Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The big M

I've recently been reading and talking a lot about marriage, so it makes sense that the next thing I'd do is over-analyze & write about it. Not just the part that consists of love, but the whole thing. And as many who are or have been married know, there is so much more to marriage than the love part. SO MUCH MORE. Looking at it from an outsider's perspective, I realize it seems that I have no business giving advice since I have been divorced once & am only 3 years into my current (and final) marriage. But the 8 years I spent married to the wrong man and the 3 years I've spent married to the right man, in addition to the relationships I've grown up around, have given me a pretty fair view on the subject. Not to mention, I love talking about things when I feel I have a lot to share on a particular topic. And boy, do I have a lot to share on the topic of holy (and not-so-holy) matrimony!!

My marriage is still fairly new, but it has already been tested. We're both divorced and those relationships heavily damaged us in different ways. My first marriage produced an amazing little person but starting a relationship when you have a child is not easy. You have to work that much harder to get to know each other on a personal level b/c you don't have the advantage of one-on-one time as people w/out children have. Not to mention having to factor in another parent while we're trying to co-parent. I also met my husband at a time when I was still working my way through an ugly divorce, which put an incredible strain on us that lasted for an entire year. And that is just a small list of the issues I brought to the table! Justin had a whole host of problems that he carried with him, as well. A lot of his were due to extreme infidelity by his first wife. And like my own first marriage, his was dysfunctional in pretty much every aspect. We both came from wholly toxic relationships, having no experience with anything other than that. All these factors put our relationship under fire from the very start and required a huge commitment from us both.

Knowing the challenges we faced, I have to stop and give credit to love for it's role in this whole crazy, beautiful life of ours. It was our deep, immediate love for each other that adhered our broken pieces and kept us intact when the odds were not in our favor. Love, alone, is not enough to make a relationship last. However, it serves as a perfect foundation for the hard work that it takes to keep a marriage strong through some of the most difficult times.

I have to admit that while being previously divorced can be a huge obstacle in a healthy marriage, it can have it's benefits. While we both had mountains of baggage that we will probably spend our entire lives working through, we also have a clear picture of what we don't want our marriage to become. Knowing how bad it can get is a great motivation! The challenge in using our prior experience is that we have to constantly keep ourselves in check to make sure we don't cross a line and begin carrying the baggage over from our last marriages into our current one. Just b/c my ex-husband reacted to something a certain way does not mean that Justin will react the same any more than I will react the same as his ex-wife. So I have to remember not to be gun-shy and to open myself up to trying things that have failed in the past. I also have to remind myself not to fall into old, unhealthy patterns that were prevalent in my last marriage. It may take more effort to face something than it does to shut down and ignore it, but leaving things unresolved is like feeding poison into a relationship. Eventually, it will die.

Another of the biggest pitfalls to relationships can be preconceived notions of how it is supposed to be. We're fed an ideal from a very young age and it can be so hard to shake that image when you fall in love with someone. I think the notion of a fairy tale causes so much harm b/c it makes you believe marriage should be effortless and easy. Once you start to see it's not easy, you question whether you're really in love. I wouldn't say this was necessarily an issue in my last marriage but it very well may have contributed to some of the early erosion. Since I was only 17 when I got married the first time, the vision of perfection was still strong in my mind. In my case, it was definitely NOT love that pushed me toward marrying my ex-husband; it was desperation. I wanted to be emancipated from my parents and that was the only option I had available at the time. It was a means to an end. And that is the WORST starting point for any marriage.

A big factor in our marriage's success is respect for one another. There are certain boundaries that we set right away; some unspoken and some spoken about till we were blue in the face. First and foremost, we NEVER call each other names in anger. When we're playing or joking, it's cool and all in fun. But when things are tense, it's difficult enough to work through it all without adding insult to injury. Besides, if you love and respect someone you should never purposely tear them down. Another biggie has to do with interaction with the opposite sex. Our rule is that we do not spend time w/ someone of the opposite sex (except family) w/out our spouse or child with us. Neither of us are in any danger of being unfaithful, but the situation breeds mistrust in the most loyal of partners. And truthfully, this hasn't even been something we've had to deal with first-hand b/c in over 4 years together, there hasn't been an instance where we've been in that kind of situation. But should it happen, we're both aware that it's no good and would get out of it right away as a sign of respect for each other. These are just a couple examples of issues that other relationships have that we do not. Either we set the boundary early on or it was just a non-issue for us. However it worked out, I'm happy it did b/c they can be huge roadblocks and we have enough of them not to add more.

It may sound like I'm trying to portray a perfect image of my marriage. I will be the first to admit this is NOT the case! One of the things we struggle with the most is forgiveness. Not just giving forgiveness but asking for it. I grew up in a home where we used each others' faults or mistakes as ammunition during an argument. I carried that habit over into my first marriage and confess that one of the major contributing factors to my first marriage's demise is directly linked to my inability to stop "keeping score". I have a history of leaving things unresolved, but continuing to refer back to things that happened in the past to prove my point and win a fight. What it took me some time to realize was that in a good marriage, you shouldn't wage a war with one another just to say you've won. If you're not both victorious, you both lose. Each battle was another straw on the camel's back, and that poor camel started out hauling more than it should already!! So when Justin and I began dating, I made a conscious effort not to keep score. (It helped that I never feel the desire to be intentionally hurtful to him. The cliche that it will hurt me more than it hurts him is completely valid in this case.) I can't say that I have been completely successful. I have struggled (and continue to struggle) to learn the importance of apologizing. Even if I have a valid point, I am learning to apologize. I don't apologize for my point of view, but I do apologize for how I present it. Which is very important b/c a lot of us have the idea that saying we're sorry means we're admitting we were wrong and that is why we stubbornly refuse to apologize. When I feel I'm in the right but we have resolved the issue, I say "I'm sorry for how out of hand I got" or "I'm sorry I was being an asshole" or whatever the case may be. Even if it is not reciprocated, I do it anyway b/c I know Justin is not very good at apologizing, either. Together we stumble, but together we'll succeed.

Another constant struggle we have is the age old fight about finances. Money is the root of evil! Not only does it cause personal stress, but it puts one hell of a strain on a marriage. We don't really fight about who spends what b/c we have separate bank accounts, thus eliminating the double-debits and things of that nature. But it's a fact: when we're the most broke, we fight more. I don't have advice for this b/c it's a recurring problem in my marriage. One of the things I do when it starts to get especially rough is sit down and talk to Justin about what's going on. I verbalize that I know it's money that is causing us react to each other so badly and I hope he knows I love him and then reassure him (and myself) that we will be okay. This is not a magical cure for the issue, but it makes me feel better and usually gives us a few day's reprieve from the bickering. Sometimes, all you can really hope for is enough of a break from the fighting to refresh yourselves before you start fighting again. It's not a perfect solution, but having a chance to get back to good is how I draw strength when I feel like we're drifting a little.

I mention all these things that have very little to do with the love and affection aspect of marriage so that I can conclude with this: at the end of the day, no matter if it's been a good one or the shittiest one you've ever had, you have to have an anchor. Something that holds you in place when you're tempted to flee. Some people misguidedly use children or possessions as an anchor and those marriages will either end or be forever miserable. Marriage is meant to be enriching and fulfilling. If it is not solid at the core, it will tumble as surely as a house of cards. But if you root it in love, respect, and a set of values that you both hold fast to, there is no storm you can't weather. Period.

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