This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… unconstrained, for lack of a better word.
Today it has been exactly three years since my divorce hearing. Before I left for the courthouse that day, I changed my Facebook profile photo to one from our wedding day that I had always particularly liked. I posted it because it reminded me of what I was grieving, of the days when I remembered being happy together.
Facebook has done its Facebookly duty and reminded me of this photo every year since. I don’t remember which year I noticed—maybe last year, when I was realizing some hard truths about our marriage?—I noticed that Josh didn’t actually look happy in the photo. I’d already begun to notice sadness in more recent photos—the tense eyes and drawn lips in face I knew so well from thirteen years of marriage and five years of friendship and dating before that. But heavy photo documentation of our relationship only went as far back as Facebook, and, in my mind, only back to the point when things turned. I assumed he looked happier before that, although I don’t think I bothered to look. A story I’d told myself was that almost every marriage goes through the “seven year itch”. Some survive and some don’t. Ours had gone into a slow death spiral around then, and the photos I see all the time were a reflection of decline.
But here I am, year after year confronted with a photo from the very beginning of our marriage where I look happy and he does not. How did I not see it before? A lot of soul searching has led me to one conclusion—I didn’t want to. And, to be completely fair, I don’t think he wanted me to, either. He did propose, he did say “I do.” There were always assertions of love and affection and a desire for marriage (and physical chemistry that I thought backed it up.) Hindsight being what it is, of course I now see that there were other signs of his unhappiness besides his smile on our wedding day. But he did say that he wanted the same thing I did.
Sometimes I get angry about that. It was, after all, a lie to tell me he wanted something that he didn’t. I get mad that he let me continue to believe in a marriage long after he’d lost faith in it (if he’d ever had it to begin with). I get angry that he looked for ways to be happy outside of our relationship when I should have been enough without telling me the truth of it. But the fact is we both looked at problems in our marriage without seeing each other.
I faced the problems in our marriage by trying to make it a better place to be, by making myself into the best wife possible. I read all of the books. I did everything everyone said to do to try to be the thing he SHOULD want. I worked my tail off to help him through grad school. I learned to be a “keeper at home”, keep house better, cook better, be watchful of what he said he wanted. I built this artifice of what OUGHT to be, and squeezed myself smaller and smaller to try to fit in it, hoping to give him room to join me there.
What I didn’t do was learn to see him as a human being. To see his hurt where he was. To see when he was unhappy without fearing what it meant for “us”. To continue to be his friend even when I was his girlfriend and his wife. I learned a model of marriage built on “shoulds” and “ought tos” that ignored the person—the people–both of us, him and me. I built my palace of obligation and hoped he would come live in it with me.
He never did. It’s no surprise to me now that it wasn’t very enticing—I wasn’t happy there myself. He escaped in his own ways. And the end I burst through the shell I’d built trying to make myself into something I wasn’t, someone I thought would be more lovable. Ironically, burying myself more and more in my desperation to be seen.
In my fighting for marriage and his running away and hiding from it, we missed what should have been essential: We missed each other. Focusing on what the relationship was (or was not), neither of us saw the person right in front of us.
I have every right to be angry over things he did and how he treated me, and often I still am. But more and more, when I see this photo, I’m just sad. He was my friend before he was my boyfriend and then my husband. In trying to fit marriage into our relationship, we stopped being friends to each other. In trying to squeeze into a box that promised happiness and God’s blessing, we squeezed out our best opportunities to connect.
Unconstrained love is so simple. Love the person AS THEY ARE. No preconditions. Not based on what they do, but who they are. Love their motives more than their actions, believe in their best selves. Remind them that you still believe in their best selves even when they fail, but love the failed person as they are, where they are.
Unconstrained love is simple, but it is not easy. It sticks its neck out beyond the safety of convention and social norms, beyond what I want out of the relationship, pushing everything out of the way to see the person as they are. It doesn’t shy away from the pain that’s inevitable with relationships because it knows the the love and true knowledge of the person there is worth it. Unconstrained love looks absolutely treacherous until you know that once you get past the fear of what could and maybe even will happen, real life begins where love flourishes.
When I look at that picture, I remember that it comes down to this: unconstrained love for my husband would have meant setting aside my fear that our marriage would end so I could see him where he was. He was hiding, but I could have seen it anyway if I’d wanted to. (That’s the beauty and the curse of marriage–you really can’t hide.) I couldn’t handle that, I kept pushing what I thought ought to be, and it did end. Now I’ve been through it: I sacrificed relationship to feed my fears, then I saw my fears become reality anyway. Next time I hope I can do better. Next time and every day.