SDL: The Cure For Perfection: My Response

A couple of days ago, my nephew, Dan, wrote a follow-up column to his very widely read post "The Disease Called 'Perfection'".  In one week, more than a quarter of a million people have viewed that page.  Yesterday, he posted a follow-up column called "The Cure for Perfection".  In it, he admitted that he could not possibly offer the balm required to heal the galaxy of sorrows and injuries that people posted on his first post.  Instead, he asked his readers to write the column for him, through the comments.  He asked for people to write what was their greatest struggle ever, what the person they are now have to say to the person they are then, and how the Perfection post affect their lives.  My abbreviated post is too long for even Intense Debate's generous allowances, so I posted my comments hear.

My Comment to The Cure for Perfection
There were 8 whole comments when I first started writing this comment yesterday morning.  I've given it a lot of thought, a lot of writing, a lot of deleting, and finally decided it's impossible to put 35 years of struggle in two paragraphs, or to leave religion out of it, since I would have never reached any of these conclusions without my faith.  However, the biggest factor in my deciding not to go into detail: this is my husband's story as much as my own, and I have to respect his right to privacy.
Engagement photo November 1979
THE STRUGGLE (In a nutshell):   
I've had lupus since I was 14.  I got married when I was 17.  My husband had just turned 19.  I gave birth to our first son when I was 19.  He was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus when he was 21.  The first 15 years of our marriage were a long string of tag-team hospitalizations, the drain of medical expenses, both of us struggling to control our disease, major surgeries for me, and the high-risk pregnancies of three sons, all bound together with under- and unemployment when my husband got kicked out of the Air Force for having diabetes.  To say we had a rocky marriage would be an understatement.  Our expectations of marriage were diametrically opposed.  Our life together was one very small, very leaky boat caught in a raging storm that never ended, with both people trying to captain the vessel and no one manning the crew.
It all came to a head when we had been married 16 years.  I thought about divorce a lot.  I felt unappreciated, unloved, overburdened, stifled, suffocated, controlled, manipulated, trapped by my finances, my religious beliefs, my children, my pride, the fact that no one else would have me and then who would take care of me, and my own experience as the child of divorce.  At 16 years, after we had a HUGE blow-up, I finally had had enough and decided I was justified in ending it.  Nothing could be simpler.  My children were already 1500 miles away visiting their grandparents.  All I had to do was follow them.  I could live with my husband's mother until I got things sorted out.
I didn't leave.  We didn't get divorced.  Instead, I had a very powerful spiritual experience that opened my eyes to a lot of things, but especially that I was as much to blame for the situation as he was.  I realized I had always felt superior to him because I followed the tenets of my religion more faithfully than he did.  I never harped at him about it, but I always resented it.  I was more involved in parenting our three sons than he was.  He was not the husband or the father I wanted him to be, and if it wasn't for me, he'd probably have become an alcoholic just like his grandfather, and totally give up, just like his brother.  If he would only let me do what I wanted, if he would do what I knew he should be doing, our life would be so much easier.  We would be so much happier.  If he would only live up to my expectations of a 'perfect' husband.  Never mind that I was a far from perfect wife.
That night when I realized all these horrible things about myself, I realized how terribly wrong I had been for so many years.  I realized that I was pushing my husband to that line that if he ever crossed, I swore I would leave him.  Literally pushed him.  He never crossed that line of violence, but I told myself he did—because I pushed him.  I also screamed and threw things, including a temper tantrum.  I was so ashamed of myself.  (To my defense, I blame it on the fen/phen).
That night, because there were no words to express what I felt, I used colored pencils on black paper to draw a picture instead.  First, I drew my husband and my three sons huddled around a small fire that my husband was trying to bring to stoke.  He had a good start, but I stood in the background, holding nothing but a lantern, trying to draw my sons away to the candles flickering in the far distance—the men I knew possessed the particular traits that I admired.  I chose one here and one there and, even thought they were not all present in any one man, they should all be in my husband.   However, they were not, and so I had to 'rescue' my sons by pointing them to the men they should really follow.  I was the wicked witch, stealing my children from their father—something I swore I would never do because it was done to me.  Fourteen years later, I still have that scrap of construction paper to remind me what I did not ever want to become again.
That one night changed my entire life because it changed the way I looked at both my husband and myself.  I am ashamed to say that it took another ten years to truly understand why he would not allow me to run myself into the ground doing things a 'normal' [read 'perfect'] mom would.  The fact that we literally never went on a family vacation really, really bugged me.  I thought it was all about him not wanting to go to the trouble and expense of doing what everyone else did.  He balked at kids' involvement in piano lessons and football and swim team and orchestra and band and drama and choir and scouts and the cost and involvement those activities required of parents.  I thought he just didn't understand because he had always been a loner.
However, the actual truth lay in the fact that before we were married, my mother told him that because of my lupus, I was 'going to die within a year, so why bother with me at all?'  It NEVER occurred to me—not in twenty-five years—that that those horrible words have haunted him ever since, that he was actually pretty certain I would not live through one or two of my surgeries, that he was terrified I would die if I had baby #4 like I wanted to, and that he was just trying to protect me and keep his family together.  It would have been a lot easier if he were better at communicating his feelings, but it would have been so much better if I even tried to understand his point of view.  
We have been married 30 years, have three daughters-in-law in addition to our three sons, and four-going-on-six grandchildren.  We're not even 50, but we're a couple of gimpy sick people with permanent handicapped tags feeling a lot older than our years.  Money is just as tight as it always has been.  Our health will only worsen.  We will never be 'normal', but the past five years have been the happiest of my life.
2nd Son's Wedding, May 2008

FROM MY 'NOW' SELF TO MY 'THEN' SELF (and anyone else who wants to listen):
1.  Live your religion.  If the atonement of Jesus Christ works for you, you dang well better accept that it works for your husband and forgive him for not meeting your unrealistic expectations.  Christ does not condemn him, so you have no right to.  Grow closer to God.  He knows what needs to change, even if you don't, and he has the power to do it, if only you will allow it.  To the non-religious, quite simply, if you would be forgiven, learn to forgive.  Seek that inner voice in yourself that speaks softly and is sometimes very difficult to follow.  Listen to your heart more, follow those instincts for good, and you will be happier for it.
2.  Forgive.  Don't hold grudges, and DO NOT keep a running tally of offenses. When your spouse apologizes, don't reflexively say or even think 'no you're not.  You're just saying that.'  Entertain the possibility that they truly are sincere, even if they do the same thing again.  Treat them like they are everything you want in a spouse, and they will do a heckofalot to make you right. 
3.  Two of the most harmful words to a marriage are 'if only'.  If only you would do this, if only you were that way, if only if only if only.  If only you weren't such a failure at meeting my expectations.  There is a terrific way to tell your spouse how lucky you are to have them.
4. Be honest.  Don't decide to do what you are going to do, then ask for his opinion or permission, and then do exactly what you want to do anyway.  Don't be manipulative and secretive and deceitful to get what you want.  Trust is a gift freely given, but once lost, regaining it is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  
5.  Listen.  Just because your spouse does not understand how you feel or what you mean without your saying it, it doesn't mean they don't love you.  "You should know!" while quite possibly true, never solved anything.  On the flip side, it doesn't do any good to run around doing what you think will prevent an argument or would make your spouse happy if you've never taken the time to truly see with your spouse's eyes.  It just doesn't work.  Strive for mutual communication, even if it comes a little bit at a time.  If you start listening, they won't have to fight so hard to be heard and are liable to start listening as well.  
6.  Live your life together.  Be a team rather than opponents.  Have mutual goals.  Spend time together.  
7.  Admit you are wrong to your spouse—not in a groveling, sniveling, beat-cur-under-the-table sort of way, but in a positive, I know we can be better sort way.  Admitting your own fault is magical.  It diffuses the anger and offense.  I still hear witchy words spit out of my mouth now and again, especially when I am tired or in pain.  It appalls me, but I am quick to admit the fault and apologize for it, as does my husband.  Dispelling the fog anger allows the mutual affection to shine again.
8.  Be patient.  Keep trying.  Don't lose heart.  Be aware of your own failings so that you can strive to improve them, but admit that you are human and humans are inherently flawed.  Give yourself all the second chances you require.  Give your spouse all the second chances they need.  If you make a habit of it and they learn to trust you again, when they feel safe with you protecting their secrets, you may very well start hearing things like, 'I knew from that moment, you were my future' or 'I know you've been the difference between light and darkness for me.'  
9.  Believe it or not, you are not infallible, and you do not possess the high ground with every argument.  Learn to compromise.  Learn to respect your spouse's opinions.  Do not discount them because you know better.
10.  Be grateful.  Whether you're grateful to God or to the universe or to mother nature or the cosmos, be grateful for the things you have.  You cannot list all your grievances while you're counting your blessings.  Realize how truly blessed you are, even if you have to pick out things like sunshine and birdsong and a beautiful clear blue sky.  To me, those are tremendous things to be grateful for, and when you know what is good in your life, the bad things don't feel quite so overwhelming.  
11.  Count the things you still love about your spouse.  Instead of focusing on all that they used to do for  you but do no longer, focus on what you used to do for them when you were crazy about them but do no longer.  Start doing them again.  Show your partner that they are important to you.  Date every week.  Don't let other things interfere.  Make a conscious effort to fall in love again.  It is possible.  You might even discover that the romance you shared at the beginning is nothing compared to the love you now share, first and foremost because you had to strive so hard for it.
12.  Have hope and faith—in yourself, in your spouse, in God or karma or the goodness of life.  Marriage or relationships are never easy for anyone, but when you forget yourself and serve your partner or your partnership, if you will, that begins to have the most value to you both and you together strive to protect and nourish it.  It will be worth the effort.  I promise.  Even if your partner isn't on-board or seem responsive to your efforts, keep trying. You are making a difference, and in time they will be more than willing to admit it.
13.  Forget yourself and get to work.
14.  Read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  Discovering your husband is not a space alien just save your marriage.
3rd Son's Wedding, August 2009
WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE 'PERFECTION' POST:
One of the biggest things that struck me (and why I chose this particular struggle to focus on) was how many people felt lonely or neglected in their marriage and sought love elsewhere, then very quickly knew what a terrible mistake they had made.  Neither my husband nor myself have ever been emotionally or physically unfaithful to one another, but the gap between us grew to be almost impossible to span.  
I try to think what (besides our religious beliefs [as opposed to practices]) kept our marriage from falling apart.  I think probably one of the biggest things is, we both knew divorce never solved any problems.  At best, it just exchanged one set of problems for another if one was lucky, or just piled one set of problems atop another if one was not.  My parents divorced when I was 3, and 45 years later, it still is a source of strife and sorrow in our rather tight-knit family.  
The other thing I knew:  walking away from one relationship meant starting over from scratch, and if I could not make a relationship with my husband of 16 years work, what made me think I could start all over and do any better?  I would STILL be myself, and myself was half the problem.  I have watched a lot of people go through divorces, and never have I seen it make life easier, even when the couple were determined to make it as strife free as possible.  I would rather focus my efforts on saving my marriage than on solving the problems that divorce would introduce.
Forgive me for offending so many people which I know I will do with my next statement.  I know that many people would find no benefit in the course we took at all.  This post is not for them—not all of it.  This post is for those who are standing at a crossroads, feeling lonely and abandoned, and have to decide in what direction they will search for love.  Searching for love where we knew we would find it if we tried hard enough was the right strategy for us.
I also feel very strongly that parents say 'kids are resilient and they'll get over it' and 'they'll be happier if I'm happy' are trying to make themselves feel better about their decision.  I am not saying that divorce isn't justified or absolutely necessary in a lot of cases.  I would never encourage anyone, man or woman, to remain in an abusive relationship.  Infidelity can sometimes destroy all hope of reconciliation when the restoration of trust is impossible.  But I also know that kids are scarred by divorce.  They are resilient.  They will get on with their lives, but you cannot erase the scars of that grief and loss.  A divorce is the death of your marriage, of their home as they always knew it.  They will go through the grief process.
No one wants children to have to live with a depressed, self-loathing, unloved, unhappy mother or father, no one wants them to live in constant turmoil and fear, but, perhaps the solution may lie in other avenues besides divorce. Each person, each couple have to make the decision that is right for them, but divorce is not the quick fix that so many people want it to be.  I don't remember a time when my mother and father were married, I don't remember the anger and fighting that my older siblings did, but I came out of that bitter, angry divorce a lot worse for wear just the same.  
I have also watched a lot of my friends NOT get divorced, even though there were plenty of justifications.  Besides the overwhelming heartbreak, I have seen infidelity forgiven, wounds healed, faith and trust restored, and bonds grow unassailable because they chose to try one last time to save their marriage.  They realized the value of their spouse, the love and respect that yet remained between them, that they cherished and were cherished still, and what a mistake divorce would have been.  Their joy could not be greater because they turned a near tragedy into an opportunity to fall in love all over again.  
My boys suffered through a lot of screaming and yelling and door slamming and silence and strife.  My marriage didn't magically fix itself after the incident above.  We both had to become a lot more humble, a lot more patient, and a lot more forgiving and loving before any change could be detected—a LOT more willing to overlook one another's  faults and focus on our strengths.  But, hopefully my sons did learn that conflicts can be resolved, that people can and do change, that some things are worth salvaging, that people and relationships are not disposable, sacrifice ultimately is no sacrifice at all in comparison to the blessings received, and families can be the greatest of all God's blessing if those within it will truly love one another.  Hopefully, they learned that wherever you go, there you are, and you still have to live with yourself no matter how far you run.
Whole family in August of 2009, already two babies out of date, soon to be four.

Thanks for reading this far!  I know it's a whole lot to absorb.  If you got here by way of  Single Dad Laughing: The Cure for Perfection, triple thanks!  I know you had to pile through a ton of comments to even get to this page.

If this is your first time visiting us, feel free to look around.   This is my own private piece of the universe to rattle around in, and you're more than welcome to drop by any time.  LIKE us on the button at the top right, and FOLLOW us.  I'd be mighty proud if you did.
—freemom

9 comments:

Lewis Family said...

Amen. Good reminders all. We all hit a wall sometimes, wherein it's so much easier to be prideful and blame the other person. I usually have to take a nap or a break or a really good cry to get to a better place, but I know I can get there every time. Thanks, lady.

tomiannie said...

That is beautiful, Penny. How would you feel about posting this in its entirety as a guest poster on my blog sometime soon? I think it's really awesome.

freemom said...

Hey. I just ready your reply today. (Or, perhaps I read it and your offer just didn't register.) Either way, thanks. I would be very proud to post that post on your blog, if you still want it.

Carrie said...

Penny, I just found this entry yesterday and was totally blown away by it. I don't know how I missed it before.
Some education comes at such a high price but once you gain it it is that much sweeter. I have had some of that journey myself.
It's hard when you realize just how much of the problem lies within yourself isn't it? Very humbling.
Love you forever! Love your blog!

BentonvilleGal said...

Penny,

Hurrah for blogs as a way to get to know each other. I feel like bumbling around your blog and reading your posts in the last few weeks has allowed me to know you better than I have after 13 years of being part of the family. Thank you for your writing. It is beautiful.

I think we need to change our children's expectations of marriage, so they will not be horrified and overwhelmed when they, too, come to the realization that it is excruciatingly hard. Marriage is a people growing process, it is not a source of "happy happy joy joy" all the time. I made this comment to a friend of mine recently, and my son overheard me. He asked if I wanted to leave our family now. I reassured him I didn't, but told him there were times I felt everyone would be better off if I did. Perhaps it has scarred him (or scared him) to hear it, but since I'm not leaving, I hope instead it will plant a seed of understanding in his heart, so he won't expect perfection, either.

Penny Freeman said...

@BG: I agree with you 100%. And, I don't think you scarred E., but made good use of an important teaching opportunity. And, maybe even fended off fears before they presented themselves. Kids see families splitting up all around them, and knowing that their own parents are committed to each other even when things get difficult has to lend them peace of mind.

And, thanks for poking around in my blog. I really like yours as well. :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

*sniff* Aw, Peggy. That's beautiful! I'm so happy for you that you two persevered and were willing to learn from each other. Like you, my hubby and I have really been through the mill together, but the last few years have been the best. Anything worth having is worth working to save.

Penny Freeman said...

Donna, isn't it funny how our brains see whole words without us really paying attention—like those posts that go around on Facebook: if you can read this, repost. All but the first and last letters are scrambled? Our brains play tricks on us all the time, and our fingers aren't far behind. So, as tactfully as I can say, it's Penny. ;-> Welcome to the Chaos.

Karen Adair said...

Someone once told me that marriage took two people. You have just reaffirmed that understanding by way of this beautiful and honest post. Thank you for sharing your journey and the lessons you've learned. Would that every young man and woman sought for understanding each other in the same way. Those that do are no doubt richly blessed. As you have been. Beautiful family!!!!!