Diary of a divorced man: 10 things that really p*ssed off my wife and what they taught me

Marriage is a funny business. Occasionally funny-haha, but mostly not. To the best of my knowledge there is no such discipline as Marriage Science, which is a pity because mastering the science might lead to a happier world.

Loyal and occasional readers may recall that I have on several occasions documented the impact of undiagnosed depression on my life, and most notably on my marriage. But that’s not the basis of this reflection. It’s just normal, everyday stuff that people stuff up.

And by people I mean mostly men; and by mostly men I mean me in particular.

It’s obvious now that during our 25 years of marriage there were red flags aplenty. Most marriages, of whatever composition, can deal with a certain number of red flags, and the number varies from marriage to marriage. But when the number of red flags starts to resemble a birthday parade for Kim Jong-un, then you’re in trouble.

In listing Ten Things That Really Pissed Off My Wife, by which of course I mean my ex-wife, I can’t be sure that my Ten Things correspond with her Ten Things (and Counting). We don’t have that kind of post-divorce relationship. There’s never been a debrief.

6 January 2020 marks six years since my marriage broke up. The break-up happened a few weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary. Divorce came later, obviously, but I do not have the date fixed in my mind nor do I retain any paperwork related to the event.

In those six years my wife and I have met once. I could look up the date, but I’ll let a guess suffice and say that it was a couple of years ago. The occasion was Jerry Seinfeld’s Australian tour. I sent her a text asking if she’d like to see his show and she texted back ‘yes’. To say that attending Seinfeld together broke the ice of our estrangement would be a complete and utter over-statement. I possibly over-compensated in my quest to demonstrate that I was an agreeable human being again (OK, that’s a depression reference), and she was perfectly congenial. But it all counted for naught. We remain irretrievably and completely estranged.

Knowing my wife, she has obliterated our 25 years together; it simply doesn’t exist anymore. She’s always been very good at compartmentalising. For me, life is one continuous chain, an unbreakable series of links. That makes her the smart one. (For example, I understand that she still wears the beautiful pearl necklace I gave her, I think when we were courting, but possibly one of my “just because” gifts early in our marriage, and she will do so without any conflict of emotions.)

Over the past six years I have trawled through every second of our marriage. More fool I. The happy upshot is that I can be sure that despite it being a hard road for my wife there was a lot of good in our marriage, not least our three sons. The other result of my cogitation is that I have been able to square up to my failings.

My Ten Things are not big-ticket items. They are failings of the “nuts and bolts” variety, the failure to keep those little cogs well oiled; cogs seemingly insignificant in themselves, but which over time contribute to the whole machinery of marriage grinding to a halt when not properly tended to.

So here we go:

01 “How do you like the new recipe?”

My wife is an excellent cook, but she’s not one to stick to a culinary repertoire. She likes to experiment with new dishes from recipe books, which I gladly encouraged. It was my practice to buy her a selection of books for Christmas, and these selections usually contained at least one recipe book, so she amassed quite a collection. When a recipe was not to my liking I would say so – this almost exclusively involved lemon rind. Unfortunately the number of recipes involving lemon zest seemed to bunch up towards the end of our marriage, which proved unhelpful. (For the record, I only rarely cooked after my wife revealed, a few years into our marriage, that she did not like my cooking. Too much olive oil, I suspect.)

Lesson: the answer to the above question should always be: “I love this new recipe!”

02 “Why do we have to bring wine?”

I know it’s the custom to bring wine to dinner parties, but my view of the dinner party is that the host or hosts are saying to their guests: ‘Welcome to our home, I hope you enjoy the selection of food and wine we have chosen for you tonight.’ I argued that flowers should suffice. My wife generally compromised: we would bring flowers AND a bottle of wine. What my wife initially took as being an eccentric point of view eventually became very annoying.

Lesson: there is only one acceptable question, in almost any circumstance, but especially this one: “Red or white?”

03 “Just one dance…pleeeease?”

I don’t move to music. I simply do not. It’s not a philosophical or intellectual objection to dance; it’s just that no part of me moves to music. I like music, a lot, but not in a jiggly way. For some reason non-dancers seem to pair up with people who love dancing. Or maybe most people love dancing. My wife is an excellent dancer and I always enjoyed watching her dance (ie, with somebody else), but it ultimately meant that there were lots of things we didn’t do and lots of places we didn’t go because of my cultural handicap.

Lesson: It’s not easy for committed wallflowers, but dance like nobody’s watching.

04 “I prefer to eat my pizza with a knife and fork, okay?”

In any relationship there are only so many times one can gently mock their partner for eating pizza and fish & chips with a knife and fork. The result is that the mocked party either declines placing an order for take-away or disappears outside with tucker and cutlery.

Lesson: eat your pizza and shut up.

05 “She’s my oldest friend.”

I thought my wife’s best friend was as dumb as a cardboard box. (Ditto her second-best friend. What the hell, No.3 was no prize either.) I was polite and agreeable, at least to begin with, but eventually I stopped pretending that I liked her friends. (My wife also disliked my friends, but I agreed with her.) On paper they were very intelligent, but in practice they oozed stoopid. As I became more and more preoccupied with my own issues I became less tolerant of fools and in particular these fools. I can’t be sure but I suspect that I came to curl my lip at the mere mention of their names.

Lesson: Love her, love her friends.

06 “Where’s your wedding ring?”

I took particular delight in buying my wife’s engagement and wedding rings at Kozminsky’s and they looked beautiful on her. As for my wedding ring, I could take it or leave it, but I thought it was the right thing to wear it. Unfortunately, it was slightly too big for my finger and I was forever playing with it. This can either become an absent-minded habit, in which case there is no harm done, or it drives one crazy. I was in the latter category. It took several years before I took it off and I have to admit I was surprised at how much it hurt my wife that I did so. So it went back on, and over the years it came and went and eventually my wife stopped caring. And I regret to say that the ring is now lost.

Lesson: If your wedding ring is too big, have it adjusted or super-glue it on.

07 “You never ask how my day was.”

It’s true. I didn’t. I assumed that if she had something to tell me about her day she would tell me. I also tended to avoid clichés like the plague. The whole “Hi honey, how was your day?” seemed a bit too Dick Van Dyke (although I was a big fan). But of course communication is not just about what you say, it’s the fact that you say it at all, the fact that you take the interest to ask. Communication is also about mechanics. I’m terrible at small talk, but small talk has its purpose; the first question(s) a journalist asks is very likely clichéd, or small-talk in nature, but it eases both the interviewer and interviewee into the substance of the conversation. It never occurred to me to apply the principle at home.

Lesson: Ask how her bloody day was.

08 “You don’t hold my hand anymore.”

I don’t specifically recall deciding to stop holding hands with my wife, but it is true to say that I’m not a big fan of holding hands and at some point I stopped. Some couples hold hands through hell and high water, even if on occasion it means causing pedestrian traffic jams. But I understand their resolve: they’re a couple and couples hold hands. My wife definitely noticed when I no longer reached for her hand when walking in public. Occasionally she would take my shirking hand or ask me to hold hers. Holding hands is a symbolic gesture; there’s nothing particularly rational about it. It’s a demonstration of affection. Not holding hands doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is under strain, but it probably suggests it’s seen better days.

Lesson: some things that aren’t strictly necessary can still be important.

09 When silence is not companionable

Most young couples, perhaps when sitting in a restaurant, will whisper gleefully about the older couple eating in silence. “That will never be us,” the garrulous young lovers promise themselves. But two people comfortable in each other’s silence can be and probably are perfectly happy. Or at least satisfied. The problem is when one member of the couple does not welcome the silence. I have never been troubled by silence. If I have nothing to say I prefer to keep quiet. But a predisposition to silence was magnified many times over by depression. It must have been like being married to a rock.

Lesson: relationships need noise as well as silence.

10 When the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ kisses stop

At some point the peck on the partner’s cheek to signify hello and goodbye becomes perfunctory. That won’t concern most people; it’s the nature of ritual, a symbol of abiding affection, a gesture of reassurance. But I’ve got a thing. (Well, many things.) As soon as I become conscious that I’m doing something out of habit or by rote, I recoil and desist, whether it’s the realisation that I’m repeatedly using a particular word or phrase, or that my wife and I are exchanging meaningless pecks because it’s the thing to do. Except that it’s not meaningless. I remember that first time when the peck was expected and, at my resistance, the proffering of faces did not occur. The chasm of that moment was palpable. Of course she was aware and of course she was hurt. I could have reconsidered my petty boycott at that moment, but I had a bug about the peck and we stopped, for the most part, kissing hello and goodbye. By the time I realised how corrosive my decision was, it was too late to rectify the damage done.

Lesson: pucker up, that peck on the cheek is more important than you think.

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I don’t sound very nice do I? So many sore points in a relationship fester because they are not seen to as they become apparent. If I may mix my metaphors – my wife hated my metaphors – our marriage was on automatic pilot. That works at the beginning. Abundant, even extravagant, love powers the marriage along. However, self-aware couples know when it’s time to man the controls and guide the maturing relationship through the inevitable obstacles. My wife and I didn’t do that; we never got beyond the automatic pilot, which did good work over quite a distance. [Metaphor Alert] But when the rugged peaks came into view we just waited open-mouthed, in silence, full of dread, for the fatal crash to happen. I say “we”, and to a certain extent it was about the both of us: the lack of communication, the failure to identify and correct wrongs, the absence of courage to confront the unpleasant. But mostly it was me. I was the selfish and inconsiderate partner. My peccadilloes, perhaps forgivable in themselves, snowballed into something much more threatening. And yes, there were times when the meaning of those approaching peaks was obvious to me. But presented with the choice of fight or flight, my default position was the latter. On 6 January, my wife called enough.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is less maudlin on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Depression and divorce: when ‘happy birthday’ seemed to be the hardest words

Over the five years since I was diagnosed with clinical (or severe) depression I have gained a self-awareness that is both liberating and confronting.

In that time I have written about my depression, and the ongoing treatment for it, in part as a means of catharsis, partly in the hope of providing my sons with an honest account of my inadequacies as a father and husband and my efforts at remediation, but also, with that mixture of humility and arrogance unique to journalists, in the hope of shedding light on matters that favour the anonymity of the dark.

Depression is truly awful. It never really stops being awful but it is at its most crippling when it goes undiagnosed and untreated. My depression went undiagnosed from my early teens to the year my marriage disintegrated in January 2014.

From childhood onwards depression has been like carrying the deadweight of my broken self on my shoulders. One broken self, many demons: melancholia, self-loathing, self-doubt, simmering anger, anxiety, fear of being exposed as a fraud, negativity, mood swings and an aversion to the new or unfamiliar.

Undiagnosed depression did not mean I was impervious to my inner turmoils. I managed to function. Consciously and otherwise, and to varying degrees of success, I found the means to keep the demons at bay.

My greatest fortune prior to marrying was to fulfil my ambition to be a journalist. Whether as a reporter, staff writer, columnist or editor I buried myself in my work. If my employment did not fill enough hours I would take on every scrap of freelance work that came my way, which I would do on company premises. And when work did not occupy me, I would close the day with an hour or three at my local, my preferred home from home. Indeed, my preference to home. Home, where I lived alone, was usually where everything came crashing down. Or in the car if I drove straight from work to home, too tired to contemplate a night out.

When I married I maintained the relentless pace of work; the pub thing not so much. Losing myself in my work had become second nature; I loved the work, but it was also a means of protection and validation. It never occurred to me that I could lose myself (much less find myself) in my marriage.

The fallacy of coping

Undiagnosed depressives convince themselves that they can live with and control their unravelling selves. Why? I don’t know. The tears, the anguish, the fear, the constant thoughts of suicide, the sheer exhaustion of being…why would you not seek help? For me, it was a case of, “this is who I am and I just have to live with it”.

Except that when I got married it was no longer just me. I’m sure there was more dancing on eggshells for my wife than I’d care to admit, which is unfair for a partner to have to bear. The fallacy of coping starts to break down when others are involved.

My wife and I never discussed my depression, other than an occasional, towards the end of our marriage, “maybe you should see someone”, and even that was a way to touch on the subject without actually confronting it. It shouldn’t be up to the long-suffering spouse to break down the barriers. It was for me to open up, to explain how I felt, to give her insight into my life-long battle, to reveal when it was getting worse, to admit that I wasn’t coping and that I was in danger of being overwhelmed.

Even as I convinced myself that I was keeping things together, the fact was that my depression did intrude on our marriage from day one.

Understanding how it began

My relationship with my parents, well-meaning and generous though they were, was corrosive from my early teens. My mother was Sicilian-born and my father was born in Australia of Sicilian migrants and was more Sicilian than Sicilians. Their desire, and in particular my father’s desire, that their first-born son should be perfect, proved a crushing burden.

Now, it doesn’t follow that anyone in my situation would end up with depression. Many, probably most, boys from migrant backgrounds in circumstances that mirrored mine, went on to live lives without debilitating mental anguish.

By whatever combination of biological and psychological trauma, my brain, my mind, responded in a way that would shape the rest of my life, including the relationship with my parents. (“Maybe the day will come when I forgive my father,” I said hopefully to my psychotherapist a few years ago. “You will never forgive your father,” he replied chillingly.) And including my marriage.

At some point in my teens I rejected the celebration of my birthday. I didn’t want it marked or acknowledged in any way by my parents.

My parents found such an idea unthinkable and disturbing. They heatedly urged me to see a psychiatrist, a rebuke intended to insult rather than revealing parental sensitivity. No matter that I would greet birthday presents with a stony face the presents continued. (When at the age of 15 or 16 I announced that I wanted a typewriter for my birthday, this was greeted with astonishment. “Typewriters are for girls,” my father insisted. I persisted and they relented; I got my typewriter.)

But that tactical gambit aside, my aversion to birthdays remained. As an adult, I did not and do not celebrate my birthday. It was always a matter of some pride that when asked my age – and it’s amazing how often people do – I would have to pause to calculate my age (which my wife, not unreasonably, always thought an affectation). Others’ birthdays and the fuss made over them were likewise a source of bemusement. (There was one exception to my aversion to birthdays and that was in the case of children.)

A few years ago I sought to correct this anti-social attitude to birthdays by posting birthday greetings to Facebook friends, but I felt like a phoney. I stopped the birthday wishes and removed the birthday setting from my own Facebook profile.

The birthday thing resurfaces

Last week, I saw my psychiatrist for our monthly visit. I had mostly good things to report. I had steady work coming in, I was meeting deadlines, my interviews were satisfying and editors were happy with my work. The only thing amiss was that I was crying a lot, for reasons I could not discern and without any obvious pattern or stimulus.

Psychiatrists are forensic interviewers. They are measured and precise in their questions, not handing over obvious answers or lines of thinking on a platter, forcing their patients to dig deep. They are also masters at joining the dots, taking seemingly disparate pieces of information to identify significant narratives. They also do not believe in coincidences.

Before long the conversation, its flow interrupted only by my flowing tears, turned to birthdays: the rejection of my own birthday, my indifference to others’ birthdays, my inability and/or refusal to observe birthdays as a social ritual, even when it came to my wife’s birthday, which, it transpired, was only days away.

And then I recounted two “mongrel acts” that I continued to feel enormous and unresolved guilt over.

Mongrel  Act #1: “I told you…”

My wife knew, as a bare fact, that I didn’t “do” birthdays. As a right-thinking person she was entitled to believe that my aversion to celebrating my birthday was an exaggeration and in any case that as a customary rite between husband and wife an exception was in order.

It was early in our marriage and my wife presented me with a thoughtful gift (I no longer recall what it was), so thoughtful that surely previous protestations would be set aside. As she presented my gift, my fury was visceral and I could feel my face turning to stone. I cast her a withering look as I seethed, “I told you I don’t want my birthday observed”.

She was firstly shocked and then visibly hurt. I may have apologised later and there would be birthday presents in subsequent years, accepted without demur, but as she would state on the occasion of another birthday gone horribly wrong, the hurt never went away.

Mongrel Act #2: “Not so happy birthday…”

That occasion was my wife’s fiftieth birthday, October 2010. I did not keep track of her age, but I did observe her birthday every year. In fact, I enjoyed doing so because it involved a family tradition I adored, which was taking my boys shopping for Mum’s birthday present.

“Pick whatever you want,” I would tell them. Sometimes we would do the rounds of Southland in an hour, other times several hours, sustained by plenty of ice-creams, fizzy drinks and milkshakes. Despite no dollar limit they never took advantage of that and each put great care into choosing the perfect gift and they understood that was the measure of its value. They didn’t inspect price tags and so it was that one boy might happily choose a $10 gift and another opt for something priced $110. I enjoyed watching the boys joyfully and proudly presenting Mum with their carefully chosen gifts. (Yes, I’m very proud of my boys, all of whom are young adults now.)

Around September 2010, my wife announced that she had booked a week’s holiday on Hamilton Island for the family to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I was immediately worried because the black dog, or more accurately, a pack of black dogs, had had me in their clutches for some time.

The end of 2010 marked the beginning of the lowest point of my undiagnosed depression. Over the next three years spells of depression were occurring more frequently, lasting longer and plunging me into deeper and deeper pits of despair. Over this time the uncertainty of Fairfax’s future intensified: retrenchments, voluntary redundancy packages, cutbacks, constant rumours, new editorial systems, feckless management flitting from one strategy to the next…and don’t get me started on hot-desking.

Work was no longer sustaining me, even though I was producing some of my best work for BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review. If I may suspend modesty for a moment in order to make my point: at BRW I was the most-read columnist, had the highest unprompted name recognition in marketing surveys, generated more letters than anyone else and featured regularly on digital Fairfax’s daily top-five most-read list. I should have been dancing on air, but I was, pure and simple, miserable at work and at home.

At the end of 2013, accepting I could not go on, and against my wife’s express wishes, I took voluntary redundancy from Fairfax, dealing myself out of the mainstream media.

When my wife announced her milestone-birthday idyll I was at the beginning of my downward spiral. All I could do was inwardly panic. I didn’t think I could rise to the occasion of a week’s birthday celebrations. I could see what the right thing to do was but I could not rouse myself to greet the news with excitement and anticipation. Fortunately, the boys made up for whatever my insipid response was.

I just hoped that I could snap out of it in time. In the meantime, on the Friday night before departure, I took the boys gift shopping, but after an inconclusive hour or so, my head swirling in the noisy and crowded shopping centre, I suggested we resume shopping the next day. Which we did not. This was not looking good.

I really did not want to go on this trip; I considered pulling out, but thought that would be just as awful as any other eventuality. Zombified, no presents in the kitbag, my only hope, ludicrously, was that it would all work out somehow, even as I stared impending disaster in the face. I wasn’t even able to take the boys shopping on Hamilton Island.

As best she could my wife sought to make a special occasion of the week away but I dragged the whole thing down. On her birthday, my sorry failure to organise the boys’ shopping (including my own), coupled with my near-comatose demeanour, prompted a much deserved (and rare) bollocking from my wife. That’s when she mentioned the hurt of Mongrel Act #1. Eventually she decided to plan the rest of the week around me.

And then, in the last couple of days, the fog lifted and, while much too late, managed to restore some semblance of family occasion. It was an awful, awful time and words cannot begin to describe the sorrow and guilt I have carried.

Not seeking forgiveness

When I say these were mongrel acts it suggests that they were wilful acts on my part. They weren’t, but from my wife’s perspective, particularly as I did not take her into my confidence, there was only one way to view these (and other) instances.

I would be mortified if this were to be seen as an exercise in seeking forgiveness. There can be no forgiving hurts that run so deep.

Hopefully, I have allowed some understanding of the incomprehensible, a glimpse into the inner maelstrom that is depression.

Depression is itself unforgiving. It ravages everything in its path. It burrows so deep that it becomes an intrinsic part of who you are even as you desperately wish you could banish it from your person and your life.

My regrets, apart from the hurt I have caused to those who have loved me, is that I did not openly and candidly communicate with my wife about how I was feeling, and that I did not seek help when my body ached for it.

And I wish I had made more of my wife’s birthday, even if it was to say “Happy birthday”. Two simple words that weighed so heavily on me.

Well, on that score, forgive my indulgence, but: Happy Birthday, Jag.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is less introspective on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher