Last night after dinner, my husband and I rose from the table at the same time, and while still discussing the minutia that dominates most of the conversations of a long marriage, started clearing the table. He scraped the dishes, and loaded the dishwasher while I wrapped up leftovers. Suddenly, I noticed the way in which we moved together. We were doing different tasks, but working towards the same goal. No movement was wasted, we did not bump into each other, or reach for the ketchup bottle at the same time. The work was done quickly and easily, and when I pointed out what I noticed, we joked about working like a “well-oiled machine.” This is one of the many pleasures of being with someone for a long time. You know their strengths and their weaknesses, sometimes even better than you know your own.
We’ve had a hard year, the two of us. This is the first year in a very long marriage that we’ve ever questioned if we would spend the next one together. We have been together since I was a teen, and I never doubted that we would grow old as a couple. I guess it’s a miracle in itself that we made it this far without questioning our relationship. Not that it has been easy. We have survived poverty; not the kind where we were starving, but the kind where our electricity was shut off and we were too proud to ask our parents for money, so we told our young children that we were “camping” for the week (they loved it), and the kind where we couldn’t afford toothpaste sometimes, so we had to use baking soda. We survived the death of both of his parents, one by suicide, alcoholism, jail, a diagnosis of bipolar, with its 20% mortality rate, and both of us attended college with small children, while working.
Through all this, we laughed our way through many a hardship. It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. There were many tears, fights, threats and even throwing of wedding rings on two dramatic occasions. But in all those years, neither one of us, even while the words, “that’s it! I’m done” were hurled at each, ever thought for one minute that we would ever actually be done. Not for nothing, did my then six-year-old niece proclaim, “you guys are always either fighting, or kissing!”
No, the real threat came quietly. Years of his bad boy behavior, and my long-suffering martyr act caught up with us. We finally outgrew the roles that we’ve played for decades. Roles that we fell into naturally and actually must have enjoyed. There is something so satisfying about being the “good one,” in the relationship. I do believe that I actually relished the martyr role. It felt pretty good to be the forgiver; benevolent, strong and merciful. I would shower him with forgiveness, and snatch it back at the first signs of a disagreement, enslaving him to a lifetime of being the naughty child to my scolding mom.
For some reason this year, we both grew tired of our roles. I was weary of the burden, and after a summer of no sleep and a restless spirit, I abruptly shucked it off like an old coat. I decided that I did not want to be responsible for his happiness or lack thereof, something he never asked me to do in the first place. I don’t know why, but I also had no desire to hold our family together with an iron will and a clenched fist anymore. I let it go. I had no idea what would happen, but I was too tired of carrying our responsibilities, our happiness, and our salvation on my back like a figurative beast of burden, to care anymore. I thought that if I let go, everything would topple like a house of cards. I thought that I was so strong, that if I gave up control, he would go down too. It turns out that I’m not that strong, I never was. I was weak, because I thought I needed to hold on so tightly. God is strong, and he does not tire, nor does he hold on so tightly, he chokes the life out of someone.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
So, I did it, I told God I was tired of carrying all of this baggage and I asked him to take it from me. Then, of course, like a control freak, I plucked it back from him a few times, but ultimately I experienced the freedom that comes with letting go. I decided that whatever happened, and whatever became of us, it would be better than what we had been doing and the weariness that I’d been feeling for years.
So, what happened to my bad boy? Did he spiral out of control? Did he fall apart without me to hold him together? Nope, he stepped up. It seems that maybe my mother-role wasn’t saving him all along. I actually was standing in his way. By stepping back, and letting go, I gave him room to take his place. By not feeling responsible for his happiness and behavior, he became responsible for it himself. He is more content, and I feel unburdened.
What this means for two people who share a lifetime of memories and laughter, is that we are free to choose each other, every day. No longer entangled in a vicious cycle of dependent/co-dependent behavior, we are able to oblige each other, because we are happy to do it, not because we feel the other person will give up, or fall apart if we don’t. It seems impossible to believe that after 28 years together, we are happier than we have ever been. We laugh, as we always have done. After all, having fun has always been the glue that has held us together, sometimes one of the few things. Now, enjoying each other’s company is more like fruit on our tree of marriage. A strong tree with roots of trust and commitment, a trunk of love and devotion, and branches of respect, loyalty and friendship, The fruits have developed over the years and have ripened for such a time as this. They are children, grandchildren, joy, fun and companionship. I don’t have to support this tree, like I always thought, I only have to water it daily and enjoy it for the beauty, shelter and comfort it provides.