Say Yes To The Mess
It started with Heather at dooce.com announcing her separation from her husband. It knocked us both down, Burdy and I. Them? The people we found online all those years ago, the ones whose relationship we felt was invincible? The ones we found commonality with? The mouthy blonde and the nerdy computer guy? The husband and wife team of blogging and software engineering? The very thing we aspired to? The thing which inspired our daily mantra of: if they can make it work, so can we?
Now they are undone. And it rattled us because, ultimately, other people’s announcements of tragedy come boomeranging back into your face and hit you squarely in the nose. Hard. After you’ve shaken off the cartoon stars circling your head, you begin to ask yourself questions, like: could that happen to us? Are we working hard enough on our relationship? What else could we be doing? Should we be worrying this much? Are we judging this event by thinking that this is some sort of call to action? Are we asking the right questions, even? Is this a matter of strength or fortitude, or just how life sometimes goes?
Can we have a conversation about divorce in this country without getting our knickers in a twist over morality and religion? I mean, let’s face it: divorce can be a life-changing construct that’s not all bad. And thank God we don’t live in a country where we have to legally stay married to someone who beats us or verbally abuses us or worse. Thank gooodness we have the ability to undo our decisions. Because what that really means is that we have the ability, we have the legal right, to change and grow. And sometimes, to facilitate that personal growth, we have to do it apart from the person we agreed to marry. Sometimes we change and grow at a pace faster than our partner, and sometimes that difference in pace is too much for a marriage to bear.
Does that mean that sometimes people use divorce as an out for a difficult situation and skip that personal growth opportunity altogether? Yes. Does this mean every divorce is as convenient and quick as a Kardashian’s? No. Does that mean that, with the right tools, some marriages might not have to end in divorce? Yes. Does that mean that everyone who makes that choice to separate from their partner should be made to feel like they’re part of a “pandemic” of disease sweeping the country? Absolutely not.
And what a double edged sword that choice is, huh? What other institution do we have in this country (besides parenthood, and only sometimes) which mandates that we stay in it, miserable or not? We can leave our jobs, the places we live, and our cable providers. We can change the places we shop, what we buy, and we can sell or donate our belongings when we tire of them. Marriage? We’re married to it. Forever. It doesn’t quite fit the paradigm of the rest of our North American upbringing. It tests, too, the strength of our word, and the promises we make and holy moses, if we can’t honor that word, then what does that say about the ritual of making promises?
I’ve been working on this post for almost two months. I have been reluctant to hit that Publish button because I was looking for some sort of resolution to these feelings, and nothing was coming to me. I knew back in February that I wanted to write about the topic of marriage, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, exactly. The whole thing started with this article I read in the NY Times about a woman whose husband announced one day that he was leaving his wife and his kids. He said he was unhappy. And his wife said: I don’t buy it. What she meant was: she didn’t buy that his unhappiness was permanent. And she basically told her husband: Go, leave. Go do the things you feel like you need to do. We’ll be here when you get back. She was no slave to the institution of marriage. She was not so blinded by her love or in denial about her husband’s odd behavior (yes, there was another woman). She didn’t just sit by the phone while he diddled around. She made a conscious choice not to suffer. Suffering was an option, she said, and she chose not to suffer. I thought it incredibly brave, so enlightened of her to make this choice. She waited- close to a year, as I recall- for him to realize that the sweet young thing he was chasing was only that, and that what he really wanted was a change of pace and not a change of wife or family. And he came back. And the wife took him back.
She chose not to suffer.
I read this piece around Valentine’s Day. It settled down deep inside me and filled in all the holes in my pscyhe where doubt, and issues of fidelity and long term relationships had been hanging around. It sat there for about a week and made me feel like I could overcome anything in my relationship. Suffering in your relationship was a choice, I learned. It was a choice. That’s what my therapist had been telling me. And all the self help books, too.
Maybe it’s because the month of February naturally lends itself to discussions about marriage and love, but this issue of marriage and separation starting showing up everywhere after that article. I checked in with one of my favorite bloggers. She’s very open about her marriage and all its accompanying challenges. She’s open about the complex emotional lives of her kids, too. She’s about as honest as it gets. She featured a link on her blog to another blogger. So I went and read that posting. And that took me to another post by another blogger about marriage.
And it got me thinking.
What these women were writing about, alongside their marriages, was their frustration with fellow bloggers about the way they talk about their marriages. One called a good chunk of the pieces on relationships “fluff pieces”. I certainly didn’t want to write a fluff piece about marriage when I sat down to write this piece. But, blogging is a balancing act, and it’s a tough one. There is more than just my life to consider when I write about marriage. Writing about marriage, or anything for that matter, engages you in a creative process that demands brutal honesty. And that honesty invites another facet of the creative process into your life: learning to live under a microscope. Sometimes I want a break from that scrutiny. Sometimes I want to just write a piece for the express purpose of putting it somewhere outside of my already-crammed-full head. Sometimes I don’t want to write for the purpose of pulling people together and creating a discussion around my issues. Sometimes my writing is catharsis only.
You’d be justified in asking: well, then why don’t you just put it in a journal if all you want is catharsis? Why do you need it to be on the Internet?
I guess I put it here because I believe in the gift of reciprocity. Sometimes I just want to read something online and be soothed, made to feel like I’m not alone. I need the Internet equivalent of a soft baby bunny in my pocket to stroke when I’m feeling alienated and upset. And I want to give someone else out there the thing I have been seeking myself. I’d like to think that, even if I do withhold the more intimate details of my life, people are still getting something out of reading this. My hope is that this blog makes someone else feel a little less neurotic, or, at least, in the good company of other high functioning neurotic types.
In practice, reciprocity is complicated. I have to weigh the pros and cons of being utterly and unapologetically honest because of the characters involved. Right now, my life is necessarily compartmentalized. Is that the best arrangement? Maybe not. But the alternative is to spend a whole lot of energy considering the feelings of others, and dealing with the fallout of offending those feelings and then reconciling them, and explaining and re-explaining my position, and frankly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Anyway, this whole topic of marriage and blogging and how honest we want to be about it is front and center in my life right now. It flies in the face of my “rules” about how much one should talk about their relationship on their blog. One line in one of the blogs stuck me as particularly poignant: bloggers sometimes crank out humurous posts to sidestep the uglier sides of our humanity, but the whole reason we go to blogs in the first place is to read about everyone’s humanity. It’s a huge disservice to bury the truth in humor. It’s true. I’m guilty of writing humorous posts instead of writing about the more indelicate stuff. I say this not in defense but to offer something to the conversation: sometimes we bloggers (of eleven-readers fame) need a break from all this hyper-sensitivity to the world. And I’m very conscious of what one long stream of senstivity without obvious resolution sounds like. It sounds like whining. You could probably say it’s too late for me. For God’s sake, the first post ever on this blog is about not being able to find a decent pair of jeans. (Cue the wah-wah trombone).
What I heard in all those posts by all those women bloggers was a call to tell the truth. So. I’m going to try to answer that call.
And I’ll also tell you why I haven’t written much about the topic of marriage, why even writing about it right now feels a little premature: I don’t know quite how to feel about it. And it scares the crap out of me.
All I have ever wanted is some sort of guide, someone or something to tell me I am doing this right. I want that guide now, as an adult, because I grew up without one. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but they certainly didn’t have Amazon dropping off a dozen books on their doorstep (OVERNIGHT SHIPPING FREE!) about childrearing (not that my parents EVER would have had time to read books on parenting with FOUR kids to raise). And now, as an adult, I am still looking for that instruction manual everywhere I go. When people see me, they see a nose ring and my red shoes, and my pink patchwork handbag and they say, You? A bookkeeper? And I want to grab them by the lapels and hiss into their faces YES, this is my therapy. This is my instruction manual. I can’t afford a full-time therapist, so instead I get paid to work out my issues on people’s ledgers. This is what I do all day: I add numbers and straighten papers because I can’t think of a better way to physically deliver what it is my heart so desires: to have it all add up at the end of the day, for there to be only one way for one and one to equal two. I do what I do because I need just one thing in my life to go from chaos to order. I don’t dabble in advanced math. I am not interested in theories or opinions. I want cold hard facts. I want certainty. Most days I just want the edges of the paper to align and for the stapler to pierce them all perfectly. Because at least I will know that there is always a place in this world for right angles and machines that do the same thing day after day after day. After a lifetime of upset and indecision, this is comforting.
Most days I want that neat and orderly life because the disorder of the world is too much to handle. And some days, I crave that chaos with a junkie’s appetite because it seems so freeing. I’ve not yet found that elusive middle ground. I’m more inclined to think that I am destined to play hopscotch for the rest of my life- one foot in one world for a moment, steadying myself with windmilling arms, and then a quick hop over to the other world, repeated ad infinitum. The trick, maybe, is to stand on one that one foot for long enough to actually enjoy my time in that position, to do something productive with it.
When Burdy and I announced our engagement, my brother asked us a pointed question: why, after so many years together, why now were we getting married? It was a punch to the guts because I didn’t have a ready answer. I could go on about good feelings and age and the silliness in calling a man I’ve lived with for ten years my “boyfriend”, but it was more vague than that. I don’t have a good answer. Or, at least, the answer is more out of reach than I would like it to be right now. It lives in this bowl of feelings that include things like “I can’t imagine my life without him” and “I like making him laugh”. Some days, I’m still not certain that is enough to base a life together on. On other days, it seems like more than enough.
I once had a friend say, regarding my indecision, something along the lines of “Well, I mean, he doesn’t beat you, so that’s a good start”. To which I responded: REALLY? That’s the best we can do as women? We start with “he’s not a hitter” as the baseline for our satisfaction? When I think of how many women in this world ARE being abused, I DO count myself incredibly lucky. But, you see, this is the danger in holding your relationship up to the light of another’s: it’s never a fair comparison.
When the world sees your engagement ring, its face lights up. Giggles ensue. Voices go up an octave. It’s a strange thing to drop your hand from a curious stranger’s and admit things aren’t unicorns and rainbows. It’s a very long story to tell while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, or waiting for your workout routine to start that yes, you are getting married, and, yes, you love your partner very much, but that lately, it hasn’t been all fireworks. It’s been a long time since the fireworks, in fact.
Being engaged churns up all sorts of stuff about your past, too. When we created our wedding website, I struggled with “our story”. Ours was so, well, young when it began, and fraught with tension. It started up at one of the most tumultuous times in our lives. I was in flux between going back to Weird Hippie School, or joining the work force in our native New Jersey. And somehow, in the midst of all that, we found each other and sculpted a refuge out of our time together. Sometimes the best part of my day was sitting in his parked car and figuring out who could best imitate a parakeet’s call. It’s been fifteen years since those parked car days.
There is no way to describe in ten words or less the arch of a relationship. But this is what I want to tell everyone when they ask about our wedding plans. One moment you’re parking in unfamiliar neighborhood to have impromptu sex in the backseat, and the next you’re calling the man you love a real ass. I used to wonder at how people could call each other such horrible things. Now I sort of know. It’s a slow, almost unmeasurable climb up that hill. There is no visible progression. It’s just that you find yourself at some point furious that you have to ask to have the garbage taken out. And you could no more picture this day fifteen years ago than you could imagine yourself having arthritis at thirty-five when you were seventeen. And yet, here you are: hiring a caterer and picking out a dress and trying to muster up excitement about it when all you’re really thinking about is how easy it was to flip your fiance the bird this morning.
There is lots of debate out there about how much work should go into a marriage before you admit to yourselves that it’s just too much. Here’s an interesting assessment from this writer: it’s all about ratios. What’s your joy to work ratio? 85 to 15 seems to be tolerable. What about those days when you just feel like it’s 20-80?
Do you count the ebb day as evidence that your relationship is in the 20-80 range? Or do you count the 20-80 day as evidence that it’s just an ebb kind of day, or month, or couple of months?
Burdy and I go to couples therapy regularly. We were going once a week when things were really unmanageable. Now we’re down to twice a month. It all started when I started seriously considering whether or not I actually wanted to get married. My head was full of statistics about how marriage, as an institution, works better for men than women… and there was the simple fact that I just never really, truly imagined getting married. I had this idea of a wedding. But not of a marriage. So what the hell was I doing all those years? Just wating for us to get old? I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about the “why”, especially why now? There is still a segment of our population that can’t legally marry (though, in my special state, it is becoming legal. Go, Washington!). Where is the power in a ritual that not everyone can take part in? I’m still trying to figure that out. Most people would know by now. And I might come back to this blog after decades of being happily married, or years of still questioning, and either be horrified that I ever wrote this or find it all endearing and charming that I was ever this full of doubt.
Sometimes I DO just need to write about silly television shows and the antics of the morons on the bus. I do it for my own sake. Because I have a tendency to fixate, full-on obsess about the negative. And I’m also the kind of person who takes in, whole body, the suffering of those around me, real or not. I couldn’t watch TV for a while after “The Wire” because a show about FICTIONAL PEOPLE so wrecked me. The national news, too, does this to me. I can only take so much. It’s not enough to say it gets under my skin. It creeps like a fog inside me, filling the tiniest parts of me. I lose my long-sightedness. Suddenly the whole world exists only on my frontal cortex, and God help me if the last thing that got in there was news from Sudan, or of a father murdering his children in a custody battle. I can’t let it go. Sometimes I just need to lighten it all up for my own sake. To keep myself from descending down into a question-and-answer spiral that goes nowhere. It’s all part of the compartmentalization process.
You know, if you pick up a book, any book, on meditation, you’ll be asked to ask yourself if suffering is just a normal part of life. So why get all bent out of shape about not feeling good for one day or one week or one month when the whole of your life has been pretty good?
There’s this tendency to dismiss our suffering because it doesn’t stand up to things like poverty and war and rape and murder. You think: well, you’ve got a roof over your head and an income and a partner that loves you, so what’s your deal? Just shut the hell up already. The message that comes to me is when I put my doubts up on the scale is: your suffering is so undeserved. And that shuts down the inquiry process that is so necessary when considering a decision like marriage.
And then I go rifling through everything I own about Eastern philosophy, and to this study I heard about years ago about how the Japanese don’t/didn’t really have a word for depression, and that anti-depression medication was having a hard time gaining a foothold in that part of the world. Apparently, ebb and flow is an accepted part of the Japanese life. It isn’t an illness the way we think of it here in North America; it’s actually quite normal to feel sad and conflicted for a spell. The study claimed the Japanese see things on a continuum, and they recognize sadness as a temporary situation, like a kid having a temper tantrum. Seems like, as a culture, they sort of fold their arms across their chest and wait it out. So they also don’t medicate. Pretty interesting, no?
You know the old cartoons where a conflicted character has these conversations with a devil over one shoulder and an angel on the other? Well, I have those same conversations too, only on my right shoulder sits Buddha, and on the other a dark cloud wearing Chuck Taylors. And these two are constantly going at it. Buddha’s perky nipples shake as he giggles at me. He smiles so hard his eyes turn into crescent moons. He tells me to eat that second handful of cheese puffs, to have another drink, to not worry about where my next paycheck will come from, to not get so obsessed about the plight of the polar bear, because, we’ll all die eventually and what’s the point of worrying? You have but one life, he tells me cheerily. Use it well! And the dark cloud nervously pinches my shoulder and says See? I told you. ONE life. It’s not enough. You need more time to figure this all out. And aren’t those cheese puffs going to give you diarhhea later?
So this is what goes through my mind when I think about marriage. This constant tug of war, this not being able to feel anything truly because my intellect is pushing books and papers in the face of my heart and saying things like, “You should be able to overcome these feelings of doubt. This is a choice. This is a choice. We have the evidence right here.”
Somewhere, in the midst of all my wandering the desert in February, I heard this on the radio. And the clouds parted, and I felt like maybe I could do this marriage thing. (Thank you, Mr. Tobolowsky).
I feel like what has been missing from my life is this piece where I see that no one dies and the world doesn’t end if two people don’t understand each other all the time. I’m a child of divorce. A messy, crappy divorce. And it happened during my formative years- when I was trying to establish myself as separate from my parents, when I was just trying to try on the masks of adulthood. And so what my soul learned was that differences are irreconcilable. I learned (wrongly) that the inevitable outcome for two people going through a trying period in their lives was death and destruction and unhappiness. To me, it was the only outcome. That was my experience. It’s what my anxiety-riddled brain took away from the whole affair.
Some days it feels like 20-80 with my fiance. Other times I can’t believe how LUCKY I am that Burdy doesn’t just make popcorn every night just the way I like it, or knows just how I take my coffee, or accepts that I have a tendency to leave seven pairs of shoes in front of the doorway at once, but that he also wants to do this with me, to figure this out, for better or for worse for each of us. On those 20-80 days, I want to run away, I want to be single again. I want to join the circus and live a bohemian’s life and take a million lovers because that seems easier than having to ask Burdy to take the trash out. Or having the hard conversations that couples need to have from time to time.
On the days when it’s more like 80-20 , I can see the great distance between me and that wounded child. I can see how it was natural back then to presume that conflict equaled permanent separation. And I can forgive that wounded child for thinking that. I can forgive her coping mechanisms, and I can let them fall away. I can make room in my life for a new kind of truth, one that is still writing itself into existence.