In Search of Empathy (in all the wrong places)

I write here often of how well my husband is progressing with his recovery and how helpful he has been to our joint recovery. When he “gets it” things are good, bordering on great. Sadly, the opposite is also true. When I give him a chance to be there for me and he completely and utterly blows it, I’m devastated. Again.

Some back story: Handsome and I, like many couples, seem to have different internal thermostats. I like to be warm while he wears shorts to shovel snow. About 6 or 7 years ago Handsome started sleeping in our lower level guest room when he was working overnights (so, about 5 days a month) because it was isolated and quiet for him as he tried to sleep during the day. Starting about 5 years ago he started spending more time sleeping there and telling me it was because he was too hot upstairs in our bedroom which was generally about 70 -71 degrees. It was a slow progression, but by last Fall he was sleeping downstairs almost every night.

Did I think this was all okay?  Hell no! Once it started to shift from a few days a month to more often than not, I regularly tried to talk to him about it. We seemed to be roommates (with benefits) and not spouses, but whenever I would bring it up he would kiss my forehead and assure me that it was just that he was too hot upstairs. He made me feel silly for even raising the issue, but it still bothered me. I mostly wrote it off to what I perceived to be his mid-life crisis.

Last year at this time we went away without our kids. It was a weekend filled with fun and romance and I was very sad when we flew home because I wanted that closeness to continue. Handsome was in our room at bedtime and he was setting out his clothes for work the next day. I sensed he was going to leave so I asked him, “Aren’t you going to stay in here?” He stood at the foot of the bed, laughed heartily at me and said, “Not a chance. I’ll see you again in a couple of months.” (I believe that he was referring to our big trip to Europe a little over two months later.) I was absolutely crushed. Heartbroken. At the time, it was the most devastating pain my husband had inflicted on me. I cried the entire night and for a few nights thereafter.

Post DDays, his virtual move to the guest room makes all the more sense. He could watch porn and/ or masturbate without interruption. He could use his burner phone in our house while the rest of us were asleep upstairs. He could sext and text with impunity. He could drink excessively and come and go from our basement door to get rid of the empties without me seeing them. His intimacy disorder could flourish because he separated himself physically, and eventually emotionally, from his family.

Coming into late September this year, I thought I was in an okay place mentally. Handsome and I are going on a trip this week to the same place as last year. I was caught off guard by the waves of deep, unsettling emotions as I thought back on last September. I was feeling very overwhelmed for several days with vivid, painful memories of his treatment of me when we returned from the trip, not to mention the texts I now know he sent the Whore within hours of our return home (basically belittling the vacation and telling her he wished she was there with him). Over the weekend, I tried to explain to Handsome why what happened last year hurt me so deeply and how that was bringing up all kinds of feelings now.

At first, I thought it was going to be okay. He held me and held my face and apologized for the decisions he made that hurt me. He was sympathetic. He kissed me and held me some more… and then he opened his mouth again and said, “… but you know, sleeping in the basement was really  mostly about the temperature.”

Um, no. No it wasn’t. There was no sleeping elsewhere for 6+ years before we had a guest room. There was no sleeping elsewhere after we moved to the house with the guest room but before his compulsive behavior started to consume him. There was no sleeping elsewhere when we amicably negotiated the thermostat setting for years. The temperature became – and apparently still is – a convenient excuse for an act that hurt his family and which fed and facilitated his addiction and compulsive behavior. To suggest otherwise is to blame me for everything. “Gee, my wife likes the thermostat at 70 degrees, so I guess I have to move to the basement and masturbate.” “Oh, she’s got it set at 71 today? Guess I’ll go watch porn.” WTAF? It’s shorthand for, “Because of you, BW, [and your silly need to stay warm enough to keep your nose from running 24/7] I was compelled to physically distance myself from you, and I just happened to engage in all of this awful behavior as a result.” What was the excuse last summer when he and Angel Baby had the sleepovers at our house?  I wasn’t home and was hundreds of miles away. He could have set the thermostat at whatever temperature made him happy. Nope. They still slept in the other room. Why? BECAUSE THAT IS WHERE HE ENGAGED IN THE VAST MAJORITY OF HIS ACTING OUT IN OUR HOME. It had nothing to do with the thermostat.

I am mindful that seeking solace from my SA husband is akin to an assault victim looking for empathy from her attacker. Nonetheless, he’s all I’ve got. I had hoped that with 9 months of therapy and a couple of intensives under his belt that he might be in a position to display just enough empathy to help me work through this momentary struggle. No such luck. I’ll spare myself the disappointment and keep my mouth shut next time. I’ve had about all the deflection I can handle. Thanks for nothing, Handsome.

22 thoughts on “In Search of Empathy (in all the wrong places)”

    1. Of course, and thank you. I’m always happy to get my writing in front of anyone who might find it helpful. I’m sure my husband isn’t the only one who can be duly sympathetic and yet struggle with empathy.

  1. I feel both empathy and sympathy for you my dear, I’m so sorry you’re hurting <3

    You are bang on that he is still unable to say the words to you regarding the reason he was sleeping downstairs. Can he articulate why he can't/won't say it?

    It would have had a different effect on you if he said "there were a lot of reasons I was sleeping downstairs – porn, sexting, masturbation and I used the temperature as a way to rationalize isolating myself from you so that I could act out, but it was not the real reason. I was a selfish prick, I'm so sorry I hurt you and never want to sleep away from you again."

    Wishful thinking I know – that's how you and I would articulate it, but these guys can't communicate that way. It's almost like they can't/won't say the words because it's not how they think/feel anymore, and they really only say *what they think is* the least painful explanation. We just want the hard, cold, painful truth, and when we get words that attempt to minimize what they did and why they did it, it puts us back a few steps.

    I can relate you to what happened to you last summer so very much, my heart ached for you as I have very similar memories. Words and actions are about all we have to hang onto here, I really hope Handsome can find it within himself to start thinking about how his words and actions not only affected you then, but most importantly, now.

    How are you feeling now?

    1. I could be wrong (don’t tell him that… wink wink) but I believe that blaming the sleeping apart/ distancing himself physically on the thermostat makes it seem – to him – less intentional. Less deceitful. Less…wrong. To use the parlance of my profession, I believe he views the thermostat as a mitigating circumstance. I just find it a sorry excuse.

      My reaction to it is likely heightened because it was the same excuse he would spoon feed me when I took issue with his increasingly frequent departures from our bedroom. I had offered up different bedding, a fan, portable AC in addition to our central air, etc… I tried. He rejected it all because at the end of the day it wasn’t the temperature that drove him to the other room.

      I’m still struggling a bit today. We are supposed to leave for our trip on Thursday. I want to be excited about it, but I’m still licking my wounds from the weekend. We see our CSAT tomorrow. I am hoping she can help get us sorted before we depart.

        1. Thanks, as always, SSA!

          It is just the two of us. (sigh) It’s just a long weekend, but it’s a break from …. everything. I need that.

    1. Great question CR and I’ve thought a lot about giving Handsome access since I started writing. I fully intend to do so, but I’m not certain the timing is right just yet. I would like to feel as though he’s secure (stable? mentally healthy?) enough to read it and to not shame spiral. I think that’s probably the case now, but I’m just not sure. I bet it sounds ridiculous, but I feel like I’ll know it when I see it in him.

      And yes, he remains equally capable of being utterly awesome or a complete tool.

      1. I think I would send him some of this one in an email and ask him to read it. If he’s really committed to recovery, understanding the other persons perspective is important. He will never fully get it but it may help.

        And I totally get the privacy side of it- I have my blog locked down completely because I know the man I married looks up my screen name all the time, he used my blog against me when he found it and I just hope the readers I have approved aren’t him in secret.

    1. Hard to say Sean. I’m really a verbal person so talking things out is usually not an issue for me, but the “you did x and it hurt me” discussions are challenging. Interestingly, they’re actually easier when the “x” is bigger, or more serious. For example, our “you had sex with the Whore” discussions are kind of a no brainer. He can’t help but get that sex outside our marriage is awful. He displays both sympathy and empathy. On these seemingly less monumental things though (less monumental to him, not necessarily to me) he struggles. I saw the slow move out of our marital bedroom as death by a thousand cuts. He didn’t see it that way and I think, frankly, lacks the awareness to be able to see it that way so he has no idea how to empathize. The fact that it was wrapped up in his compulsive behavior makes the issue even more difficult for him to parse out.

      Time will tell if I can keep my mouth shut. It’s not healthy to keep this stuff inside or to keep it from him, for that matter, but it is brutal to walk out on that limb and express vulnerability and need, only to have your spouse saw the branch out from underneath you. I wasn’t looking for him to have all the answers or solve the problem. I just needed a helping hand and I exited that discussion feeling like I had been slapped instead.

      1. It’s not healthy and secrets are corrosive. That is true whether the secrets are about infidelity or about how we are feeling and needing.

        Survive enough brutal things and you can survive anything…and that is the power of vulnerability I think. More vulnerability makes us more resiliant, loving, and allows me to live more fully, not less.

        Part of the real damage to me by not speaking up when I should have was I became rigid emotionally mentally and emotionally. So when the truth surfaced I could only shatter.

        I listened to a great podcast from Personality Hacker recently about my emotions versus your emotions. The cast was really helpful in helping me better trust my emotional truths in the face of emotional conflicts. A central theme is, “your emotional experience is not any more important than anybody else’s, it’s about the same.”

        Which also means the inverse is true as well: other people’s emotions are not more important than mine.

        Speak your truth. Don’t hide it. Your feelings are as important as his…if he can’t hear you that is his fears, not yours. The only way to practice these skills is to practice these skills.

        Sadly, I’m willing to practice these lessons with C but it’s too late. It isn’t too late for you.

        1. Thank you for this. I need the encouragement and, you are correct that if Handsome can’t “hear” me it speaks more to his state of mind than mine.

          I brought this up with our CSAT today and we had a good talk about it. This is very raw and gut wrenching to me. She pretty frankly advised Handsome to quit trying to explain my pain away because (1) that’s not what I need from him and (2) it can make things worse if I’m receiving an addict’s illogical/ tainted explanation rather than empathy. She told him silence and just staying with me in my pain and offering silent support would be better than trying to offer an explanation. I think that’s likely true. If he had just shut up after the apology, things wouldn’t have gone to hell in a hand basket.

          Off to check out that podcast…!

          1. I’ll be curious about your thoughts when you are finished with the podcast.

            There aspects to it that never occurred to me. Especially the discussion of how when I’m trying to empathize and be supportive can be misinterpret by the other person as me trying to hijack their resources.

            It made me really stop to think. I’ve often been accused of “not getting” “it” – whatever is “it” – but is isn’t that I don’t get “it”, it’s more likely the other person, in their pain, to believe others truly are capable of empathizing. My attempts at offering empathy and understanding is perceived as me minimizing their experience and hurt.

            It was a thoughtful discussion.

            1. I didn’t make it much past the beginning, but I’ll listen over the weekend and let you know what I think when I get back. 😊

  2. “Nonetheless, he’s all I’ve got.” You’ve got all of us here too, ready to support you as faithfully as you support us. I know it’s not the same, but we’ll do our best 🙂

    Hoping that your mini vacation brings you everything your heart needs and desires. xo

  3. Oh the thermostat game as an excuse to gain space. It may as well be the fillin the blank game “too much light in the room”, “you stay up too late”, “you go to bed too early”, “the kids are too loud” blah blah blah….

    Sorry you are going through the shit of this.

    As an aside. The “Irish Spring” story blogs I was writing, I deleted them. I only got one like here on one or so and almost zero feedback. I thought no one was reading them. So I assumed the story sucked. 🤣

    Thanks for the compliment though!! Gosh I wished I had finished it just for you.

    1. No way, the Irish Spring stories were terrific! Due to some WordPress weirdness… probably due to my IP host… I can’t “like” anything on my desktop. I can only use the like function on my mobile devices. But I loved them.

      And you are completely correct on the thermostat. It was all just an excuse to get his private space so he could do whatever the hell he wanted without interruption.

Please share if you've had a similar (or totally different) experience on your journey.