I’m ten years out of my relationship with my ex-husband. Or at least out of the marriage. I’ve still got to deal with a relationship with him because I have kids with him. But even now with lots of perspective, experience and insight, I find myself wondering what the hell I was thinking when I hooked up with him in the first place.
I’m coming at this from the perspective of a forty-eight year old woman who wants to feel like her experience might have the possibility of convincing a young woman from entering into a life-changing and ill-advised marriage. Or, knowing that it can be hard to convince any woman in the pink cloud of “love” to leave her man, maybe I can be the first place for a woman to find a soft landing once she realizes what a mistake she has made.
I met my husband when I was nineteen. I had been to college, had been raped, and fell into a relationship with a guy who checked all of the boxes I knew to make when I was a teenager. He was stable, smart enough, ambitious enough and punctual. He was shorter than me and presented zero physical threat, which for me was a factor coming off the assault. He treated me well (from what I knew how to deduce at nineteen) and was clearly enamored with me. I thought that the reliable, responsible guy that I dragged home was just as good as any guy, and, given my conservative upbringing, a great candidate for a stable partner.
It was all about making safe choices and compromising. I will never fully understand why I chose how I did, but if I can give out any advice that might be heard by younger versions of me it would be:
- Choosing “safe” will lead to regret. It probably means you aren’t dealing with an underlying fear and are settling.
- I saw myself as a settling force for him. It’s part of the upbringing I had- that men needed a good woman to fully form into a good man. There were signs of his being emotionally immature from early on. Look for already-formed, not potential.
- Victims very often turn out to be perpetrators. A wounded animal can turn out to be incredibly vicious, even to the person trying to help. An incredibly insightful therapist I had taught me to understand that the way that a former victim may try to rebalance power is by lashing out at the person who most wants to help. Don’t be the savior. It will backfire.
- Best intentions aren’t enough. No matter how hard I was willing to work at the relationship, it was never going to be enough to want it for two. No matter how good I am for him, it’s never going to be good enough for him, because he is stuck in a very, very different world.
- It’s a warning sign if he wants to be a hero, like he’s trying to prove something to himself. Real heroes don’t seek attention and don’t need to prove anything. My ex played Dungeons & Dragons. Now, he didn’t dress like an elf or anything, but his day job was as a law enforcement officer so I guess he did dress up. I told myself that it was good that he embraced his nerd side, and that it just made him a more interesting. During the day, the badge was “I’m officially a good guy” status. In his free time, his gaming allowed him to make rallying speeches to a room full of make-believe followers. He had to pretend, because he knew that deep down he had no idea what a real man was or how to be one.
- He wasn’t over his mommy issues. I remember being trained into believing that the way that a husband treated his mother was the way that he would treat his wife. It’s just not true, particularly if he comes from an overbearing mother and you, the potential wife, aren’t overbearing in the least. He would say one thing to his mother’s face (because he couldn’t stand up to her, ever) and then turn around and do something different once she wasn’t there anymore, because he didn’t want to deal with her disapproval. I just couldn’t be duplicitous like that. I didn’t want to pretend. So it always led to conflicts, where often my husband would tell me in private that he agreed with me, but that he wanted me to compromise with his mother somehow. And he could never, or would never, stand up for me in front of her. I should have seen that this was all a warning sign of how he couldn’t stand up to anyone, and that he also could be duplicitous in his dealings with me, and not just with his mom.
I was so ready to build a future, to move on and away from trauma, to be free and to be a grown-up, that I allowed myself to ignore all kinds of warnings, and to consciously convince myself that this person would bring stability to my life. Instead, I threw all my eggs into that unstable basket. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to give myself another five years, then to make the choice. I am hesitant to give my daughters any specific advice against marrying young because I neither want to seem a hypocrite, and I’m actually glad I had my children younger. I like being an almost empty-nester at my age now. So, ultimately, my advice is this: marry someone you love passionately and who treats you kindly, always. Do not settle for a man-child. And if it turns out that you missed some major warning signs, it’s okay. You will appreciate the freedom after divorce doubly if you have lived through a bad marriage.