The other day, my mom clipped out an article – actually, an advice column – for me, headlined, “The special recipe for finding a chance at happily ever after.” She likes to give me these tips on how to make a marriage work, and I can’t tell whether she means well and is trying to give me advice for my future, or whether she’s lightly chastising me, warning me about my mistakes, past and potential.
Either way. I glanced at the column, which is in the form of a checklist, smiled when numbers 6, 7, and 8 all advised “Laughing together,” then put the clipping in the recycle bin. And later that evening, on a second thought that I don’t really remember having, pulled it back out and stuck it in my purse.
I think what I wanted to write about, if not the laughing together bit, was the first item on the checklist:
(1) Saving marriage for when you’re actually mature, and not just when you think you are…. How do you know the difference between believing and knowing? Two giveaways are a sense of urgency, or a sense of shame about your choices or circumstances. If you’re making your case to people, then you’re not ready.
In therapy yesterday, while we started out talking about the girl living in my room, and what it would mean to have to go through and clean all that stuff out, the conversation turned, as usual, to my fear of having to do it all again. Weddings are stressful, expensive, time-consuming. But more than all that, I’m worried about what it will say about me, both to strangers and to the people who know and love me, that I put all my eggs in one nest, so to speak, then hastily retrieved them, and now want to put them somewhere else.
What does it say about me, that I’m a young divorcée posing as a single girl (on doctor’s office paperwork, I usually check the “single” box instead of the “divorced” one)? What does it say about me that I might want to get married again so soon?*
“For what it’s worth,” my therapist said, when I told her about how I fill out paperwork, “when I see that ‘divorced’ box, I think of it as a richness of experience – not that you have something to be ashamed of, but as how much you’ve been through, what major life events you’ve already experienced so young. And, as a writer, don’t you want a richer experience to draw on? That’s just my opinion; I don’t know if it helps.”
“It does help. And everyone who finds out I’ve been married – strangers, coworkers, people who know me and Doug only as a couple – is surprised. Like, their first reaction is to ask how old I am – like I’m too young to be divorced; they’re curious, not judgmental. It’s the people who knew me before that I’m more worried about.”
“What exactly worries you?”
“Them judging me. Like, I feel like they’ll be looking at me as a boy-who-cried-wolf type. If I say I’m getting married again, they’ll be skeptical, because I’ve gotten married once already, and what makes me so sure it’ll work out this time around?”
“Okay, so I’ll play the role of those skeptics. Take a moment to check in with yourself, and then tell me how you would answer: ‘What makes you so sure it’ll work out this time around?'”
I closed my eyes for a second, and my first instinct was to insist that I am sure it will work out with Doug. And then I opened my eyes again, and spoke the truth:
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I’m not sure of anything.”
When I was a teenager, I used to give an honest, “I don’t know” as an answer to a lot of things – questions about my schoolwork, my future, the exact call time of my upcoming choir concerts, whatever. I’m pretty sure it drove my mom crazy, because it’s kind of a conversation-ender, but my dad loved it. “That’s an honest answer!” he would boast. “Some people, you ask them a question they don’t know the answer to, and they make up some bullshit just so it sounds like they have an answer for you. But if you don’t know, you say you don’t know!”
I feel like my therapist was equally delighted with my admission of ignorance. “And then what would they say?” she asked.
“They’d start questioning me, of course. They’d want to know why I wanted to get married, then.”
“‘Why do you want to get married, then?'” she parroted. “Check in first.”
I took another deep breath. “I feel like we’re married already – like we’ve been married this whole time, really. So why not make it official? I mean, we’ve already gone through so much together, gotten through so much together, and come out the other side…” I smiled. “What else is there to lose, really?”
“With my ex,” I went on, “I always felt like I was defending my relationship to people, I think because I was trying to convince myself of how great things were. Even the story of the relationship was so different, like, ‘Oh, we met in Europe, it was like a romantic comedy, this is a fairy tale, it’s going to be amazing, those problems will get better, of course it’ll work out!’ With Doug, everything is much more realistic: we met at work.”
“I love that: ‘we met at work,'” she said. “The whole tone of your voice changes. Have you noticed that? When you talk about your ex, and how you were trying to convince everyone it would work out and things would get better, your voice gets higher. Then you check in, and speak your truth, and your voice gets lower again. It’s not by a lot, but it might be something to watch for.”
I hadn’t noticed this. I also hadn’t noticed, but she pointed out, that when I talk about Doug – even when I talk about the things Doug does that are annoying, or the parts of our relationship I’d like to change – I’m always smiling. “You’re saying that you’re frustrated,” she told me, “and I believe that you are. But your smile is saying none of those things are deal-breakers, either.”
“They’re not,” I confirmed. “With my ex, there were all these problems – things I kept insisting would get better or go away, or things he kept promising to change but didn’t, or couldn’t – and I was always trying to convince myself we could make it work anyway. With Doug, I don’t have to tell myself it will work out, because it’s already working out… Until sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes something upsets me, and then I ask myself, ‘How can I live like this?!’ Except I already am living like this, and it’s just a moment, and then everything’s fine again.”
To this, she said something about “speaking my truth” again, and how much calmer I am doing so, than with all that case-making I did with regards to my marriage.
“Even though my truth pretty much amounts to ‘I don’t know?'” I asked.
“Maybe not knowing is the right place for you to be right now.”
“Know what’s funny?” I asked, as something had just occurred to me. “If Doug were to ask me to marry him, tomorrow, in all seriousness, my first reaction and my answer would be ‘yes.’ Then all those same worries and fears about having a wedding and getting married and going through all that again would pop up and take over and drive me crazy. But I would say yes first, and I would mean it.”
“It’s your heart talking, and then your head talking. Your head is filled with anxiety and doubt and reasoning, but your heart says yes. Yes to Doug.”
“Yes to Doug. Yes to marriage. Yes to babies. Yes to happiness.”
“Yes to life,” my therapist offered.
Yes to life.
*Is 4-5 years even that soon? I’m inclined to think my ex-husband is rushing into his second marriage, having gotten engaged again after only 2.5 years, but am I really in danger of having people make those same judgments about me? Or am I the one doing all the judging here?