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Stockholm Syndrome

December 1, 2009

I like my mother. While she’s had a lot of good luck in her life (me!), she’s had bad things (not even run-of-the-mill bad things but really, really Bad Things) happen to her, too. She’s brave, however, and she always snaps back. She’s cheerful, beautiful, and brilliant. She laughs at my jokes. She slung me over her shoulder and carried me on her back the last few months of my marriage, she takes no shit whatsoever from me, and she’s kind. I owe her debts I’ll never be able to repay, not even if we end up (as she intends) in a nursing home together, when she’s 100 and I’m 81.

But she seems to be identifying with my ex-husband in a way I find peculiar.

It was hard, when we first made the split public, to hear what people thought about him. Because I truly liked him, as well as loved him, I assumed others liked him, too. Oh sure, he was difficult and remote, and he’d seemed genuinely incapable of suspending a bad mood just because, say, we were having a dinner party. If he liked you, he’d talk to you; if he didn’t, you’d know. Awkward silences never fazed him. I compensated by talking a lot.

His job requires him to work for long periods in relative isolation, and when we were grad students, his hours were even longer and his isolation more severe. I missed him, of course. And I certainly wished he were more voluble when he was home. But then we got a dog, and had a baby, and my days filled up, and then we had another baby. You can get used to anything, and I got used to a husband who wasn’t particularly social. I figured everyone else did, too.

But when word got out about the separation, quite a few friends called to tell me they’d always found him a bit of a jerk.

I imagine they thought I’d feel validated–if he’s a jerk, then I was right to leave him! On the other hand, I was married to that jerk for an awfully long time. “He made Terak drink out of the hose,” a high school friend of mine blurted. What? “Oh, yeah, my god, we’ve been waiting ten fucking years to tell you the hose story,” another friend said. The whole episode, when I finally stopped laughing enough to pay attention to the details, wasn’t quite as bad as its punch line, but it was pretty bad. There were other stories in a similar vein. Everything was spun for hilarity, though when I hung up the phone and recovered a bit, I felt awful.

These were people I’d have sworn my ex-husband liked. If this was what they thought, what about the people he didn’t like?

Over the years, there was friction, shall we say, between my ex-husband and my mother. My mother likes chit-chat, and prefers false cheer to no cheer at all. My ex-husband is capable of ignoring many, many conversation starters if he does not happen to feel like conversing. I leapt right into the fray–begging my ex-husband to make a little effort for my mom, begging my mom to relax. It never worked. My mother’s feelings were often hurt, and my ex-husband, oblivious, would go off to work.

The day the divorce papers came in the mail, I e-mailed my mother. I didn’t want to talk to her–the kids are aces at eavesdropping, and I was afraid I’d cry. I don’t like to cry in front of them. So I wrote her that I felt lousy, but that I didn’t want to talk right that second. I said I was sure she’d understand. I promised to call in a day or two, when I was alone.

Later, the phone rang. “Your mom called me,” my ex-husband said. “We had a nice talk. She wanted to know how I was doing, if I was all right. It was really good to catch up.”

Okay, I thought. If his mother called me, it would be a kindhearted gesture. Therefore, I am not allowed to be petty and obnoxious. After all, my mom and ex-husband were–well, not exactly friends. But certainly not enemies! Though my mother did complain an awful lot about him while we were married (“He never talks! He didn’t send a thank-you note!”), and I spent quite a bit of time running interference between them. However, I mustn’t waste energy resenting that now. Let them be friends. I breathed into a paper bag for a while, and felt better.

Last week my mother called to report she’d sent him a birthday e-mail in which she wrote how sorry she still is about our divorce, and how much she misses him. Misses him! I gritted my teeth. “It was nice of you to remember his birthday,” I muttered.

“It’s important for the children that we all stay friends,” she said. True, true. “You guys have done such a good job being civil to one another, and you’ve been so kind to his mother, and she’s been very good to you.”

“Yes,” I said. “For instance, just the other week, I sent her a birthday present. Because I’m great. But don’t expect the ex-husband to send anything on your birthday. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know what month it’s in.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother said, huffily. “I don’t expect a THING from him on my birthday. Of course he doesn’t know when it is! And it’s your fault. Do you know why it’s your fault?”

God help us, I thought. “No, I don’t, actually.”

“Because YOU never told him. You always just handled everyone’s birthday yourself. So now he has no idea what’s EXPECTED of him, and it’s your fault.”

There was more, but I’m afraid I’ve blocked it out. Terak, if you’re reading this? My sincerest apologies about the hose.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2009 7:47 pm

    I think we may have the same mother. And oh my word, what a fabulous blog!

  2. liza permalink
    December 7, 2009 11:52 pm

    I just found you through Alexa (Flotsam) this very second.
    I don’t know you or your mother (not even as a reader of your blog, having
    only read this far down). Why am I compelled to put in my two cents
    when I won’t even comment on my spouse’s blog for fear of being googleable?
    I hope I don’t live to regret this really gross statement:
    There is a lot of wisdom in staying on an ex-son-inlaw’s good side – Stockholm Syndrome indeed.
    I have a friend who lives with her dad and basically they raise the kid together (ex lives elsewhere and hasnt seen kid in years). She lives in total fear of dying b4 the kid grow up, because the ex could move kid far away, and kid’s actual coparent (grandpa)might never see the kid again (yes there are challenges to be made, but the general legal principle is clear).

    Your life is clearly much much much less fraught, and your relationship with your ex sounds better than some marriages, but your mum might still be correct in noting where her particular piece of toast is buttered.
    Sorry to be so gross, please don’t take offense – I myself plan my death details routinely ( causing my in-laws to stare at me aghast) because I am perhaps a wee bit too pragmatic.
    Regards and best wishes

  3. December 9, 2009 4:42 pm

    Oh man, I hear you on the ex-bashing that takes place after a divorce. I personally found it pretty awkward, if not downright insulting–after all, this is my taste in men we’re talking about. I agree with you, though, that people mean well, and are perhaps just showing you that they’re on your side. Still, I can sympathize!

  4. November 20, 2010 3:31 pm

    Heh heh… Yep, it’s funny – almost 11 yrs since Marriage #1 was dissolved, 8 yrs into #2, & my parents make no bones about the fact that they prefer SIL #1…
    It’s easier to put it in those Stockholm Syndrome terms – esp w/my Pre-Existing condition, they don’t want to screw up their chances of remaining Favored Grandparents, eh?

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