|Mark and Deb L.|
Our first step [story] began in our families-of-origin. They determined whom we would look for in a partner as we began to date. We met early in that process while still in high school.
Mark was raised in a minister's home. His father was extremely strong and controlling emotionally, a very public person, admired greatly by the congregations he served. His mother was extremely passive, quiet, and shame-filled. While Mark's dad had little trouble sharing his thoughts and feelings, usually with religious interpretations and without boundaries, his mom usually talked to no one and shared almost nothing about herself.
Mark's perception of his parents is that they talked of superficial things with each other, with his dad always dominating conversations with his thoughts. The life and business of the church was the life of the family. His parents didn't seem affectionate toward one another, either emotionally or physically. They were lonely even when with each other but didn't consciously recognize or accept it.
Mark became a sexual abuse victim, some of which he remembers, some of which he "knows" took place before the age of three. He was also an emotional incest victim. His dad expected him to be his "buddy" and to be available to him for many activities and conversations. In this process his dad was grooming Mark to be just like himself--a minister--and taught Mark that people in power can bend the rules, including exploiting others. His mom let this happen--even encouraged it as she abandoned Mark emotionally.
Mark was looking for a woman he could dominate emotionally and sexually, one who would be perfectly nurturing physically and sexually, but who would also be submissive and passive. Although he did not know it, he was lonely and longed for a deeper emotional relationship, but he didn't have any tools to ask for it. He was also afraid of a strong woman--afraid that she would leave him if she really knew him. Mark was also looking for a woman from a social and economic background which would correct his image of his family being poor.
Deb has a twin sister and an older brother. Deb was raised in the home of an executive who is very successful and popular, a "good guy" everybody likes. With all this he is very concerned with money and security, taking care of things so that nothing "bad" will happen. He is very protective. He is a gentle man, oriented around his family to a fault. He is also generally affirming and supportive. There is, however, a loneliness about him that we sense especially now that we're in recovery. There was certainly no ability to share emotionally in Deb's family. Her parents taught her the attitude that if you worked hard everything would work out all right. There were always solutions to everything. Deb had polio at age three; she doesn't remember anyone talking to her about how painful and frightening it was.
Deb's mother was a trained professional who stopped her career when she married. She was an only child and was moved numerous times as a youth and teenager. While she played a traditional domestic female role, she was extremely strong-willed and opinionated. She learned how to control her own fears and insecurities and passed down a general inability to deal with them. She did not discuss sexual things, but she passed on clear messages, instilling in Deb a general fear of one's body and of men.
Deb's twin sister was very socially and athletically outgoing. Deb also perceived her as more physically attractive as well as more popular. Deb took a back seat in many ways while growing up. She became an exceptional student and organizer and was very successful at school in various activities. A major social victory for her was becoming a cheerleader as a junior and senior.
Although Deb's family attended church, religion was rarely discussed. Deb would often go to youth groups and church on her own. When she was a senior, her family began attending the church that Mark's dad served.
Deb feels she was abandoned emotionally and spiritually, that she was taught a general workaholic lifestyle and to fear problems but not talk about them. She was also instilled with traditional sexist values and roles, with dislike of her body, and a fear of sex. Despite all of this, she brought a strong family-centered orientation to her relationship with Mark.
Deb was looking for a man who was socially outgoing and religious (when she first started dating Mark, one of her favorite songs was "The Only Boy Who Could Ever Move Me Was the Son of a Preacher Man"). She also was lonely, but didn't know anything about sharing feelings.
We started dating during the late sixties while Mark was in college and Deb a high school senior. Previous to this we had known each other from afar. Friends of ours who were dating each other set us up. This is significant in that this couple later married, and we came to be totally enmeshed with them as a couple later in our own marriage.
We dated for four years while we pursued our education at separate campuses. Ours was a relationship of weekend visits, telephone calls, letters, and summers at home. The alone time served to heighten the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" effect. For Mark, his abandonment issues with his mother made him pursue visits, calls, and letters rather fanatically. For example, in just two years, he made over sixty six-hour round-trip visits to see Deb at her campus.
We are now conscious that we sacrificed a lot of campus social opportunities and other activities to see each other so much and to be "faithful" to each other. Deb is also aware that she sacrificed career interests she might have had in order to prepare herself adequately for the role of minister's wife. Mark had "decided" to enter the ministry (actually he was following the incest script that he had been given). The fact that Deb sacrificed her interests to support Mark's career is an ongoing source of grief for her. It also angers her to know that Mark was pursuing some of this out of obligation and not out of a sense of what he really wanted to do.
We both had been "programmed" to go to and stay in college. We were on separate campuses and felt like we "wanted" to get married as soon as possible. This led us to accelerate our pace, and we both graduated in three years. We were married during Mark's Christmas break from seminary.
While others around us participated in the sexual revolution, we had not. Though we had read Masters and Johnson and "knew" a lot, we were both virgins when we got married. Of course we each had quite different expectations regarding frequency of love-making after we started living together. These different expectations were a constant source of tension that we felt but never talked about. We played many silent games around these expectations.
Also, as Mark prepared to enter the ministry, both of us were growing uncomfortable with the roles we knew the ministry would bring, but we didn't know how to talk about it. Mark's solution was to enter graduate school and work towards a Ph.D. in the field of pastoral care. So we went off to a new town. Mark worked part-time at a church and Deb, who had prepared as a home economics teacher, taught for one year in a totally frustrating situation. The expectation was--again--that Deb would work while Mark pursued his career.
The frustrations in our communication, work, and sexual lives were mostly unrecognized by us and certainly unexpressed. Each of us had anger that we had learned as children to hide, so we were left with passive hostilities toward each other. Gradually, more and more, we "left" each other to take care of our individual selves in ways we had learned as children: Deb in her work and crafts projects and inhibited sexuality; and Mark in his eating, sexual fantasies, pornography, masturbation, staying up and getting up late, T.V., and general silence. Deb criticized Mark's lifestyle and Mark used her criticism to go deeper into his addictions and his silences.
During this time Mark became a diabetic, which he hated but which also became a source of nurturing. We sought help in a group of very fundamental Christian friends. We went to Bible studies and prayer meetings. Neither of us felt quite comfortable with this, but we didn't talk together, and it seemed like the "right" thing for a minister and his wife to be doing. Mark pursued his lofty studies and Deb went off to her work supervising a dining service for one of the university dorms. Mark also preached as a supply pastor at local churches and received lots of affirmation for his abilities. While one part of Deb was proud of this, another part was resentful of the attention he got, and she found the grandiosity it seemed to create in him very difficult to live with.
Also during this time we gave in to having our first child, a girl. We were twenty-six and it seemed like the "natural" thing to do. While she was a joy, our lives became complicated by her needs, and we gave up opportunities to get caught up with studies, work, and survival.
Otherwise our aloneness from each other continued as did our lifestyles. Mark's sexual fantasies and masturbation graduated to occasional visits to massage parlors. As Mark neared the completion of his Ph.D. he went to work as a pastoral counselor at a type of counseling clinic which had been pioneered by a father-type figure in the pastoral care field. We moved back to the city where our parents lived, and this placed us back in proximity to our dysfunctional families.
Mark found himself in over his head with counseling. He had been more academically than clinically trained, but he was expected to earn his own salary with counseling fees and was forced to learn by the seat of his pants. While he sought some supervision, his pride feared it. He had been raised to think that if you needed help you were an intellectual and personal failure.
Mark hated going to work, dreaded some of his counseling appointments and silently celebrated cancellations, but he could not talk about this with his supervisor. The center he worked for was constantly in financial crisis and he was underpaid. He finished his Ph.D., but was silently so unhappy he couldn't enjoy the accomplishment. It seemed to doom him to work he hated. Mark did manage to begin building a teaching and speaking career that took him away from home many nights. This was, of course, a convenient escape from the tensions at home.
Deb was home for the first time, at first without a second car. We purchased a home which financially strapped us, and again we fell into having a child, our first son. To save her sanity during this time, Deb began a business producing stained glass pieces, a skill that she had learned at the university. This business began to grow.
During this time we began exclusively seeing the couple who had set us up on our first date. The man seemed to have an exciting career as a lawyer and was fun to be around. He drank heavily, but while we may have noticed it, we never talked about it. Our children were the same ages and we became god-parents to each others' children. We talked in enmeshed and codependent ways of our affection for each other, even to the point of planning to move to a new place, perhaps even living in a communal house.
To this end we purchased land in another state, which continued our financial pressures. The man was continually pushing us to spend money on entertainment and other things like vacations together. Deb grew more and more uncomfortable with this, but we were enmeshed. Mark was really trapped in his need for approval from the man and went along with things the man did despite not really liking many of them. Often Deb felt left out of the social activities even though she may have been there.
As we vacationed together, we often stayed in the same room or cabin. On one occasion our enmeshment and flirtatiousness with each other led to sleeping with each other's partner. Mark remembers feeling that he "had" something that "belonged" to someone he so revered. Deb remembers feeling swept up in the event, not really approving, but not knowing what else to do. Mark's demands for sex, and Deb's encounters with his pornography, had already invited her into areas of sexual compliance which she found uncomfortable.
This episode destroyed our friendship with that couple for years. The man's jealousy of what had happened opened up sexual wounds in their relationship and they backed away from us. It has been only recently that we have done a Ninth Step with them as people we've harmed as a couple. This seemed to have a healing effect, but since they are not in recovery--he is still a practicing alcoholic, and their relationship is not good; we cannot move on to another level of friendship with them.
While we lived in this city, we also experienced pressures from our families. It was particularly hard to be with Mark's family, but we tolerated the pain of our discomfort. We attended Mark's dad's church, where Deb taught Sunday school. We went out to lunch after church. While Mark never was aware of this, the pain of his incest wounds forced Mark to do these things and, when doing them, to become silent and removed. They also fueled his addictions and coping strategies. Deb resented these "escapes," but again she had no tools to express her resentment in healthy ways.
During this time Mark became sexual with several of his female clients. It is clear that these episodes were about his sexual addiction, loneliness, and anger at what he was doing. They were also about his own incest and the boundaries that had been crossed with him.
Deb and those around him were oblivious to this. When an opportunity to go to a new counseling practice in a new city came up, it seemed like a good escape. To Mark it was an escape from families, from the other couple, and from the sexual relationships with clients. It was a geographic cure that would not work. To move, it seemed that we also had to sacrifice Deb's business, which was becoming more and more successful. Again we followed the pattern that what "seemed" good for Mark's career was the most important. The new job was for more money, status, and power: a bigger fish in a smaller pond (city).
In this new city we moved into a nice neighborhood, where those around us generally made more money than we did. We tried to keep up appearances; and we put ourselves in continuing financial binds. Mark was successful in his career, and Deb began to rebuild her business. She began to travel more on weekends. Mark's career made him very public in this smaller place. To test his own popularity he ran for and was elected to the local school board. Our third child, a son, was born soon after we moved.
Increasingly, both of us were away from home and from each other. We both had numerous distractions, the kids and our careers. At one point, right before our recovery started, Mark was counseling full-time, teaching college, pastoring a church on weekends, and serving on the school board. In these ways, we coped with the tensions at home. The angers and loneliness would occasionally surface, and we would have dramatic arguments. Mark would want to talk them through into the middle of the night. Deb would want to escape. Our sexual relationship was strained, infrequent, and full of dysfunction, but we were afraid to talk about it.
We went to see a counselor, but she could not help us as there were pieces of our addictions--mainly Mark's--that remained hidden from her. She was nice to talk to, and her role as a mediator helped for several days; but this passed and the tension returned. Both of us had thoughts of divorce and knew how lonely we were, and it was probably only our kids that kept us together during this time.
Mark's sexual patterns continued. A number of his work associates eventually did an intervention with him and he went into treatment.
Our recovery as a couple couldn't really start until recovery started for us individually. The main reason is that there were so many things hidden from each other (the "double life" that most addicts lead). Individual shame and addiction totally blocked any hope for intimate communication.
As Mark began to achieve sobriety, we also started to go to individual therapy, to men's and women's groups, and to a couples' group. In our first year of recovery we were gone most nights of the week to a meeting or a group. Our kids protested. Our first year was a time of painful honesty as long buried feelings gradually surfaced. Some of the anger took months to surface. The incest memories took nine to twelve months to surface. It was still a very tenuous time, and there were occasions when we still didn't know if we were going to make it.
As we experience the peace of the program, we find many things changing. We experience healing in all aspects of our relationship. We continue to struggle with the financial hole addiction carved out for us. Mark struggles to rebuild a career. Deb's business is very successful but creates enormous demands on her time. Although our primary addictions are in check, we can still distance from each other with work, moodiness, over-involvement in the kids' activities, and a host of other possible escapes. It is vitally important to maintain the discipline of the program. We find great strength and hope in each other, in other couples, and in the ability to share our story with others.
Mark and Deb L.'s Renewal
Let me love you without possessing you...
Let me share my feelings with you knowing you will handle them with care but not responsibility...
Let me ask for my needs, knowing you can only sometimes fulfill them...
Let my need for aloneness at times not be a rejection of you, but a time of nourishment for me...
Let me not depend on your affirmations of me, but live assuredly in the well-being of my own soul.
Let us be honest with each other...
Knowing we will not be ridiculed or threatened or ignored...
Let us both find good friends without it being a threat to the life we share...
Let us respond to each other without judgment or expectation, rejoicing in the moment to share intimately...
Let us be weak sometimes or strong sometimes, knowing that both contribute to the growth of our relationship.
Let us dream together...
With the playfulness of a child...
Let our love be a wellspring for the renewal of our own "little children," the safe place to nurture all of our feelings, the playground to experience God's abundant life.
Let us begin again today!