As a bestselling psychotherapist author and marriage counselor, I spent a lot of time in the 90s on television talking about love and romance, and promoting my five books on the subject, including Guerrilla Dating Tactics and How to Stay Lovers for Life. I told the world that marriage can work if the two people want it to work. I was unfailingly optimistic. I was funny. I could talk in sound bites. I was quoted in every magazine you can name, including multiple issues of Cosmo and Men's Health. I made the front page of The Wall Street Journal. But it was an article about flirting in The National Enquirer which quoted me that caught the eye of the producers for Oprah.
I appeared on Oprah eight times. On all of my visits, I had pat phrases for the audience such as, "The problem is the place you start working, not the place you stop working." And "When you have the energy to want to throw each other out the window, you can, instead, use that same energy to make love work." Oprah told me that she loved my red hair and my outfit and my outlook. Once, she even sang the name of my book. My fifteen minutes felt as if it would never end.
What Oprah, the audience, or anyone in my life didn't know then was that I had a secret. While launching a career as a "relationship expert," I was going home every night to a failed marriage of my own.
My husband and I didn't sleep in the same bed. We only had sex three times in fifteen years. We rarely shared a meal. Nonetheless, we were deeply attached to each other, would take a bullet for each other, and in some cockeyed way, still loved each other deeply.
He was the man who danced me across the living room floor in my pajamas while the stereo played the love theme from Beauty and the Beast. He was the man who climbed into bed with my dying aunt when she said she wanted to rest her head on his belly. He was the man who gave me his silly mosquito net hat when we were hiking, when I'd forgotten to bring mine.
He was the man who never read a word of one of my books, no matter how much I begged. He was the man who would not listen to me talk about my work, no matter how much that meant to me. He was the man who got shoe polish all over our new white couch and refused to put a cover on it or take off his shoes.
I remember crying on my hands and knees as I tried to wash the shoe polish out, and every stroke of the sponge made it worse. Fifteen years of this and I was still stuck. So, I'll tell you what finally helped me decide to leave.
I was writing a 346-page book called, How to Stay Lovers for Life. It was designed like a manual, filled with 1,000 tried-and-true tips to improve your marriage. I tried every one on my husband but none were true for me. Approaching him at different times of the day. Listening better. Showing more empathy. Using humor. Waiting. Medication. Individual counseling. Marriage counseling. Nothing made a dent in our estrangement.
Since I was too old for a baby, I even got a save-the-marriage-dog, and then I got another dog just in case. I thought raising a "family" together might help. But I was wrong.
Meanwhile, I was counseling my patients with the principles from my book, and they were thriving--leaving therapy to go on with their lives. They kept getting better while my marriage kept getting worse. I felt like a fraud, and that feeling was making me depressed.
When I finished my book, I had to write my acknowledgments, thanking all the people who helped me along the way. I knew that leaving my husband out would be a glaring omission. What would people think? Still, I was so angry. After much deliberation I wrote, "I want to thank my husband. He knows why." Only we knew the "why" was nothing. I was thanking him for nothing.
In fifteen years of marriage, writing this book was my turning point. Specifically, it came when I placed five pages of the manuscript in his hand, as I had done so many times before and begged him to read them. Ninety minutes later I came back into the room where he was dozing--my five pages untouched.
"Can't you just read five pages and tell me what you think?" I begged him.
"But I don't know anything about books." he replied.
"But you know me..." I countered.
Okay, maybe I wasn't his dream wife. Maybe I was too busy talking to the media about relationships to actually have one of my own.
At any rate, it took my exhaustive exploration of every marriage counseling trick of the trade and trying them at home to realize that nothing was going to make us work. Even then, when it was dead in the water, it took me more time to raise the courage to make a move. Three years later, I finally filed for divorce.
This story wouldn't be complete without telling you how I am now, and that's complicated. At my best, I feel elated. I no longer feel like I'm hiding a shameful secret. I'm lighter. My pants fit better. At my worst, I feel empty. I miss the husband I never shared a meal with and rarely saw. Yet, even in my lowest moments, telling the truth is a huge relief, even if it means I'm the marriage counselor who couldn't keep her own marriage intact. I've learned from my mistakes, and that knowledge lets me feel that I can survive the emptiness and make room in my life now for whatever comes next.
Sharyn Wolf, LCSW is a marriage counselor and psychotherapist practicing in New York City. She is the author of the memoir, Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor's Divorce which is being published on May 3rd by Soho Press. She has appeared on hundreds of television and radio shows including eight appearances on Oprah. She lives in New York City.
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