Every time I’ve started to write about my upcoming marriage, I’ve stalled out. I have come to recognize that as an indication that I’m having authenticity problems. Those are probably the biggest stumbling blocks in my work. Writing has made me understand that it’s almost reflexive for me to adopt a mask of half-truths. One of the gifts of it is that it catches me every time.
In this case, I was trying to fit Trav’s and my relationship into the language of others, when in fact it has a verse all its own.
I’m very interested in the words and phrases that others use in relation to their happy partnerships. So often I hear words like safe, secure, trusting, in-sync. I hear about a common pattern, in which two partners meet, share a period of blissful, glassy-eyed serenity, and then later must confront reality and carve out a more grounded relationship.
For me and Travis, that script was flipped. When the universe brought us together, it was cackling. Ooooh, it thought. Let’s take a woman fresh out of a nasty divorce who is only now beginning to know herself, and pair her with a man whose wounds are very much like her own, and whose vulnerability is boiling on the surface like magma. What will they do with that?
Someone pass the popcorn.
From the beginning, I didn’t feel particularly safe with Travis. I’d never met anyone who could so deftly filet my protective layers and expose the parts I was just dying to keep under wraps, concealed from the world and, sadly, even myself. I told myself that my divorce had taught me the value of owning my vulnerability, and while that’s true, the experience still didn’t cure me of the habit of disowning it. I’m still unlearning that, as you can see from the first paragraph of this post. And so when I heard other people talking about feeling safe, I assumed that meant there was something wrong with us. It didn’t occur to me that my life might be different from others, and that feeling safe was not what I really needed yet.
I don’t really want to speak too much for Travis, but it’s safe to say that when we met, he hadn’t yet even identified his own vulnerabilities, let alone proceeded to the part where he owned them and soothed them. We spent a long time being very angry with each other for laying open those soft parts. Each of us seemed perfectly designed to set alight the other’s internal powder kegs, for poking the tigers inside us that we had the least control over. We kept doing that, for years. People wondered – legitimately – why the hell we didn’t stop torturing ourselves and find new partners that wouldn’t drive us crazy. I wondered that too. There were times I wanted out in the worst way, when I felt like an animal caught in a trap.
And yet, when I went to walk away, I couldn’t. Somewhere inside, I knew there could be something there for me – maybe. What I came to realize was that life was going to drag me to a ledge I never wanted to revisit. I was going to have to see it through to that point in time where both of us had a choice – grow or let it go. Deep inside, I knew what I would choose, even as I didn’t want to admit it. There was almost nothing I wouldn’t do for the relationship, because when we were good, we were really good. Perversely, in the process of fileting each other’s shields, we’d developed a more intimate acquaintance than any I’d ever experienced. I valued that deeply, as much as I wished I didn’t.
I was going to have to surrender to the possibility that we would get to the point of reckoning and I would be willing to grow and change, and he wouldn’t. I had been to that ledge before and gone sailing over it, along with a fifteen-year marriage and the “intact” family I’d always wanted. I’d seen it all dashed on the rocks, and it was terrible. The part of my brain that had been screaming at me to get out was the protective part, the one that just wanted me to swerve before facing that chasm again.
But I didn’t swerve, in the end. I didn’t need to. Somewhere in all those stormy years, I’d found a measure of strength, and an awareness that I could rebuild my life over and over again from the pieces at the bottom of the canyon. Indeed, I would have to do so. Because ultimately, life is an endless sequence of runs at The Ledge. Sometimes you go over. Sometimes you don’t. But either way, it’s a good idea to become proficient in the art of reconstruction.
Once I absorbed that truth, I started hearing other words when I talked to people about their marriages and long-term relationships. Words like compromise, acceptance, empathy, and challenge.
In the end, he didn’t swerve either. From a rational perspective, I don’t think I needed to worry. Travis is one of the most emotionally courageous people I’ve ever known. At each of the darkest points in our relationship, he would travel back to Square One, always looking at himself a little more, making more progress, growing a little more. As it turns out, when he reached his own personal Ledge this time, he took a fearless swan dive.
I’ve never known anyone like that.
I felt very safe in my first marriage, but in fact I wasn’t, at all. I haven’t always felt safe with Trav, but it turns out that I am. We both got strong on our own, and in the process, made the relationship safer for each other. We still poke each other’s tigers occasionally, but we have them on much stronger leashes now, thanks to a lot of work. (And a good therapist, who is invited to the wedding.)
So one winter day, we had lunch. In the course of the conversation, I said that I thought I’d come to a new understanding of marriage. I had always felt uncomfortable with a blanket promise to stick around forever. I’d broken that pledge in my first marriage by filing for divorce, regardless of the fact that he left the marriage before I did. But still, words mean things to me. So instead, I said, I think I can promise that I’ll always go back to Square One if you do.
He got the expression he gets when he is considering something deeply, and after a moment, said he thought that made sense.
“Are you asking me to marry you?” he queried with a sarcastic grin.
“No way,” I said. “You already asked a long time ago and you can’t take it back. I’m just giving a new answer,” I said with my own jerky grin.
We thought about it for a couple more months.
And then we decided to do it. We picked May, a month in which both of our lives had once come together, fallen apart, and come together again. And yet, it remains one of my favorite times of year, perhaps because it’s a time when these rhythms of life are most evident.
It seems to fit.