Apr 24

My Tainted Love

How my 26-year relationship was both heaven, hell...and necessary for my growth.

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There we are at NY Fashion Week. I don’t think anyone knew how vital he was to my ability to show up with that big “Atoosa” smile at the ready.

Hey,

I won’t lie. Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck, Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian have been kind of jamming me up.  It’s like we’re part of the same club and they’re meeting without me: The Co-Dependents. It kind of has a nice ring to it, huh? And tbh, it has a nice feel to it, too. Except for when it doesn’t. Then it’s very, very bad.

I’ve spent the last many years crawling my way out of this club.

The beginning of a co-dependent relationship is amazing. I used to sing this song when I was heading to my Co-dependent support circle (Yes, there is such a thing. Yes, you should belong to it. Most people should, btw. And no, I’m not in it anymore – but it was very helpful for the two cycles I was there – like a user’s guide to my wonky wiring.) Oof. That was a long parenthetical. Let’s start again. The beginning of being in a Co-dee relationship is like the warmest, safest hug you can imagine. I used to sing (To the tune of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited” - you young -uns can click here.) “Codependent, and it feels so good.”

I am an expert Co-de. 26 years in a co-dependent relationship! 💅

When I first met my soon-to-be-ex-husband, at 23, everything I brought to the table was welcome. I was the wild and wacky one. I could start a fight about anything I wanted, anytime I wanted. No consequences. He called me The Cat. So if I was mean, “Awww. The kitty is scratching.” If I got even meaner he would say in a surprised voice, “She bites! This cat bites!” My moods, my preferences and yes, often my demands, set the background music of our lives. Later on, after we were married, he explained it as, “Happy wife, Happy life.” He called me The Sheriff to his colleagues. “Let’s call The Sheriff…” if he wanted to ask my opinion on something.

For a girl who had been somewhat (ok, more than somewhat) neglected in my childhood, I felt finally seen. Loved. Valued. He did everything for me. For us. And there were no boundaries. If I didn’t like his friends. They were out. Someone in his family was rude to me? ‘Bye-bye. It was us against the world. We were our own version of Jay Z and Beyonce’s Bonnie & Clyde. We didn’t need anyone. We were going to rule the world.

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Within months of getting married, I created CosmoGIRL! and so our relationship’s focus followed my own: It was all about supporting my life Out There. Often that meant he would bring me and the team McDonald’s as we were burning the midnight oil. Other times, we were Out There together. That was less comfortable. Once he introduced himself to Jack Kliger, then CEO of Hachette Magazines as Atoosa’s husband without saying his name and Jack, somewhat unkindly responded, “Well, I’m so-and-so’s father. But my name is Jack.” I’m sure he was just trying to be funny but it landed with a thud. We were just kids trying to figure out who we were in a world that was filled with well-heeled middle-aged media titans, so it was a bumpy learning curve for both of us.

My husband was my behind-the-scenes savior. He would pull me together with true finesse when I was physically wreaked by anxiety. He would literally pet me and calm my body down after I’d come home all paranoid and stressed about whether I had said the right thing after a night of hob-knobbing with people at least twice my age and experience. See, I have a kind of big and wacky personality (have you ever seen my college freshman facebook picture? If not, see below. 🙃) but I simultaneously carried the vibration of worthlessness from the sexual abuse of my childhood. After all, I was still that piece of shit that was not only molested as a kid, but no one seemed to care enough to stop it. I didn’t think that explicitly, but you understand what I’m saying. Unworthiness was just under the surface, completely unconscious. So I would come home to him almost every evening spinning: “Did I say the wrong thing? Did I offend so-and-so? Did I seem too full of myself?” This feeling of who-do-you-think-you-are would just flood me every single night when I left the proverbial stage that I performed on as “Atoosa from Fill-In-The-Blank Magazine.” But he would get right into position petting me, comforting me, reminding me of my goodness, my worthiness. Soothing me the way my mother never had as a child. The way I never learned to do for myself. I was externalizing through my relationship something that a healthy childhood would have helped me internalize.

Refresher of my college Facebook picture - You’re welcome.

My ex- would drive me to work and pick me up Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I would make him wait outside for 30+ minutes. But unlike the Uber driver of today who would just cancel and give me a low rating, he was always waiting with a smile and gameplan for going to one of our two favorite local restaurants for dinner (Shun Lee or Rosa Mexicano for my Manhattanites). I adored this level of consistent love and care. I accepted it as I would a parent’s devotion. Like how my children don’t look at me with heaps of gratitude when I pick them up every day after school, right? My 13-year-old is often 20 minutes late and just plops into my car very secure in my love and commitment. They don’t know that at a certain time no matter what is going on in my life, I have to drop it and get there on time so they’re not the last kid waiting. And that’s how it should be. They should expect my steadfastness and devotion….so hopefully they don’t seek it in their future partner, like I did.

There’s something so immersive about this type of relationship. You are everything to each other. Like the mother and the baby. You are the perfect pair. Correction. You are simulating this feeling for each other probably because you didn’t get it from the original source.

In my household growing up, hard feelings were simply not welcome. I learned pre-memory formation, not to cry or get lippy. I remember once, one of my cousins – a grown up – plopped down on our piano bench while my 7-year-old fingers were inside. I wasn’t a meditator or licensed in Lamaze in 1st grade, but I remember to this day, using my breathe expertly so as not to scream and cry…and ultimately get in trouble for stressing my mother out further than she was already stressed. So the idea of someone loving me through my hard feelings was a revelation. The idea of someone allowing me to say anything I wanted to them and not withdrawing his love felt like the ultimate acceptance…as opposed to the boundaryless shit show it really was.

There was something very stifling about our relationship, of course. That’s probably why I tried to leave 4 years in. But I was ill-prepared for my high-flying lifestyle without my husband soothing me. During our separation, I dated a man who was, in some ways, the type of a guy a healthier me would have wanted to be with. There was only one “problem”: He had friends, a life, healthy boundaries. His whole life didn’t revolve around me which…made me angry and dissatisfied. That relationship, obviously, didn’t last. I was not ready for healthy. And without my ex- to soothe me through that breakup (yes, I had SOME sense that wouldn’t be right 😇) coupled with the usual dramatic highs and lows of my job, I had to rely on Paxil, an SSRI, for a few months until my husband and I were back together. I went back to the marriage feeling like a high school football star that went off to college, only to get cut from the team and come back home a failure. And the failure wasn’t my husband. He was a wonderful, smart, caring, handsome man. The failure related to my inner knowing that what I was getting from the relationship was off. That so many other parts of me remained unsatisfied. I wanted more than just the soothing, unconditional love and devotion of a parent. More than a partner who was game for whatever I wanted to eat, do, watch. Go wherever I wanted to go on vacation. Invite whoever I wanted over for the weekend. I had recreated the myopic world of parent and child in my marriage. You’ve seen parents with one child. Everything in life revolves around that one child. No wonder I didn’t want to have sex with him. He was my parent. Not my lover. He was the most wonderful doting parent I never had. This is why, despite our divorce, I will love him forever.

When I think back to those 26 years spent doing the co-dependent hustle, I have mixed feelings. In some ways, I wish I had the emotional intelligence and wellness…and courage to have understood and rectified this pattern much earlier. But like most divorced parents, I will be quick to add, if I did, then we wouldn’t have had our wonderful children. But it is also through mothering these three children that I finally understood what I didn’t get, needed and was getting from my husband. I couldn’t have seen what I see now without having had these children with him so it’s kind of a full-circle moment. It fills me with so much gratitude and, of course, grief, when I think about what he went through in the relationship…but then I remember, he was getting something different out of it. He was getting what he needed, which was different than what I needed. It takes two to tango…even the co-dependent tango. This kind of blows my mind: It took the same amount of time for a baby to be born and reach age 26 for us to outgrow our relationship. And that kind of makes sense, right? Our 20s is kind of when we don’t need our parents anymore.

In the early days of the separation, it was hard to deal with the venom he was spitting at me (typical for couples separating after spending over a quarter of a century together – but not typical for someone used to being the only one with venom or bite in said couple). It was hard for me to deal with the separation and his anger on top of the stresses of lockdown and single parent homeschooling during the pandemic. It reminded me of that time I tried to fly the coop earlier in our marriage. Once again, I didn’t have him to soothe me. I called one of my close friends who had gotten divorced and said, I’m having a really hard time managing my feelings and being present for the children. She told me about how her internist had prescribed an anti-anxiety pill for her that she would nibble when she needed it. What a revelation. I immediately called my doctor and within two hours had a bottle of Ativan.

I never ended up taking one. It’s like I just needed that magical bottle of everything-will-be-ok insurance in my medicine cabinet to give me the courage to walk through the fire. And I did. I did. Over the past two years, I have finally learned to self-soothe. I have finally learned that all my feelings ARE welcome, but so are my partners. I have learned all the lessons I kinda shoulda learned from my parents if they had the bandwidth. If they had learned from their parents. If, if, if - it doesn’t really matter why. We are all doing our best. Your best may look different than my best. My best may be better today than it was 20 years ago. But if we can hold space for ourselves to tenderly learn what we need to learn, however we need to learn it, well...that just feels like good life journeying manners to me. Oh, and I still have that as-yet-unopened bottle of Ativan: An externalized reminder that I can walk through the emotional fires of my life…and it’s okay if I need some help. Speaking of help, paid subscribers can look below for some resources that were helpful in my journey out of Co-de.

Okay. I can let Pete, Kim, Jen and Ben off the hook. I don’t need to be jealous of The Co-dependents. But I won’t lie – a part of me misses the crazy highs and lows that come with being so unnaturally entangled with someone else. But I’m a mommy now and this cycle has to end with me. Time for the baby to grow up. So much gratitude for that 26-year masterclass and my beautiful teacher. Good lord, now please bring on those divorce papers!

Here for you, 24/7, as always at atoosa@atoosa.com. Oh, and if anyone wants to come see my TEDx talk live the afternoon of April 30th, in Asbury Park just email me, I have a discount code. Wheee!

xo, atoosa

The Soundtrack of My 🤍🖤❤️:

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