I wrote this on the day of my 18th wedding anniversary with my wife, Angie. Looking at us today, you would never believe that in June of 2016, I filed for divorce. We had tried to call it quits many times, but we had never been able to pull the trigger. After the divorce filing, we both woke up and realized that we had it all wrong. The 15 years preceding the filing were filled with abuse, neglect, rage, threats, addiction, infidelity, and absolute chaos.
We met in abnormal psychology class in Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, in 1999. We both repulsed each other immediately. I was reserved, she was loud and outspoken. She was flamboyant in her appearance and I looked like a frat boy. Three months later to celebrate the completion of the class, we went out for drinks. Her fiancé was with us. Later that night after she and her fiancé got into an argument, she came home with me, and never left.
Neither of us had the benefit of solid role models to teach us what a healthy marriage looked like. My father was married three times and my mother twice. There were routine arguments over everything, little or big. Drugs and alcohol were part of my family’s history and journey. I’m still uncovering painful memories that I had suppressed for decades.
Angie’s parents were divorced when she was young, and when her mom died, her chemically dependent father and stepmother moved them from house to house for shelter, and they often went without food. Angie tells stories of the unthinkable when she was a child. She left home at 13 and was legally emancipated at 15.
I grew up with 50’s-style traditional parents with strict role identities, and Angie grew up with no traditions or structures at all.
Neither of us truly loved, respected, or appreciated ourselves, so we looked to each other for appreciation. For the 17 years leading up to our divorce filing, we lived marriage as we perceived it: I expected Angie to fulfill my increasing and infinite needs and wants, and sacrificed myself for the family. and Angie grasped for the impossibility of stability, safety, security, and love because of her being in constant fight-or-flight.
Since we were each in internal chaos, we tried to get the other to fill the missing parts of our own life. We were missing a deep connection with ourselves, so we were always trying to manipulate and convince the other person to make us feel what we wanted to feel. We carried out the charade and spiraled downward until we despised each other at such a deep level for not meeting our needs and helping us feel love and loved – which was impossible.
We lacked healthy role models, bought into the marital drama broadcast by television shows, adopted the beliefs of gender roles found in tradition and in religious teachings, and embraced beliefs that marriage is two broken people who complete each other and need to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the other in order to be happy. We lived a life of sacrifice to find happiness. Chaos. All of it.
Looking back, we realized that these are the key tenets in the traditional marriages we saw everywhere and brought into our own marriage:
- Give up your own vision and dreams for the sake of the union
- Give up parts of yourself and force the other to do the same
- Life to survive instead of to thrive in all areas of life – together
- Manipulate, guilt, and shame your partner to provide the happiness you crave or that you’ve given up or dismissed as impossible
- Demonstrate frustration that the other is not meeting your needs
- Continue to want more, while continuing to give up the absolute personal responsibility (or, as I like to call it, “A.P.R.”) required to attain what you really want
- Wonder why your marriage is not healthy and happy, while remaining in a toxic relationship because of “commitment”
When the bottom fell out of our lives through addiction, abuse, and self-sacrifice, I figured out that I had nothing figured out. What I did realize was that everything I had learned about marriage was wrong. I learned that the most liberating and freeing lessons included A.P.R. I am responsible for my own fulfillment and happiness, and so is everyone else. I learned that I am not responsible for shrinking myself and becoming a different person to shield someone else from their internal chaos and triggers. I can just show up as myself and demonstrate L.O.V.E. – letting others voluntarily evolve.
I learned that I need to heal my own internal drama and pain, and everyone else needs to do the same. I learned that I can just show up and be me, and what another wants or needs in their life is none of my business unless I allow myself to put everyone else’s needs on my own shoulders.
I learned that my wife’s happiness is not truly my responsibility. Her happiness is her responsibility, and my happiness is my own responsibility. I could live the life of my dreams without concern for what she wanted for me – and I could extend the same authority and responsibility to her. From there, we could see if we were actually a good fit – when both people were living in the fullest expression of themselves, instead of both shrinking themselves for the benefit of each other.
When I decided to take my own authority back, Angie attacked harder and accused me of being selfish. She attacked so hard and kept trying to punish me more and more over time for owning myself and my vision that our marriage became unbearable. That’s when I filed for divorce. I was done being shamed and guilted for wanting what I wanted and running toward it while encouraging her to do the same for herself. Angie didn’t want that yet. She just wanted me to keep shrinking for her and with her. She preferred rejecting A.P.R. instead of owning her own happiness. It was just easier to blame, and project guilt and shame instead of owning her own circumstances.
When a person projects guilt, shame, or blame, they are not living or creating from a state of love. Guilt, shame, and blame are the weapon of the weak, of narcissists who are simply out for themselves and what they can extract from a circumstance. People use these weapons against enemies, not people they love and honor. A partner who sets expectations of the other is creating conditions in their marriage – conditions that need to be met before they allow themselves to feel appreciated, respected, and loved. These feelings are a choice, always.
There’s a vast difference between values and conditions. Values are standards such as fidelity, friendship, and physical, mental, and emotional safety, where both agree to honor each other throughout the marriage. Conditions are non-harmful expectations that one lays down – like taking out the trash, planning dates, or wiping down the counters – before they’ll allow themselves to feel what they want to feel. Conditions are not love, but manipulation, abuse, and narcissism. Conditions make the other sacrifice themselves for your benefit and your happiness. How is that not abuse?
After I applied a boundary and filed for divorce, Angie stopped attacking and began the process of unraveling the decades of pain she had wrapped up inside of herself. She began the process of recognizing and embracing ownership of her own vision, emotions, and needs, while allowing me to do the same.
We stopped forcing each other to bend for the benefit of the other. We went to our own neutral corners of the boxing ring, healed our own trauma and self-abuse, them met in the middle. Over time, we went from believing we were two broken, incomplete people who were broken together, to realizing it was our own responsibility to heal and live our own lives without placing conditions on each other.
When we met in the middle of the ring, the gloves came off, and we agreed that when we feel off, needy, or underappreciated, instead of putting the gloves back on and beating on each other with guilt, shame, and manipulation, we will go back to our neutral corners and pour into ourselves. From that state, we can meet in the middle again – two complete and happy people coming together to lift each other up instead of two incomplete people demanding from the other. One person owes the other nothing. But the union is about two people who give themselves everything they need to make the union even more powerful.
This new dynamic has created such a powerful marriage, partnership, friendship, and bond that it’s sometimes surreal that we get to live this life – a life of shared values without conditions. I wouldn’t give this partnership up for the world. Why would you leave a partnership built on fidelity, freedom, independence, unity, and powerful L.O.V.E?
We only want for each other what the other wants for themselves – whether that includes the other or not. Meanwhile, both of us are becoming the person capable of effortlessly providing what the other person desires – without pressure, and without losing ourselves in the process. Why would anyone ever leave a relationship based on true love – not the codependence, abuse, narcissism, and manipulation of traditional marriages?
We have our days, and we are imperfect, but we recognize that imperfections are not a reason to have a marriage that has no hope of ever achieving the love and unification that marriage is meant to create. This might sound impossible, but my marriage proves it’s even more than possible – it’s probable when both know that no one is responsible to make the other person happy. If you’re not willing to take ownership of yourself, then you are choosing to make it impossible.
And that’s a choice you get to make, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.