, one issue comes to mind, and that is the thought of you or your (future) ex having a new relationship. Would you want his girlfriend (or your friend) living in that studio? Would you mind her close proximity to your sons?

Thank you for sharing your rich excavations!

Martha said...

What an incredible post, I wish you peace and clarity as you work on these issues. It always amuses me that toddlers can say, "No" without reservation or equivocation, but as adults, it so difficult. I have a strategy re."No", actually two, one I use w/our boys - "No is my final answer, not my opening bid" when it comes to parental decisions. I use this method to deal with the gap after of "No", I will say to the person, "I hope you can work it out" or something along that line. It's been very helpful because well, I do! Just not with my involvement at this time... Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

excavator said...

Hi, Lori. Secret smile. Quiet joy...guess we share that understanding, too. And that means a lot to me.

Hi, Naomi! Thanks for your kind words. Looks like you're a champion for my return to the work force. That was nice of you to write, and thanks for stopping by.

Martha, I loved your strategies for 'no' and I plan to use them! Thank you very much!

Yeah, this 'No' work is taking me some places I'd never have foreseen. I really appreciate the encouragement in these comments.

Douglas W said...

Whatever happens, things will change.

Perhaps one first step could be to find that source of independent income that allows you to spend time alone and to reflect. Maybe part-time paid employment that fits in with school hours to start with. A quiet bookshop; or a behind-the-scenes position in a library; possibly something connected with what you did before but with a different emphasis that isn't so physically demanding.

The children, and Gary, will understand and appreciate the need to have the job. It may even change the way you are viewed within the family. It will certainly enable you to feel more independent. Then, after trying that for a period you can revisit the various options for where and how you live.

excavator said...

Hi, Doug

I think the main reason I haven't taken on a second job has been the intense need for solitude. Since Scott started school a few years ago this has been an extensive period of concentrated reflection (when they're actually in school, dammit). I still have that need, and so I'm going to keep my day job a little longer. In the meantime my radar is up, alert for that vibration that might tell me a position is available that might be worth leaving 'retirement' for.

I'm very lucky to have some choice in the matter, at least for now. Gary's talking about some announcement coming at the end of this month at his work.

I just remembered your capacity as career counselor! And your kind offer to be a resource. Perhaps I'll be taking you up on that sometime.