This week is my is 27th wedding anniversary. We got married on Valentine’s day, 27 years ago, after dating for four years. There’s some irony for me in the Weekly Writing Challenge prompt “My Funny Valentine”: we asked the pianist to play one song for our wedding: My Funny Valentine. He didn’t know it, but didn’t tell us that until our wedding night.
Smart Guy and I went through college, graduate school and medical school together. There were some off and on years for us in the initial four of dating. It took us a little while to find our groove, but we did. Looking back, we met when we were kids– we didn’t think so then, but now that our kids are older than we were, it all looks very different now, and we grew up together. As individuals, we could not be more different. I’m short; he’s unusually tall. I’m expressive, loud, and bold; he’s quiet, reserved and private. I dance; he doesn’t– though when he does, it’s an experience worth seeing! Watching him dance, was one of the first things that attracted me to him. I’m artistic, emotional– very right brain; he is as left as left brain can be. LEFT. How we brought it all together is still a wonder to behold some days.
We went from college to grad school for me and medical school for him; there were a lot of years of academic focus and finding our way as individuals and then as a couple. We married during Smart Guy’s third year of medical school and as I was finishing my Masters in Social Work. At that stage in our life, we did a lot of studying together; we shared the chores around our wonderful apartment, and our world was filled with other students and good things. They were lean years, but our lives were simple for the most part, and we had a lot of fun as a couple.
We were poor together– After medical and grad school we moved to Chicago for Smart Guy’s seven-year Residency in surgery. We had our first two children there, and Smart Guy worked all the time (and by all, I mean 100+ hours a week, for seven years!) while I was home with our kids, who were really young for the entire time we lived there. The theme of those years was struggle and friends. We were always tired, and we were always trying to make ends meet, but we had great friends who helped hold us up. There were years when I couldn’t do the McDonalds’ breakfast with our Play Group, because we couldn’t afford it. I would go to the cash machine on Chicago Ave. for a withdrawal and I’d start at $30– then work my way down. Generally, $10 is where I scored. We were in for the free play dates: The Lincoln Park Zoo, Free museum days, the park, the playroom in our building; if it was free, my kids and I were there. Smart Guy and I didn’t go out because we couldn’t afford to. If we did splurge on a burger and movie, at least $50 night in the city back then– big bucks in our world– then I had to trade off on babysitting, and we were short on grocery money. Hardly worth it. Looking back, our marriage was not front and center. It was second, third, or even fourth behind: taking care of young children, trying to keep our heads above water financially, exhaustion and time challenges, and struggling to figure out who we were, as our lives kept shifting. We, the couple, was constantly being shoved to the back of the line.
We’ve been richer together– From Chicago, we moved to Michigan and lots of things changed, but the biggest change was financial. It was our first job, and we went from scrimping and scraping to financial security and comfort. The day we moved up to our new home on 37 acres, we felt like the Jeffersons. The kids had no idea why we kept singing Moving On Up, but it felt just like that classic 70’s scene, as we pulled up to our large brick home, with our measly possessions. Our lives shifted completely. Smart Guy no longer worried about measuring up, he was the UP; he wasn’t training, but the guy in charge. He worked hard, but our free time was easy. We could eat out; we could hire a sitter, and we weren’t worrying all the time. We had our third child, Little Man, who we’ve long called our lottery baby. But we didn’t really get that maybe we should check in on our marriage and work on it. I think we were both so relieved that the struggle was over, that we didn’t realize that marriage really is work. If you work it, it works. If you don’t… well. We certainly enjoyed more time together, and we had new things to navigate in our lives, but we didn’t zero in on us. We were there for six years.
We moved to the Pacific NW thirteen years ago, and entered a phase of our marriage that has definitely been focused on the us of this marriage. Our kids were young, but not little anymore. Our struggles have been more focused on us as a team, our marriage as a union, and it was a huge wake-up call. Marriage is not easy. Maybe we’re out there on our own on that, but the cliché: Marriage is hard work, is something we’ve really learned first hand these past several years. Approaching our 27th anniversary, I realize that the first half of our marriage was spent in a survival mode. We were struggling on so many obvious levels (kids, finance, time) that focusing on the union itself was often lost in the shuffle. This second half has been a whole other thing. The spotlight has been on us. And as our kids have gotten older– our last chick getting ready to fly, we’ve been faced with some cracks in the structure.
Last year, unbeknownst to a lot of people, Smart Guy and I separated for eight months. He moved out, and I lived in our home, alone with our youngest and my anxiety about what would happen to us. For all those years we’d both been changing and not being mindful of how those changes impacted us as a couple. Sure, we had arguments; we had fun; we were living a life together, but we weren’t always working on our connection. We weren’t mindful of each other as individuals. In fairness, it is me that did the most shifting. Smart Guy was doing the same thing for a long time: working. He’s a phenomenal surgeon and a gifted health care provider. I hear from people all the time how compassionate he is, and how much they appreciate him, but I wasn’t feeling it in our relationship. I was a mom for most of those 27 years, and that role has been drying up. I will always be my kids’ mother, it will always be the main filter through which I view the world, but my role as such as been drying up. They don’t need me to do the things I did for so long; I am not busy in a role that defined me for so long, and that has forced me to look at a lot of things differently.
The separation came because I no longer felt like my husband understood me as a person– separate of my role as housewife and mother. I’m evolving, we were not. I was banging my head up against the walls of a role that I have embraced for so long. I am searching for new ways to define myself: writer, friend, blogger, board member, volunteer, traveler, and the involved wife and mother that I’ve always been, who has more time on her hands. That shift was hard on our marriage, on us. Those eight months were very challenging, and for much of it, I believed we might not work it out. As I hit fifty last year, my view on so many things had shifted. I don’t have the ability or motivation to work on relationships or issues that are self-defeating. I lost my ability to pursue and fix relationships that had been languishing in a difficult place– friendships and acquaintances fell to the side, as I focused fully on our marriage. There was no reserve for fixing anything else.
Fixing a marriage is not for the faint of heart. Trust me. We’ve dug so deep into these twenty-seven years of marriage that we’ve both found ourselves bruised and battered, inspired and hopeful, exhausted and refreshed; we’ve dug to China and back! Some days have been diamond bright, while others have been brutal. But we keep working because we have an investment. We’ve put thirty years into this relationship, and that’s not an investment that can be thrown away easily. We’ve had three children together, and our investment is their as well. We’ve come a long way in that effort. I’m not sure we’ve been as connected as we are now, in many, many years… We’re not buried in the minutiae of raising our kids anymore; we’re not so focused on our our work that we can’t focus on what’s much more important, and we can afford to seek help, that we couldn’t do early on. We’re no longer taking things for granted. We’re not assuming that it all will just work itself out. We are more hopeful than we’ve ever been, but we both know that the work is key, and it’s not over. This year, for our anniversary we both know what’s at stake and what is most important in our lives. Smart Guy has been my Valentine for thirty years. I’ve been his. It hasn’t always been funny, and it hasn’t always been fun, but neither of us would have it any other way.
Note: I am so grateful to our kids, who have put up with our efforts to make things better, and who have called us on our shit, when we needed it. We love you to infinity and beyond, and certainly hope that working on our marriage is a lesson to them on sticking it out and digging deep, for the things and people that matter. I am grateful to our families who stood by us, and some of whom really lent some shoulders to cry on, and ears to listen. I am grateful for really good friends, who let us rant, and hugged us, and encouraged us, and gave us space, and let us shack out at their houses, and who are our family… when our other family is far away. I am grateful for so much.
Jump on in: Tell me about your Valentine; share your thoughts in the comment section. Have you breezed through marriage, or have you had some struggles? What matters to you, and what doesn’t? Join the discussion. Constructive or kind feedback is always appreciated.
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