He had written a guest post for us over the summer, and I knew when I conceived of the interview series idea, I was going to want to delve more deeply into how he had come to marry a woman who refused sex and subjected him to terrible emotional blackmail. From what I understood, she had used threats of self-harm, all the way up to suicide to control the relationship and his response to her from the beginning. How does a relationship even get out of the starting gate with that kind of dysfunction present from day one? How does it become a marriage? So what, they had gone right from sexual activity in his truck after a dance one night in high school, to her making threats to injure herself, right into a relationship?
Had she warned self-harm from the beginning, or was this a manipulation strategy she had honed over time? “She would do that shit. Every fight she would make threats and I would sacrifice myself for her safety,” he began. They had known each other for years prior, attending the same high school in a small town in Idaho. One night they noticed each other at a dance and left to make out, an experience that culminating in “finger banging”, her first sexual contact. She became very attached to him, a surprise, since to him the episode had been nothing more than a one-time thing. Immediately the following week she was on him at school accusing him of turning her into a slut, taking advantage of her while she was depressed over her uncle’s recent death (facts of which he had no prior knowledge). How could he put his fingers into her if he had no intentions beyond that evening, she demanded to know. He sensed her guilt and shame and felt sorry for her, never intending to be the source of someone’s pain. He was a small-town high school guy having his first sexual experiences himself. He didn’t know what else to do than pledge himself to her.
So wait, he entered into the relationship even though he didn’t want to be with her? How did that happen, exactly? He described being too young to know better, a teenage guy with an over-developed sense of guilt. Plus, he was busy playing sports and figured he could channel his energy into that, hide himself on the soccer team. He felt a sense of obligation to assuage her self-imposed slut-shaming by becoming her boyfriend. “It was dumb of me to fall into that,” he lamented. Especially since he’s the type of guy that commits himself fully when he commits.
They fought bitterly, many times related to him distancing himself or trying to break up with her. She would threaten to kill herself if he left, and he would stay. “How could I live with myself if she did that?” he asked, recalling his younger self. They fought about sex. She refused to have regular sex claiming it was too painful, but rejecting any and all proposed solutions. She told him a bizarre story about jumping into a bathtub as a child causing a Barbie doll to wedge itself into her vagina, injuring her; causing her to permanently shy away from any kind of vaginal insertion. He and I wondered together if this implausible (if you thought about physics, at least) tale was a socially acceptable way to allude to childhood sexual abuse. He never found out if she had experienced sexual trauma from an abuser as a child. She used his desire to have sex against him, attempting to make him feel guilty for wanting to do something that hurt her. At the time, he didn’t know anything different. “I didn’t know what life was about. My friends weren’t having sex. I didn’t hang out with fun, experimental people. I had no models.” The relationship slogged on, the two remaining trapped in a cycle of fights, her suicide threats and his relenting.
He went to college close to home for the first two years after high school, staying in a place where he knew a lot of people. During this time they were on-again off-again with their relationship. “We were always in contact. She was waiting around, checking up on me. I had no space.” She was a source of great negativity, displaying little trust and acting extremely possessive. She would become enraged when his collegiate soccer team traveled for games, accusing him of terrible things and manipulating his sense of guilt. She was irrational. During a period of being broken up, she traveled out to see him unannounced, catching him in bed with another woman and losing her mind. What did that look like? “She flipped the mattress with the girl on it. She stole shit from me, items from when we were together, throwing all of it out of her car as she drove away.”
He was offered a soccer scholarship by a different college, far from home and he eagerly took it. This new college meant freedom in a new place where he knew no one, and would be far from her. Even with his optimism, he struggled at his new school. “I didn’t allow myself to socialize or meet people. I didn’t know how to meet people.” I asked if he knew the cause of his social difficulties, and he explained that he believed it was rooted in the fact that at that time he didn’t use alcohol. It felt like the fact he didn’t drink made him an automatic outsider, and her perceived people wouldn’t trust the sober guy in the room. He excluded himself, eventually growing to miss home enough to leave college and his scholarship behind.
His first week back in town his ex delivered him an ultimatum: marry me or I’m gone. He went for it, agreeing to marriage for fear he’d have a suicide on his conscience. His heart wasn’t in it. He bought her a ring from Walmart and let her and her parents plan the whole thing. How did it feel to give in on something as major as marriage, to leave a soccer scholarship and college behind for a woman with whom his future was dubious, at best. “Settled. Done. Locked in. I knew nothing else.” Did you try to end things before you could sign papers? No. “Everything was for her. I couldn’t stick up for myself.” When they fought about the wisdom of the impending nuptials it became a money issue. Her parents had fronted the deposits on all wedding-related expenses, so how could he possibly back out now and screw them like that?
The marriage lasted less than two years. In total they had sex fewer than ten times over the course marriage, including the honeymoon during which she refused his advances almost entirely. She continued her emotional blackmail, threatening to hurt herself over any perceived slight, refusing any sort of intimacy and striving for complete dominion over him. I wondered what she was getting out of it. She threatened divorce, too, going so far as to speak to an attorney. He hung in there in part because he didn’t want to become a divorce statistic. How did it end? It ended when she cheated on him, having sex with another guy after years of rebuffing him. A shocking irony.
Upon finding out about her affair something clicked and he understood he couldn’t hurt her the way she’d always threatened. He had his things packed and ready to go and didn’t hesitate. He was finally ready. He saw now just how horrible the past seven and a half years with her had been and how hard those years had been to get through. He was done.
His father-in-law came around and got in his face as he tried to pack up his truck. He described his father-in-law’s anger and lack of respect for him and how they nearly came to blows. He was beginning to realize how terribly he’d been treated by his wife and her family, which cemented his decision to remove himself from the situation. His mother-in-law tried in vain to get the couple back together, to save the marriage. His soon-to-be ex-wife begged him to come back, going so far as to ask his family to intercede on her behalf. When the man she’d been cheating with broke up with her, she stood in the street outside his house at 4 a.m. screaming at him to come back.
“I was done. It was so awesome to wash my hands of it.” What happened next? What changed? “Once I was gone I let loose. I had sex. I drank alcohol. I made my own choices.” He became more considerate about with whom he spent his time. He set boundaries with people from the beginning. He had a ton of sex and enjoyed it immensely, calling the feeling of the first vagina after his ex-wife’s “magic”. He hadn’t had any idea how amazing sex could be. He had a realization about sex, “that’s nature. People want to have sex.” His relationship had warped his views, making him believe there was something wrong about wanting to have sex. No more. He realized how important sex was to him in his relationships. He experienced dramatic life improvement almost immediately after leaving the relationship for the last time.
What did he learn? He learned exactly what he doesn’t want, that’s for sure. “If you’re not happy, no one’s happy,” he commented, getting at the idea that staying in an unhappy relationship isn’t noble. The hard part was being so young. He believed at that time he knew everything. “I was stuck like mud. It was ingrained in me. I was hardheaded.” He realized the importance of and need for contemplation of ones choices, of being honest with yourself. He learned to look out for number one, that you can’t put your needs below those of another person and live a fulfilling life.
And as for getting out? “It was awesome. The world was so much brighter. I had so many options.”