One of my main character flaws is my willingness to defer to what other people think. Not because I don’t hold opinions of my own. Rather, I’ve taught myself to react as though disagreement with me is congruent to dislike of me. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
Considering it rationally, it’s straightforward to acknowledge that differences of opinion are simply that, and not agenda laden, or shared with intent to hurt. However in the heat of the moment, when that cauldron of emotions bubbling beneath supersedes rationality, none of that matters. Not that my own emotions are what trouble me most. No. The risk of upsetting another person is what above all else must be avoided.
It’s something I’ve overcome in my professional life. In a professional setting, I can be forthright and challenging, and can accept directness and challenge coming my way. Consequently I know that this ridiculous hypersensitivity is something that I can overcome, given the right focus.
However, I struggle to manage that internal conflict in my personal life. I pretend to be easy-going to avoid conflict, as though I really don’t mind one way or the other about whatever particular thing is being discussed. The truth is that a lack of engagement due to disagreement is simply cowardice. This has shaped much of my life, has led me down many paths that in retrospect, had I had some courage in my convictions, I probably wouldn’t have taken.
That said, it’s hard for me to have many regrets about my choices. Thanks to the path I’ve taken, I have beautiful children. I have a good job. A beautiful wife who’s also a great mother. By any reasonable social metrics I am a success (for now, let’s gently place to one side the crippling debt and the woman I’ve fallen deeply in love with despite having never met her; topics for another day).
Despite acknowledging that things have turned out reasonably well for me, at least to a point, I do need to come clean about how I reached this point. To admit that the reason I have all this today is because I was not able to address how I really felt way back in the very beginning. To admit that much of why I am where I am in my life is not thanks to standing up for what I actually want, but instead pretending that I’m happy to go with the flow.
My wife, my partner of over 18 years, told me she loved me a little over 2 weeks after we first met. For me, that came completely out of the blue. At the time, we were both just out of long term relationships, both looking to have some easy going fun, at least as far as I was concerned. It caught her by surprise too, but she was honest about her feelings. She said she didn’t know she was going to say it until the words were out of her mouth.
To my chagrin, I freaked out when she said it. Not my finest moment. Bad enough for her to regret saying it, at least initially, which is a horrible memory to associate with the first time saying those words. I saw how badly I had upset her by my reaction, and I immediately went into “how do I fix this?” mode.
To me, there was only one way to fix it: to be in love with her too. I couldn’t entertain the notion of letting her down, so breaking up was off the table. My own desire to be young, free and single became redundant in the face of holding another human being’s happiness in my hands. Besides, my initial reaction felt very immature and inappropriate and this was BIG STUFF. We were in our 20s. No more teenage bullshit. Time to consider if this is THE ONE.
And anyway, wasn’t that what I’d always been looking for? What I’d always wanted? Somebody to love. Someone to love me. Here it was, presented to me on a platter. A beautiful, kind, thoughtful, sexy platter. How arrogant, how ungrateful it would be to look such a gift horse in the mouth. No, I should have been grateful that someone even thought of me in that way. That someone deemed me worthy of love when I’d spent my whole life telling myself that I was not. To run from that would be to regret it forever.
So, I asked her for a chance. A chance to fall in love with her. A chance to catch up to where she was. And she gave it to me.
And so I willed myself to fall in love. To embrace it wholeheartedly. Because that was what she deserved, someone who could love her and treat her well. And so fucking what if we differed over religion and politics and our ideas on marriage and children and our backgrounds (hers privileged, mine not so much) and she didn’t quite get my humour and she thought my hobbies were childish and she found me crude and immature and I found her quite reserved and sexually unadventurous beneath her feisty exterior? Those were just little things, right? Minor quibbles that were irrelevant in the face of true love.
I told myself that often in the early years. True love conquers all. Even when I discovered she was a walking disaster with money, it didn’t phase me. I could help. I could sort out her money problems. I would look after her, because that’s what she deserved.
When she moved countries to be with me, it was so grand and romantic that it could not be wrong. We were love’s young dream. Everywhere we went, a chorus of “aw”‘s followed in our wake, so poignant was our love story.
In our first year of living together, me just graduated and still working in a shitty retail job, she told me she wanted to marry me. That was the very first time I pushed back on anything in our relationship. The very thought horrified me. I was barely a year older than my dad when he got married, and that was a car crash that lasted 11 years before the victims eventually extricated themselves from the wreckage. No. No way. I had to be sure about that, and I didn’t feel sure.
Still, she persisted. Why not? If we love each other, why not? What was the big deal? The more pressured I felt, the more resistant I became to the idea. My only experience of marriage was its ugliness, its forcing together of people who didn’t necessarily want to be together but had to. Why would I want to willingly submit myself for such torture? I may have enjoyed mental masochism for much of my life but that didn’t mean I wanted to subject myself to external masochistic influences too. Did it?
I was so fraught by my own experiences that I was jeopardising my future. One night, in a restaurant, that thought slapped me in the face, cutting through everything else: what are you waiting for? She loves you. You haven’t been forced together to raise a child neither of you want. Live your fucking life.
So, there and then, I got down on one knee, and asked her the question she had been waiting for. There were tears. Applause. Free champagne. Love’s young dream. And so I was engaged.
I phoned her father a couple of days later to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Ideally I would have done that first but planning wasn’t really a factor in anything related to my proposal. He liked me well enough so I knew he’d say yes, which made it an easy conversation.
Then came emigration, and wedding plans, and buying first homes, and for the first time talk of careers as opposed to jobs. Grown up stuff. Scary and important. How good it felt to have responsibilities! How normal! Look at me, fellow humans, I wanted to say. See, I’m just like you. I have grown up problems and a person to share them with. That makes me good, right? That makes me worthy.
Then, a niggling voice. Some time, I’m not sure when. After marriage, anyway. It said: what about your needs? It said: why are you such a pushover? It said: when are you going to be okay with just being yourself?
And for what felt like the first time, I wondered if that would be okay, to put myself first. To have needs of my own.