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My Hostage Crisis

I have long tried to explain to myself exactly what went wrong with my second marriage. That's not true. It's not what went wrong with the marriage - I don't really care about that part anymore and it's not relevant to my present life. What's more important is what went wrong with my relationship with my ex after the breakup.

For a long time, things were hunky dory. We shared the task of raising our daughter, we got along great, we hung out together. And then he remarried. At his new wife's insistence, we "formalized" our child custody arrangement (I got primary custody and he began to see his daughter much less often) and "formalized" our support arrangement (that one was my idea, his wife wanted for him to continue to pay no support, like he had been). At his new wife's insistence, he then moved to Tennessee and began seeing his daughter even less often, and yet has sued me every year to pay less child support. I jokingly call February through May "lawsuit season," but it's true.

The thing that is inexplicable is that despite the fact that he has come out on the losing end every single year (this is not to say that he hasn't gotten his way legally once or twice - this is to say that on the two occasions he didn't acutally lose, he spent more than he gained by a factor of at least ten). My lawyer and I have stopped trying to figure out what he's likely to do next simply because heretofore everything he's done has completely defied logic.

Until now.

Stockholm Syndrome is a phenomenon whereby abused people begin to identify with their captors. They become emotionally attached to them, defend them, mourn them when something bad happens. In this case, my ex would be the "hostage" and I would be the "captor." But I want to define those terms very carefully.

A hostage is someone who's powerless. They are put in a situation where they have no say in how things are being run on a day to day, or even minute to minute basis. Because they have no say in the way things are run, they cease to do any kind of long-term planning. They may have vague dreams of "someday, things will be different," but hostages rarely have the presence of mind to actually think in a strategic way of escaping their predicament. The nice thing about being a hostage is that when things go wrong, you can always point to your captor and say "It wasn't my fault, you MADE me do it."

Now, what happens if you already have that mentality? If your mind is already resistant to making your own long-term plans, already balks at making decisions or taking responsibility for your own actions? What you have in that instance is a hostage situation waiting to happen. All you need is a willing captor.

Stockholm Syndrome needs two parties, a hostage and a captor. The captor has a long-term plan, a definite goal, something that the hostage is indoctrinated with over and over until s/he believes it and internalizes it. That captor is an agent in his or her own life in a way that the hostage can't be, and the hostage is attracted to that agency, believing that by adopting the same cause as the captor and following the captor's orders, they too have agency. But it's not true.

Anyone can be an agent in their own life. Most people have goals and dreams - some modest, some grand. But the larger your goals and dreams, the more forceful a personality you have to have to carry them off. And a surprising number of people (or perhaps it's not surprising) are attracted to people with forceful personalities - drive and vision. People with drive and vision aren't always egomaniacal abusers. Mother Teresa had drive and vision. Gandhi had drive and vision. Jesus had drive and vision. Most people who are successful by any measure in their own lives have drive and vision. And they make EXCELLENT targets for people who are waiting hostages.

When a waiting hostage meets a potential captor, it's a beautiful thing. It means that a person with clear goals and a definite path to those goals has found a great source of support and help. It means that they've found someone to share their enthusiasm. I'm sure that there are TONS of successful hostage/captor relationships that are perfectly harmonious because the parties involved like that power dynamic and find that it works for them. It can be the fabulous pairing of a steering wheel and a motor, a painting and a frame, a bullet and a gun.

For me personally, I got tired of always having to be the one to figure things out. It's nice to know that I'm having my own life goals met, but what became obvious to me was that I was doing an awful lot for my growth, and my husband was not. I had visions of an intellectual life, of arts and literature and conversation. He had visions of fishing and drinking beer. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he just wanted to win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I was tired of having the perfect minion. It wasn't fun anymore. The things that he did to try and please me weren't cute anymore, they just seemed desperate and sad because they weren't anything new. They were the same old things over and over that didn't work, because hostages lack much imagination.

After I left, we stayed friends, and it looks now like he was still clinging to me as his captor. He was still looking to me to make the decisions around his life, and to keep responsibility for what he was doing. To this day, he still says that everything that happened to him between the time I left and the time he married his new wife was my fault because I "made him" do it.

Once my ex got remarried, I thought that things would be the way they have been for other exes of mine. They get remarried, I see them socially and we're still friends and we exchange Christmas cards. I think of them affectionately, and we're all happy for each other. But that's not how it worked out.

As a hostage, he's got to look for someone strong-willed who will determine his life for him. And he found another wife who's every bit as strong-willed as I was, but is unfortunately much more paranoid and much less intelligent. The thing she has in her favor, though, is that because I'm still in the picture, she's been able to turn me into their common enemy.

Every spring I sit in a courtroom in San Jose, listening to his new wife outline how they're going to shoot themselves in the foot just because they're "not going to do what [I] want them to do." Well, obviously. What I want them to do is be happy and leave me alone and they're bound and determined not to do either of those things. The saddest part is that many people have tried to be a neutral third party and make peace. They've tried to get my ex to see that the things that he's doing aren't helping, but the paranoid logic of the hostage who's clinging to his current captor says "They're just trying to fool us - they're on her side, so we can't trust them." According to my ex, I've got his former lawyer, my own lawyer, most of the judges in the California superior court system and the state attorney general's office under my all-powerful thumb.

His wife is acting out of her own paranoid ideas of my relationship with my ex (and, by extension, my daughter's relationship with her father), but my ex (who keeps insisting that "now [he's] thinking for [him]self") is acting as his current captor wants him to act, railing against his former captor who put all sorts of bad ideas into his head and made him do all kinds of things (get married, have a kid, move to another state) that, in retrospect, he never wanted to do.

I had this idea on Monday, and the more I drilled into the analogy, the more apt it became. It completely explained my ex's actions toward me since he's gotten remarried. The one thing that I couldn't figure out was the original cause. Stockholm Syndrome is normally caused by abuse of some kind - kidnapping, imprisonment, etc., but ours was just a normal relationship. What happened to him before I ever met him that made him this way?

A lot was explained when I got a call from Bernice. Bernice is my ex's grandmother, and she and Peaches are devoted to each other. Bernice is also in hospice and nobody expects her to make it to Halloween. It's bad enough that I decided to take advantage of the long school weekend (there was no school Friday) to send Peaches to Phoenix to see Bernice. But Peaches is only 14 and needs someone to ferry her around and give her a place to stay, so I called Barbara - my ex's mother.

As I talked to Barbara setting everything up, I found out that Bernice was not the only one in hospice. Frances, Barbara's own mother, was also in hospice. Frances has Alzheimer's, but had recently been diagnosed with cancer as well, and Barbara didn't expect her to last very long. She said that she wasn't sad at all, in fact, she could hardly wait. She wasn't going to have any sort of memorial service for her mother - no memorial, no funeral, no nothing. She would pay the nursing home to deal with everything and just walk away. She railed for a while about her mother's tyranny and willful neglect. She reiterated the line I'd heard a million times - Barbara hated her mother. She blamed her mother for everything that had happened in her life, including Barbara's first marriage to a husband who left her widowed at the age of 31 with four small children. Barbara laid out in her invective a life of stunning victimhood - an unhappy childhood, an unhappy first marriage that ended with the death of her first husband, an unhappy second marriage to a lazy, misogynistic man who was looking for a servant - and every bit of it was laid squarely at her mother's feet.

So, my ex came by his hostagehood honestly.

The sad thing is that making this discovery comes with the revelation that the cancer is inoperable. Is my ex ever going to get beyond our relationship and be happy? Is there anything I can do to mend fences with him and get along? Is there anything anybody can do to convince them that they're only hurting themselves by acting irrationally? The answer to all those questions is no, but it does relieve me of some of the guilt I've been feeling for almost a decade. I don't have to worry that "maybe I'm being unfair" to him anymore. Hostages don't look for fair. They look for someone to blame when they're not happy, and since he's found a new captor, that someone is me, his former captor.

I always worry when I see my kid displaying a lack of initiative. It's too easy for me to see her father in her and freak out that she's going to do what he did, drifting through life and ending up regretting every choice he ever made, but not making any new choices for himself.

The first thing I did was listen to her when she said that it was important to go see Bernice. She's right. It is important, and not just because she loves her great-grandmother, but because my kid is making a selfless decision on her own. Not many 14-year-olds would give up a 3-day weekend to hang out in a hospice room.

The second reason is a lot more complicated, and I'm hoping it works out. I got a call Thursday night after Peaches was on the plane that Barbara had never gotten the email with the itinerary. Peaches was in the air and they didn't know when to pick her up. When I told her husband that the flight was getting in at 10:40pm and apologized for the lateness of the hour, he told me not to worry - they were up late anyway because Frances had died two hours earlier. Ding, dong.

Here's the thing. I know that Barbara had said that she wasn't going to have any kind of memorial, but I also know that Peaches will not let her get away with that. Peaches will insist that rituals be observed because she needs it. She wants to be able to express her love and grief in public and with the support of her family. I know that Frances had other family and friends who will need the same thing, and what I'm hoping is that having Peaches there will give Barbara the excuse to observe the rituals and perhaps observing the rituals will get her own grieving process started, and maybe she can exorcise some of those demons. Peaches' amazing compassion tends to draw that kind of poison out of people, and I'm hoping she can work her magic again.

Theoretically, knowledge is power.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
alleahna
Sep. 16th, 2006 08:04 pm (UTC)
This is a powerful, amazing post. I'm adding it to my memories because it has some important lessons to be learned. Thank you for posting it.

Congratulations on working this out and making the choice to set aside the guilt. What a powerful thing that is!

You're right - no one will end their own victimhood until they're ready to do it themselves. You've been compassionate to your ex for ten years and it has not change his behavior in any way. One more year would not make a difference, not when he has a new captor enabling his victimhood.
recursive
Sep. 16th, 2006 09:02 pm (UTC)
Wow. Interesting.
elynne
Sep. 17th, 2006 12:13 am (UTC)
... I think I'd seen the "abuser/victim" explanation so much that I needed to read a different perspective in order to really understand it. And yes, I was the hostage once. And I've been the willing captor. And the unwilling captor... and boy, that's a whole crock pot of fun. Hm... thank you for the brainfood.
wordweaverlynn
Sep. 18th, 2006 09:47 pm (UTC)
Added to memories.


You've given me a lot to think about -- as usual.

I feel lucky to know you.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )