This was from 23 years ago-we'd been dating for about 3 years
and got married 2 years after this. I was 19, he was 22.
That was clickbait, I'm not actually getting remarried. Don't buy me a toaster or anything. (Or actually, do buy me a toaster. Robb chose ours and it beeps TOO LOUDLY FOR MORNING when the bagel is done and annoys the piss out of me.)
Here's the thing: I've been married to the same person for twenty years, but in that time we've had four, maybe five wholly different versions of our marriage. I assume this is normal as people continue to evolve and learn new things about themselves and what they want in a relationship. Our marriage counselor tells us it's normal. She also tells me to enjoy the newest reincarnation- my personal favorite to date- and not to fear that the old versions will come creeping back. I find this difficult.
That we're in such a solid version of our marriage-verse right now is probably why I feel confident writing this. It's scary to describe a situation you know isn't right for you but you're still choosing to stay in; it feels weak and precarious. Also, when you're neck-deep in it you don't always see all the ways it is choking you.
And let me be clear, I'm not writing this to advocate sticking it out because "it might get better" and "marriage is a commitment" or whatever. It might get worse, too! It's not like we have a back-up life after this one- being with someone for decades who doesn't see you makes you feel invisible. Divorce isn't easy but terrible marriages aren't either. The kids aren't a reason to stay, they're a reason to model taking care of yourself and doing what it takes to find your peace. I grew up thinking longevity of marriage meant success, but have determined that's a pile of rubbish. If both people in the marriage aren't, on average, thriving and comfortable, sticking it out is an exercise in stubborness and prioritizing the paper over the people.
A year ago, we were having one of our worst marriages, and it had been going on for a long time. I'd built callouses on callouses on callouses. Two years ago, when we were considering a move across the country, I was polling my friends to see if I shouldn't do the move because it might make leaving more complicated. I was unfulfilled, lonely, and miserable. I should have left. If I was focusing on my own wellness and needs, I would have. Or I should have demanded radical change. Eventually I did, but those years took a toll on me.
Recently a friend, who is polyamorous, tweeted something about how that lifestyle means she never has to feel stuck in one relationship. She never has to feel like, "We've been together for sixteen years. I can't leave now. It is what it is." She didn't use my name, but I am 99% sure she was quoting me there. The last time I saw her I had two little kids and a bullshit of a marriage and I'm pretty sure I said those exact words. I am her model of what NOT to be. And she's right. How many times did I say, "It is what it is?" Or, "Well, I made my bed, now I need to sleep in it." Thousands? And each time, it took a piece out of me. A year ago, I was walking around like a sieve, knowing that by staying in this relationship I was dishonoring myself, choosing something daily over myself.
I thought that was love.
I'd been led to believe that not asking for what I needed, sacrificing my happiness and wellness to the greater good was what being a wife was all about. I thought I was doing my duty to my husband and family and world by sticking in it even when profoundly unhappy. In fact, I kind of thought my unhappiness was a sign I was sacrificing enough, doing it right.
From the outside, you wouldn't have known we were in this rotten place. We were polite-ish and decent-ish to each other, even affectionate-ish. We had enough sex that it qualified as a sex life, or at least a sex hobby. We know how to play the part of married couple, we've been doing it for half our lives. But the truth is, we weren't saying the hard things out loud, we didn't feel safe with each other, couldn't be vulnerable, and were convinced the other one didn't have our backs. We were tired of attempting to care for the other and not having it received well or even noticed. We were next to each other on the couch but a million miles apart.
Months of individual and couples therapy later and we both feel safe in our marriage because we're both safe in ourselves. We each feel seen, loved, and heard by our partners because we're taking care of ourselves and being clear about who we each are and what we need. And it doesn't feel like a life sentence to be married, but rather a choice we're gleefully making every day. I don't feel resigned. The bitterness, resentment, callouses are healing and, with only occasional bouts of terror, I'm glad to see them go. We're not loving each other more, per se, because we were always THERE doing THE THING but we love each other differently. Since we both feel safe to express precisely how we feel and what we need (like down to the detail, "This is what it looks like, do THIS"), we're able to more accurately care for each other instead of wildly swinging and moslty missing. We're receptive to each other's feedback because we're healing ourselves and so it doesn't wreck our ego to have things to improve. We want to hear each other's needs instead of it feeling like a weighted laundry list of our own failings.
So it's all about us. Individually. I get my shit straight and am learning who I am and what I deserve, and now I know how to ask for it. I can be radically honest and real which is an enormous relief. I don't spend a bunch of energy anticipating his needs or how he might react to something, getting pre-upset and resentful because secretly I'm afraid of having needs at all.
We have boundaries now- around each of us and so I can trust he's taking care of his stuff and I'm taking care of mine. It's PROFOUNDLY different than the codependent give-give-resent thing we had going for so long. I can be loved and love better. He's like a whole different partner. I find myself respecting him more now that he respects himself and his needs more. I don't feel walked on or taken for granted, but also I can't walk on him/take him for granted. It's attractive. It's comforting. I don't know that we'll look any different on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a whole new relationship.
We stay up way too late chatting like it's a slumber party instead of a two-decade long marital bed of doom. We seek each other out and genuinely miss each other, we feel safe. And sex reflects all of that. Funnily enough, we're not really having more of it, because #life and #kids hasn't changed, but we're both more present in it and open and vulnerable...and fun. And I feel zero qualms about saying when I don't want sex- no guilt, no stomachache, no resentment about the guilt and stomachache. My no is fine and I know it will be received as fine. Also, my yes is without reservations and with enthusiasm, which is, obviously, better for both of us. I hope the next generation doesn't carry all the baggage we did into our sexual relationship, but I guess, better late than never for these revelations.
Healing, being confident and not savagely protecting the easily-wounded ego, being self-aware, clear in communication, honest, vulnerable, and open....mmmmm, this is the stuff. Right there. That is just about the most loving, sexy, powerful thing I can think of. AND it's not just effecting our marriage. I keep concluding that the best way to love someone is to figure out how to manage yourself and take care of your own needs so they don't have to. This goes for the parent-child relationship, for friendship, for jobs, too. All of it.
For all of you wives out there reading this, going, "My husband totally needs it but would NEVER go, how did you make yours??" it was like this:
I've gone to therapy intermittently my whole life as I deal with depression and anxiety. Between that and meds, I'm fully convinced it's why I'm alive and functional. Robb hadn't been since he went briefly as a teen. He wasn't anti-therapy, necessarily, but he thought he didn't need it. The only reason he thought he might get something out of it is because he has this depressed wife he needs to figure out how to manage. ;) Turns out (and I know we're all shocked here), he did have work to do, healing to be done, wounds to be mended and growth to be....grown? Kinda lost that one there.
Anyway. We knew our marriage was in rough shape but I didn't want to try marriage counseling while we were both still in bad places individually. I knew from experience it would just be frustrating. I wasn't ready to be vulnerable with him in the ways I would need to be- I didn't trust him. We needed to get our own ducks in a row before we tried to blend some ducks, so I insisted that he go get therapized, as well.
For the sake of the marriage, he went.
To be fair, men are really discouraged from getting this kind of care. At least where I grew up and in the generations up to- and including- mine, therapy is seen as a last resort, only for the SUPER crazy, emotional people, only for the selfish ones who want to woo-woo their self-helpiness all over the place. It isn't masculine to need help, to talk about feelings, to admit you have areas of pain that need attention. Even for my fairly emotionally-evolved dude, this was a stretch. But now that he's connected with a therapist he really likes and is seeing such HUGE changes inside and outside him, he's hooked...and btw, he's in the market for male friends who are doing the work, as well. In case you know anyone.
So I would say, to con your man into going to therapy, let him read this, tell him if you both get your heads right you'll likely want to touch his penis more, tell him other dudes are doing it and it's making their lives way more fun and better.
Also, as always with therapy- it's all about the right fit. I know people who have not clicked personality-wise, conversationally, with their therapist and so never make any progress, never can sink in deep and get to the stuff that needs to be gotten. It's critical to find someone you can get along with well enough and trust to be able to do the work. This is one reason I like BetterHelp and other online programs- it's a click of a button to find someone and to fire someone and find someone else. No awkward convo's, no worries about hurt feelings, you just move on if you need to. Polite, WASPy, midwestern me finds this very comforting. I once had a therapist who I saw live in-person who did a free 15 minute meet-and-greet before scheduling a session just to see if there was a click on both sides. If not, no problem, move on- I thought that was brilliant.
Anyway. Just wanted to share that I'm learning that it's the opposite of selfish to take care of your own needs- it's actually the most loving thing you can do. I'm enjoying this new version of our marriage a whole hell of a lot and working hard not to brace myself (pre-worry) about it changing again in the future. It will change. It will go up and down and we will learn and then fall back on old patterns and then we'll learn again. I don't know that ANY version of this marriage will last forever, but I am learning to trust that I can take care of myself and he can take care of himself, no matter what. And that's freedom. That's being together, but not stuck.
Be well, friends.