Too Comfortable for Comfort
When my shorts outlive their socially acceptable outside-of-the-house lifespan, I still wear them at home. I am no fashionista, so to be socially unacceptable, said shorts need a hole in the crotch or an unwashable oil or paint stain. I’ve worn pants with a ripped back pocket such that I had to pair them with my nicest boxer shorts before leaving the house, so my standard for at-home-only attire is pretty low. I pair my should-really-be-discarded shorts with an equally unthinkably torn and stained sweatshirt in the winter. And I wear that combo, day after day, once my time outside of the house is over. I’m like Mr. Rogers when I get home, except instead of changing into a nice cardigan, I slide into the same sweatshirt I’ve been wearing since the furnace first kicked on in October. Gross. That’s the point.
To top off my inside outfit, I wear socks with soccer slides (think open-toed flip-flops) to keep my tootsies warm in the winter. I often have an ice bag on one or both of my knees, which is one of the reasons for shorts instead of jeans. The other reason is that jeans are ridiculously uncomfortable, and the cultural embrace they enjoy, decade after decade, generation after generation, makes about as much sense to me as drinking a toxic poison and calling that relaxation. We are a curious species, and our infatuation with bluejeans is just one indicator of how easily brainwashable we are. No jeans at home for me. My at-home attire is selected for ultimate comfort.
Which begs the question: Why was I so uncomfortable for so long in my own home?
When I first met my wife, Sheri, there were specific characteristics that attracted me to her. I thought she was adorable with her dirty-blond hair and her soft, smooth skin. She wore minimal makeup, and dressed like she was up for anything. She was funny and kind, smart with a quick wit, and she was strong and curvy and had a look that convinced me she was always paying attention. By far my favorite trait that my wife exuded was an aggressive confidence. She was anything but arrogant. She didn’t think she was always right, but she didn’t take shit from anyone. She defended her position, right or wrong, with defiance and attitude. I wanted to be close to that fierce, resilient independence.
Presumably, there was stuff about me that Sheri liked, too, when we were getting to know each other. From listening to her talk about my pre-alcoholism days, I have gleaned that she found safety, security, loyalty and trustworthiness in me. The greatest compliment I ever received from Sheri in the early days actually came from her mother. She said she had witnessed Sheri waiting for me to call, and that she’d never seen her wait for a boy before. In the age of constant connectivity, that sentence might not make sense to people born after the 1970s, but to me, picturing Sheri waiting by the phone made me feel like she liked me.
I was comfortable when I was with Sheri.
I loved that feeling, and I wanted more of it. So I tried. I invited her on dates. I tried to say funny things. I complimented her and touched her and sat close to her, and I listened for cues about what to do next.
I was me and she was her and I wanted to be us.
It wasn’t love at first sight. But I was intrigued and felt simultaneously stimulated and at ease. And it all felt mutual. I didn’t know we’d be together forever. It didn’t think in absolutes that way. If it was a Tuesday, I knew I wanted to be with her on that Tuesday. I had the same feeling on the following Wednesday, so I tried to spend time with her on Wednesday. Thursday wasn’t any different. I betrayed the carefree drunken debauchery of being a fraternity brother in his senior year to spend time with her. I worked harder to be with Sheri than I’d ever worked on anything before.
And now, Sheri gets to see me in my dirty, stained, ripped sweatshirt and shorts, with a grandfatherly socks-and-sandals combo, all winter long. What a lucky girl. I wear my winter uniform because it is comfortable. But when it comes to romantic relationships, maybe comfort is overrated and misunderstood.
Because when we are comfortable, we stop trying.
The loved ones of alcoholics are often accused of codependence. I never really understood that until recently. How can one person be co dependent? Doesn’t the “co” imply two? So when I was an active alcoholic, Sheri was co dependent because she tried to convince me to get help, she enabled me by listening to me and trying to understand the rules I was putting around my drinking? And when it got really bad, she was co dependent because she didn’t leave me? So because she took seriously her obligation to our mortgage, her commitment to the business we owned together, and her responsibility to our children that drove her to do anything to keep our family intact – because of that she was co dependent?
She was wading through a shit-show without directions or instructions, and she was counting on her self-reliant instincts to guide her and our kids to safety. She was trying. She was trying harder than a person should ever have to try.
In active addiction and early sobriety, I was looking to Sheri to manipulate and soothe my emotions in the same way alcohol did for me for a couple of decades. I wanted comfort, encouragement, support, love, physical connection, protection, guidance and understanding. And she got the co dependence label? When I was trying to wean from my addiction to alcohol, I transferred my alcoholism to an addiction to Sheri. I depended on her for so many forms of comfort.
So many forms of comfort that it was inherently uncomfortable for both of us.
I cried to Sheri. I moped around in front of Sheri. I didn’t clean myself as often as I should have. I ate like a slob and did the bare minimum work to keep the veil of nothing-to-see-here masking our pain and dysfunction. I had a sour attitude that could bring my whole family to their knees. I don’t know about the co, but I dependenced all over Sheri.
I stopped trying.
I wasn’t concerned about Sheri finding me physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually attractive. I quoted our wedding vows. You know, the parts about sickness and health, and til death do us part. I stopped being a partner. I had long ago stopped trying to be a valuable option. I became an unfortunate obligation. I was so comfortable with Sheri’s commitment to me, and I was in so much pain, that I oozed helplessness and weakness all over her like she was my only option for understanding. She was my only option for understanding because I had so effectively co-ed up our life together that I had no one else who got to see the true me – the true despicable, shameful, pathetic me. I was all hers, an albatross of despair.
Safety, security, loyalty and trustworthiness. Those were the characteristics that drew Sheri to my side. I worked hard to be those things. I was 5’9” tall, and not particularly strong, so I loved the idea that someone looked to me for protection. I knew I was smart enough to succeed financially, and I had the work ethic to make sure we would survive and thrive. I could be depended on, and I would never intentionally lie to or betray my beloved wife. That’s what she wanted and I knew I could provide.
Then I got comfortable. And I stopped trying.
It’s easy to conflate the impact alcoholism had on our relationship, with the impact of comfort. Alcoholism was devastating. Alcoholism was traumatic and chaotic. Alcoholism left scars that will never go away.
But in long-term recovery, the alcoholism was gone, and the false comfort lingered. We were married. Remember those vows? Why should I try? Why shouldn’t sobriety fix everything? OK, so we had to talk about stuff and deal with the resentment. Fine. If that was my penance, so be it. I could talk about the past if that would lead to a return to comfort. At least that’s what I thought for a very long time.
Probably the most impactful realization of our relationship recovery was the day I understood that while Sheri still loved me, she didn’t like me anymore.
And when it comes to a romantic relationship, like is a lot more important than love.
I had to try. I had to be safe. I had to provide a feeling of security. I had to be loyal. Above all, I had to rebuild badly damaged trust. Shuffling around the house, burping and farting, sporting my winter uniform, wasn’t exactly checking Sheri’s boxes. She had endured a decade of alcoholism, and that was her prize? I sure was making those wedding vows harder and harder to remember.
Comfort in a marriage is overrated. Let me be clear – I have no interest in a relationship full of jealousy or betrayal. I have to depend on Sheri for loyalty, and she deserves the same comfortable assurance. I know she loves me. But I need to try to win her like, over and over again. I know what I look, sound and smell like when I’m comfortable. It’s not attractive, and that kind of comfort has a limited place in a healthy, thriving marriage.
Sheri bonded her life to me because I was trying. Why should her reward be that I stop making an effort? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?
I know some of you are reading this and thinking, “I shower everyday, and I even go in the other room to fart. I’m not a slob like this guy.” But is that all the higher you plan to set the bar? Do you think attraction and like can thrive in an environment that is a notch above the bare minimum? More importantly, does your partner who survived your alcoholism feel like the collateral damage of comfort is enough?
I take Sheri’s love for granted. I am the father of her children, and nothing can ever break that bond. But I try everyday to win her like. It is not always comfortable, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. Comfort leads to pizza stains on ripped sweatshirts. Comfort makes me pretty hard to like.
And my wife’s like is certainly worth a try.
If you are working on recovering your alcoholic relationship, and you want to really give it a try, please consider joining the Marriagevolution.
Awesome as ever Matt. Love how you continue to dive deep into your own story and use that the improve and evolve as a human being, father, husband etc.
We’ve got to keep growing, Anne, There is no other choice. Thanks for reading and supporting!
kudos, Matt! Thank you for doing the work! For being vulnerable and honest, recognizing the need to address your own issue and putting in the effort to make yourself likable again for your wife’s sake and as part of marriage rehab! How lovely and necessary for each of us – but maybe especially for the addict?? Such a tremendous way for your spouse to feel loved on and her needs acknowledged as valid too!! I am curious, since the start of your sobriety, how long did it take you to come to this realization? Appreciate you all!
The realizations are an ongoing thing for me. I share to hopefully shorten the timeline for others. But in an effort to be more direct, this is all year two or more of sobriety stuff. The first year is necessarily pretty selfish. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support, Mindy!
Thank you for writing this sir.
While sitting here in school thinking to myself is love all that important reading this made me realize that we all have to do uncomfortable things for the ones we truly Like. Because in the end I just want to feel Liked.
I think that’s exactly right. Thanks for reading, Jay!