My Husband Weighed 500 pounds: Explaining My Enabling

“That was good,” my husband said, finishing the last of the two pound meatloaf…before I had gotten the kids settled and begun eating my own supper. I foraged in the cupboard, finally opening a can of soup instead of getting to enjoy the food I’d prepared. At least this time the kids ate before it was all gone.

That wasn’t the scene every night, but in a month, five or six times my ex-husband would scarf down our family supper before I could get seated, sometimes even before the kids did. He’d come in the kitchen while I was finishing up and start eating directly from the pans. Telling him to wait, ordering him to a different room–those directions, later pleas and fits, rolled off his back as he ate stir fry or scalloped potatoes or whatever he could reach, often using a serving spoon. “I’m too hungry to wait” and “You should have made more,” he’d answer when I got frustrated that I was again eating a lunch meat sandwich or heading for fast food after having made a meal for my family.

Why I’ve Written This

I’m not writing this to defend myself. I’m not writing this for expiation of my sins or to be told how I could have changed my ex-husband. I couldn’t change him. After two decades married and more years entangled but divorced, I understand that. I have no interest in other people’s judgement–no matter how kindly phrased—or their insight about how I could have handled the issues. This snapshot of my life doesn’t attempt to include every nuance and factor, and I’ve started and stopped writing this or similar pieces many times over the last few years. Everytime, I’ve decided against penning it.

Then last month, in a discussion with a friend who is in recovery (again), I explained why I enabled my ex, opening up a whole world of issues and opportunities to this friend as he tries to rebuild a relationship with someone who refuses to enable him any longer.

In another discussion that same week, someone new to dealing with my ex’s dysfunction explained to me why she was frustrated and giving up, and she apologized for not believing the distress signal I’d been putting out for years.  Welcome to the monkey house–everything she told me she was fed up with has been true for 30 plus years, but no one in his family would believe me. Now they do. My reason for writing this now is simply this: my explanation of my thought processes may help someone else understand something that they currently refuse to see.

Background facts

My ex was a stocky but not heavy 19 year old when we met. He had a reputation at our college as being brilliant but unsociable and awkward, often harsh to people who he thought were untalented or unintelligent. “Once you get to know him, you’ll see that’s not what he’s really like,” a mutual friend assured me when I was dismayed to have to work with him on a summer job. “He’s really sweet and pretty shy. And so smart that sometimes he just doesn’t know how to talk to people.”

If this were a movie, this is the point where the ominous music would start. This is where the voice-over would hint that the noble heroine, me, was about to make some big mistakes.

All that was true. When we started dating, I believed he was a shy genius, one who needed love and support.  He might be odd, but a functional, happy, excellent-fit-for-me odd. The first year or so that we were together, it was easy to believe that. The depression that haunted his teen years abated, and stories his high school friends told me about his “bad times” seemed like history. A bit of love and understanding, and the bad days would be far behind him.

Even now, he is astonishingly articulate and  very well informed. The way he tells it, he is a victim of a tug of war between Gods. Whatever psychological stew he has brewing has left decades of destructive patterns, a trail of evictions, bankruptcies, and fractured relationships in his wake–none his fault, as he explains if cornered.

And I stayed through all this for nearly three decades. I believed I was helping, and eventually, I’d hit the magic combination of words and actions needed to heal him.

Priority: Normal

My ex  wasn’t overweight when we started dating.  Our wedding pictures show that he was a tad heavier after our two years of dating than he was when we met, but it was easy to shrug at a few extra pounds. He wasn’t fat, just stocky. I’d gained some, too.  The weight was only a symptom, albeit a very obvious one. The potpourri of personality disorders impacting his weight were not diagnosed until a decade into our marriage.

As the years passed, I thought our family life looked fairly typical from the outside.  On good days, maybe. Depending. There were entire months that I was grateful if he showered every few days.  And buying him new clothes in increasingly huge sizes was not that much of an issue since he didn’t leave the house often. Mentioning that he was on the edge of outgrowing the largest size the online Big & Tall outlet carried caused him to disappear to the bedroom for days at a time–which was true with most uncomfortable topics.

In my mind, I was doing what I could to support him through a rough time, one that I hoped and prayed would end soon. Therapists were trying to help him, and I was quick to notice every positive sign. If my ex went to one of the kid’s soccer games–good for him.  If he took his dirty dishes into the kitchen–that had to be a sign of progress. I was doing what I needed to so my children had a fairly typical childhood. That’s not how any of them describe their childhoods now, of course.

Down the Rabbit Hole

The list of ideas I accepted without question that let me live in that bubble of self-delusion include the predictable hits.  As a child and teen, I was active in a church youth group that championed the idea that God is Love. 1st Corinthians 13 is the Enabler’s Creed: Love is patient, Love is kind, and so on. Earnest discussions about true love not keeping score and giving 110% surrounded me. Doing anything less than everything I could was literally unthinkable.  It did not compute. I was capable and loving. Of course I’d work all day, take on summer jobs, and do 99% of the childcare and housework. He couldn’t; everyone could see that he was going through a rough time.

When we got married, I promised “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.”  While we were dating, I saw hints of his issues and I still took on the responsibility of caring for him. I could not have guessed that our marriage would skew almost entirely on the “sickness” and “poorer” sides of the equation, but marriage vows don’t come with a sliding scale. The depth of responsibility I felt was strong long after I lost any feeling of romantic love or connection. There was no one else who would be responsible for him, and I promised. In my growing up years, promises were broken as easily as uncooked spaghetti, leaving me with plenty of baggage about fulfilling promises. I don’t make promises often, not even jokingly.  Even a decade after our divorce, a small inner voice occasionally reminds me that I broke one of the biggest promises I have ever made, and knowing that other people, especially our children, have had to deal with their father’s issues because I refuse to any longer sometimes reinforces that whole thought cycle.

That leads to one of my biggest factors in enabling: guilt.  My guilt about many things was such a deeply buried assumption that I was honestly baffled when a therapist asked me why I blame myself for…well, pretty much everything difficult or bad that had happened to me or my family my whole life.  I’ve spent hours identifying the extent of that belief system that weaved its way into my head as a child and discussed it with a few people who were part of those scenarios–but even now, guilt is occasionally still my gut response to specific types of events.  

The difference is that now I can (usually) identify the feeling, determine if it based on actual facts, then act accordingly. Much of the time, that process  stops me from enabling. Recognizing and acknowledging my guilt gremlins is one tool that stops me from enabling–and as simple as it sounds, I didn’t understand that until almost a decade after the divorce. My ex had been able to play on my guilt to keep me emotionally entangled long after we had no legal bonds. (Note that the question enablers are sometimes urged to use to consider their behavior has a built in problem. Asking “Should this person reasonably be expected to do X” has the Catch 22 that the enabler has already decided that the person in question can’t be expected to do X. There are situations where it may be a good litmus test, but when the person is mentally and physically ill—reasonable expectations involve grading on a curve. )

And I believed, truly believed, that I was helping. However extreme it looked objectively, I thought it was for the greater good and the way people who loved supported others. Note that friends and family who saw our situation didn’t say, “Hey, he’s a manipulative SOB and I don’t know why you’re staying.” I heard, “You’re so strong. You’re an example of selfless love. You’re holding the family together.”

In a weird, unhealthy way, I got positive strokes for enabling, especially from friends at church and my ex’s family.  That’s not what they were saying to each other, I found out later. If anyone did attempt a serious conversation with me about my role in continuing and aiding my ex’s dysfunction, I totally missed it. I have no memory of anyone broaching the subject. Now I’m curious if anyone did, and if I was so ensconced in the dance that I couldn’t hear them. Honestly, I don’t believe anyone tried to have that discussion. What I remember clearly are the people who pointed out my selfless actions as the way true love should look.

If I’m the protagonist of this story, it has a fairly happy ending. My life is completely different now, and I’ve looked hard into the mirror to identify flaws and potential that I never saw before.  If I’m honest, though, the usually dormant voice of my enabler within whispers that I’m not the protagonist of my story–that is the insidious secret about enabling.

Lessons I Should Have Learned Earlier: The Nice Girl

You probably know me. I’m a nice person. I’m the responsible one who does what needs done, who generally puts others’ needs first, who usually defers my emotional responses until a convenient time. I was raised believing love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t keep score, and all you need is love.

That made me an easy target. I was drawn to the men who needed me — often angsty intellectuals who I thought were deep. I found it easy to pick up the lost socks of their daily lives because they obviously were focused on less superficial things. I could handle the bills, do the cleaning, and in fact, earn almost all the income — love didn’t keep score, and being patient and kind was a trademark of love. Of course a relationship took work. I accepted that I was the one doing all the work — emotional and physical — without question.

I defined myself by how I could serve. My upbringing and my church encouraged that: Servant Leadership was a buzzword that I heard in weekly church services, and the professional culture surrounding my day gig, education, reinforced it even more. “Whatever It Takes” was the mantra for my life. It took years for me to see that I was a helpfulness-junkie and even longer to begin to change it. I was the accommodating committee member who took on the extra responsibility, the friend who almost always said of course I have time for whatever you need.

When I finally left my two-decade marriage, I was shocked that all my friends and family were happy. Relieved. They were surprised that I finally realized I could walk away. They knew I was the nice girl.

The first lesson that I should have learned earlier was this: Nice girls — and nice boys, too — need to keep score, to yell “No” and “I’m done.” We need to know that any relationship we lose because we refuse to do the lion’s share of work, emotional or physical, is a relationship we’re better off losing. I’ve always been able to champion causes or people I cared about, but I rarely advocated for myself. I had a hard time telling anyone what I needed or wanted because I didn’t know. It was (and still is, usually) nearly unthinkable to inconvenience anyone else, even when I have missed sleep or emptied my pocket fulfilling their needs.

Lennon and McCartney were wrong. Love isn’t all you need, regardless how sincerely they sing it. It may be wrong to keep score of every action every day, but a regular check in to make sure that no one is freeloading in the relationship is essential, especially if one person is prone to enabling.

Today I was talking to an acquaintance, a woman slightly older than myself who had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging an event for a group I’m part of. There had been some complications with the event, and she tenaciously fought to make the event turn out well. It was wonderful, and as I thanked her, she said, “Well, I’m a nice girl, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That was my fear, you know.”

I know. And in my friend’s situation, being tenaciously nice worked to my group’s advantage. If I had been in her place, I would have done exactly what she did. But that was for a weekend, not for a lifetime. Lesson one that I finally learned — and sometimes have to relearn — is that it is fine, even better than fine, to be not-nice. Now, if people sing “All you need is love” as they expect me to put their dirty socks in the hamper, I do my best to turn my inner channel from The Beatles to Nancy Sinatra. If my niceness is being taken advantage of, “These Boots are Made for Walking” is my new theme song.