The Beginning of Something Else

On June 1, 2007 I found out my husband and partner of almost two decades had been unfaithful to me since before our marriage, and had been having intercourse with prostitutes for 3 1/2 years. This is what happened next.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

All I Got for Christmas

I realized this morning that I’ve come to dread Christmas.

Years ago I bought Husband a Thai cookbook for his birthday. He’d always enjoyed cooking, and had discovered Thai food as several inexpensive Thai restaurants blossomed around Seattle. I was so excited for him to open his present, and was crushed when he seemed almost insulted by my gift. The details of what was said have faded with time, but I was left with low-level dread about giving Husband gifts that has increased with the passing years.

My experience was that Husband always felt dissatisfied with gifts, particularly at Christmas. He never seemed to feel he’d gotten exactly what he wanted, and always seemed to feel slighted when given gifts that weren't "him," declaring them impersonal. He could never look past the thing to appreciate the thought and effort that had gone into getting the gift, and the care that it expressed. So I’ve learned to ask for a List and just shop from that rather than to try to put any thought into something special that I think up myself.

At the top of Husband’s list this year was an iPhone. He was also lobbying hard for Guitar Hero. But he’s being laid off in January and I’ve had a slow 4th quarter, so I was hoping we could go a little easy on the gifts this year. However gifts are a very big deal with Husband (he loves to give as much as he loves to receive,) and I began to get the feeling that I was getting some big surprise gift and that if I didn’t match up, I’d be disappointing him again.

I’d finished all my shopping the week before Christmas but realized over the weekend that I didn’t have anything “mind-blowing” for Husband. I’d gotten many things from his list, but not the high-end items. I thought back on the video iPod I’d gotten him a few years back and the beautiful watch I’d gotten him for our 10th anniversary (both of which were from his List,) both of which he lost soon after receiving. Even expensive things just seemed to sink into the insatiable abyss of wanting, instead of being valued as much as they were sought.

But as my anticipation of failure grew, I toyed with getting Guitar Hero. For the money I didn’t really think he’d play it a lot after the novelty wore off. So I considered the iPhone. It was expensive, but I’d heard that it was going to be available after Christmas for $99. So I thought I’d give him a $100 bill with my old cell phone.

But then on Sunday I had the opportunity to get him a gift certificate toward some spiritual classes he’d wanted to take. That wasn’t on the official List, but he’d mentioned that he was interested in taking some classes just weeks ago. I knew he’d end up with an iPhone anyway (especially if they were really going to be available for $99.) I decided to get the $200 gift certificate because, while the iPhone was more practical and could be written off as a business expense, the classes were a luxury so he’d be less likely to do that for himself.

But this morning as Son opened his considerable bounty yet still seemed to feel disappointed when it came to an end, and when Husband made joking mention of “not getting what I really wanted anyway, an iPhone” (he hadn’t opened my gift certificate yet) that feeling of dread surged and I felt the hollowness of what Christmas has become.

As I pondered, it dawned on me that because of Husband’s narcissism and affliction with addiction, almost anything would fall short of his expectations. Just like with all the prostitutes, he was always looking for that one mind-blowing ultimate experience, conversation, gift, whatever, that always seemed just out of his reach. Nothing was ever as good as he imagined once he got it, and he was always left unsatiated. Of course, nothing was ever enough to fill the undistinguished empty space he carried with him.

So all these years it had nothing to do with me falling short. It was a manifestation of where he was on his path.

Though I understood that logically and the realization helped me get some space and clarity, a heaviness continued to linger until I began to look more closely at my own feelings of sadness and disappointment. (The benefit of all the therapy and reading over the past 19 months is that I can often stay with the muck long enough to recognize the opportunity for me to grow rather than spinning into resentment, blame, distraction or skipping down the happy path of denial.)

I realized that I was feeling bad because I didn’t get what I wanted either.

What I wanted was for Husband to be thrilled with the gift certificate I’d gotten him (he wasn’t.) And for Son to revel in what he’d received rather than to be looking for more presents under the now barren tree. I was attached to each of them having specific experiences and because I didn’t get what I wanted I was hurt, sad, angry, disappointed.

Then, my Higher Power reminded me that I have no control over the experiences of another.

Authentic gratitude is a steep learning curve for narcissists, and only through this crisis we've faced has Husband found a foothold with which to being his ascent. (As I heard in church recently, it is darkness that makes it possible for us to see the light.)

All I can do is give what I give with love and joy, and Husband and Son must make their own experiences from there. And that will depend on where each of them are on their own paths, not on anything that I do or don’t do.

I still want to do Christmas differently next year, with less focus on lists and what we want (in other words, less focus on lack and desire for the months leading up to Christmas day.)

But now I have an opening to give with love and joy, and to revel in what I’ve received – life’s important basics: food, clothing, shelter; the love and support of family and friends; my health; my son; a career; material luxuries; spiritual growth; good therapists; the breath I'm taking now; all my needs met; and my growing presence to myself and each of us as unique and vital expressions of the Divine.

"... if the wave bends down and touches her true nature she will realize that she is water." - Thich Nhat Han, No Death, No Fear.

Once again, my life leaves me present to gratitude. That's what I got for Christmas.


Sophie in the Moonlight said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you. You've given me a lot to think about. It's not that my husband is like yours when it comes to Christmas and gifts, it's that your openness to learning is a stunning achievement.

I resented my husband for a long time b/c he wasn't what I had wanted to receive in husband material - I (we) learned of his sex addiction 2 months after our wedding. It took me years to get over the deceit and disenchantment, but now that we are where we are in our journey I'm grateful to have married the man my recovering addict husband has become.

Merry Christmas, WA7. Thank you for this sharing.

Mary P Jones (MPJ) said...

A belated Merry Christmas, WomanA.

It sounds like you got a lovely Christmas gift, even if it wasn't what you wanted or expected. Isn't it funny how life works like that? Now I've got the Rolling Stones in my head: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need. ;)

Thanks for sharing. It's the gift you give to all of us.

RockiBottom said...

I love to read your posts. They are so beautiful, thought provoking and well written.

I think the gift you received was quite wonderful indeed.

woman.anonymous7 said...

Thanks to all of you!

caroline said...

I connected with this post. Christmas felt especially hollow for me this year. And I realized I was definitely most focused on myself and getting what I wanted. I am not a narcissist or an addict, but because of Christmases and birthdays and mothers days past where my husband neglected to get my ANYTHING, I have become especially focused on whether or not the gifts he gets me now are "me". He senses this pressure as well. I am afraid that I may make him feel how your husband made you feel, in a way. Thank you for your reflections.