It wasn’t until I was 45, after my 4th divorce, that I realized that the Grail I’d been seeking was freedom. I had been industriously barking up the wrong tree, seeking validation in every eye except my own, creating chaos and disharmony out of my own delusion and disappointment, and allowing otherwise decent men to do the same at close range.
I have nothing against marriage, that’s not it. Lifelong bond between people committed to exploring and nurturing each other and themselves, traveling as equal partners through life’s peaks and valleys? What a great idea! Sanctified by the approval of their spiritual community and protected politically and economically by the state? Terrific! But that’s not what it was for me, and I know enough of the world to suspect I am not alone. Not because we’re evil, or shallow, or inadequate, but because we have no blessed idea what is required for real, lasting intimacy—and many of us would run screaming for the hills if we were ever to find it.
All of the men I married wanted me to be something for them that they couldn’t be for themselves…an unconditional lover, a kind but firm parent, a presence that affirmed their core importance and validity in the world. And of course I wanted the same from them. With differing degrees of skill we pretended to dance, clutching one another as we struggled to hear the same music, blaming each other for every awkwardness and misstep. There were other demons too—addiction, mental illness, financial challenges, broken promises, crossed signals—but they paled in comparison to the basic failure we all shared—the unwillingness to own and stand up for and take care of ourselves. We were like children, eager to let someone else make our lives better, and hurt and angry at the inevitable disappointment.
I learned to envy the strong marriages I know, and then to respect them. There is no more difficult task than to be one’s own master in an intimate relationship; there is nothing more challenging than loving someone without casting a shadow on their own self-mastery. As I reflect on couples who have succeeded in these twin endeavors, I am awestruck, not only at the astonishing strength and wisdom and commitment they show, but also at the amount of sheer good luck that allowed them to find their way together into reciprocal freedom in the safety and joy of a shared life. Because freedom—the state of being neither coerced nor constrained—is the only environment in which we can truly grow into ourselves.
Freedom is the lifeblood of intimacy; the greatest gift we can give each other is our love, freely given, day after day. I had no idea as a young woman that the best thing I could do for the health of my marriage was to remind myself actively to choose it, rather than expecting love and intimacy and honesty to persist by sheer force of habit. I had no idea that it was okay to say “No” to a person I loved if it were humanly possible for me to say “Yes.” I was utterly ignorant of the damage that I was doing to the men I claimed to love when I accepted emotional responsibility for their lives and deprived them of the opportunity to learn to self-nurture, just as they had no idea how much their demands skewed the balance of power and autonomy in the relationship. None of us had any idea how shackled we were to the idea that being a couple would magically make life better, or how much a shared life bound by the half-truths and delusions of unfinished selfhood could feel like slavery.
I’ve been very lucky; circumstances conspired to teach me the lessons I needed before I had wasted my entire life. My former husbands, including the one that now shares his life with me as a roommate and dear friend, have found their way to lives as full of self-awareness and self-determination as they wish. I have been blessed with two beautiful children, who are both infinitely wiser in these matters than I was at twice their age, and their father and I are able to revel in the success of our shared, if somewhat fragmented and unorthodox, parenting adventure. I am self-sufficient in the world, thanks largely to accidents of birth and temperament for which I can take zero credit. While I appreciate my blessings every day, my most heartfelt gratitude is that I know what matters most to me. I have come to recognize that my freedom doesn’t depend on my relationship status, my job title or my reflection in the mirror. Freedom means waking up in the morning and knowing that I choose for myself the kind of life I will have, and that I am the only one responsible for my own happiness. It means opening myself up to the possibility of failure, and simultaneously to the possibility of triumph. It means knowing I will survive both, and that no one but myself can determine which is which. Freedom means thinking more carefully than ever before, because I am accountable for every single consequence of my choices for myself and for those they touch. Freedom means feeling love and affection and joy with a new and aching poignancy because I acknowledge that I can’t control whether they will last.
Freedom changes the way we love. Requitedness takes on a whole new meaning because it describes two free people choosing one another at the same time—not out of habit but straight from the core of the self, day after day. I learned the hard way that feeling trapped by my own expectations and then teaching others to share them is lethal poison to love. It took decades, but I finally get it. I am grateful for being taught; I am grateful to know what I know. Life has been generous in showing me what a Really Bad Day is; an unexpected side effect is that I’m very rarely afraid these days, which makes it far easier to tell myself the truth about who I am and what I’m about. Perhaps that’s the freedom worth hanging on to.
©Mary Braden 2015