Today is my 13th wedding anniversary, and so I thought this would be a good time to explain why my marriage is a mess. I have been seeing a marriage counselor for about 3 years, since shortly after my second child was born. In retrospect, it is clear to me that our problems began when we had our first child, and that I glossed over them shamelessly in order to convince myself that our relationship was stable enough to handle a second child, which I wanted very badly. Three years of marriage counseling has taught me so much about marriage and life (and, as we shall see, about alcoholism) that I feel totally removed from the woman who was afraid to pick up the phone three years ago and seek help. In fact counseling has been good for me in many ways that go way beyond my marriage. I highly recommend it. One of the best things I learned in marriage counseling is that my marriage isn't as bad as I thought. So go figure.
Here's what is wrong with my marriage: My husband's father is an alcoholic. He was a salesman in the days of the three-martini lunch, and regardless of what he did during the day, in the evenings he would come home from work and begin drinking his vodka martinis until, by dinnertime, he was smashed. Then he would sit down to dinner and survey his family: his enabler wife, his eldest son (my husband), his middle son, and his youngest daughter. For complicated reasons, having to do with the fact that he himslef was an oldest child, he focused his displeasure on his eldest son, spouting verbal abuse nightly that was all the more difficult for my husband to bear because, when sober, he was such a nice guy and good father. And my mother in law watched it happen and did little to stop it. She did make some attempts to control her husband but they were ineffective. To make up for her shortcomings in that crucial area, she mothered all of her children, but especially my husband, with fervor. As a stay-at-home mom, she did everything for her children, except teach her sons to iron or cook or clean up after themselves. She baked cookies and sewed Halloween costumes and paid their bills and washed their laundry even when they were old enough to do it themselves. She was especially protective of my husband and tried to shield him from all of the shocks of life, except, of course, her own husband's destructive tirades.
I'm not angry at my husband's parents. My father in law's own mother apparently drank herself to death when he was 16, so it's easy to see the issues that drove him to drink. And my mother in law is a thoughtful, kind woman who has been wonderful to me. But they both failed what was probably the biggest test of their lives. And they continue to fail every day as my father in law continues to drink, grows morbidly obese, and won't leave the house without his wife. He won't visit us (we live about 4 hours away), nor will he visit his other son, whose wife just had their first child (they live 2 hrs away). And he certainly won't visit his daughter and her four kids, who are far enough away to require a plane ride. He can't walk through the airport, and can't fit in an airline seat. As a result, my mother in law won't visit us either, unless she can drive down and back in a day, and even that she does rarely. I could really use her help (see recent Boston trip as exhibit A), but she is not available.
All this has left my beloved husband as the classic adult child of an alcoholic. He is a perfectionist, yet also a procrastinator. He complains but does nothing. He expects me to fix everything. He is the most psychosomatic person I have ever met.
But, happily, all I have to do is completely ignore his bad parts and our marriage is actually quite harmonious.
Top ten things I have learned from marriage counseling:
1. he will never, ever, in a million years, leave me.
2. even though he wants me to be perfect, I don't have to be perfect because he will never, ever, in a million years, leave me.
3. no matter how long you have been married, you probably don't know your spouse as well as you think you do. Especially in alcoholic families, who don't talk about the problem, you can be married for a decade (as I was) and still have no clue about your spouse.
4. your spouse does not have go with you to marriage counseling. It can work just fine without him/her.
5. no one talks about their marital problems. we all pretend to be blissfully married to a perfect mate. we may complain about small things, like who does the dishes, but people rarely admit that they are having problems, until one day, all of a sudden, they are divorced. in this sense, having a troubled marriage is more difficult and more damaging than stuff you are "allowed" to talk about, like major illness, or a death in the family.
6. as soon as you tell someone that you are having marital problems, you find out that they are, too. it's extraordinarily cathartic.
7. putting 5 and 6 together means that anyone who tells you that s/he is having marital problems is much less likely to get divorced than all those other people who pretend to be fine.
9. often we marry the person we need, not the person we want. My husband wanted Martha Stewart/Stepford Wife. Instead he got me. I will never decorate our house to his satisfaction or cook a pot roast, or bake 30 different kinds of cookies at Christmas, but I also will not let him become an alcoholic like his father.
10. there are many ways to be married. some married couples live in different countries. some dads stay at home, some moms get thrown in jail for not revealing their sources. everyone is different. and hey, if it works for you, go with it.
I was watching something on the Discovery Channel about the evolution of the brain, and they pointed out that animals that live in packs invariably have larger brains than those that fly solo. This is because managing social relationships is the most intellectually challenging thing living creatures do. And the hardest relationship of all is the one with your spouse, because it is voluntary, and therefore easily (too easily) dissolved. Thus when I die, I think the proudest accomplishment of my life will not be that I got a PhD or got tenure or raised two kids. It will be that I kept my marriage together.
Happy anniversary, honey.