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Ask Polly: I’m Scared I’ll Destroy My Marriage!

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Dear Polly,

I’m 31, and I just got married. I love my wife very much, and I am very happy with her. I have no doubts that marrying her was the right decision, nor do I wonder about whether or not she loves me. I know. I also know that we have a good dynamic. We fight, of course, and these fights are sometimes difficult and painful, and sometimes quick and relatively painless, but mostly they’re productive and we learn things and then we’re closer afterwards and things get better. What’s bothering me is that I can’t stop thinking about divorce.

Not because I want out! I want to stay firmly in. I’m just so afraid that some years down the road it might happen to us. I know these fears are pointless and right now I should be relaxing and enjoying newly wedded bliss — and I am, but I am also dreading the moment that ends. I’m looking for ways to avoid mistakes. Maybe I’m looking for ways to pull myself out of this dread, which might be the very thing that ruins us.

When I was in grade school, my parents separated. During that separation, my mom had another secret relationship, and she leaned on me emotionally. It was confusing and frightening for me when she would ask me to lie to my dad, but I wanted them to reconcile more than anything, so I did it. They tried, briefly in my early teens, but then they divorced bitterly. They married other people and then these marriages were unhappy and ended badly. I watched them become mainly unhappy, regretful people. I feel a lot of pity and tenderness for them, and I’m terrified that I resemble them in some essential way that I can’t see.

I feel like I learned a lot about what people can do to hurt one another and a lot of that happened way before I was ready for those lessons, but I’m worried that they’re so internalized that I’ll just expect to be hurt constantly. Still, I have some great hopes for how people can show up for one another. This woman is my family, and I have never been so honest with anyone. I do not want to see this break. How do I protect this from my past?

Genetically Broken Woman

Dear GBW,

The longer I’m married, the more I go back to the same basic truth: Honesty pulls a marriage out of the fire. Honesty beats back the shame and fear and contempt that are the death of so many marriages.

Your marriage isn’t doomed, because you’re honest with your wife. You’re able to describe to her how completely your worldview has been shaped and distorted by your parents’ repeated failures, how you were pulled into those narratives and made to feel like they were your own. You can pinpoint the moments when you started to own these stories. You can zoom in and paint a detailed picture for her. You can isolate the minutes and seconds when your mother took her responsibilities and failures and made them yours, so that she could have an ally and feel less alone.

Your fears and your dread can only break your marriage if you’re so ashamed of them that you hide them from your wife. If you hide them, they’ll fester and grow and haunt you. If you tell close friends about your fears but never tell your wife about them, you’ll be treating her like someone who needs to be protected from the truth in order to stay with you. You might trick yourself into thinking that this is how love works. But keeping her in the dark means keeping your shame alive. Her ignorance becomes a way of telling yourself that you’re unacceptable, that you’re broken, that you’re not good enough to be loved. It’s a way of believing that the truth of your past will inevitably make her turn against you and leave you. It lets you avoid the risk of showing her everything.

You’re taking that risk right now, even though it scares the shit out of you, and you have to keep taking it. I say this because I think you’re in danger of hiding at some point. That’s the natural reaction to so much fear and dread.  Your worries about divorce are echoes of a fearful sensation you have that total honesty means destroying yourself and everyone around you, and destroying every relationship you have. You believe this because you confuse the sharing your mother did with the sharing you might do in a healthy marriage.

But these two kinds of sharing couldn’t be more different. Your mother brought you — someone not mature and not a peer and not an equal partner capable of drawing clear boundaries — into a boundaryless void of emotions and initiatives that weren’t your own. When you’re invited into someone else’s weird, shameful void, the shame multiplies exponentially. You’re not the one making crazy choices, but you’re enlisted to help keep them hidden. You have no control! And the secrets feel even more dangerous to you, as a kid, than they do to your mom, the person who’s responsible for those choices.

It’s almost like she was training you to be codependent. But as grown adults, one of the biggest mistakes we can make in life is to take other people’s realities and carry them around as if they’re ours. That can feel like love: Picking up someone else’s burden, turning the sky black if they say it’s black. That can feel like loyalty and devotion. In my experience, when you have unresolved feelings of neediness and rejection from your early years that still haunt you, you’re more likely to privilege that kind of overly sacrificial behavior. Some small part of you wants to be helpless and be taken care of, like a little baby, sometimes because your parents couldn’t put their needs second to yours, ever. And when you have an irrational desire for that kind of self-abandoning love, you also think that it’s the ultimate, premium, platinum-level version of love, and giving it reflects well on you.

But a healthy marriage is the exact opposite of that kind of dramatic self-sacrifice and babying. In a good marriage, you can share the universe of feeling and sensation and ideas and beliefs and memories that live inside of you without engulfing the other person completely. You hold your own reality and your own strength separate from your wife’s reality and strength, so that when she sees nothing but darkness and needs some sunshine, you can show up and shine. But you can also hear and accept her darkness without trying to forcibly fix it. You can listen to her feelings and accept them without becoming anxious or angry. You can also share your fears and your darkness, knowing that she can take it in without letting it take over her whole world. You can be incredibly honest, every day, and share the full breadth of your interior world with someone else without expecting them to put your emotional experience before their own every step of the way.

I think an important first step is for you to stop treating yourself as some mutant who will never recover from what your mother did. My feeling is that once you start treating the peculiarities of your past as interesting and valuable and worthwhile to explore and understand, you’ll find it easier to stop telling this odd story that they damn you to a broken marriage. That doesn’t mean that these things aren’t terrifying and even objectively fucked up and lamentable! But it’s your job to approach them as a scientist or an artist would, embracing the ugliest details, zooming in on that moment when your mother’s warped truth became your own, without concluding that these details have rotted your soul and left you broken. Or rather, you CAN decide that’s what happened, but you have to say it out loud, with pride. Or say it out loud with shame, and listen for the moment when your shame turns to acceptance or even pride, simply because it has a voice.

Broken people should take pride in their shattered souls. Being broken can bring out your deepest wells of inspiration and give you the strength to transcend the snares and pitfalls that people who haven’t been through hell are more prone to. The key is being honest and refusing to hide.
Hiding keeps you haunted. Hiding makes that voice in your head whisper “divorce,” as if the future is predetermined. Say “I’m so afraid of divorce” out loud instead. Say it until you and your wife laugh whenever you say it.

That’s what it feels like to share without fear. Your partner can listen closely and still remind you that your pain doesn’t blot out the sun, even if it feels that way to you sometimes. You can trust your partner to maintain a sense of balance when you have vertigo. She might not love these moments of fear or outright rage, but that doesn’t mean that your world takes over hers. She isn’t enraged by your rage, the way a boundaryless mother might be. She doesn’t replace your feelings with her own. That’s what someone who hides and remains haunted does. They have to replicate their own prejudices and fears and paranoia in others because they’ll never feel safe enough to accept and analyze and observe these things in themselves without experiencing so much shame that they can’t breathe.

Right now, your shame might be panicking you a little, making it tempting to follow your mother’s path. That’s why I want to tell you to trust the commitment you’ve made. Trust your partner. Tell her the truth, knowing that she’s strong enough to handle it. Talk with her about what it means to be two broken people who are stronger because they can see clearly how each other are broken. The more you accept your own shattered state, the more you make room for other shattered people to feel accepted and embraced and loved, and to come out of hiding, and to stop feeling haunted by their fears. You’ve already gone all in with this love you’ve found, and it’s still strong. You have nothing to fear.

The thing no one tells you about damage is that when you accept and even celebrate it instead of treating it like a scary liability, it actually becomes something new: It becomes part of what makes you valuable. It also becomes lighter and funnier and more interesting. My husband tells me more about his weird ideas and fears than he ever did before, and I love it. It’s maybe one of my favorite conversations, and it tends to cheer us up after we discuss it, even when we’re talking about dark stuff.

It’s not like that happens overnight, though. When I met my husband, I had faith that he could tolerate my baggage. But in the first years of our marriage, I sometimes worried that it was too much. I worried that he would get worn out by me, and start to turn his back on my weird ideas and irrational needs. So sometimes I would admit to him, “I got really mad because I thought, ‘This is when he starts to treat me badly. This is the beginning of the end.’” And he would say, “Well, I won’t treat you badly. I just got mad because I thought, ‘This is when she realizes I’m worthless. This is when she realizes she could do better.’” That always made me laugh my ass off. Because I can’t do better than him. And the fact that some weird little nugget inside of him thought that I’d be better off without him was just too fucking absurd.

This is part of what makes my husband who he is. His insecurities also make him a person who cares about fairness and justice. He’s obsessed with these things. That can be mildly inconvenient, sure, but it’s also amazing and it’s also sometimes weird and funny. In the early years of our marriage, when we were all in but still sometimes hiding from each other out of fear, it was harder for us to accept each other, because our fears made us defensive and angry and high-strung. These days, we know each other really well and we’re less afraid of each other and ourselves. I’m not claiming that we’re incredibly mature, healthy human beings. I’m actually saying the opposite: We’re both really fucking reactive and defensive and moody when you catch us on the wrong day. We’ve both got our strange irritating quirks. We’re both too tough sometimes and a pile of nerves and emotions other times. Some of this stuff just doesn’t change. We go through stretches of growing distant, and we won’t notice until one of us blows a gasket.

But we both believe in honesty. We’ve seen how honesty has saved us, over and over again, from building up resentment toward each other.
We’ve seen how honesty lifts the shame we each feel about what confused babies we can be under rough conditions. We clash less and make up more quickly as the years go by. We take misunderstandings and defensiveness less seriously. We resist the urge to get very pissed off about stupid, small stuff (most of the time, anyway!). We resist the urge to translate our shame about ourselves into contempt for each other. I sometimes tell him, “Just ask for exactly what you want from me.” I can’t always give it, but it’s good to understand what you really want, and it’s good to know that you can say it out loud without the other person blaming you for being a human being with needs.

As long as you treat yourself as someone who’s inadequate and not good enough for your marriage, you’ll be hiding and afraid and you won’t stand up for your own needs, either. You should probably get a therapist to help with this. I don’t want you to think that your love is magical and it won’t require hard work. But ultimately the challenges you face are pretty simple: Dare to dig deeper into your own damage and dare to be fearless in the face of just how screwy you are at some core level. Keep telling the truth.
Keep daring to stand up for the things that make you who you are, even when they look broken to you.

When you take on a complicated emotional landscape that belongs to someone else when you’re very young, it’s hard not to treat your own emotional needs as scary liabilities. But it’s time to put that map under glass, and point at it, and laugh at it, even. You can examine it closely but still treat it like the artifact that it is. You aren’t living there anymore. You’re right here, and you’re stronger than you think.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I’m Scared I’ll Destroy My Marriage!