For a long time, on account of the fact that I’ve been distracted by cancer, I haven’t thought much about my marriage. I haven’t had to deal with the daily ins and outs that come along with merging your life with someone else’s. I haven’t had to think about sacrifices or patience or growing together. I’ve gotten to focus on survival, on personal strength and resolve, and on building the life I wanted to live. Because what else do you think about when facing the worst except turn inward and focus on creating a life worth preserving?
So it was kind of a shock to me, and frankly a real bummer, when I had to once again refocus on the mundane but totally necessary work of nurturing my marriage. I have to admit, I was kind of hoping it would just shape shift and turn into something easier because I am tired with little energy and a lot on my mind. I wanted something more robust, less vulnerable. I wanted my orchid to turn into a cactus. I wanted autopilot but in a better, fancier jet. I wanted to wake up and be the people who have smooth edges and no conflict and who effortlessly carry on a loving, connected, fulfilling marriage.
First of all, I know these people don’t exist. I divorce people for a living. I know that everyone’s lives and marriages are just as vulnerable and imperfect as the next person. I have no judgment for anyone’s stuff because we all have it. Our baggage is different, some have endured more trauma than others. But seriously, we are all kind of a hot mess. On a good day I can say that is what makes life and relationships awesome. On a tough day, I say dealing with people’s stuff, especially our own, is hard and tedious and sometimes it’s a real challenge.
As for stuff, I have my fair share. I married one of the kindest, most giving, selfless, progressive, supportive partners a person could have. He is handsome, exceptionally capable, and a fantastic father to our girls. He has made even me breakfast every day for two years. I know. He’s amazing. Which is sometimes what makes it so hard to admit that marriage and connection are still hard for us, and why I try (unsuccessfully) to talk myself out of feelings of frustration, loneliness, or sadness.
I think two people can be awesome individuals and relationships- especially the deep, loving, committed kind- will always be difficult. I would say that’s true for how I feel about Tom. He’s an incredible guy, easily one of the best. But being married still requires that we look into this dark scary caverns and shine a light. Even when it’s scary. Even when it hurts. Even when we aren’t sure what will happen on the other side.
And that’s exactly where we were when this whole thing started. We had lovingly and with the best of intentions set out on the trail together. Just days before my diagnosis however, we looked up from our paths to realize we were separated by a huge canyon. It was disorienting and alarming. Usually you think of a marriage as suffering from insults of intent. Sadly, and possibly more challenging, neither one of us had intended to move away from one another. But we had. It left us both feeling isolated, deeply sad, and scared out of our minds for what would happen next.
The worst fear came from concerns over whether we could fix this. How do you fix something when you didn’t even know how you broke it? For us, it all centered on connection. We had let ourselves get so focused on what was directly ahead of us on the path- children, work, house, finances, ailing parents- that we stopped communicating about ourselves. The connecting issues rooted in who we were, what interested us, our fears and hopes and desires, had fallen away. We deeply loved each other, but once we realized how isolated we had become, it was very much like trying to shout across the divide. The words got carried away in the wind, evaporating in both love and context by the time they reached the receiver. It was sad and it was overwhelming… and then on top of that, I got cancer.
As someone who has basically lived through relationship breakdown since my mid-teens, first from watching my parents divorce then through practicing family law, I seriously believed I could outsmart the system. I know the old adages, I could recite the warning signs off the top of my head. I did not realize, however, that marital health is so connected to individual health. And that you really can’t give what you don’t have. And that sometimes it’s about saving yourself first, before circling back to save the one you love.
For me, I realize now how unhealthy and unhappy I was. I was working 12+ hours a day trying to save the firm I was with. Every ounce of energy I had was spent on people and efforts outside my family. I was giving everything I had away and it was killing me. Most conversations I had with Tom were about some issue with the firm as I tried to process all the layers of junk that were building up on me. Looking back, I see that was incredibly selfish of me and I regret not holding better space for him as we went through that year.
Now, I am working at peeling back the layers to understand what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve been eager to let go of and make peace with things that unnecessarily pull me down. There has been a lot of lightening around here. I’ve been given the gift of mental space, of clarity, and of purpose. Cancer has been awesome that way. I didn’t have to focus on the nitty-gritty. It was a time of dreaming big and setting a vision for my life.
And now I am working on a way to save the one I’m with and mend the fences of our beautifully broken relationship. It’s hard, and frankly a bit painful, to jump back into the swamp and wrestle with those alligators. It’s hard and a definitely sad to take a close look at what went wrong, what wasn’t working, and to be a part of the solution without trying to be THE solution. It’s particularly hard when all I want to do is lay in bed and zone out over a movie to try to forget the pain that is ravaging my body. It’s easy to want to skip ahead and say “it’s all better now” instead of doing the hard work of healing. But it’s an investment I’m happy to make because he, and the amazing gift of our marriage, will always be worth it.
I will never give up on him, that much I know for sure. I am confident I will make mistakes. I am confident life will continue to challenge us. But the good news is, the pain of our relationship comes from disconnection, and that means you have two people who just want to be closer. I’ll take that as a good start, and continue fighting every way I know how to inch closer and closer to him. I’ll fight to close the divide, cross that canyon, and continue down that trail together.
Until then, I’ll be the one wrestling with the alligators. It will be messy and scary, but I’ll doing it as bravely as I can manage.
Give Em’ Hell