29 October 2012

A marriage

Forty-seven years ago I married the father of my only child. He wasn't a father yet, of course. That didn't happen until seven years later.

I was 20 years old when we married and he, five years older (the same age as my parents when they married). I may have been smart – usually coming top of my class – but at the same time I was immature and horribly self-conscious. I was going to say 'selfish', too, but though I didn't know how to look at anything from anyone else's perspective, I don't think I was then, or am now, particularly selfish. I was very ignorant about life in general, and relationships in particular. And so from the beginning, I think, we had a lot working against us.

I'd grown up desperately trying to be a 'cool' adolescent, in the jargon of the time. But even then I realised how poorly I succeeded at that. I'd also known from as long as I can remember that I wanted to get away from the small New England town where I grew up. I wanted to go somewhere people talked about ideas and books, somewhere one didn't always have to worry 'what the neighbours will think' (even though I was endlessly concerned with what my peers would think about me).

So when I met this young actor from New York City who was working in a nearby summer theatre, he probably seemed heaven sent to get me everything I thought I wanted in life. If I say 'probably' it's because at the time I never viewed the relationship in that way. I was a starry-eyed young woman desperately in love with an exciting, slightly older young man who seemed to have wandered into my orbit from another planet. I had no thought for the future and no idea what might be necessary to make a relationship work between two people from such different backgrounds or how difficult that would be.

What did he want from the relationship? It's not my place to even guess at that. I only know that I put my whole life in his hands, certain I'd be safe and loved. I'm quite sure he believed as much as I did in the sanctity of the bond we entered into just one year after we met. We both believed we would spend our lives together.

Our marriage lasted only 12 years. To this day I don't really know what went wrong. I'm as sure as one can be that he was faithful to me, as I certainly was to him. There were things about my husband that I couldn't understand, but I could have tried harder to deal with those things. And I can only surmise, but I doubt he ever accepted the person I turned out to be. It was as if he had married a chrysalis that turned out a moth rather than a butterfly. I always felt he had an idealised version of the wife he wanted and was determined to mould me accordingly. Eventually that came to feel like chauvinism. And in the 1970s, not long after we immigrated to Australia, I went through a garden-variety women's lib rebirth. So having a husband who seemed jealous of my female friendships and thought he knew what was best for me was not something I could tolerate. I began to feel that I was expected to walk along a narrowly defined pathway he had laid out for me. I don't say this is a full representation of our story, because I have little understanding of how things looked from his perspective. But that's how the relationship began to feel to me.

Until I married and left home, my life had been tightly defined by my upbringing. It's hard to imagine now, but I just never realised I might walk away from that way of life...on my own. For who I was then and where I came from, only marriage could provide me a legitimate ticket-of-leave. Once I was on my way I expected to blossom in all directions. Instead I came to feel I was once again constrained by another person's will, tied by bonds of love rather than duty, but tied even so. It was probably inevitable that I would want to stand on my own two feet. It's just a shame I didn't do so before marrying.

Seven years after we married, our daughter was born and I realised with a shock that I was capable of a ferocious love I had never yet experienced. But I had little time to get used to that because soon afterwards our world seemed to fall apart. We moved back 'home' to the USA, and immediately realised we'd made a terrible mistake. It wasn't home any more. And so began a few terrible years of shifting around.

I'm pretty sure alcohol also contributed to the breakdown of our marriage. We were neither of us alcoholic, but as with so many young couples we knew then, we drank too much socially, and often when things were most difficult. Then things would become more difficult because of how we had acted and what we had said under the influence of alcohol. We were certainly over the limit the night before I walked away from the marriage for the last time, though the actual scene that sent me packing the next morning was more farcical than tragic. It was something we'd have laughed about with our children in later years, if we'd survived it. It wasn't until two years later that I gave up alcohol completely for the remainder of my daughter's childhood and adolescence, finally having realised that for me at least, drinking and responsible decision-making were not amiable bedfellows.

We tried marriage counselling, too. This was  a few years before our final split, and not long after we'd returned to live in the USA. There I had narrowly survived a suicide attempt (perhaps not caused but certainly fuelled by alcohol). My husband saved my life on that occasion, something for which I will be forever grateful. But there were too many issues already bearing down on us. Our financial and personal circumstances, as well as his career, were all in turmoil. It was all we could do to survive from day to day. So after a month or two, we decided to walk away from what we both regarded as a poor quality of counselling anyway. Instead, supported by my family, we made plans to return to Australia with our daughter. We'd been very happy here, and we had wonderful friends who went to great lengths to re-integrate us into full and committed lives. I still think that was a good move, even if it turned out not to be enough to save our family.

Toward the end of our marriage my husband also tried an early form of some kind of drug therapy, ostensibly to help control his frequent eruptions of rage and frustration. At first I didn't know he was taking anything. But eventually I noticed that whenever an argument or any kind of difficult situation seemed to be developing, he would disappear into another room and come back 'spaced out'. I'm sorry to say it, but eventually (remember this was 35 years ago) this seemed to both of us like a terrible cop-out. It certainly didn't solve anything. So in the passionate way he had of dealing with things, one day he just threw the pills into the open fire. I like to imagine a colourful explosion, but that's probably my memory playing a trick.

We knew next to nothing about drug therapy then. The truth was, I needed drugs more than him. I had suffered from intermittent but crippling bouts of depression for most of my adult life. In the early years of my marriage, I remember spending whole days in bed in a kind of grey fog. What did he do when this happened? I don't honestly remember. We worked slightly different shifts then, so maybe he wasn't fully aware of this. But depression wasn't something either of us knew much about at that time. I think he would have thought I should 'pull my socks up' and get on with things.

When I finally ended up seeing a psychiatrist as yet another attempt at making things work, I hadn't been 15 minutes in the room before the man started writing out a prescription. I remember him consoling me with the news that he found it essential to drug his own wife around Easter every year, so I shouldn't feel too bad. Ah, such enlightened times! This was about the time I read The Feminine Mystique, so I certainly wasn't going to start taking mind-altering drugs prescribed by someone who couldn't even be bothered talking to me. I never filled that prescription or went back for a second session. Now, of course, I'd know that a psychologist is better placed than a psychiatrist to give useful counselling in circumstances such as mine. And I'm grateful now, too, for the anti-depressants that have restored balance to my life. But all those years ago, the drug route seemed more like a dead-end than a way forward. And the drugs available then were much stronger than today's well-targeted varieties. So I think it was understandable I was wary of going down that route.
Did we have a child to try and save the marriage? Definitely not. We made that decision in what for us was one of the best periods of our life together. He had a job he loved, one that gave him immense satisfaction and well-earned respect in the community. And that set him on a course of professional development and university study that eventually led to the career he followed ever after. So I was happy that my husband was finally engaged in that way. But I myself was still floundering, far away from the family I had wanted to leave but whom I missed so much I would begin to cry whenever I drove past an airport. I was suffering terrible bouts of depression that no-one, including me, really understood. I hadn't yet found any work into which I could channel my talents and energy. And being a wife and mother just didn't seem sufficient. I know this may all sound as if I'm making excuses. The truth is, I'm still trying to understand.
Over the past 18 months I've been delighted to watch my new grand-daughter as she learns to engage with the world. I try to remember the same period in her mother's life, but I have too few memories of her development at a similar age. Forty years ago when my daughter was a toddler, I seemed to be overwhelmed by problems and dissatisfactions that consumed far too much of my attention and energy. We are so full of ourselves when we are young. We can't see how we could possibly have enough left to give to others what they deserve. We don't yet realise how just giving might fill up some of the emptiness we feel. I say "we", but I know too well that isn't true for everyone. It was true for me, however. Even now I still forget too often that I'm only the centre of MY world, not everyone else's. I regret I hardly ever realised that at all in my younger years.
I began this by saying I didn't think I was especially selfish. But really, I seem to be providing evidence for the prosecution! Truth is, we are all selfish in some ways, and I'm no exception. But if my second marriage has lasted more than 30 years, I don't think it's because I'm any less selfish than I was then. Nor are my second husband and I necessarily better matched or better people. More likely, we are just smarter than we were in our 20s and 30s. We have more realistic expectations about the meaning of 'happy ever after'. But mostly, I think we just learned how to make the transition from 'being in love' to 'loving'.


Red said...

Really like the conclusion to this post. It's a key in a relationship as it matures.
Like you I grew up in a tightly controlled family. I didn't learn the normal social skills so I felt very unsure of myself. I unfortunately found alcohol made me a big shot. I did grow out of that and found who I as. I was about 45 before I got it all together.

Chartreuse said...

Thanks for your comment Red. I'm not sure I've yet got it all together, as you say. But I know what you mean. I certainly wouldn't want to go back to being 20 again, unless I knew then what I'd learned by 50! You'll appreciate this from my sister, after she read this piece: "Just don't 'beat yourself up' too much. We were all mostly young, drunk and stupid at one time - especially in the 60s!"

Snowbrush said...

What a story! I started out thinking you were still together and celebrating your 47th anniversary. Boy, was I wrong. I suppose those those drugs you and your husband had were tranquilizers. I would have kept them had I been you because drugs can be a crutch or drugs can be a bridge over a muddy spot, depending upon how they're used.

Chartreuse said...

I guess there's a lot of things we'd do differently, if we knew then what we know now yada yada yada....

Anonymous said...
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The Blog Fodder said...

Rage and frustration are also signs of depression. I KNOW this first hand.

But mostly, I think we just learned how to make the transition from 'being in love' to 'loving'.

This is the best route to a happy marriage. It is how Tanya and I try to address each day.

Someday I may write to you about my own first marriage which lasted thirty years and two days. Cancer.

Anonymous said...

@ The blog Fodder: My first last 30.

Anonymous said...

I was finally able to get this to open from my page. It is an remarkable story, and I admire you greatly. To have been through so much and found love again is wonderful. The lilac tree makes it look like paradise there. There are so many different kinds of love. And what love you give daily is remarkable. I am proud to be your friend. Gin

Chartreuse said...

Gin, I really do appreciate your kind comments. However, if you found in this tale something to admire, I feel upset that I may have presented myself as the blameless party in the demise of the marriage. What I mainly meant to convey was that ignorance and immaturity played the main parts on both sides - a fact more regrettable than admirable. However, I must confess that I believe his behaviour and actions since the divorce were so despicable that I think the only thing he learned from the experience was how to hate. So because of that I probably do feel somewhat superior, and that may well have undermined my attempt to be as fair as possible in telling this story. I guess it's a bit unfair that what I'm still trying hard to understand is a truly sad after-event, about which I don't feel I could yete write dispassionately.
Incidentally, the 'lilac' blooms you admired in the final photo are in fact the spring-flowering blooms of a giant wisteria vine. Unfortunately, we can't grow lilacs in our climate. And as glorious as the wisteria is, it's still a poor substitute for the sweet-smelling lilacs I miss very much (so much that during a fellowship year in London some 20 years ago I climbed a fence into a locked private park late one night to gather an armful of lilac for my dorm room!)

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying, and my admiration is for your ability to write about it at all. I am not ready to do that yet, on so many things. I love the wisteria...

Anonymous said...

Carol- finally see your blog posts! Yeah
So good to hear all of this- I never knew the whole story about your return to Southbridge-
I just know how much I miss such a loving sister as you!
Bless you

About me

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.