What It Is Wednesday: Killing Off My Core Belief about Marriage
For most of my life, I’ve been pretty happy with the idea of undefined relationships. They could be close and emotionally intense and defy all known tropes in a romantic relationship.
Here’s the thing: I kinda LIKED being in a relationship I couldn’t define. If it couldn’t be defined, then no one could say, “This person is/is not your boyfriend and you’re expected to be a certain way because of it,” or “This person is/is not your husband, and you’re expected to occupy a certain space in the world because of him,” or “your relationship defines YOU and therefore you must live by these particular rules.”
So there was a good bit of rule-making of our own accord. Nothing bad. Nothing inappropriate. Nothing oppressive. Nothing immoral. We simply just did not fit within the norm, or at least what we and the people around us considered to be the norm.
There were times when the other person–almost always the other person–tried to define what we were to each other. There were husbands and wives who’d been together for decades that had never achieved the level of openness and secret-telling that some of my relationships have. Sometimes we were dating openly; sometimes we weren’t. Sometimes every single conversation and meeting was in private, not because either of us was cheating or married–we weren’t–but because we weren’t ready for anyone else to know, for anyone else to stick their noses in our business, for anyone else to express their disapproval, or for anyone else to taint our affection for each other in any way.
And that privacy and discretion led to even more lack of definition, which was still more okay with me than the other party in the relationship. Some of those relationships never saw the light of day and seeped away unnoticed by anyone but the two of us. In most cases, in hindsight, that was a good thing. By keeping them undefined, I avoided the question of whether I would marry again.
Something in me has changed this last year, and I’m not so fond of undefined relationships any more. Surprised? Yeah, me, too. I didn’t expect this to happen but maybe it’s a natural outgrowth of the intense self-work I’ve done to overcome how defined relationships were modeled for me in my early years.
I think it’s because I’ve spend much of this year, as well as portions of the two years before, excavating the romantic relationships in my life and what I witnessed of marriages in my extended family as a child, teen, young woman. I think I’ve figured it out, why I’ve tried to avoid marriage my entire life.
I know now what a good relationship looks like. I know what a good man looks like, too–I’ve met a few recently, though all have been legally or emotionally occupied, but at least I got to see what they’re like and have it modeled for me. I have a better idea what healthy relationships look like, with two people supporting each other emotionally in a way I’ve never had. And I know what I want now, too.
Before, I knew how to define a relationship, particularly a long-term relationship or marriage, and I defined it by what I knew of it as a child, and so what I wanted was not THAT. So I preferred something undefined over something that was defined.
I never even liked the idea of marriage because I understood marriage to be what I’d seen repeatedly in my childhood, different relatives, different couples at church, different people, all the same war zone: withdrawal, fighting, yelling, put-downs, depression, manipulation, desperation, despair, trapped until death do us part and hating each other and hoping the other would die quietly than have to put the family through the public shame of divorce.
Whether it was a legal marriage, common law, or two people calling themselves married, I much preferred to say that I was in a committed relationship because to me, the idea of marriage didn’t mean that much itself. I’d seen too many cheaters, too many liars–ha! dated enough of them. A piece of paper meant nothing to me if the commitment wasn’t there, and the commitment was the THING.
No. I know now it was so much more than just commitment that put me off the scent of marriage.
All these years I’ve been divorced, I’ve really never been that interested in re-marrying. Commitment? Yes. Sharing a home? Yes. Maybe even helping to raise each other’s family? Yes. But a legal sheet of paper? The prospect of taking or not taking someone else’s name? Trusting someone else with my identity should I become invisible? Combining assets? Combining debts? Putting someone’s name on my will and asking them to make certain decisions about my health or even my life? No, thank you. Not interested.
I always felt the trust element was missing. Marriage would mean combining assets, letting myself be financially vulnerable again, completely trusting a man when my trust had been broken before, and even men I’ve loved over the last decade, I did not trust them enough to marry them. That was missing. Commitment and love weren’t enough.
I never told anybody I felt that way until now. I didn’t really know it until now. It was a gut instinct with the men in my past, one I kept secret, that niggling, snakey feeling in the pit of my stomach that I would lose, lose, lose if I ignored the feeling that something in the relationship just wasn’t right enough to risk living out, again, what had been modeled for me in my youth. Emotional support, connection–that’s what I need most in a committed relationship. That said, honesty is a hot currency for me, and if the honesty isn’t there, the trust never can be. It’s a Herculean feat to earn my trust, and people who lie, who cheat, who take advantage, who take….who take. Those people don’t make it through the gate all the way. I may trust them to an extent, but not enough to marry them. Not enough to give myself fully. Maybe if one of them had been different, say more like my mom and less like my dad, I might have faced this decision already, but I couldn’t see marrying a man I cannot give myself to fully, emotionally, with love and trust.
I guess it’s been a good thing that I didn’t remarry any of the men who caught my attention over these last few years. I would only have tethered myself to some person who reflected the bad things I saw in childhood, and the outcome would have been so much worse than being alone most of my nights. I would have committed myself to a man I knew in my gut I couldn’t trust, and I’d have created for myself a miserable second half of my life.
I believe that when a man asks a woman to marry him, she shouldn’t have to think about it–she should already know in her heart and give it a “Hell, yeah!” I can’t imagine that kind of certainly with any of the men I dated in the past decade. Any of them. Any. Of. Them.
My need to define my relationships as undefinable has long been my protection against allowing myself to be in the relationships that were modeled for me throughout my childhood and teen years. Once, a man who was considering marrying me asked me if I’d ever consider marrying again, and I said half-heartedly, “Yes,” then added, “as long as it doesn’t look like any of the marriages I’ve known, either my first one, my parents’ marriage, or quite a few others in my extended family.”
Not that every marriage was bad. I can think of several that were extremely good when I was growing up, but they were so far overshadowed by the bad ones when I was growing up, that I couldn’t even recognize them as good marriages. They were so under expressed in my childhood that they were unicorns to me and certainly nothing normal or attainable. What was attainable was the bad around me, the normal, the prevalent, the expected. And once I attained it, I was destined to keep it forever, never leaving it, never abandoning my commitment, no matter how bad things got. Therefore, I shielded myself as best I could.
Being undefined meant I wouldn’t repeat what I’d seen. I could have a relationship that was different, different from bad marriages that I equated with all marriage. I know now that the way I grew up was not normal. It was normal for me. To me. It was MY normal. It’s been only the last couple of years that I’ve come to understand how abnormal it was and that I’ve built my belief system around that kind of abnormal normal.
I’m beginning to think…just tiptoeing out on thin ice here…or maybe the ice isn’t thin and maybe the water isn’t that deep and maybe I can just go crunching across unharmed and never knew it….that maybe marriage isn’t a soul-sucking bad thing. Maybe it isn’t the oppressive institution I grew up thinking it was or that I would be partnered with men who would turn it into oppression.
Things are different now. Free, open. A long, thick veil has been lifted for me. I am standing here with this shovel and digging deep, sweating, blistering my hands until they bleed, and clearing away what has kept me alone for so long.
I think, too, that I can say this openly, without anyone freaking out, because at the moment, I’m not in a serious relationship, I’m not in a relationship at all, and I’m not even dating anyone at the moment…although I have to laugh because I turned down three dates this week with men I have no interest in, not even just moderate socializing.
With or without a man, my life is full right now and if a man can’t make it fuller, then I’m not particularly interested in heading in that direction with him. I’m not saying that I’m not still picky as hell, but I am saying that for the first time in my life, I think that….I think…that…I might be okay with…defining my relationships in a more structured way that might include marriage, as long as love, commitment, AND trust open that door.
This is huge for me, more than I think any of my friends or family could ever imagine. After a lifetime of really not believing in marriage as a good thing–and I mean having that as a core belief that has affected my choices in men for a decade–I recognize why I believed these things. As with so many big, scary things with nearly supernatural powers, once you can acknowledge it and make peace with it, everything changes.
Key Takeaway: More often than not, our past affects how we define and perceive things such as marriage, but through time, and as we discover and grow more, we might also change our perception.