I wrote this almost a year ago. I didn't publish it because, at the time, it felt too raw. I felt so vulnerable. It felt a bit like failure, too. That so many years after the bomb dropped, we were still struggling at times. Now, however, I can see it as another of those crossroads: A choice to grow and learn together or grow and leave. We opted for the former. Again.
It was late June and my sister-in-law was visiting us from Chicago en route to her cottage further north. She had invited our family months earlier to join her and her family. I had never been to her cottage, each summer choosing instead to use the two or three days alone to get caught up on work or just exhale without kids. My husband's family and I have had a fraught relationship over the years. Choosing to spend less time with them has been one of the healthier choices I've made post D-Day. This summer, however, I understood that it would just be her family and mine.
But while my sister-in-law was here, she mentioned that her brother, the one I pledged to avoid, would also be there.
Pause for re-evaluation #1.
A few days later, I visited my 87-year-old father and was shocked to find him wearing filthy clothes and eating stale food. I spent the weekend preparing meals and doing laundry for him and promising both of us I'd see him again soon.
Pause for re-evaluation #2.
Then two assignments landed on my desk with tight deadlines. And did I mention my summer included a houseful of teenagers and their friends?
So I did what my gut was telling me to do. Wish my husband and three children a very happy weekend and use the time they would be at my sister-in-laws cottage to visit my father and get a jump-start on my work.
A tough decision from an incurable people pleaser (I'm working on it!) but one that felt right.Yay me, right?
My husband didn't share our enthusiasm. Instead, my choice ushered in weeks of confusion. He avoided looking at me. He was civil but barely. I know him. And no amount of him telling me that everything was "fine" convinced me that they were.
"I'm fucking furious," was what he finally admitted to me.
Why? I had rejected his family yet again. I was being selfish. I was the source of all his anxiety and stress. Everything wrong in his life was my fault.
But we'd been doing so well prior to this. Life was good.
Not according to my husband who dropped this bomb on me.
He wanted a separation.
This used to be his go-to threat. We spent the first decade of our marriage in this crazy dance of getting close and pushing off from each other. Any disagreement inevitably ended with one of us (usually him) suggesting we separate. Unable to stomach any conflict, he could only look for the closest exit.
So much had changed.
But here we were again.
This time, however, I knew something I didn't know back then.
I understood that he didn't want out. He just still didn't know how to be hurt and stay. How to be hurt and remain open. And, I confess, I had kinda forgotten too. Which is why, when he said he wanted to separate, I simply agreed.
He put an emergency call into our marriage counsellor who saw him immediately. And then, two days later, she saw me. And then a week after that, she saw us together.
In that time, my husband and I, a bit shocked by talk of separation, had to be brutally honest with ourselves about what we wanted. And, not surprisingly, each of us wanted the same thing: true commitment, honesty, intimacy. With each other.
We had to remind ourselves how to be hurt and still show up. How to be hurt but not reach for the nuclear codes.
I had to listen to his pain, which included feeling dismissed by me when he didn't agree with my opinions. I had to create compassion for him around his sadness that things with his family have never been easy for him either. I'm not the only one they've hurt over the years.
I thought of my ability to listen to my friends. To listen as I do my job as a journalist. To remain curious about what others are thinking, about their life view. With my husband, I had developed a bad habit of viewing any difference between us as evidence that we were mis-matched. A benign comment from him about something I felt strongly about could take me from "he's my wonderful best friend" to "I have to spend the rest of my life with this asshole" in eight seconds.
So I had to understand that my own reaction was rooted in fear. Fear that I was wrong. Fear that I had stayed with him when I shouldn't have. Fear that disagreement was the same as disapproval.
Here's what I've realized: My husband is a kind, compassionate, progressive, smart person who has plenty of strong opinions (uh, me too!) and who sometimes disagrees with me. So while we share a value system, we don't always express those values in the same way. And instead of responding to him as an enemy, I can be curious.
As for his family? He has work to do around them that our therapist told me she doesn't think he's going to do any time soon. There's so much pain there, she said. And, for now at least, there's resistance to dig any deeper.
But what he can do is respect my choice not to go there. What he can do is extend compassion to me around my needs, to learn anew to see my self-care as healthy for our marriage, to stop expecting me to behave in ways that mean he won't face his family's disapproval or disappointment. It's something he's willing to do. Or at least try to do.
Marriage is tough. Even long after I think we should be "fixed", we're still coming up against things that threaten to destabilize us. And it's when we're feeling scared and hurt that we revert to those old behaviours that often make matters worse.
I hope I can remember that within that vulnerability is where we find our common ground.
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