Behind Closed Doors

06/21/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011
  • Amy Wallen Author of Los Angeles Times bestselling novel, MoonPies and Movie Stars and creator of NPR's 'Dime Stories'

In one of our first sessions, our marriage counselor Sarita asked me, "What do you see, Amy? When you look in your husband's eyes, what do you see?"

She reached out to my husband's shoulder to turn him in my direction. On the verge of tears, he looked at me the way I'd seen him do many times before, with an expression I would have labeled a pout: a turned down mouth, tilted eyebrows, quivering chin and those blank eyes.

I had always thought his pout was a put-on. To make me feel sorry for him.

"I see nothing." I told Sarita.

"Nothing?" she asked, in utter disbelief.

"Nothing," I repeated.

I studied his gray-green eyes again, the eyes he always said proved his Scottish heritage, and try as I might to see more, they remained emotionless.

"Amy," Sarita said, concerned, " There is so much hurt in those eyes, so much longing don't you see it? Look again."

I searched his eyes... nothing.

But she was the professional. The authority on these kinds of things. She saw something I didn't. My husband had, on many occasions, insinuated I didn't have empathy. And here it was -- confirmation -- I was a heartless, insensitive person.

I left that session determined to open myself to my husband -- to see him clearly. I vowed to change.

I'm a doer, I like to fix things. I'm not afraid of hard work. Sarita would be my teacher. And so we plunged into what would become a seven-year therapy odyssey to make this marriage last. Therapy was something I looked forward to, our time together, our talks about everything. Me and Sarita, and my husband.

We had a crisis. Not enough sex, Sarita concluded. Without sexual intimacy our relationship would not survive. And I was the problem. I wasn't sexy enough.

"You're creative, use it," she said. A challenge that tapped my obliging soul. "Sexual-assertiveness, lies underneath your Polly Anna exterior," my new guide promised. Passion! She could teach me to raise the heat. These changes, she said, would please my husband. I wanted to please.

"You must shop for satin teddies at Victoria Secret, buy push-up bras, sleep in the nude, watch tantric videos, share your sexual fantasies," she instructed.

"What about just being me?" I asked, the Me clad in cotton underwear. No, Sarita admonished. Your husband will leave you.

I could do this. I plunged in: I danced for my husband to Joe Cocker's "You Can Leave Your Hat On", and I left only my hat on. I studied eccentric Tantric Sex videos when he took his business trips to Alaska hoping to show off my new moves when he returned.

"How often did you have sex this week?" Sarita asked in one session.

"None," my husband quickly replied.

"He's been out of town," I said.

"You couldn't find five minutes to come on to him?" she asked. I wasn't trying hard enough. No excuses allowed. She seemed miffed, and I didn't want that. I didn't want to disappoint her too.

I had never had a girlfriend. A real girlfriend I could confide my deepest darkest with. In therapy, with Sarita, I had that. One session we gushed about our shoes. "Don't mind us," she said to my husband, "we're bonding."

Sarita decided it wasn't enough to be in marriage counseling, she recommended we both do individual therapy as well. With her. My husband agreed it would be a good thing for me. Now I had double-overtime therapy to make this marriage work. My work ethic would show them both how devoted I was. My loyalty to improving myself.

I don't know what went on behind closed doors in my husband's sessions, but mine were about more sex. Sarita loved talking about sex.

"Men are very attracted to me, Amy," she once told me.

"I should have been a sex therapist!" she said another time.

And once, she offered "Let's go dildo shopping."

That's when I knew we were BFFs, so I was more than disappointed when she called to tell me that she had chosen a dildo for me on her own. I had been looking forward to our girlfriend outing.

But Sarita would show me how to participate in the world. With Sarita I investigated every corner of my childhood for clues, and analyzed, explored, gathered the tools to release my sexual being. These tools would help me stay married and get what I wanted. Guidance I had never received from anyone, not even my mother. And I made Sarita happy with my progress. I started to listen to my gut. She taught me how to say no and mean it. How to speak with authority. "Be angry when you're angry," she said, "don't be afraid to show it. Believe in yourself." And, the secret to staying married: have sex every single night, no excuses, more often if possible.

When she suggested I sign up for a $2000 Sexual Dysfunction Exam at UCLA medical center. I said, no! Oh, I'm all for checking things out. But I knew all my parts functioned properly and a $2000 pee-in-a-cup exam wasn't going to make my husband happy. Was that a bit of self-assertiveness starting to show?

I trusted her like a best friend. And like a good wife, I trusted my husband too.
But my antennae went up when out of the blue he wanted to sell the ocean-view house we'd bought less than a year before. "We should trade it in for a fixer upper," he said, "put the extra money toward another house in Alaska."

What? He had only a six-month contract in Alaska, nothing permanent. And then, when my password protected Quicken accounts were jiggled around with, I got scared. I confided in Sarita.

"What do you think is going on?" she asked. Was this a directed question? Had my husband said something in his individual sessions?

"An affair," I answered.

"You need to prove it," Sarita said, and with that she sent me home to search for clues. I found all I needed:

A Hallmark card from Alaska -- from a Julie -- obviously his girlfriend. The card was wrapped in a listing of Anchorage real estate. A smiley face and baloony exclamation marks were drawn next to a 4bdrm oceanfront property. Clearly, those business trips to Alaska were about a lot more than business -- I guess that second house in Alaska came with a second wife?

"I worked my ass off for you!" I screamed at him, shoving the garbage bag of clothes in his face when he came home. "I danced with just that goddamn fucking hat on." I spat. "And what did you do?"

And there was that pout-and those blank eyes -- those blank eyes hiding the deceit -- making me take the blame for everything that didn't work in the marriage. No remorse. No conscience. No guilt. I would later learn there had been several affairs. I would learn the definitions of narcissist, sex addict, and sociopath. He had no intention of leaving me, he was just building a second life in Alaska.

I began divorce proceedings.

Sarita said she could only see one of us now that we were separated, "and I choose Amy," she said. Yes! She chose me! She knew the truth, she saw how hard I worked. Now Sarita is my ally. I win!

One day during the divorce proceedings, Sarita called me at home, "I think you're asking for too much money," she said. I appreciated her advice. I knew she had my best interest at heart. But when I hung up the phone it dawned on me that she had no way of knowing how much I was requesting for my settlement. I certainly hadn't told her. I had a very bad feeling.

In my appointment the next day, I confronted her, "You're talking to him about our negotiations, aren't you? Are you meeting with him?"

"So what if I am?" was her reply. I was stunned, almost as stunned as I was later, when I learned of the probability she too had slept with my husband.

"I trusted you," I spat out angrily.

She clambered up the back of her chair like a cornered animal.

"You chose me. You represent me," I said.

I got up off that green velour couch and I left her office for the last time and walked for 20 miles.

As I came up over the hill toward my home, out of breath and out of mind, I was sure of one thing: I could trust no one. This double betrayal confirmed that I was right about what I "hadn't" seen in those eyes.

It's been nine years since those days. I would never wish that experience on anyone, but strange as it may sound, I wouldn't trade it either. I walked into therapy to save my marriage and in the process learned how to trust myself. Sarita and my husband pushed me to become me. I like who I am, and I can trust that.