I’ve been seeing this article floating around Facebook lately. It’s entitled “7 Steps to a Happy and Successful Marriage.” In it, the author discloses her wealth of secrets and wisdom to maintain your partner’s interest, improve your sex life, and make a better banana bread ALL AT THE SAME TIME (maybe not the banana bread part, but you get the idea). She is a veritable treasure chest of wifely do’s and do not’s, outlining the various steps you should be taking in order to save the love you once cherished in your youth. “When speaking to others about your wife or husband, only speak highly of the person you chose to spend your life with,” she advocates. “Speaking negatively of your significant other makes you look bad and sets a poor foundation for any relationship.” Not only will you convince yourself that your partner is perfect, you’ll have everyone else fooled, too. This strategy is both self-fulfilling and prophetic: a natural cure-all for relationship problems.
I think it goes without saying that long-term monogamy is the current romantic norm in western culture. Many men and women I’ve spoken to aspire to attain longevity in their relationships. I was commonly asked the question, “How did you do it?” as I explained the five years of long distance I endured with my first love. “How did you make it work?” Now, after we’ve separated, after nine years of exclusivity, happiness, trial and tribulation, I am asked a new question:
“What the fuck happened???”
It is a fairly natural inclination to attribute an event such as a breakup to some catastrophic tragedy. After all, according to Newton’s First Law, an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force. That is to say that after nine years of bliss and togetherness, some single and isolated force in equal but opposite measure must be responsible for this disruption. Or else why wouldn’t we still be together?
In response to the question above, I would often spit out a relatable but meaningless excuse. “We were in different places in our lives.” I explained. Or sometimes, “We were facing a lot of uncertainty in our future.” Or, my favorite, “We wanted to let each other grow.” But in reality, there was a very simple explanation as to why we split.
Neither of us was happy.
This excuse would probably be terribly unpopular with the author of “7 Steps” and her readership. Love dies, I’m sure she would explain, only to be reborn in a new and stronger form. It is our job to fix the relationship we’ve cultivated. If we weren’t supposed to be together, why would we have stayed for so long?
I was so nervous about the uncertainty of being single. I had no idea what single even meant. I made an effort to work on myself specifically to improve our relationship, so that when (not if) we got back together, I would be the perfect woman for him. But somewhere along the way, I had an epiphany I never expected.
I was happier without “the man of my dreams.”
I no longer resented every man that glanced at me in a bar. I didn’t feel guilty feeling attracted to other men (or women). If I was busy, I didn’t have to explain why I couldn’t talk on the phone last night. I didn’t shave my legs. I thought about things that weren’t him. Overall, it was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. I felt sharper, beautiful, independent. I was me for the first time.
I know the author would have fought for me to save my relationship. To tell him I loved him even if I didn’t mean it that day. To speak his praises at every opportunity. To call him out of nowhere and let him know that I cared. To put aside my feelings of distress and unhappiness for the sake of our relationship.
But frankly, some relationships aren’t worth saving. At best, bad relationships are stifling and unhappy. At worst, they are physically and emotionally abusive. Though I personally fell into the former camp, I still feel that I had a lot to gain by leaving. And even if I had children, an argument I’ve heard time and time again used for the sake of saving relationships, I would have done the same thing. I would want my children to know that their happiness and personal growth trumps the comfort and convenience of “togetherness.” If a relationship is poisonous to either person involved, it is your job for the sake of yourself (and sometimes those around you) to leave.
Though I suspect I may never have children, I understand the importance of a parenting. My mother has been one of the strongest influences in my life. She left my father, an emotionally abusive alcoholic, after 14 years of marriage. I will not say that I never questioned her decision to leave. Society had cultured me to be critical of any woman that who made the sentient choice to break the sacred vow of marriage. But I know now that what she did, she did for me and my sister as much as herself. I admire her ability to fly in the face of societal pressure to benefit the people she loved. She has given me no greater gift than her courage.
Sometimes, I try to imagine what life would have been like if she had just written a few more notes when she prepared his lunch. I try to imagine what it would be like to say “I love you” too often to a man that frequently told her to kill herself. If she had spoke only positively of him to her family and friends, to isolate her support system and deny her ability to explore escape routes. I often wonder what our society would be like if we empowered women to take action and leave rather than pander to a cultural norm that isn’t beneficial to everyone, especially the children that witness instances of abuse, unlove, and then envision that life for themselves.
What if we created a society that celebrated independence? What if instead of asking, “What happened?” or saying “I’m sorry,” we reply, “I’m sure you made the best decision for you. How can I help?”?
I want to know what it’s like in a world where I feel empowered by my decisions, even especially when they defy the cultural expectations of women my age.
I want the women who feel stranded in abusive relationships to feel supported. I want them to know when to leave, not how to appease their significant other for the sake of a marriage license. Because so far, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of articles regarding how to revive a failing relationship, and approximately none regarding how to seek help and how to create the best life you can on your own.
If someone asked me to write an opinion piece regarding the ways to turn a poisonous, unhappy, and destructive relationship to one that is both happy and fulfilling It would go something like this:
Step 1: Get the hell out.
The only relationship that is “until death do us part” is the one you have with yourself. Put that first.