Growing up, I had a confused understanding of love and marriage. We had a cute little house in the San Fernando Valley, but my father was often away and my mother constantly worried. When he was home, his emotions vacillated greatly (later I learned he suffered from bipolar or manic-depressive disorder). One minute he was joyful and rode me around on his shoulders. The next minute he was irritable, angry and depressed.
I was an independent kid and during the summers I would take the bus into Hollywood and sit alone at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and watch romantic movies–Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Three Coins in a Foundation, The African Queen, and From Here to Eternity. I practiced love lines I heard in the movies like this one by Montgomery Clift to Elizabeth Taylor: “I guess I loved you before I ever saw you.”
I met my first wife at U.C. Santa Barbara. I was a senior and she was a freshman. She reminded me of Janis Joplin—cute, wild, creative, edgy, dangerous. We went to Monterey on our honeymoon, not knowing the Monterey Pop Festival was in full swing. No rooms were to be had anywhere in Monterey, but we found a room in Carmel when I was able to talk the landlady into taking us in since we were newly married. She knew the organizers and was able to help get us tickets.
The music reflected our hopes, dreams, longings, craziness, and the times:
“Tobacco Road” ~Lou Rawls
“Paint It Black” ~Eric Burdon and The Animals
“The Sound of Silence” ~Simon & Garfunkel
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die” ~Rag, Country Joe and the Fish
“He Was a Friend of Mine” ~The Byrds
“Somebody to Love” ~Jefferson Airplane
“Wild Thing” ~The Jimi Hendrix Experience
“California Dreamin’” ~The Mama’s & The Papa’s
“San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair)” ~Scott McKenzie
“Ball ‘n’ Chain” ~Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin),
Neither of us were interested in the drug culture of the 60’s, but both of us were drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and politics of protest. Our first son, Jemal, was named after a character in the T.V. series The Outcasts, that had former plantation owner Earl Corey wandering in the company of former slave, Jemal David. Our daughter, Angela, was named after political activist Angela Davis. The politics of protest is still going on. Our marriage lasted 10 years.
After grieving the loss of the marriage and trying to work out custody and visitation with our children, I had a “rebound” relationship with a sexy, but dangerous woman. I met her in the pools at Harbin Hot Springs. I should have been alerted to the danger when I found that she slept with a gun under her pillow. I was scared to death. Instead of getting out, we got married. We nearly killed each other on a number of occasions and we were both lucky to get out of the marriage alive.
I promised myself, “never again.” Before I even thought about love, I vowed I would take a hard look at my love map and see if I could figure out why I was making the choices I was making. If I ever fell in love again I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. I found a good therapist and did some deep work on healing from the wounds and traumas growing up in my family and reprogrammed my love map to take me in a healthier direction.
Learning About Real, Lasting Love
Carlin and I met at the Aikido Dojo in Mill Valley. The initial meeting was pretty low key as a mutual friend introduced us. I was cordial, but no bells went off in my brain. I reminded myself of my new love map and decided a martial arts dojo was a more promising meeting place to get to know a person than the pools of a hot springs. Carlin and I reconnected a week later in San Diego at a conference put on by the Psychologist Jack Gibb to explore his ideas about the health and well-being of groups and the people in them.
The TORI weekends taught us about Trust, Openness, Responsiveness, and Interdependence. After failing to get me to notice her interest in me (“I’ve been dropping my hankie and you don’t seem to be aware of it”), Carlin finally approached me and wanted to talk.
I was surprised. All my life I had believed that I was attractive. Short men (I’m 5’4’’) just don’t get the girls. I always thought I had to do my song and dance and overwhelm them with my wit and intellect in order to get them interested. But here was a very attractive woman who seemed interested in me. I didn’t know how to respond.
We talked and walked on the beach and got to know each other. Although there was clearly attraction, we were both terrified of getting involved again. We’d both been burned twice before and we were determined not to crash and burn again. We both had children to protect. Luckily she lived in Oregon and I lived in California, so I thought we’d have a nice weekend together, then go our separate ways.
But the distance allowed us to go slow and the attraction deepened. It allowed us to develop trust and openness before we plunged into becoming more intimate. We had both made lists of things we wanted in a partner including being committed to their own health and well-being, humor, a willingness to love our children, good work habits, love what they do, etc. We were very compatible on many of these issues, but were having trouble because “the chemistry” didn’t feel quite right.
It turns out that “chemistry” is overrated as a basic building block for a good marriage.
It’s more often based on sexual attraction, which is usually based on old programming from the culture and from our past love affairs that drew us to some people and away from others. When we talked about it, we had to admit we were hung up on the fact that she was a few inches taller than me and a few years older than me.
In the past, we realized we had jumped into relationships where the “chemistry” was steamy hot and alluring, but had yawned and walked away from potential relationships that may have been just right for us. Instead of walking away we went deeper. The deeper we went, the more we began to like each other and love began to blossom. It wasn’t that the chemistry wasn’t there, it just took time to come on line.
But the deeper we went the more we uncovered the “excesses and deficits” that all people have, yet most of us try and hide. We both had wounds from growing up in families with angry fathers. Hers was aggressive and threatening. Mine was irritable, angry and depressed. It turned out that my father was suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. We both had been neglected as children and had serious fears of abandonment.
For years I’d resisted the possibility that, like my father, I was suffering from a mental illness. I was a psychotherapist after all and thought I could think my way out of anything I might have inherited from my father.
My denial and resistance nearly destroyed our marriage and nearly killed me.
But Carlin hung in there with me and kept encouraging me to get help. Her support, love, and willingness to heal together, eventually led me to see a psychiatrist and to take medications. I read books about bipolar depression and recovery. One book broke through my denial, and forced me to go deeper. It was a memoir written by Kay Redfield Jamison, one of the leaders in the field of psychiatry.
The fact that a well-respected professional could talk openly about her own illness and her struggles to get help, encouraged me to reach out. These words, from her book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, resonated so deeply with me I knew I had found a kindred spirit:
“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”
Each of these words were like molten metal burning through me and forcing me past my fear and resistance to accept the truth. I was irritable, paranoid, humorless, lifeless, critical and demanding. No matter what my wife, Carlin did to show me she loved me, it was never enough. I knew I was frightened inside, but I had to admit I was frightening as well. I can still see my father’s angry face as I write this and Carlin’s fearful words, “You get that beady-eyed look and it chills me to the bones.” But underneath the anger, hurt, fear, guilt and shame, love is always waiting to heal us. We only get there by going deep.
We’ve been together now for 36 years. We’ve both come to see that a marriage, based on real, lasting love, is not at about “living happily ever after.” In truth, it is more like a series of challenges and vision quests that take you deeper into the heart of love. There are many “dark nights of the soul,” as well as beauty and light beyond imagining. Real, lasting love isn’t always gentle. It burns away all the layers of our false selves and forces us to heal the wounds from the past that we wish we could forget and leave behind, but we must face if we’re truly going to heal.
Carlin and I are still learning and loving. I’ve shared what we’ve learned in a number of books including, The Irritable Male Syndrome, Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome, and my most recent book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come.
We’d very much enjoy hearing from you. Please share your own experiences.
Originally posted on MenAlive. Reprinted with permission.
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