Saturday, July 2, 2011

Both Sides Now

[In case you're just jumping in here, this is the second of three posts on marriage.  The first can be read here. The second can be read here.]

Alright, then.  One more and then I'll shut about marriage.  If I were writing with my journalist hat on, I would have put this right up front so you could judge whether I had a conflict of interest.  Because I'm not, I didn't want you to.  The truth is, I think that most readers, armed with this information ahead of time, would probably not have taken the time to read the other posts, or at the very least would have inferred certain things about my mindset and dismissed any thoughts I have on the subject as irrelevant and jaded.

I am an ex-wife.

Three years out from my divorce, I can write that phrase and although it still gives me the willies, it doesn't feel like being punched in the face anymore, and I no longer allow it to define who I am.  I had been seeing a therapist for several months before I decided to end my marriage, trying to wrap my head around...well, my head and what was going on in there.  I'd been very open with him, cried my way through dozens of sessions, but I remember that when I told him that I'd actually done it, told my husband that I was leaving, I was fairly matter of fact.  It wasn't a casual decision.  I'd weighed everything out and even though it felt unbelievably shitty and there were a million ways that I was punishing myself about it on a regular basis, I knew it was the right one.  But when I'd finished explaining the basics of how I felt about it, I paused and burst into tears, "I'm going to be an ex-wife!  Ex-wives are horrible!"

I was kidding, in a morbid sort of way, but it summed up not just my own self-loathing for being a failure at marriage (and the instigator of its demise) but also my certainty that the recrimination I directed at myself was only the tip of the iceberg compared to the swift and terrible judgment soon to be rendered unto me by, well, everyone in the city.

The years that have followed have been a long, torturous, fascinating lesson learning curve.  For the most part, I doubt that anyone, my ex-husband included, judged me more harshly than I did myself, but there were definitely some haters.  Most people turned out to be too wrapped up in their own shit to bother with mine (possibly the most valuable lesson I learned, and one that made a huge difference in this people-pleaser's life).  But there was a also a large contingent who were so awkward and uncomfortable that they might as well have been judging.

It's probably apparent by now that I'm difficult to embarrass.  Easy to shame, but difficult to embarrass.  For pretty much everything I do or have done, I'm willing either to defend it or admit my error.   And in turn, I'm game for pretty much anyone wants to tell me.  In fact, I'm like a weird inverted gossip.  Everybody's got something going on that makes them feel like a freakish outsider, but because we feel that way, we rarely share the information.  I suspect that if everybody was more open about their lives, we'd all be shocked at how much "abnormality" we all share.  Look at the Republican party.  For all their judginess about each others' foibles, there's nary a one without a foible waiting in the wings.  We're all killing ourselves to hide our idiosyncracies and be "normal," based on a radically inaccurate picture of what normal is.

But wait, I was talking about marriage, right?  Right.  Much like people are uncomfortable when someone their age dies because it brings home their own mortality, divorce makes people uncomfortable as though it were a contagious disease.  

My husband was a smart, funny, talented man. He still is.  He loved me, and if he feels about me like I feel about him, he still does, in a different, distant way.  We spent a lot of years together.  We experienced some hard and beautiful things.  I'm not interested in sharing the particulars of how our relationship ended, because while I'm an open book, the co-author of this particular volume might not appreciate it. And ultimately, although there were various contributing factors, the thing that I understand now is that I do not want to married.  Period.

As I talked about in the first post of this series, marriage is a powerful cultural phenomenon and most people are raised either explicitly or implicitly to expect that the end game of romantic relationships is marriage.  I certainly thought so. My parents were divorced, and I had no intention of every letting such a horrible fate happen to me.  In retrospect, I can see how artificial the actual, "getting married" part was relative to the actual, lovely substance of the relationship we were in, but at the time, it seemed the natural next step, a big deal, the grown up thing to do.  It was all very theoretical, really.  Because hey, what's the difference between the first five years you're a couple and the years you're married?  A technicality, right?

Well, yes.  But here's why I firmly believe that it was not my marriage that didn't work for me, but marriage in general.  As a life-long people pleaser, I have an extremely difficult time protecting and cultivating my identity as an individual within the structure of a relationship.  That's not to say that my partners have been monsters or bullies, but that I will, incrementally and in subtle ways, defer to their plans, prioritize our plans and goals as a couple over mine as an individual.  It's not something that causes me to suffer necessarily. I don't lament these things, and I rarely notice until after the breakup, but I do it.  In my relationships prior to marriage, including the years in which I was dating my future husband, I would right the ship after the initial infatuation and get back to the business of being me.

I honestly expected that getting married wouldn't really change anything except to allow him access to my health insurance, but over a short period of time I began to feel as though obligation was supplanting mutual support.  We started a business together before we got married, his dream job, and I worked the day job to support it, with the expectation that when it got on its feet, I would have a turn. Again, I'll skip the details, but after we were married there came a time when I felt that our mutual life (maybe buying a house or having children, etc.) and the possibility that I might have a chance to explore my interests had been sacrificed.  I take responsibility for allowing that to happen. And I know that in similar circumstances with financial and legal obligations tied to another person, I would, against my better judgment, let it happen again.  People love to give the relationship advice that you shouldn't expect the other person to change, that you should go into it anticipating and accepting their faults.  I would add the also seemingly obvious but often ignored idea that you should do the same for yourself.

Divorce was easily the most horrific experience of my life, and ours was relatively amicable.  I think people expect that the person who does the leaving gets off easy, but I'm here to tell you it just isn't so.  Both parties walk away feeling broken, disappointed, frustrated confused.  It's crushing in ways you can't imagine unless you do it, and I strongly recommend you take my word for it.  My husband (for the same reasons I dislike the baggage that goes with the term "ex-wife" I hesitate to use the term ex-husband. Besides which, since I will not marry again, he is the only person I could be referring to when I say "my husband") has a girlfriend he's been with for years now and is the stepdad to her children.  I have been in a relationship for the same amount of time.  We're both satisfied with our lives, and when we run into each other, we're glad to have a chance to catch up, although we don't go out of our ways to make plans with each other.

My boyfriend and I are in love.  Both of us are personally strongly opposed to marriage, although we are equally adamant supporters of gay marriage as a civil rights issue.  After three years, we don't live together, which suits us just fine as we're both fairly finicky sorts who enjoy time to ourselves.  We're comfortable saying things like, "I think I need to just be on my own for a few days," and comfortable hearing it as well.  We have mutual projects including a band that is his project originally but in which we are partners, and we're supportive of each others' individual ventures, and participate in them as much as we are welcome and/or comfortable doing so.  I don't think it's fair to hold up any relationship against another one, but I will say that the lessons I learned in the course of my marriage and divorce have allowed me to be a better partner, both more responsible to myself and more cognizant of the health and balance of the relationship I'm in.

That I'm not cut out for marriage is fine by me.  I think there are people who are suited to it, and beyond that people who thrive in that situation.  Those people don't need an advocate because the world is set up to embrace them.  I didn't write this series because I'm a bitter divorcee hell bent on exposing the failures of the institution that ruined me, I wrote it because I firmly believe that the divorce rate should not be as high as it is, and the corollary is that the marriage rate should not be as high as it is.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of things we'd prefer not to see so much of in our society: divorce, abortion or robbery, for example.  But as much as we punish and marginalize people who are "guilty" of those activities, obsessing about the actions is an exercise in futility.  These are effects, and the only way to get real results in reducing those effects is to give some serious, honest, unflinching thought to the causes.  We need to re-evaluate our assumptions about marriage, get serious about sex education and de-stigmatizing contraception in places where stigma still persists and allocate at least as many resources for the war on poverty as we do for the war on drugs.  We're a talk-show culture, eager to dissect transgressions against our accepted norms, but too intellectually lazy to a) stop it or b) change our conception of what the "norm" is in any given arena.

So yes, I'm an ex-wife, a current girlfriend (which, though diminuitive, is at least less de-humanizing than "partner") but more importantly a proponent of living an examined life regardless of its resemblance to cultural expectations.

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