Some people are smart about things like life and love. I can think of several friends, for example, who got together with their partners in their twenties; in love as young newlyweds, they seem even more so now. These couples have managed to grow closer over the years as they faced life’s joys and sufferings together. Others aren’t so fortunate. Of the less lucky ones, a number of us get it wrong at the starting gate. I fall into that category–a self-reforming loser in love.
I have spent far too much energy metaphorically kicking myself for the time I spent in a damaging relationship (Momentary digression: If I could have literally done it, I would have. But try kicking yourself. Sadly, it can’t really be done.) If I’ve learned anything over the past two years, however, it’s that energy is finite; it’s not worth spending it all going down emotional rabbit holes. When I go to that dark place, where I see that time as the “lost years,” it only takes a quick look around to be reminded that without my past, I wouldn’t be here now. Most pointedly, I wouldn’t have my beautiful daughter.
Truth be told, sometimes I do indulge in a trip down that rabbit hole. Once there, I am filled with a yearning to go back in time and shake some sense into that young woman about to make some ill-fated choices. If I could, here’s what I would say to the 25-year-old, less-craggly-but-dumber me:
1) Don’t let the “shoulds” rule your life. Should be married before 30, should have kids before 35, should be in a serious relationship by 25. Shoulds were my undoing. Conversely, one of my college friends did the opposite. She seemed to let her life unfold and see where it took her without a set agenda. As she entered her thirties, several of us wondered when she would find someone. We worried she waited too long. But we were wrong. I’m happy to say that a few years ago, she married a longtime friend who became the love of her life. Leading with your heart, living your life fully and being true to yourself should trump any and all societal “shoulds.” She’s proof.
2) Put “sweet” on the top of your list. Wow, some women get this right off and some just . . .don’t, especially not young women. Why do so many otherwise-smart women choose not-nice jerks? I had a few chances in my early twenties to be with men who treated me beautifully and each time, I blew it. How did I equate arrogance and aloofness with desirability? Too many James Dean movies? Sean Penn movies? I was nearly 40 before I learned that sweet needs to be right up there with smart and funny as one of the top attributes to look for in a partner.
3) Avoid the big talkers. Showing trumps telling. Go for a guy who shows you he cares in dozens of little ways every day. I’m not suggesting you seek out a mute. He should also be able to tell you how much he loves you–but telling without showing amounts to a whole lot of bull–and resentment. No one wants to feel like she’s been played.
4) If you feel like Gumby when you’re with him, he’s not right for you. Of course, it’s good to sometimes be flexible. But if you feel like you need to be double-jointed to bend as much as he wants you to, something is amiss. Step back and view yourself from the balcony: Are you a different version of you when you’re with him than you are with your closest friends? Do you feel like you can’t fully relax when you’re together? You should be able to exhale when you’re together, not after he’s walked out the door.
I ended my nine-year marriage–swiftly and decisively, when the events mentioned earlier led to the brilliant if long overdue aha! moment that, Gadzooks, there was no “we” to us.
Now, when you make the decision to split, especially if there is a child involved (in this case, one daughter, five at the time), it’s kind of big deal telling people about it. But almost uniformly, I was shocked and gratified by all of the support and understanding that came my way. Part of what was so shocking was how obvious the problems in our marriage were to friends and family alike–and how little feedback I received from my circle about this (except from my mother, in many subtle and not-at-all subtle ways. But that’s what Jewish mothers are for.)
I was also dismayed at how much interest I received about my “aha” moment from some in my circle (in particular, fellow moms with young kids). My theory on this is that raising young children today can be so stressful, in particular, for moms who are trying to manage so much with the X factor being the kids (seems like every time I thought I understood my daughter’s patterns, she’d switch it up. Just to keep me on my toes!). But more than a few really wanted to know why I did it. How did I know it was a marriage worth ditching?
Truth is, it took me five years to realize how unfulfilled I was, in part because it can be difficult to discern what constitutes fundamental unhappiness vs. just-pissed-off-at-husband-for-his-latest-misguided maneuver. (No offense, guys, but moms with little kids vent a lot, and newsflash! sometimes we complain about you.) To hopefully allay my friends’ unspoken fears, I offered a few litmus tests, drawn from my own experience:
1) When you picture yourself in 15 years, with the kids out of the house and it being just the two of you, is that something that: a) you can’t wait for; b) you mostly look forward to; c) you have mixed feelings about; or d) fills you with a sense of unequivocal dread? Hint: Dread is not really where you want to be, but it was clearly where I was.
2) A smaller, less futuristic version of that: Date nights. Not that everyone always looks forward to them–you may be totally wiped and want to cancel–but your m.o. should not be to avoid them at all costs. Even if, for whatever reason (babysitter issues, financial issues, scheduling issues, guilt about leaving child when they’ve been away from you all day already, etc.) you may not be able to have a date night regularly, this should still fall under the category of something you might want to do before your child is, say, eighteen. If this sounds blasphemous to you, you may very well have a bigger problem.
3) Why do you divide and conquer? This one was hard to read because so many of us do this: Dad takes the kids Saturday mornings so mom can go to yoga class, mom gets them in the afternoon so dad can play in his softball game. This is a great strategy to give both parents a much-needed break and a chance to pursue their interests. But if you find yourself much preferring the company of just you and your kids without him, and, in fact, go out of your way to avoid having your husband with you for outings–this is probably not a good thing. By the last year of my marriage, nary a weekend would go by where we spent a significant portion of it together as a family. And this was how I wanted it to be.
So if your answers mirrored mine, you may, indeed, have a bigger problem. But if there is still that longing to be together, just the two of you, I would suggest you take the time to appreciate what you have right now and nurture it for tomorrow. Because I believe if the love is there, no matter how much stress surrounds it, it’s a marriage worth saving.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” —Yogi Berra
You know them when they happen: Like an anvil, you are struck with the certainty that your life has just shifted and now you are in a new, unfamiliar place. It can be a gradual awakening, or quite sudden. Maybe it’s because of a shift in you, or maybe it is due to an event so big, so important that it can literally leave you breathless. When you are at the precipice of the next big chapter in your life, it can be among the scariest–and most exhilarating–moments you will ever experience.
That was how it felt when I finally led with my heart and said it. Or, in my case, didn’t say it. Embroiled in one of our almost-daily arguments, my then-husband went for the “big dramatic moment” and asked: “Do you still love me?” He’d posed this one dozens of times as a way to close off any further conversation, and it worked. I always managed to answer “yes” or “of course” or something reassuring. But this time, something inside told me to be true to myself. My heart wouldn’t let me do it . . .not this time. So instead I took a deep breath and . . . said nothing.
That was the beginning of the end of a long and unhappy chapter in my life. The next day, he asked me the question again. This time I was able to answer: ‘No.” Allowing myself to voice what I had been feeling inside but was too afraid to say was nothing less than an emancipation: At long last, I was being true to the inner me. I knew my life was spinning into a whole new direction, but had no idea what I would find when I got there.
What made this night different from all other nights? Several recent events had come together to lead to this overdue epiphany. First, there was the death of my favorite former boss. He was like a father figure to me, and the loss was very sad. But the fact that I didn’t have a chance to say “goodbye” to him, even though I knew he had been battling cancer–I was angry at myself and angry at my husband, who discouraged me from making the drive to see Al in the hospital, as he had discouraged me so many times before from reaching out to people who did not further his cause.
Al’s death taught me a valuable lesson: Showing up for things really does matter. Showing people you care–not just saying the right things, but actually doing something to show them–is important. Words are nothing without the actions behind them. Around the same time, a member of our community died from a freak construction accident. Another reminder that life is short and you never know how much time you have–so why sleepwalk through it?
Then there was the playdate with another family in the area. Apropos of nothing, my husband thought it important to volunteer to this couple, both of whom were math teachers, how pathetic my math skills are. Another illustration of his willingness to put me down and keep me in a corner, as he always did, to fill whatever his current needs were–even if it was just coming up with small talk. It didn’t feel small to me, though. This is what started the argument that night.
And finally, there was the e-mail. A long-lost friend–never a boyfriend, but more of a “friend with benefits”–found me on a social networking site and sent me a note. Innocuous? Maybe. So I sent a nice note back, nothing untoward. But then a note came back that revealed more, became more personal. Soon I was thinking about him more than I wanted to admit. What was this? I had never cheated before. But it felt like a betrayal. Why was I engaging in this extracurricular flirtation, albeit online? It troubled me. At the same time, seeing myself through this old friend’s eyes–as someone attractive, smart, funny–gave me courage. He helped me see that maybe someone else out there would find me lovable, that there was life and yes, maybe even love, after this marriage.
“Do or do not–there is no try,” Yoda said.
Like you, I am many things: friend, mother, worker bee, daughter, sister, advocate, writer, lover of animals, nature and people of all stripes, and perhaps most of all, survivor. I listen and I speak; I write and read; I inspire and am inspired every day by the world and what it offers. I’ve been both overjoyed by life and struck by its unfairness and unpredictability.
For many years, I was a frustrated writer, stuck in a place where I felt I had nothing creative or interesting to offer. Now in my early forties, I realize I have stories to share and a new way to share them. I’ve lived through enough now to tell about them.
So here I am. In many ways, I feel like an everywoman. The only difference between me and most others around me is my willingness to “put it out there”–no matter how difficult the topic–as a way of questioning what is vs. what should be, healing myself, and finding common ground. This is not an advice column; I am not qualified to offer advice. I am more storyteller than sage. My hope is that, by sharing some of my more vivid and sometimes difficult life experiences candidly and honestly, we can create a sanctuary to protect us against judgmentalism, shame, guilt, and fear. Our world is rife with these negative emotions, and I am constantly reminded of how hurtful they are–and how our energy could be better spent focusing on more positive-minded pursuits.
We are all human, which means we make mistakes. The key is what you take away from them and where you go from there. Because fundamentally I believe that the world would be a vastly better place if we were all able to fully love and be loved, to have the opportunity and courage to pursue our dreams, and to find empathy in our hearts instead of leading with scorn and judgementalism. This is the world I hope our children will inherit. Please join me in creating that world.