On Marriage, Détente and Higher Peace

Of all the chapters I have posted online, this one by far has been the hardest to do. And I am not entirely sure why? I mean really, I’ve written about much more difficult things in my life than the challenges that Teresa and I have had over the last twenty-seven years of our marriage (Chapter 2 for example). Yet this one…

After my last edit, I gave it to her to read with the full option to say no to publishing it. I was nervous in giving her final say so, though I knew it to be the right thing to do. This was not going to be one of those things where forgiveness over permission would be the better path, as I’ve used up too many of those silver bullets. I didn’t hear back from her for a couple of weeks and eventually convinced myself she hadn’t even read it. I finally mustered the courage to ask, fearing the answer.

“Hey, by the way,” I asked as nonchalant as I could make it one recent Saturday morning as she lounged on the couch in her pajamas, the cat and dog draped over her as she sipped her coffee and surfed the net on the iPad. “Did you ever read the chapter I sent you?”

“Yes,” she said without looking up. Great, I thought, certain on what was coming next.

“Are you okay with me posting it on my blog?” I asked.

“I guess,” she said, still not looking up.

“Are you sure?” Jesus, Rick. Are you kidding me? Take the money and run!




That was it. No discussion, no questions, no ringing endorsement. A yes, nonetheless and such as it is, it is posted below with perhaps a thought or two more for context. Slow Climb covers a short, but intense period in our marriage when multiple things were converging – a struggling business, unreconciled grief from the deaths of my parents, unrealized dreams and aspirations of whom I thought I was, and what I would accomplish. All of these and likely many more crisscrossing all at the same time.

As I think back on it and read through the chapter, I’m still not sure how we made it. And yet as I look over the span of the twenty-seven years we’ve had together, a more profound understanding begins to emerge. You see, the relationship Teresa and I have is not what one would consider as perfect soul mates. We are very different people. We have very different interests and value different things. Yet there is this intersection, like two circles on a Venn diagram that converge. The convergence includes the kids, friendships and many other things in this life that we have made together. And yet it is more cellular than that. Like mitochondria, our relationship is endosymbiotic (new word for my vocab, had to look it up). Literally, we exist in partnership within each other.

This deeply embedded relationship has implications, however. As individual as the non-intersected aspects of who we are may be, we cannot truly act on our own accord, out of our own individual desires without it affecting the other. At times we are at such a state of intimate union with the other, and at other times finding ourselves recovering from disconnections and working through détente. In fact, managing through détente has been, and continues to be, a great teacher in my life. Letting go of the individual self. Surrendering to the union.

This I know. All the things that used to, and occasionally still do annoy me – like the remnants of flour on her hands she leaves on the refrigerator door handle, or whatever other food she is cooking hand printed around the kitchen – are now treasures. They are but small blessings of the gift she has for cooking and expressing it through the preparation of amazing food made with love. And I clean up behind her, not with a muttered curse but with whispered reverence and thankfulness for what they represent.

This is my higher peace – finding the joy of the relationship with my wife through the veil of all the things that used to piss me off.

The Underage Traveler – Chapter 13_Slow Climb



The Love They Have to Give

I have spent too much time in my marriage seeking the love that I thought I wanted, rather than accepting the love my wife was giving. This has been made especially difficult given that I grew up believing in the wrong message–that marriage is about finding the perfect spouse and being in love would always mean experiencing a blissful union. Wow. Was I not prepared for reality.

Marriage is about enduring

The truth is, my marriage has been more about letting go and enduring, than blissful moments. Not that there hasn’t been bliss. There are moments I recall distinctly when we have experienced it: Witnessing the birth of our three children. A particular dinner we shared at one of our favorite restaurants celebrating the start of my business. Huddling next to each other under cold sheets, amazed at the softness of her skin. These, and many more.

The challenge has been, however, that all of these are overshadowed by the imaginary image I thought marriage would be, and worse, the blame I put on either myself or my wife over the inability for us to achieve it. It wasn’t until I became so tired of trying to achieve something that was unachievable, that the truth of our marriage emerged. I was ready to see that the love my wife has to give has always been there. Waiting.

My wife is not demonstrative like I am. Thank God. She shows her love in the small things. Like the sweater she bought for me this week. The dinner she cooked last night. The thousands of meals she has prepared for our family. The flannel pajamas she sewed when the kids were little; the Halloween costumes she made from scratch; the house she painted all by herself with a 5 inch brush; and on, and on, and on.

The love my wife has to give has always been there. We just had to outlast the imaginary image, suffering the indignities of unmet expectations along the way until we learned to appreciate what we had to offer each other. And the strange thing is (I can’t believe I am saying this…), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This is not to say I don’t have regrets. I do…over things I have said and thought that were about me and the image. Even so, I just can’t imagine that I would have the appreciation for her, no, the deep respect for her if we hadn’t gone through what we did.

I shared this with her awhile back. “Honey, even if I didn’t love you, I have so much respect for you for staying with me all these years.” The response the image would have expected would be to have her jump in my arms and gush over the acknowledgment. She just looked at me with a wry grin and said, “You’re welcome.”

Now THAT is love!

All to say, when I am feeling particularly unloved in my marriage, I take the time to observe her in the small things she does for me and others. And when I recognize it, the question becomes, am I willing to accept it?

Know What Is In The Backpack

So, my brother in law is a clinical psychologist and we have had a number of conversations about projection and transference. At the risk of turning this into a debate on the merit of these behaviors, a basic understanding of the concepts are helpful. The bottom line is we carry a lot of stuff around in our backpacks. Stuff that we began collecting from the time we first opened our eyes and began absorbing the world around us. Some of it is good. Some, not so much.

Know what is in your back pack

It is imperative we have self-awareness of what is in the backpack because we unwittingly transfer and project much of what is in there on our spouse. Marriage is difficult enough without the confusion of all the needs, wants and desires that can be subconsciously thrown into the relationship. The simplest example I can share is this: My dad had an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and a such, he self-medicated with alcohol and prescription drugs (or other) for much of his life. Needless to say, growing up in our household was a wee bit outside the bell curve compared to most of my friends families. He could never settle down, hence we moved a lot and oscillated between the brink of poverty and instant wealth. Neither of it lasted though which became the enduring “burden” that I learned to carry in my backpack, and ultimately project into my marriage. Though on the whole, our financial picture has been much more stable, it hasn’t felt that way emotionally. I have oscillated over the years between confidence and fear, of which my wife has had to bear the brunt of the dramatic swings in emotion.

Notice that I suggest know what is in your backpack, versus fix what is in your backpack. I don’t believe you can fix something if you are not in relationship, bounded by the obligations of marriage (admittedly, I’ve don’t have the experience of a lifelong companionship that did not have the formality of marriage. It’s hard for me to envision, however, though I am sure it happens, if rarely). I also believe in the grand scheme of things, that marriage is about healing through learning to put your needs and issues behind those of your spouse. For someone like me, that has been a lifelong work and if anything, has allowed me to become really good at apologizing…

How you do this? Well, that is a life-long work. For me, it’s been through therapy, painful mistakes, prayer, meditation, metacognition, and an over inquisitive mind that is fascinated with the cause and effect algorithms of the human psyche.

Regardless of how you travel this road, travel it. Get to know yourself. Know what is in your backpack and begin the work of healing with your spouse.

You Are Not Responsible For Their Happiness

My wife and I recently celebrated our twenty fifth wedding anniversary, and I’ve been giving thought lately to the lessons I’ve learned in our marriage. Many of them were hard fought lessons, further complicated by the fact that my parents weren’t necessarily the ideal role models. Married just over twenty years (that actually doesn’t tell the whole story and probably for another time but suffice to say it was the second of three marriages for my dad, each lasting over twenty years), they never imparted any particular wisdom to prepare us for a lifelong commitment together. Further, now that our three kids are entering adulthood and will hopefully be finding lifelong companions for themselves, I am feeling compelled to do what my parents did not–provide advice on how to prepare for a life in relationship.

As such, following are the key lessons I’ve gained along the way that have helped me in sustaining our marriage thus far:

You are NOT responsible for your spouse’s happiness

Of all the lessons that would have helped me early on, this is the one that would have saved us a lot of angst. There is so much to say here that I am not even sure where to begin. Perhaps with the moment it became painfully aware to me… It was about five years ago a number of things conspired to bring things to a boil for us:

  1. The business I had started a couple of years prior was on life-support and the financial pressure it had created in our marriage was virtually unbearable. We were living off the equity in our home with no foreseeable change in the future. Further, I was the only income earner in the household.
  2. The menagerie of unfinished house building projects hit overload with my wife–especially after the latest equity loan was diverted from finishing the addition to paying for living expenses due to the aforementioned lack of business income.
  3. The impact of having lost my parents in 2002 was finally becoming apparent and I felt more alone than at any other time in my life.

I’m sure there were a few other things going on but they were not as central as these. At any rate, there was a clarifying moment while in marriage counseling when, after hearing my wife relate how many times I had promised her that things would get better, and after they never really turned out like I had assured they would, it became clear to me that the root of all this was my insecurity and need for her approval.

If, on the other hand, I had just simply believed that she would be happy and content to be with me as I was, accept me for who I was, it would have lifted an immense burden on our relationship. This was not her doing–it was mine. My own hyper-need for validation that created the space for over-compensation in the relationship. I realized at that moment in the therapist’s office that I could never, ever, achieve all that I had promised her because it was for all the wrong reasons.

It was what came next that was perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever said to my wife. “I am not responsible for your happiness.” Truth be told, I’m not sure that is verbatim of how it went down and I am certain she would have a different version. But that is how I remember it.

My mom used to remind me of the refrain, “when the student is ready, the teachers will appear.” Certainly in this case, it was true. Subsequent to this confession, the resonant messages began to appear, essentially communicating the same thing: happiness is an inside job. I am responsible for my happiness. You are responsible for yours. We can rejoice in the other’s acceptance of responsibility for our own, but we cannot adopt the other’s. And like many things I have learned, it comes down to letting go. In acknowledging that I don’t have control over most things that happen to me, let alone to someone else.

From this place of owning your happiness, and not someone else’s, and your spouse doing the same, you will focus on the important things from a much more grounded, and pragmatic place. Just the simple act of asking yourself, “why am I doing this?” allows for a different conversation. One that, between two people that love each other, leads to mutual and beneficial outcomes.