One of the characteristics of a good marriage is that it is a safe space for both parties. Ideally, it becomes the sanctuary where you can take off your armor and feel comfortable wearing only your thin and vulnerable skin. It’s the place where you don’t have to pretend, where you can say what you feel and be loved for who you are. It’s where the tough conversations happen and wild emotions are tamed in the interest of the team.
I failed my first husband in this regard.
I went into that marriage scared. Scared of losing him. Scared of being alone. Scared of being unlovable. Scared of the consequences of adult decisions. And scared to face my own fear.
And the result of all this fear was that I didn’t create a space where he could feel safe expressing his own doubts, his own worries, his own fears. I unintentionally communicated the message that he wasn’t able to be open with me because I was too afraid to sit with the uncomfortable feelings it would stir up in me. I went into the marriage feeling abandoned – by my dad and by my friends who had died way too young – and my ex quietly assumed the role of reassuring me that I wouldn’t feel left again.
And so when his own crisis hit, when he began to feel less-than and unworthy and scared, he didn’t feel like he could turn to me. Instead, he turned inward. He tried to drown his shame in drink, he covered his fears with lies and the whole time, he kept me feeling safe. Secure.
I never told him he couldn’t talk to me. I never belittled him or questioned his feelings.I never lied, never raised my voice and never responded with contempt.
I thought I was doing my part to create a safe space for him.
But I wasn’t.
I didn’t give him the freedom to say the hard things without facing the entire brunt of my emotional burden. It must have felt like opening the car door only to fear being flattened by an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. Safer to simply keep the door closed.
I thought I was a good wife because I tried my best to lift him up.
But I wasn’t.
I didn’t understand that, rather than focus on him, I could do more good by focusing on me. By addressing my fears and my reactions, I had the power to help shape the very nature of our marriage, to make it a safer place for both of us to be open and vulnerable and to remove the burden of my emotional well-being from his shoulders.
I thought that I was doing the right thing by ignoring my fears of loss.
But I wasn’t.
Shoving those feelings aside didn’t mean that they were not there. Instead, they became a quiet hum, the perpetual background noise that would rise to a scream anytime it was provoked.
In all the lessons from the end of my marriage, perhaps one of the most important has been learning how to be okay with the idea of loss. To be okay staying with the uncomfortable feelings without erupting into a panic. To be okay hearing the hard words without internalizing them or catastrophizing them. And to make every effort to be calm even when my now-husband is expressing things I would rather not hear.
Because part of making marriage a safe space is to create an environment where each person can feel permitted to speak without excessive consequence. And that ultimately comes down to taking care of your own emotional wounds and narratives.
I still struggle sometimes with not overreacting. But like with anything, practice makes better. And life seems to give plenty of opportunities to keep learning.
A quick note here on responsibility – I am not excusing my ex husband’s decisions. What he did was oh-so-very-wrong in every way. I did not make him cheat, lie and turn to addiction. His choices and actions are his responsibility. My role is to look at what I could control, how I contributed to the environment that allowed his actions to occur, and address those things. I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it and keep trying to do and be better.