Over the past 18 years, I have worked hard—sometimes with success and sometimes gritting my teeth—to detach myself from things about my spouse that are not my responsibility and/or that I cannot control.
This certainly isn’t “Here’s how you do it,” this is wow, look how much I have grown! I really did used to take on all of these things. I remember sitting in a therapists office and he drew a triangle and the following words appeared, one on each corner of the triangle: Parent, Child, Partner.
He asked me to draw an arrow to the corresponding corners for Jeff and me. I wanted to draw Parent/Partner. But in fact he pointed out I had been engaging in a Parent/Child relationship.
I was smothering, hovering, controlling, fixing, dictating, and deciding.
He asked me why I fell in love with Jeff. What about him did I love? I listed several things and then he asked me to reflect on what we were arguing about—what brought us to his office.
They were the same things. What I had once loved was now something I was fighting against.
“He is so easy-going and relaxed” had translated into “He is lazy and doesn’t do anything around the house.”
“He is active and involved in a bunch of stuff” had translated in to “He’s always going to hockey or some sport.”
“He has a traditional family scenario” had translated in to “We just come from such different families.”
“He is so funny” had turned in to “He never takes me seriously when I am mad.
My my mother asked me the other day, “Remember when you used to call me in tears because Jeff was so disorganized?”
“I did?” I asked, finding it hard to believe.
“Yes. You were at your wit’s end. You had tried everything to get him organized. Baskets with labels, bins, drawers…anything you could think of and none of it worked.”
I couldn’t believe that 1) I cried over it and 2) Jeff was ever that disorganized—so disorganized it was worthy of tears. Jeff is not super organized, but really? That’s what I was so worried about that I cried?
There it is, folks: the marriage of a 26 year old with no kids.
Life was simpler early on, for sure. Now, complicated by children, careers, sports and school activities, trips and adventures, maintaining relationships with friends and extended family, doctors and dentist appointments, haircuts, just the most mundane tasks can really make life complicated.
I definitely don’t have time to cry about how Jeff organizes the mail.
Here are some things I have let go of as over the years I have continued to focus on avoiding the Parent/Child relationship trap in my marriage.
1) I don’t maintain Jeff’s relationships. This means with his family, friends, coworkers, etc. That is his responsibility and he willingly accepts it as his. It frees me up to focus on the relationships that are my responsibility: my friends, my family, my colleagues, the kids’ teachers, etc. I have willingly taken on the role of being the primary contact for teachers and school stuff, except that one time when I was losing my shit on the administration and teachers so often I was asked not to contact anyone at the school, so Jeff had to step in (true story; I will have to tell that one sometimes).
Family is an interesting one. My family culture is very different than Jeff’s. Our families have different expectations. The way I see it, I am responsible for meeting my family’s expectations and Jeff is responsible for meeting his family’s expectations. I do not take on those obligations as my own just like he does not take on my family obligations as his own. This doesn’t mean we don’t do things with each other’s families. We do. But my relationship with my mother or father is not dependent on him being able to join us for dinner. The two are mutually exclusive.
Same is true with friends. He has friends, I have friends and then we have couple friends. That was a rough process to establish. Sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t. I didn’t like his friends he brought in to the relationship and he didn’t like mine. We would spend time with those people separately and most of those relationships eventually faded—not because of disapproval by the spouse, but because of where we all were in our lives. Now, I don’t feel an obligation to hang out with the wives of his friends and I don’t force him to hang out with the husbands of my friends. But some friends we do share—and when it works, it’s a ton of fun.
2) I don’t maintain his calendar. I maintain the family calendar (although, I am known to screw shit up on the family calendar…but I give it my best effort, always). He can add anything to it he wants. But, I don’t make his appointments for haircuts, doctors, car repairs—anything. I do make lists of things he can do to help me out when he asks, but that’s his choice to help (and he almost always does).
3) I don’t think for him in daily tasks. He thinks for himself. He loads the dishwasher his own way. He picks out his own clothes; he packs his own suitcase, and always puts away his own laundry. He takes on tasks and projects and I don’t help. He was the president of the board of our summer swim club and I didn’t once write an email or an agenda for him. Sometimes, it killed me. I had to restrain myself, but it demonstrated to me—once again—that he is a fully capable adult and can do things without my direction.
And, let me be clear: if he asked for help, support, assistance or encouragement on any of the above—I am there. We work together on many things. But that’s together. That’s not me doing it for him, my way because he can’t. He can. He does. And, it all works out just fine. I have learned to trust that he knows how to do things on his own.
For some reason, early in our marriage I became an expert at creating opportunities for him to need me. See, I treated him like a child so he needed me to mother him. I guess real kids took care of that dynamic pretty quickly—although then the struggle became turning off the mother dynamic after spend all day mothering little people.
We are very different people—and one kind of person is not better than the other, we are just different. Which, as the therapist pointed out early on in our marriage is exactly why I love him so much.