Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The worst mistake I've made in my marriage so far

Once upon a time we had no children, and then one day, we had one.

My delivery had not gone according to plan. Indeed, before the baby came we had the good instinct not to make an official plan, but the surprise, of course, was that we had a plan, we just didn't know it. And when that plan went south, well, let's just say it wasn't pretty. One un-pretty thing led to another, and by the time my first baby was three months old we found ourselves literally in the woods.

About a half mile from our house there is a grove of eucalyptus trees where we often went, and still do go, to play frisbee with our dog. It's close, but away--in that it's a different place--wild and woodsy--not neat and manicured like the blocks of our neighborhood. We go there a lot, and we went there one day when Gwendolyn was three months old.

We had a conversation that went something like this.

Me, sobbing and screaming: "I'm angry, I'm just so overwhelmed. I need help from you and I feel like I'm not getting it."

Graham, who, at the time was launching his second company: "Honey, just tell me what to do. All I want is to know what to do."

At which point, I burst out, "that's exactly my problem right there. I feel like I'm drowning and you're standing on the boat with a life ring in your hand, saying 'honey, tell me what to do.' I don't KNOW what to tell you what to do. I'm so tired and so overwhelmed. I just want you to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING."

And right there, in that moment of conversation, I made the biggest mistake I have made in my marriage so far. I'd like to say I've learned my lesson, which I haven't, but what I can say is I'm learning my lesson...and here's what I know so far.

The biggest mistake I ever make in my marriage is to perceive my husband and me as separate, him on the boat and me drowning at sea.

At the time of our conversation in the woods our first baby was very young, I had just had an emergency c-section, I was nursing for the first time and sleeping not at all, and I thought all of this was happening to me.

And, of course, it was happening to me. But what I failed to understand was that it was happening to him too.

He was a new father, he was launching a company, his new baby was crying every hour on the hour, and his wife was going down the tubes--how I thought that guy might be on a boat with a life ring just shows how desperate I was for SOMEONE to be on the boat with the life ring.

What it took me a long time to see, and still sometimes eludes me, is that when I am suffering, he is suffering too. My problems are his problems and his problems are my problems.

Over time, and with the help of wise counseling, the attitude we've tried to cultivate, and we're sometimes able to find when we need to is, "Um, Houston, we've got a problem here."

We use the clunky metaphor of a bucket to remember that we're in the colorful mess of our lives together. Some things fill up our bucket (date night, wrestling with kids before bed, action movie night for him, long walks in the hills for me) and some things drain our bucket (his meeting at the office with a blow hard colleague, a long morning of toddler negotiations, first, over mismatched sippy cups and, second, over our tragic lack of a clean pair of pink sparkle socks, cat barf on our new comforter).

Either way, being in the bucket together creates space for things to be complicated and helps us recognize that energizing one of us has the positive effect of filling our shared bucket at the same time.

This insight, of course, is no new or original enlightenment, just our way of claiming other people's hard won wisdom for ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and scholar, more elegantly explains it this way in his book Teachings on Love:

"Happiness is not an individual matter; it has the nature of interbeing. When you are able to make one friend smile, her happiness will nourish you also. When you find ways to peace, joy and happiness, you do it for everyone."

Everyone--the whole big bucket.

Working toward Thich Nhat Hanh's idea of interbeing is the work of a lifetime. Being in the bucket together, making space for shared frustrations and complications, as well as mutual joy is the work that most married couples find themselves up against. And to me, any couple, same-sex or heterosexual, who decides to take on that work, to bind their lives together, raise a family if they choose, and do the best they can to build a safe bucket for their children and each other, that couple deserves all the rights and privileges of any married couple.

Like the worst mistake I've ever made in my marriage, thinking that same sex couples and heterosexual couples are separate, is one of the worst mistakes we could make. Marriage is marriage. And any couple, same sex or heterosexual, who figures out how to keep their own bucket full is a treasure to families and communities. As each couple does it for themselves, they do it for everyone.


  1. Loved it Cristina: well written, thoughtful, poignant, heart-warming. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Oh, Cristina, dear - you're wise before your time!! 40 years and we're still working on the bucket - but at least we're working on it!

  3. Cristina, your comments are so wise. It reminds me of a quotation where Jung talks about the work of a psychotherapist as a collective responsibility, but in my view, what he says can be understood also in the work of each partner in a marriage, and in the way each marriage contributes to the whole. He says, "He (the therapist) is not just working for this particular patient....but for his own soul, and in so doing he is perhaps laying an infinitesimal grain in the scales of humanity's soul. Small and invisible as this contribution may be, it is...where the whole weight of mankind's problems has settled. The ultimate questions of psychotherapy are not a private matter--they represent a supreme responsibility." (Collected Works, Vol. 16, par. 449)