We all grow up with rules.
I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!
I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.
The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:
- Thou shalt not be needy.
- Thou shalt not seek attention.
- Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
- Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
- Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
- Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
- Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
- Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.
Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.
Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.
I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.
Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.
Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.
Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.
To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.
And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.
My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.
My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.
I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.
Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.
So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.
He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.
And then there was this:
I had finally done something right, after all.
Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.
Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.
For a little while.