If You Must Join A Cult, Make It A Sex CultOn Friday, I went for a drive with my youngest son on the country roads near our house in Kentucky. The day was sunny and the air was crisp. I had a lot on my mind, not the least of which was coming to terms with the conclusion that my love for my wife of fifteen years could now be expressed in the past tense: “I loved her” rather than “I love her.”
By chance, I found myself crossing the Kentucky River and heading back up the opposite bluff on U.S. Route 68, a winding two-lane engraved on a landscape of weathered stone walls, rolling fields, and autumn trees. Beautiful, if you like that sort of thing. (Not everybody does – if she had been there, Mrs. Fish would have harrumphed and complained about the unsanitary moss on the old stones and the pollen count of the dust motes dancing in the columns of afternoon light filtering through the trees.)
As I neared the intersection with Kentucky Route 33, I saw lined up neatly on the slope to my right the buildings of Shaker Village, a nineteenth-century town established and occupied by the Shakers, a religious sect known for spare, functional furniture and the unshakable teaching that men and women should remain separate and chaste. Their buildings even had separate entrances and staircases for men and women.
If you’ve ever had the idea that our refusers should just all go off and live together by themselves, then this is the sort of place they might end up. The Shakers had been an anti-sex cult, and there I was in downtown Refuserville. The Shakers themselves died off long ago (duh!) and the only shaking going on is the shakedown involved in buying a ticket to tour the restored buildings.
In a sense, staying in a sexless marriage is a bit like being in a two-person anti-sex cult, where our love for our refuser controls us just as surely as if we were true believers mesmerized by a charismatic leader. We spend years without normal affection, we endure abuse, we crave the crumbs of attention we get, and above all we stick around because it’s unthinkable that we could ever live without the one we love. Myself, I’ve stuck around for over 16 years.
I know almost to the day when my wife stopped loving me (or stopped making an effort to pretend she did.) I had been married in 1996 and the intimacy went downhill quickly. Still, “it was good except for the sex” until 2003 when I didn’t get into the graduate program my wife had set her financial hopes and future plans on. I got into one almost as good, but we had to move for me to attend. Then later, after school, my career never really took off as planned despite my best efforts. Her career did and she couldn’t have gotten started without my help, but that didn’t matter to her. I was a failure and she treated me as such, even as I worked as hard as I could and also took on the responsibility of raising our children as the primary parent.
Nonetheless, for a further 102 months, from that day in 2003 until just last week, I loved my wife. I loved her despite the tirades and the rejections and the insults. For years believed I could cope by turning the other cheek, by making a point of doing a nice gesture for her every day, and trying my best to make myself into someone she could love. Last month, after 15 years of marriage, she pointed out to me in front of our children that love and respect have to be earned. I asked if I had earned hers, and she answered “Not yet.”
There must be a point in every former cult member’s life when suddenly the realization hits that the Leader is really just full of bullshit, that we’re just being used, that the Leader is simply not worthy of our love.
If you’ve read my first story, you’ll know I’ve been out of work for over a year after my industry collapsed as a late casualty of the recession. I wrote that I was completely dependent upon my wife’s income and health insurance, and my long-term exit plan for myself and my children absolutely requires I have a decent job with benefits and a future.
Men and women were known to have run away from Shaker Village, even after fifteen or more years there, to go on and create normal live. I think I know how they must have felt as they went about their daily tasks, but secretly counting their pennies and getting ready to go.
You see, I got a call last week – I start my new job tomorrow and it’s better than my old one.
P.S. I can’t resist using Oneida silverware in our house. That company has its roots in the business operations of a similar nineteenth-century religious commune, but one featuring “complex marriage” – in other words, it was a sex cult, not an anti-sex cult. It’s sad that the biggest thrill I get these days is contemplating my silverware drawer.