Chapter 21

Greg’s eyes reflected warmth and acceptance. “That was a very defining moment in your life. Very few people experience the supernatural the way you just described. I can only imagine the clarity it brought you,” he acknowledged.

I nodded, absorbing his positive reinforcement. “That day definitely changed me. That’s for sure. God became real, but so did the devil.” I continued nodding. “I know God saved me for a reason; but, right now, I don’t know what that means. I look at my life, and nothing makes sense—especially my marriage. It’s a sham—but not because I want it to be.” I hung my head low, contemplating how far I had strayed from my core beliefs and principles since being married to Brad. My eyes misted. “How do you love somebody who doesn’t even like you? I mean, he literally despises me. I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong or why we’re even still together. I’m not sure this brokenness can be fixed.”

Instead of buying into my pity party, Greg invited me to hear his idea, instead. “During this next week, I want you to do something for me. Think you’re up for a challenge?” His eyes danced with enthusiasm.

My brow creased, but curiosity held my attention. “I’m listening.”

“For one week, I want you to make a conscious effort to be kind to Brad, even if he doesn’t reciprocate or deserve it. Give yourself permission not to be defensive. Don’t correct him when he’s wrong. Don’t punish him for not responding the way you want him to. Just let his snarky responses and snippy attitude roll right off your back. Don’t react or get angry, either. Be the bigger person. Ignore his negativity and walk away from conflict, if it should arise. Think you can handle this little experiment?”

Doubt enveloped my words. “That sure is asking a lot. What do you think will happen if I follow what you just outlined?”

“I think you’ll witness a change,” Greg predicted. “You might even be surprised at how positive Brad responds. If you’re lucky, you may even receive some kindness in return. Why not give it a try? What can it hurt?” His eyebrows rose with the possibilities, the corners of his mouth turning upward into a grin.

“OK,” I finally gave in. “One week, but I can’t see it helping much.”

“Fair enough,” Greg smiled. “I’ll see you on the other side of your commitment.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *  

That evening, I greeted Brad at the front door with a smile. “Hey, You! You’re home early.” The perkiness in my voice carried a playful banter as I propped the front door open with my foot.

Brad lumbered up the walk, pressing past me into the house. The repugnant smell of cigarette smoke trailed close behind him. “What are you so happy about?” he grunted. “I always get off work at five-thirty.” After slinging his jacket over the back of the couch, he then dropped his keys on the kitchen counter.

“Well, I’m not used to seeing you until after eight,” I admitted, glancing at my watch to confirm the time. “Six fifteen seems kind of early for you.” I gently closed the door and stepped into the family room where Brad had plopped himself down on the recliner in front of the TV. “May I help get you something? Something to drink, perhaps?”

I walked to the couch and picked up Brad’s favorite pillow, preparing to hand it to him. “I’m fine,” he snapped, snatching the pillow from my grasp. “Now move. I wanna see the game.” He tucked the pillow behind his back then aimed the remote at the TV, staring at the screen while it powered on.

“You sure you don’t want anything to eat? I can reheat some of the leftovers Calleigh and I had for supper about an hour ago. It was a Mexican dish. Pretty tasty,” I encouraged. “It’d only take a couple minutes.”

“No. Really. I’m fine,” Brad snarled. Gruff. Curt. Rude. His words assaulted my senses. “I grabbed something on the way home. I’m not hungry. Stop trying to feed me.”

“OK. Just tryin’ to be helpful.” I made a conscious effort to remain kind. Maybe he just needs a little love and affection, I decided. Maybe a little flirting will get him out of this funky mood. I wiggled my hips and tickled his left ear with the tips of my fingers.“Like my new jeans? I’m down two dress sizes. How’s that for gettin’ sexy back?” I dragged my pointer finger down the side of his arm, fishing for a compliment.

Brad shied from my touch, glaring at my closeness while sneering in derision. “You call that sexy? Look at you! Who would want to come home to that?” The disgust in his voice hit my stomach like a physical blow, and I winced like I had just been hit.

Rational thoughts began to tumble through my brain. What did I say?

Brad returned his attention to the television, leaning over the armrest to peer around me. “Come on!” he huffed. “Move. Get your fat ass out of the way.”

I sucked in a deep breath, determined to remain positive. You’re not going to ruin this experiment on the first night, Mister. I exhaled slowly and forced a smile. “What’s wrong with this?” I opened my arms and looked down at my appearance. A new, slimmer figure. Clean cotton v-neck t-shirt. Dark denim jeans. “Would you mind telling me how I can improve? I’d really like to know.” I struggled to keep exasperation from seeping into my voice.

“Why bother? It’s not like you listen anyway.” Brad kept his eyes averted, pretending to be immersed in a laundry detergent commercial.

“Does this have anything to do with me calling you earlier this evening and asking if you were going to be home for supper? I needed to know how much food to make. I thought I’d remembered you saying something about your schedule being different tonight, so I didn’t know if you’d be joining us or not.”

Brad’s deadpan eyes stared up at me, his boredom with me palpable. “I didn’t answer my phone today because I knew it was you. I already knew what you were going to ask. You ask the same thing every day. ‘When are you going to be home, Brad? Will you be joining us for supper, Brad? Can you stop on the way home and pick up some milk, Brad?’ You’re so predictable and needy, and I’m over it.” He rolled his eyes for show. “Let’s just get this straight. I don’t know what time I’m going to be home. I never know what time I’m going to be home, so why don’t you just stop with all your nagging?”

I froze for a second, trying to wrap my mind around his absurd response. “That doesn’t describe me. I don’t nag you. I ask very normal questions that any wife would ask her husband when she doesn’t know something. It’s called communication.” I paused, struggling to make sense of Brad’s accusations. “You just said two minutes ago that you get off work every night at five-thirty, but some nights we don’t see you until eight-thirty or nine. I never know how to plan, because you don’t share with me what’s going on in your life. What do you do between the time you get off work and the time you come home?”

Brad’s chest swelled with indignation. “What I do with my time is none of your business. You gonna start playing hall monitor now?” His glare bore into me.

I ran my fingers through my hair, frustrated and confused. “I’m not playing hall monitor, Brad. I’m stating facts. For the past year, you’ve been getting home later and later, often not arriving home until eleven o’clock or midnight. Am I just supposed to ignore that?” I sighed, pushing a stray hair behind my ear. “Calleigh’s been missing her daddy, too. She keeps asking where you are. What am I supposed to tell her?”

Bitterness spewed from the daggers in Brad’s eyes. “What are you getting at, Hope? You calling me a bad father?”

I looked at Brad in disbelief. “No, of course not. I just need some answers. How am I supposed to plan our lives with you in it if I don’t know when or if you’ll be coming home? Am I supposed to just pretend you’re not a part of this family any more? Would you rather I not include you?” Irritation cracked my voice.

Brad lurched forward, coming out of his chair. “I always come home!” he thundered near my face. “Don’t you dare go accusing me of neglecting my family, you selfish little bitch! I work hard to provide a roof over your pretty lil’ head, and you always have food to eat and clothes to wear, so don’t you go acting like I’m some horrible husband or father. Keep it up, and I’ll show you what horrible looks like!” My breath caught in my throat, and I promptly stepped out of Brad’s reach, hairs pricking the back of my neck.

“I never said you were neglecting your family. I simply wanted to know when we could expect you to be home at night.” I shied from his closeness, feeling the back of my calves brush against the edge of the couch as I inched away.

Brad’s nostrils flared, his eyes spitting fire. “Why? So you can tell me what to do? Or so you can keep bossing me around and treating me like a pathetic two year old?”

Facts twisted and contorted in front of me as I battled to untangle the truth. My palms began to sweat as I noted the vein on the side of his neck begin to bulge. “No, of course not,” I sputtered. “We just like spending time with you. That’s all.” That’s not really a lie, I argued with myself. We do actually enjoy being around Brad when he’s in a good mood. That just hasn’t been happening very often. Standing on the precipice of Brad’s pending wrath, I forced another smile, hoping it looked more believable than it felt.

Hot. Fiery. Unpredictable. Brad continued to bully. “You will not be controlling my every move,” he fumed. “I can do whatever I please, whenever I please, and I do not need to have your permission to do it! Do I make. Myself. Clear?”

Squaring my shoulders, I straightened my spine and steadied my voice. “I am not asking to know your every move. I’m simply asking to be a part of your life. Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that why we got married—to share our lives?”

“OH. MY. WORD! What a manipulator. This is the very reason I don’t come home to you,” Brad raged. “You’re so pathetic and needy. No one would knowingly marry this. I can’t believe I did.” His words dripped with disdain as he brushed at the air in front of me, trying to wave away my existence.

Tears brimmed in my eyes, his hate piercing my heart. He regrets marrying me? Really? What have I done? How is wanting to spend time with him neediness? He used to enjoy being part of this family. Why has that changed? I struggled to digest his words, refusing to believe my reality. Deep sadness etched itself into the deepest part of my bones, and emotion choked my words. “Is that what you really think?”

Brad rolled his eyes and feigned a chuckle. Such a performer. Always the drama queen. What’s the matter? Did you get your feelings hurt?” He exaggerated a frown, a glint of vindictive satisfaction in his eyes. “What? Is it something I said?” Tears trickled down my face, and my chin began to quiver. “Seriously, Hope, you’re not even believable. You can stop the act.”

He reached toward my face, causing me to flinch. “C’mon. Seriously? You can’t possibly think I’m gonna hurt you?” he huffed. Shaking his head, he grunted. “You’re a bigger actress than I gave you credit for.” Swiping a tear from my cheek, he flicked it in my face. “You’re the biggest mistake I ever made—in case that was in question.” Shoving a box of toys out of his way, he spouted a variety of expletives then stormed from the room. “Don’t bother trying to make up with me. I’ll be sleeping in my study tonight—ALONE!” I jumped as the door to his office slammed shut.

Collapsing on the couch in a heap of tears, I held my chest as a physical, knife-like pain stabbed at my heart. This isn’t what marriage is supposed to be like. I’m not supposed to be afraid of my husband, I informed God. I scooted back on the couch cushion and tucked my knees up under my chin. Wrapping my arms around my legs, I rocked myself against the overwhelming anxiety building inside me. “I don’t know how to live like this. This isn’t what I signed up for. He really, really scares me!” I whispered. God’s silence answered me.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          * 

Greg opened our session with a smile and a curious mind. “So, how did our lil’ experiment go?” His eyebrows rose in anticipation.

“Probably not the way you imagined it would,” I reciprocated with a sarcastic chuckle.

The mystery grabbed his attention, a puzzled expression replacing his confident air. “Oh?”

“Yeah. The nicer I got, the meaner Brad became. All. Week. Long. I couldn’t do anything without him jumping down my throat. Come to find out, breathing is also a crime.” I rolled my eyes. “Brad claims he can hear me exhale from three rooms away. Not possible, but he’ll swear it is.”

“That does seem a bit extreme,” Greg admitted.

“Oh! That’s not all,” I elaborated. “Everything I did became a contentious issue with Brad. If I made oatmeal, he wanted grits. If I ran the vacuum to clean up a mess he’d just complained about—and one he had probably made—he’d insist everything in the house must be quiet. My attempts at kindness actually turned our house into a battlefield.” I bit my lower lip, remembering every action that had gone wrong. “What made things worse,” I continued, “was that it was like living with a Jack-in-the-Box. He’d flip on a dime, and you’d never know what was going make him lunge. There was no consistency in his reactions—only that you knew something would eventually trigger an outburst. Eventually.”

“Wow, that is quite a different answer than what I was expecting,” Greg disclosed. “Most people aren’t oppositional when shown kindness.”

“Oh, yeah, and don’t ever hint that he may be wrong.” I shook my head and pursed my lips.

“Because he never is, right?” Greg finished my thought, familiar with the sentiment.

“Ever!” I emphasized. “It’s bad enough to never be right or be allowed to have an opinion of my own, but all hell breaks loose if I try correcting him. My ideas are never better than his, and he’ll sit there and give me a hundred reasons why his opinions or facts trump mine. Always.” I looked Greg in the eye and shrugged in defeat. “Welcome to my world.”

“Those are some pretty big issues,” Greg agreed. “So, I guess my next question is, ‘What have you gained from going through all this?’”

I leaned back against the couch and shrugged again. “That I can keep my cool longer than I ever thought imaginable?” Greg raised an eyebrow, and tilted his head, summoning a more serious answer. “Fine,” I conceded. “I learned that no matter how nice I am, Brad always has a choice of how he’s going to respond, and I can’t control his actions.”

“But you can control your response,” Greg emphasized.

“Right. Even if that means walking away,” I acknowledged.

Greg sensed my hesitation. “You don’t believe your relationship with Brad is normal, do you?”

A deep sigh escaped me. “No. It stopped being normal a long time ago.”

Greg tapped the end of his pen against his notepad. “What makes you think your marriage is different? What are you measuring it against?” He genuinely wanted to know.

“A gut feeling, I guess. Something just feels off,” I answered. “I’ve had positive role models all throughout my life—like my mom and dad—and I’ve seen what real love looks like, but this ain’t it.” I shook my head. “Sure, my parents argue from time to time—all couples do, but they don’t fight. There’s a difference between not seeing eye to eye versus constant stress in a marriage. Respecting your spouse, you learn how to say ‘I’m sorry’ when things get hurtful, and you know when you need to just agree to disagree, without demeaning the other person.”

“I see.” Greg listened.

“Growing up, Julia and I never had to wonder if Dad was going to leave Mom or if Mom was going to leave Dad. They’re each other’s best friend, and they’ve committed to making things work—through thick or thin. Guess you could say they’re ‘equally yoked.’” Greg’s eyes held an awkward understanding of my words. “You know? Like in the Bible,” I clarified, referencing 2 Corinthians 6:14–16. “I don’t have that adhesiveness with Brad—not sure I ever will.” The realization made my heart ache.

“I can see why you would feel discouraged,” Greg sympathized.

“I never thought I’d be in a relationship where our fundamental beliefs would clash all the way down to the very core. It’s like I’m in survival mode all the time, merely existing day to day. We can’t agree on the simplest things. How are we supposed to live the rest of our lives together?” I frowned. “We’re constantly pulling each other in opposite directions, then get mad when the other doesn’t want to comply.”

Greg’s eyes held a comprehensive understanding I had never seen anywhere else. “Sadly, that’s more common than you think,” he nodded.

“But we did everything we were supposed to do to prevent this from happening,” I rebutted, “including pre-marriage counseling. But, even before that, we had long heart-to-heart discussions, covering everything from our favorite colors to our deepest dreams. We also talked about what having a family would look like and how many kids we wanted to raise. Taking it a step further, we imagined ourselves at ten, twenty, thirty years down the road. Our plans, all the way down to retirement, seemed compatible. That’s why I’m not really sure how we got here.”

Greg nodded slowly. “Have you ever been in a relationship where you didn’t feel this way?”

My eyes filled with tears as I succumbed to my truth. “Yeah. With Gavin.”

A warm smile spread across Greg’s face. “Why don’t you tell me about it.”

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