Charlie: Like many other people, I grew up believing that marriage required self-sacrifice. Lots of it. I thought that successful couples put each other’s needs ahead of their own and denied themselves pleasures that weren’t compatible with their mate’s preferences. It’s a small wonder that I wasn’t exactly jumping out of my skin with enthusiasm to settle down. In the shadow of my independent, commitment-aversive self, was the side of me that craved connection, affection, and (let’s be honest) regular sex. So, at the age of twenty-five, Linda and I got married. Given my beliefs, it’s not surprising that my feelings were somewhat mixed when we tied the knot. A candid photo taken of me on our wedding day reveals my strong ambivalence.
The biggest challenge for me, particularly in the early days of our relationship was deconstructing some of the less user-friendly beliefs that I had brought into married life, and creating a life that seemed unattainable from within the model that I had grown up with. The process turned out to be quite a bit more demanding than I had anticipated it would be. I am, however, pleased to say that overall, things are turning out to have met or exceeded the hope and expectations that I started with. I’ve succeeded in proving myself wrong in many of the beliefs that I had inherited from my family and their families before them. Breaking a chain of beliefs that has been held and reinforced for generations has proven to be a formidable challenge, and although I can’t say that “I did it”, I can say that I am doing it and that I’m delighted to find myself guilty of being wrong about my belief that someone else’s happiness is more important than my own and that it’s selfish or uncaring to be happy when a loved one isn’t feeling so great.
The greatest amount of support that I received in confronting this misguided belief came from Linda, who “co-incidentally” had some of the same blind spots and misconceptions that I did. She helped me to see that I didn’t have to become a martyr and sacrifice my own happiness in order to make our marriage work. She showed me that my responsibility in creating a fulfilling and joyful life for myself was as important as anything else that I could do for her or the kids. “The greatest gift that you can give us is your own happiness,” she said. “We don’t want a husband and a dad who feels unhappy and burdened, no matter what else you’re bringing home.” I had to hear that message about 5,000 times before I finally, understood it. Fortunately, Linda’s got a lot of patience. And perseverance.
Over the years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that my responsibility to provide for my own well-being is as important as my responsibility to others. I have come to understand that the quality of my life experience is no less important than the quality of anyone else’s and that if I don’t take care of business in my own life, one way or another, I will inevitably burden others with the obligation to carry that responsibility. It is my job, not Linda’s or anyone else’s, to see to it that my needs are met and that I experience fulfillment in my life. This has probably been the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned, and one that I keep re-learning at deeper levels.
Most of us come into a marriage looking for what we can get. The desire for love, attention, security, pleasure, companionship, as well as distraction from unpleasant feelings or thoughts, are some of the things that compel us into partnership. When we no longer hold our partner responsible for the fulfillment of our needs, everything changes. This is easier said than done, but it is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to ensure that our relationship will be mutually satisfying. Taking care of ourselves isn’t selfish; it’s the most generous and responsible thing that we can do.