Up from Despair--Becky and Me

Roger Bissell

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Up from Despair—Becky and Me

By Roger E. Bissell

Since injudiciously opening up my yap when Michael Kelley bravely shared his life story with us on SOLOHQ, I have had repeated requests (most recently from Phil Coates, on the "eve of destruction" of SOLOHQ) to share how I have screwed up my adult life, and how I got it straightened back out again. I think the part that is the most interesting in this regard is not my musical career or my intellectual path, but my romantic-marital mistakes and how I eventually rectified them. As per the “spiral theory of knowledge,” I’ll go through the same progression of years twice, so as to factor in my wife Becky’s role in all of this. (She has graciously consented to letting me post this, despite her misgivings about anyone really being interested in it.) So, here it is, for what it's worth. It certainly can't compare with the level of angst and despair communicated so vividly by Michael in his personal saga, but I hope it will be helpful or at least interesting to some readers. There are lessons I had to learn, and others may still face similar ones in their lives and draw some insight or reassurance that healing and happiness are not an "impossible dream." My apologies if our story seems a bit repetitive or disjointed in places; I have stitched it together from personal emails written about 10 years ago (updated where necessary). I welcome comments here, or you can email me at rebissell@aol.com.

How I Screwed Up

My first two marriages lasted 6 and 13 years, respectively, and they failed for very different reasons.

My first wife had a strong "betrayal complex," in part because the guy who got her pregnant in high school deserted her. Partly, also, because she found out that I had been secretly dating another woman (who is now my wife! see below) while we were engaged. Anyway, throughout our marriage, I was completely faithful to her, yet she was easily aroused to suspicion and continually accused me of messing around on her. Any time she saw me talk to another woman, any time even a bank teller said "Oh, you're Roger's wife," anything like that, and she hit the roof. The straw that broke the camel's back was when she came with me to a music job I was working and she got jealous and nasty about the female vocalist. I told her to leave, and when I got home, she had taken a bottle of sleeping pills. (It was not much fun having the Channel 4 news van follow our ambulance to the hospital, I can tell you.) We lasted another 7 months after that; counseling didn't work. She remarried the next day after the divorce was final, and she and her second husband have been together now nearly 30 years and have two more kids.

My second wife seemed diametrically different from my first wife. She was totally accepting of my musical career, though less intellectual, and she didn’t seem to have a jealous bone in her body. However, she came from a family with drug and physical abuse, and she was also a druggie and a kleptomaniac (shop-lifter) and a hypochondriac and shop-aholic and a credit abuser, to boot. Oh, yes—did I mention the infidelity?

My second wife and I met several months after my first wife and I broke up, and the engagement was far too short (unless you believe that my “life plan” required getting married to her and suffering for 13 years—and having three wonderful children. I’d like to think that sanity would have set in, and I wouldn’t have married her, if we had had to wait a year or more.) She did everything obsessively and with a sense of urgency. She had to get pregnant right away. Then, because an old unresolved love affair reared its head, she had to get an abortion. Then, she had to have tranquillizers (to deal with what stress?). Then, she had to get pregnant again. And buy a house. And have her own bank account, from which she bounced checks. Etc,etc,etc, When her mom died, she refused to use the inheritance money to pay down our home loan which was "negative amortizing" (becoming larger), because it wasn't on a fixed interest rate. Etc,etc,etc. She went nuts when we moved to California in 1985. Two years later she spent 7 weeks in a drug rehab center. Two years later she and the kids moved back to Tennessee. In 1991 she married a fellow AA member. That lasted 6 months, long enough to move out of a convenient rental house into a very inconvenient home she was stuck with payments on. Luckily, her dad moved in and helped with payments. In 1995 she married a guy who seems quite a bit more appropriate; they’ve been together now for 10 years.

My first ex seems to be in pretty good shape. However, after her spending 18 years of AA and other recovery programs several nights a week, my second ex still scares the crap out of me. Basically, her dishonesty is the thing I have the most trouble with. I think she's clean, drug-wise, and probably buys everything she removes from stores—but she still wouldn't know the truth if it bit her on the ass. (This is not just rancorous blathering 15 years "after the fact"; most recently, I have witnesses for some really cruel, untrue things she said about our daughter on her wedding day two years ago.) For years, I felt very much out of control, being so far from my children and having to rely on my ex-wife for information. But getting a court to force her and them to stay here in California when we divorced in 1989 would have been worse than the way we worked it out. Of that, I'm convinced.

Instead, I focused on straightening myself out, and while I'm still very much a work in progress, I like myself and my life a lot better than I did 20 years ago. For one thing, I'm married to a wonderful woman, partner, companion, etc. (More about her shortly.) For another, I’m still on great terms with my four older children, my two older step-children, and I have a very special little girl in my household who is turning day by day into a remarkable young woman. For another, I'm in a financially manageable situation, which does a lot for my serenity. For another, I'm totally in love with learning and writing philosophy and having a ball like I did back in the early 70s, before I got discouraged from lack of feedback and turned my focus onto my music career. If there were any truth in the book Do What You Love, and the Money Will Come, I ought to be a millionaire. But even though I’m not financially well off, in many intangible ways, I feel that I’m a very rich man, indeed.

I said the relationship problems were very different, but some of my own shortcomings in each case were the same. First, I was “rescuing” each of them, trying to give them a better life. It’s a judgment call as to whether this was benevolence or altruism, since I was strongly attracted to each of them as part of the deal. But in either case, a person who finds himself acting on that premise (or with that as part of mixed premises) needs to stand back and take a few deep breaths and think about it a while—preferably with a calm, sensible person who can help him get some objectivity and perspective. Which I didn’t do.

Secondly, I ignored/evaded subtle signals I was getting that the women were not a good marriage risk. I brushed the signs under the rug and hoped everything would work out. In some ways, the marriages were good—some pleasure, some mutual growth and visibility, some shared happiness of childrearing. But the pain was significantly more of a negative than those things were positive. I wanted a good marriage, and nothing I did on my end to improve myself seemed to matter, and there was nothing I could do to fix them.

In retrospect, I think that if I had moved out the first time my (second) ex cheated on me—less than 6 months after we married—I'd have saved myself tons of grief. But I probably wouldn't have been pushed to the point where I actually learned how to focus on myself and to have nourishing relationships, rather than exploitative ones. More than 10 years later, I finally "got it" by going to Al-Anon to learn how to cope with my (ex)wife's drug problems and related behavior. I learned that the primary problem in my life was not her, but me. I wouldn't have learned this by leaving her when she first started abusing me and the marriage. I also wouldn't have had my three great Tennessee kids that I am so proud of and who still (say they) love me, despite our living 2000 miles apart most of the time and their mother being less than flattering in her comments about me and less than supportive of my father-child relations.

I have learned a lot as the father of these kids, and I have learned a lot as the spouse of their mother and, despite the suffering involved, it's hard for me to imagine my life and happiness having turned out any better if I'd left her sooner. As is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships, I had to "hit bottom." Reality had to smack them in the face and say that "you have nowhere to go but up, so get started now." The problem was how to figure out which instance of broken trust constituted "bottom." But I finally got it through my thick skull that there was going to be no quick fix, that I had problems too (and not just an abusive partner), and that I had to make more of a change in their life than just my address!

My Wife, Becky, and How We Got Together, Twice!

Before I make a second pass through the past 36 years, this time factoring in my wife (my third and final wife, I like to say :-), let me tell you a little bit about her. Becky's a real sweetie! She's about 5-3, brunette, big dimples, gorgeous eyes and smile. She's moderately outgoing, quite direct and expressive, and does well in leadership roles. She's quite intelligent, able to organize and plan and envision how things ought to be in daily life and organizations, and has a great ability to analyze situations and logically organize her thoughts. She is rather soft-hearted and accepting, but is very tenacious in an argument; being rational about values is very important to her. She is a very organized person, as well as very responsible and honest and hard-working (I often feel like a slug next to her), but she has a tendency toward work-aholism; she is the best companion and partner I've ever had, and that's before we even get to the bedroom. :-) She was a piano major in college and taught private lessons for a number of years in Nebraska, Colorado, and out here in California. She also waitressed for a number of years before getting a teaching certificate, and she has been teaching 7th grade social studies and language arts for the past two years.

Becky and I grew up in rural Iowa about 40 miles from each other, and our dads were both farmers and our moms both housewives. She is the oldest of 6 kids, and I am the older of 2 (my sister is 4 years younger). She and I were born in 1949 and 1948, respectively. We both had domineering opposite-sex parents and rather more docile same-sex parents. Interesting parallel—ominous even. She and I first met at an enclave of young Objectivists when I started graduate school in Iowa City in 1969, and we quickly became friends and eventually fell into what I guess should be called an "affair" that fall, while I was engaged to my first wife, who lived several hundred miles away in Nebraska. We were both music majors (she in piano, I trombone), so we saw each other 3 days a week in class and frequently in the evening for departmental and other concerts and Objectivist and Libertarian functions. It didn't take long to realize we had a very strong attraction to each other. But for reasons I won't go into here, I felt I had to make a choice, and that the choice I had to make was to break off the relationship with Becky, who was not interested in marriage at that time anyway. ("Anyway" means that that is not the main reason.)

So, instead I married my fiancee, whom I had met in 1967 when she was pregnant with her son, whom I adopted in 1970. Our marriage lasted until 1976, then she remarried and had 2 kids with the guy she's still married to, and I remarried to the woman I had 3 kids with and who has subsequently remarried twice. My marriage to #2 lasted 13 years (compared to 6 for the first). During this time, Becky married first to an Objectivist college acquaintance, and that lasted from 1971 to 1977. Then she married the guy who was a cross-dresser and druggie and rage-aholic and with whom she had daughters born in 1978 and 1982, that marriage lasting from 1978 to 1989.

While I was going to Al-Anon, I realized that I needed to make amends to various people I had wronged during my life, including especially Becky, so I eventually contacted her as I was passing through the town where she lived in 1988. She came out to the airport briefly, and we chatted and decided to initiate a correspondence. (The coherence and adherence came later. :-) Two months later, her husband went into a quasi-suicidal depression (a gun was involved), so she moved out, and he promptly went mega-religious (after half-heartedly trying a couple of AA meetings).

Meanwhile, I had already told my wife that I wanted a more nourishing love relationship in my life, and that I was not demanding it from her (a no-no in "recovery"), just letting her know that I was not going to let myself be bound to marital fidelity when there was no commitment on her part to working out our relationship problems. (She steadfastly refused to engage in marital counseling.) If she recovered to the point that a good relationship was possible again, that would be fine. But if in the meantime I found another relationship that gave me what I wanted, that would have to be fine, too, since I was focusing on what was right for me, as she was in her program. (What's sauce for the AA is sauce for the Al-Anon....and just to clarify, her presenting problem was not booze but prescription tranquilizers.)

So, during the winter of 1989, Becky and I realized that not only were our marriages falling apart, with no repair likely, but that we were getting more and more attracted to each other. We did a lot of sharing and working through issues in our correspondence, and finally we decided to have a "visit" in March of 1989. Not long after that, we decided to pursue divorces, so that we could marry. My ex and the kids moved to Tennessee in August, and Becky and her girls moved in with her folks for about a year and a half, finally moving out to California in August of 1990. Becky and I married earlier that year in April, and it was a long spring and summer, that's for sure! We deliberated a number of times about whether to have a child of our own, considering how many other mouths we had to feed, but finally in early 1994 we decided to go for it. (No rest for the fertile. :-)) Our daughter was born later that year, and she'll be 11 in just a few days.

Ironically, when we first met in 1969, Becky didn't want to get married or have children. Very soon after we decided not to see each other any more, though, she did get married, albeit to a guy she thought of as "safe" rather than romantic. No kids with him, though. Instead, she finished her music degree and taught piano for several years. Then, when she met her second husband, she got pregnant and eventually stopped teaching piano, due to the demands of her second daughter and her borderline-psychotic husband. I rib her about this from time to time: "You didn't want to marry and have kids with me, so you marry a guy you don't love and marry another guy you can't trust and have kids with him." By this skilled use of rhetoric, I was able to convince her to marry me and to have our daughter. :-)

Digression on Romantic Adoration

Becky has many admirable traits, among them considerable intelligence and strength and honesty. But what really attracts me to her, romantically and sexually, what turns me on about her is, I'm afraid, even less tangible than such intellectual and spiritual traits. I find any number and many types of women physically attractive or fun or interesting or even provocative to be around and interact with. But as for what I am drawn to so strongly that it feels like a profound "metaphysical" or "worshipful" connection is when a woman I respect and admire visibly melts when we relate to each other on a basic level—not problem solving or arguing or even sharing experiences, but just realizing who it is that is there. In my vast—well, OK, half-vast—experience, this has only happened once, and that's with Becky. My own stupidity and immaturity resulted in my throwing away our chance for a permanent relationship the first time we discovered this connection—way back in 1969.

After two failed marriages each, we finally found our way back to each other, and the "chemistry" was still there. Perhaps only because I am 8 inches taller, she was looking up to me with her "melted" expression, but regardless of the accident of height, it was truly worshipful, and there was definitely a sexual or gender component to it, worship of a man. Not of me being superior, but of me being (potentially) a very high value to her. And that is when she is her absolutely most attractive, sexually, to me. So, I would have to say that—in the special kind of way I have just described—the essence of my wife’s femininity is in her capacity to "worship" a man in the way that she looks at and thinks about me. That is when I experience her as being most feminine, as embodying what I most want in a woman. Now, for her to be my close friend and confidante, as someone I can admire and feel affection toward, that additional component does not need to be there at all. The strength, the passion for values, the caring about people's needs and feelings, the intelligence—those are all virtues that I find and appreciate in a number of people, and I certainly acknowledge that they are a component of my love and affection toward my wife. But they are not what goes into her femininity—or at least my experience of it.

Now, I know that there are some relationships where it is the man who has the "worshipful" kind of orientation toward the woman, and the woman's emotional responses to the man in regard to romance/sex are triggered by his worshipful attitude and aura. And, sad to say, there are some relationships where this deep kind of spiritual affinity or "chemistry" does not exist, despite considerable love and affection for each other. But if we are to regard masculinity and femininity as an overlay of one's basic, personal virtues and traits, then I think that the deepest emotional/sexual appreciation of each other can only happen when there is this "worshipful" type of bond between the two people. And this can be completely co-present with the various strengths of body, mind, and character that we value in people in general, but do not think of as masculine or feminine per se. What really turns me on is the idea (and reality!) of a woman who is intelligent and strong and "melts" emotionally and sexually when we are together (and the various responsibilities and distractions are set aside).

And if my wife finds out about this woman, she'll kill me! :-)

Seriously, I wonder if this kind of phenomenon is at least part of what Rand was groping around trying to explain. I have this sneaking suspicion that she wanted to feel that way toward Frank, but that gradually she grew more and more frustrated with his relative non-intellectual nature. Then, when Branden showed up and manifested such brilliance as he did, she really latched onto him as a potential John Galt and highest value for herself. That is one reason that she was ultimately so outraged and devastated when he rejected her attempts to resume their sexual relationship—he didn't look at her with that "worshipful" attitude and aura any more, and she felt betrayed that he would give it to someone else (not to mention deceiving her about it), while she probably still felt it about him. (More so than 10 years earlier, since he was rapidly moving up to the point of being a published book author—and a prolific one, at that, as we all see in retrospect.)

But haven't you seen at least one photograph of Rand looking all "melted" and "gooney-eyed" at Branden, as if she were a newlywed on her honeymoon with Apollo or somebody? It's that kind of worship of a man that I am talking about, and it can be very rationally justifiable and appropriate (unlike the fiasco that Rand and Branden created). And, needless to say, this can apply in the other direction, or in both directions—as well as between people of the same sex. The more fully one integrates one's gender and sexuality with one's overall personality, the more likely that a healthy romantic/sexual response by another person to oneself will include the component of "worshipfulness"—and the more likely that one's own response to another will, as well. But it is usually the case that people are unevenly developed and integrated, and thus they tend to attract a complementary personality, i.e., someone who more freely has certain responses than they do. Thus, the "worshipful" phenomenon tends to be "one-way." And far be it from me to say that women should exhibit it while men should not—or vice versa.

I think it's best that everyone be or work toward being emotionally open to one another as a deep source of spiritual and romantic value. But we're all on our own paths, and we're the best judge about how to get where we want to go—despite the most dogged efforts of other well-meaning (?) folks who presume that they know better and try to nudge us into their own little cookie-cutter (or Comprachico?) molds of how we ought to be. Eye candy? Give me Bridgit Fonda or Helen Slater. Don't get me wrong, Ann Gillian is a fine lookin' lady, but she doesn't ring my chimes. I'll tell you who does from the "old days." In "Waterloo Bridge" (1940), Vivian Leigh—and in "Ten North Downing" (1958), Suzy Parker. Suzy (I hope I'm right that she is the brunette who was Gary Cooper's love interest in the movie) reminds me of my wife, though she is taller and a little breezier. Mainly, I really dug the way she looked at Cooper when their relationship was heating up. (First time I saw it, I thought, "That's for me." Luckily, it was/is. :-) Another good example of this is in that delightful, quirky movie from Australia, "Strictly Ballroom." I know they're just actors, but the leading lady had it just right. That is femininity—and masculinity, in men, of course. Adoration is cool. :-)

All’s Well That Ends Well…

Now that we seem to have our happy ending firmly in hand, a lot of the past seems like not much more than a bad dream. How could two seemingly rational folks like us make such obvious, horrible mistakes? It took us a long time (20 years!) to get to the point of happiness for man qua man. It’s incredible, the agony people can dish out to others when they aren't responsible enough to get their heads on straight. And themselves, of course. I married twice, basically by mistake, before finally getting straight on what I wanted in a mate—though some would say that I couldn't have really clearly known until I had worked through the "issues" that hooked me into the other two. And it's a tossup as to who suffered more, me or the two ex-wives. (Not to mention the children; they're probably the main victims.)

Now, of course, as we race through our late 50s, headed toward retirement, we have a whole new set of worries: how to stay healthy and vital as our bodies gradually and inevitably start to fall apart, how many more years to work, where to live when we retire, and how to remember the names and birthdays of all our grandchildren (three at last count, with more likely on the way). But these problems seem normal. I think we’re through the rough part now. <contented sigh>

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Thank you for putting that here. You broke the ice for outside articles. You are a good friend and Becky and you sound wonderful.

(Edit - As per your suggestion, here is the comment I made to this article on RoR.)

Thank you for that story. As I fully intend to become a full-fledged friend after we finally meet, it was good to get to know you a bit like that. Becky sounds like a wonderful woman.

I know that this personal story approach is not presently appreciated, but I think that stories like these show people who are interested in Objectivism that growth is possible. They can thus avoid the two biggest mistakes that I have seen so far in making Objectivism a working philosophy:

1) The Athena approach. This means that at some point in your existence, either at birth or later (generally after reading Rand for the first time), you pop into the world fully armed - especially in the moral sense. No growth is needed and tragic mistakes do not have to be dealt with. Much less, psychological issues. (Galt forbid that!) As Athena, all your choices are automatically categorized and your impeccable moral sense is your armor to make sure that they are correctly chosen.

2) The Born-Again Objectivist. (I know this is almost a pun on the new name of this site, but I have no derogatory intent.) This is a person who first reads Ayn Rand (usually Atlas Shrugged) and immediately goes off to save the world.

We probably all go through these phases, but those who stay in them are not people I want to emulate. Something about their capacity for joy gets impaired from what I have observed.

Since I presume that most people are not mere containers for pouring ideas into, and they have an accumulation of baggage to deal with when they choose their values, it is important that they see how others have dealt with their own baggage. That helps them see how change is possible.

That is an essential part of learning. With your story, you have helped teach by showing and not just explaining.



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Roger, I shudder at what you went through in your first two marriages, and I'm happy for you that you found Becky again as you were working through your own problems.

You wrote: "throughout our marriage, I was completely faithful to her, {your first wife] yet she was easily aroused to suspicion and continually accused me of messing around on her. Any time she saw me talk to another woman, any time even a bank teller said "Oh, you're Roger's wife," anything like that, and she hit the roof."

When I was very young, I thought that to have a man be insanely jealous of me would be romantic. Hah! I learned that it is horrible, and poisons any relationship it touches. I once was involved with a man so jealous that he all but hallucinated about me: One day, an old boy friend was visiting me. We had had no romantic involvement for some years, he was quite happily married, but we had remained good friends. My present boy friend came to see me as the old boyfriend and I were sitting on opposite ends of a couch, talking. Later, I was told that he and I had been sitting close together and holding hands! Of course, there was no way to prove that that was false -- and ultimately, there was no way to save the relationship.

You wrote: "First, I was “rescuing” each of them, trying to give them a better life. . . there was nothing I could do to fix them."

There never is a way to fix anyone. We all have to fix ourselves, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you. But "fixing" seems to be epidemic among Objectivists. On the theory that character flaws are merely the straight-line result of "bad premises," we are certain we can talk the person we love out of his or her flaws by convincing the person that his flaws are the result of irrationality. If only life were that simple.

You wrote: "What really turns me on is the idea (and reality!) of a woman who is intelligent and strong and "melts" emotionally and sexually when we are together."

I wonder if Becky wouldn't say the same thing -- that is, that what really turns her on is the idea (and reality!) of a man who is intelligent and strong and "melts" emotionally and sexually when he and she are together. I ask this because I rather doubt that this quality of melting is anything like unique to one half of a sexually happy couple. The melting, the surrender, may take different forms, but I suspect that something important would be missing sexually if it were not present in both the man and the woman.

In any event, I love to see happy endings!


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I wrote: "What really turns me on is the idea (and reality!) of a woman who is intelligent and strong and "melts" emotionally and sexually when we are together."

Barbara, you commented:

I wonder if Becky wouldn't say the same thing -- that is, that what really turns her on is the idea (and reality!) of a man who is intelligent and strong and "melts" emotionally and sexually when he and she are together. I ask this because I rather doubt that this quality of melting is anything like unique to one half of a sexually happy couple. The melting, the surrender, may take different forms, but I suspect that something important would be missing sexually if it were not present in both the man and the woman. In any event, I love to see happy endings!

Busted! Yes, I melt in re Becky, too. My "melting" takes a different form from hers; I don't quite wear my heart on my sleeve as she does. But my heart melts (i.e., my emotional warmth and deep affection activates) with her, for sure.

As for "happy endings," I think we have already had a pretty extensive one: 17 years since reuniting personally, and over 16 since reuniting romantically. And we are hoping for many more years of our happy ending -- really hoping that it is a happy MIDDLE and ending. :-)

Anyway, here's to romantic melting and happy endings! (And thanks for your other wise and supportive comments.)


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  • 3 weeks later...

This is the rich "stuff" of living. I thank you once more for writing this Roger.



(Note from Administrator: John Newnham asked to be removed from the member list before the forum was transferred to a new program, thus his member name was lost.)

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John, you're welcome, and I'm glad you got the intended message from my piece about myself and Becky.

Sometimes I feel a little down because, while all of my colleagues have houses, my wife and I can only afford an apartment. Becky reminds me that, had we gotten married the first (or even second) time around, we'd not have gone through the financial upheavals (from divorces) and financial hardships (from bad partnerships), and we'd probably have paid off a home already. And she points out all the other ways in which we truly are "rich," not financially, but spiritually.

So, while only Mr. Engle can truly be Rich, I'm feeling pretty good about things these days. :D/



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Many would trade the physical wealth, for the freedom and joy of sitting with one who loves you. So right you are.



(Note from Administrator: John Newnham asked to be removed from the member list before the forum was transferred to a new program, thus his member name was lost.)

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