On the evening of May 1, 1993, I knew I didn’t want to marry my first husband. In a car with two of our mutual friends, I drove around town and scoured the local bars to find my fiancé. He’d been drinking, again. There had been a fight, again. He had taken off in anger, again. I knew what would happen next—the confrontation, him shouting himself hoarse and falling into a booze-soaked sleep, me lying awake crying most of the night, the next day’s apology and excuses and pleas for forgiveness—and the little voice in my head warned me, begged me, to call off the wedding and walk away.
Two weeks later, we were married.
It is an odd feeling to allow yourself to be carried on a tide of events, to feel helpless even when you are not. I let myself go through with that marriage for a long list of reasons, none of which included my happiness and well being.
As all my friends and family had silently predicted, the marriage failed. The last words my ex spoke to me as I drove away from our home were, “Life isn’t all just fun and games, you know!” I remember thinking, Maybe not, but it shouldn’t be this sad either.
What he meant that day was that relationships have tough times. From his perspective, I was simply running away from one of those times. What he didn’t realize is that I wasn’t running away from him, I was running toward a better version of myself. What I didn’t realize, and what I would learn much later in life thanks to the words of a friend, was that I had never accepted his flaws and I never would. Without that acceptance, love and happiness were impossible.
My ex was not a bad person, he was a product of his upbringing, trauma, and genetics. I remember, near the end of our marriage, sitting in an Al-Anon meeting and listening to people talking about their alcoholic spouses, some of them having been married for decades, and feeling terrified and confused. How could anyone put up with that for so long? Like so many others, I considered addiction a moral failing not the result of genetics, trauma, or mental illness. What I know now is that these people had accepted that the person they loved was an addict and these meetings were a tool they used to cope.
For me, that meeting was a watershed moment. I did not and could not accept that particular flaw. No part of me wanted to be sitting in a room, twenty years from now, eating donuts and drinking tea out of a Styrofoam cup, talking about my husband’s latest drunken episode. Al-Anon didn’t save my marriage but it saved me.
The older I get, the more I see how vital it is to understand which flaws we can accept in those we choose to hold closest in our lives, and those flaws we cannot. And when it comes to lifelong partnership, in the words of my wise friend, one of the keys to a successful marriage or partnership boils down to: “Find someone who will accept your flaws…and then you accept theirs.”
Not as easy as it sounds.
I’ve had reason lately to ponder my marriage. Not to question, merely to examine what it looks like from the outside. What do people see when they look at Fred and me?
I didn’t fall in love with Fred at first sight. In fact, as soon as I realized he was interested in me, I actively worked to shut that whole thing down. But we were sitting in the green room of the Nightman set, waiting to be summoned to work, and we started talking about the ocean and whales and dolphins and fish and diving and…he changed. His face lit with a love and energy for the world beneath the waves that I had only ever known in myself. You know that moment when you finally meet someone who loves the thing you love that no one else seems to care much about? That feeling of instant connection and kinship, not to mention the relief of learning that you’re not a lone weirdo after all? Yeah, this was it in blazing colours and fireworks.
Four soul and esteem crushing relationships had taught me a thing or two about not simply giving in to passion in the moment. Yes, this Fred was fun and funny, energetic, talented, smart, and my kind of quirky, but was it all an act for my benefit? I’d certainly seen that before.
When Fred and I started dating, I made an important decision. I wasn’t going to judge him based on how he treated me, I was going to pay attention to his interactions with everyone else. What were his friends like and how did he interact with them? Did he get along with his family and, if not, why not? Was he nice to serving staff in restaurants and cashiers at the grocery store? More importantly, how did he treat my friends and family?
Most importantly, what did my friends and family think of him? My ex had quickly and effectively driven a wedge between me and the people closest to me. He’d spun tales to make me believe they were jealous or didn’t understand us or whatever narrative he could create to make me believe the problem was them and not him. This time, however, I would rely on the opinions of the people who cared most for my happiness and I would give their judgments the weight they deserved.
I needn’t have worried. Fred passed with flying colours. My family thought he was terrific, and he treated them all well. The local server at his favourite restaurant knew him by name and they exchanged all kinds of friendly banter. His next-door neighbour, (who would be become my beloved friend), basically interrogated me over a bottle of wine to make sure I was as serious about Fred as he was about me because she didn’t want to see him hurt. His friends were lovely, hardworking, kind people all around. He welcomed all my friends with open arms. He had a good relationship with his family and his mom was a former teacher who LOVED books…swoon!
The rest is history.
Okay, not so fast.
Let’s talk about those flaws. I have mine and Fred has his. For all our similarities, Fred and I have some big differences. For example, I have jokingly referred to him as a “bulldozer” when it comes to getting his way, though it’s not always a joke. One of his favourite sayings is “Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”. Me? I would say, “Always ask permission, nicely, maybe get it in writing just to be sure.” I’m also a textbook conflict avoider and, as a result, I’m usually the one to “give in” to what other people want or find a workaround (see also: lying and/or sneaking). I am deeply sensitive to the feelings of those around me…to the point of neurosis. I have lost untold hours of sleep worrying over something someone said, their tone of voice, the expression on their face. Fred, on the other hand, can miss social cues that to me might as well be flashing neon lights on a billboard. That is just a small sample of our flaws.
And, as anyone in a long-term relationship will agree, during tough times, the flaws come to the surface and overshadow almost everything else.
Accepting flaws doesn’t mean liking them. It only means that you choose to stay and work through it together. It means that you sit in that church basement with a bunch of strangers, eating donuts and drinking tea from Styrofoam cups and crying, if that’s what it takes to make it through those tough times. I don’t like Fred’s flaws any more than he likes mine, but we’re in this for the long haul because when our life is fun and games, hoo boy, it’s so worth it.
I accept his flaws and he accepts mine. We’re a team.
We all make judgments about other people, other partnerships and marriages. The more I ponder what Fred and I look like from the outside, the less it seems to matter. The relationships that last do so because they transcend a single moment in time. If I had truly loved my ex and had accepted his flaws, that night in May would have just been a bump in perhaps a rocky road but a long road nonetheless.
I’ve also learned that when I make judgements about other relationships, it’s like reading a book with half the pages missing. There are all kinds of chapters and moments that we on the outside never see.
One of those moments, between Fred and I, happened in my sister’s hospital room while she was undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Kelly was scared, sad, sick, and confused. Fred came with me to visit her one day and there was a chart on the wall listing all the dates of various treatments and procedures Kelly would be going through along with the results of daily blood tests. Now, “always ask permission” me would never have dreamed of touching that chart but “better to beg forgiveness” Fred grabbed one of the felt markers and started scribbling. When he showed us his work, Kelly’s schedule now included sky diving, river rafting, and various other adventures. My terrified sister laughed and laughed. She showed the nurses, and they laughed. Me, I couldn’t have loved my husband more in that moment if I’d tried. He made my dying sister laugh, he eased her worries and pain for a little while, and what a gift that was…to both of us.
Life is definitely not all fun and games, but with the right person, as a team, the hard times are a little easier and the good times make it all worth it.