On this day nineteen years ago I made a promise to be a wife. I had absolutely no idea what I was promising at the time. I had no idea the sacrifices I would need to make. I had no idea the strength I would need to refuse making some sacrifices. I had no idea how easy it would be to lose myself in a marriage. I had no idea how joyous it would be to truly find myself in that same marriage.
In the early days of my marriage we were pretty busy building a life. I was going to school full time and working 30+ hours per week. He had a long commute and worked on our old house in his free time. As soon as I finished school we started having babies. With toddlers in tow we (mostly he) finally built a new house. Diapers and midnight feedings. Jobs and housework. And then the kids got a little bit older, a little less demanding on my time. The house was finished. We had all the things we’d been working for. And I looked around and thought, “Is this it?” I suddenly felt trapped by all the things I thought I’d wanted and could see no way out without destroying the people I loved. I pushed it down. I smiled. I went through the motions. And while I had some happy moments, I wasn’t happy.
Up to this point I’d lived with the mistaken idea that compromise meant I got my way sometimes and sometimes he got his. But I am fiercely non confrontational and also have some deeply rooted issues about self sacrifice so usually when we disagreed about something I would concede. There were a few things I pushed for but I usually felt badly, like by speaking up and being insistent about the things that were important to me I was somehow being manipulative and nagging. (I recognize this now as the subtly misogynistic lesson most women learn- don’t ask for too much, don’t be demanding, don’t rock the boat. But that’s another blog post.) I hated the idea of arguing with my husband and I kept the peace at any cost. When I finally realized that I was destroying us instead of protecting us I knew it was time to learn a new way. But I still didn’t want to fight. I would NOT devolve into a couple that yelled. I would not become a couple that used guilt to manipulate each other. I would have to learn a better way.
I read. I watched people on TV talk to psychologists. (Thank you Oprah for Dr. Robin. It almost makes up for releasing Dr. Phil onto the world. Almost.) I went to therapy. For a while I took medication. I traveled. I started to really look at what I needed to be happy. And above all else, I learned how to truly communicate those needs to my husband.
I was really quite good at pretending to be happy and at first I felt I’d taken him completely off guard. He had no idea I felt this way. He had no idea my mood swings were a sign of something deeper and darker than I wanted to face. But he listened. And when I started to make big changes, changes he didn’t always understand, he supported me. Now that things are good he sees clearly how bad they were before. We both do. And we don’t ever want to go back to that again, even though it’s still sometimes difficult.
We both know that our biggest flaw early in our marriage was sacrificing ourselves for each other. Which would in turn fester until one of us would inevitably behave selfishly because we felt we’d sacrificed enough. Together we came to understand that when we wanted different things compromise wasn’t about one of us getting our way or even both of us giving a little. We learned that it was about figuring out why we want something and being able to communicate that need to the other person so that they can feel our need as their own. It’s about learning to face conflicting desires as a team working toward one goal instead of opponents trying to get the other to concede that their goal is superior or even sacrificing your own needs in a misguided act of love for the other person.
Sometimes I still have to push down the feeling that I’m being selfish by asking for what I need. At other times I still have to push him to tell me what he really wants instead of just agreeing to what he thinks I want. But when we’re tempted to just give in, whether it’s something simple like buying new furniture or something big like how our kids will be educated, we remind each other of how far we’ve come and that we are in this together.