I’m going to tell you the story of an interaction I had with my ex-husband several years ago. And he’s going to look like an asshole, and I’m going to look like a pitiable and broken-hearted woman, and it’s of course all to prove a point – my point, to be exact. But even before I share this anecdote, I want you to hear me say that he’s not actually an asshole and I’m hardly pitiable and the details of this are very subjective given that it lasted just a moment and it’s only my version of events.
I was broken-hearted, however.
So I was sitting on my bed late one evening, sometime after getting a gaggle of children off to sleep. I could play up the scene by describing the piles of unfolded laundry awaiting me or the pounding headache I had, but honestly, that would just be for color and I don’t actually remember what else was happening. I just know that I was thirsty.
My husband walked into the room. I seem to remember him wearing a sweater, so perhaps it was winter time? It was at least fall. He looked stressed, but he generally looked that way, so it didn’t strike me that anything was out of the ordinary. Things had been tense with us for years at this point, and I think both of our muscles contracted when we were in the same room together.
“Hey,” I started, already unsure how my request would land, “Do you think you could get me some water?”
I’m going to interrupt my own story here to give you some context because it’s important. Asking for water, you see, was not really something I did. I didn’t have a conscious opposition to asking for water, but my husband and I operated with an implicit understanding that we took care of ourselves. If our legs were in relatively good working order and our hands weren’t broken, we would generally be tending to our own personal hydration needs. This applied to basically everything.
So when I floated the question of whether he would get me water, there was a part of me that suspected that it could be met with incredulousness. Maybe a part of me wanted that. That part of me was not disappointed.
“Huh?” he replied, at first seeming confused. Then his eyebrows raised and his face turned ever so slightly to the left. “Why?” he asked.
“Because I’m thirsty and I’m tired and I don’t want to get up,” I told him.
“You want me to walk back downstairs to get you a cup of water right now?”
My heart was beating hard by this point, the toxic mix of embarrassment of my own neediness and my resentment that it was considered so off-putting starting to course through my veins.
“Yeah,” I responded with a faux indignation. “Is that so much to ask?”
He looked as if he was about to say something else, his mouth opening and then closing tightly. He turned around at that point and as he left the room, I wasn’t sure if he’d come back with water or not at all.
He came back with a cup of water. No ice.
“Here,” he said sharply as he set it down hard on the nightstand, sloshing some out of the glass. Okay, maybe it didn’t slosh. But in my mind it sloshed.
“Why is this so hard?” I asked him with eyes filled with tears.
“What do you mean?” he asked. I let his question hang in the silence for a moment, unsure what to say next.
“Why is getting me a cup of water so painful for you? Why do you hate helping me? Why don’t you want to take care of me?”
He stood there with one hand on his hip and the other rubbing his temples, seemingly exasperated. “I just didn’t understand why you couldn’t get it yourself. You weren’t doing anything. I was going to get ready for bed.”
“Yeah, but like in general,” I continued. “You act like it’s a huge imposition to do something nice. You never think to do something for me, or to take care of me. I just want to feel like someone is nurturing me sometimes.”
“That’s not who I am, though,” he said, obviously frustrated and getting louder. “I’m not that type of person. We’ve talked about this so many times. I’m not nurturing. You want me to be someone I’m not.”
“I guess so,” I said under my breath, pulling my knees up to my chest.
“And what I am isn’t enough, apparently,” he went on. “I’m not going to wait on you. I’m not a server.”
“That’s not what I’m asking!” I screamed, enraged to feel so misunderstood. And then, in a move that I recall as both empowering and mortifying, I picked up the full cup from my nightstand and threw it across the room.
“Well, that was mature,” he said. And then he left.
I’ve thought so many times about that water running down the wall and onto the oversized chair piled with laundry. I’ve shared the story with my closest people in an effort to prove just how incompatible we were when I could see their shocked expressions upon hearing we were splitting. There became a before and after the Cup of Water Day.
At some point in all of my reflections on Cup of Water Day, my indignation eased to a point where I had a realization. I had been so focused on the fact that my husband was refusing to be nurturing that I had missed the fact that he was being honest.
The reality was, he wasn’t the “nurturing type.” He had never been particularly romantic and not a natural caregiver. He was good-hearted, but not effusive. I knew this about him and for the first decade of our relationship I not only accepted it, but if I’m honest, probably sought it out.
I met my husband as my second year of graduate school was getting underway. I’d seen him at a bar and made “eyes” that called him over to me and my group of girlfriends. I fell in love with his drive, and he fell in love with mine. He’d tell me often how my ambition challenged and excited him. I told him we would take on the world together.
This is all to say that we fell in love with each other at a particular moment in time. We fell in love in a season of building – my education, his career, a marriage, our family. We saw each other as teammates, each willing to carry a heavy load to support the vision, each holding on tightly to our values of self-determination and perseverance.
As the years wore on and babies came and others were lost and then came in rainbows, I noticed that my back couldn’t carry the weight it once did. I was tired, deep in my bones. In the outside world, I was still grinding, but at home I was cracking. I was realizing through therapy and through age that what I’d always called drive was, perhaps, a coping mechanism. Maybe I wasn’t as needless and self-sufficient as I’d always thought myself to be. Maybe I could get my own water, but I was tired of always having to.
My husband was changing too, but I was too caught in my own swirl of career and kids and internal evolution to really get curious about that. He wanted to pursue things, and he looked to me, the strong and independent woman he’d fallen in love with, and wanted my backing. He was ready to dig into his dreams, which would mean less of him at home, and he was surprised – and hurt – when I was done being so damn independent. But all I wanted was someone to make me a coffee.
We’d fallen in love with a part of each other that we assumed was the whole of each other. For me, the part that it seemed he loved – the one he needed me to be – was actually fading as I was healing.
Sometimes I wonder if he could have come to know and love this more healed version of me, the one who could stay in bed until 10am and wasn’t afraid to be nurtured. I wonder if, given time, he would have been able to tap into more tender and nurturing parts of himself, if he felt safer from my criticism. We never gave each other the chance.
Two of my dearest friends, both of them married, and I sat at a bougie brunch spot a couple months ago, and over bloody marys and brussels sprouts we asked each other a question. It was a question that could honestly only be asked at this moment in history and perhaps by a group of women with enough security, emotionally, physically, and financially. We pondered to each other, “If you could do it over, would you choose your partner again?”
None of our answers came to us easily, which I think is the sign of an important question. As I let it float around in my own body, I realized that most of us are afraid to answer the question because we fear we’ll have to act on the answer. And so there’s freedom in recognizing even if the answer is “no,” we don’t have to head home and start packing up the kitchen. There’s freedom too in already having done that, as I had.
Which made my answer surprising, perhaps, or maybe not surprising at all. “I would,” I told them. “I would marry him again.”
For the record, they weren’t surprised, because they are smart and intuitive women.
But still, I went on to explain that it wasn’t just because I’d gotten my crazy-making but darling children out of the deal – that would be more simplistic answer – but because the part of me that chose him and married him needed him.
I’d done some work on myself by the time we fell in love. I was feeding myself and not consumed with self-hatred and I understood, at least on an intellectual level, where about 50% of my own issues came from. But I’d mostly spackled over the holes that dotted my core sense of self. They were now painted with pretty colors, but they were still cavernous inside.
So what he saw – what he fell in love with – was the part of me that was bold and determined and had overcome some shit. This is not to say that this part of me wasn’t true. She was and is a vital part that lives inside. But there were other parts too, ones that still had miles and years to go before feeling safe enough to be seen.
It would be easy to sum this up as a “I evolved and he didn’t like who I became” story. Those stories happen in marriages, but I think what happens in even more of them is more nuanced. It’s a process in which two people are acting from particular parts of themselves when they choose their partner. Sometimes those parts stick around, but maybe they aren’t as active anymore. Sometimes those parts get so fully healed that we look over in bed one night and say to ourselves, “What was I thinking?”
But most of us weren’t thinking. We were feeling into what we knew. We were responding to our epigenetic DNA wiring and our attachment longings and our hopes for how this particular person would be the salve for an aching part of our history.
And, importantly, that doesn’t make the choice a mistake. In many ways it makes it the most logical and sane thing we could do at the time.
Yes, I would choose my ex-husband as my partner if I had to do it all over again. We were a perfect fit.
Would you choose your partner over again could be a hard question to answer, but the harder one comes after it. If the answer is “no,” what the hell do we do with that?
Here’s what not to do, as told by someone who tries very hard to avoid giving direct advice because every situation is nuanced: Don’t rush to leave. Except in cases where your safety is in question. In that case, GET OUT.
The reason I’d urge us not to abandon ship quickly is because if there’s one thing that will make you decide that you made a huge-ass mistake in choosing your partner and possibly make you regret ever laying eyes on them is going through the process of dismantling a marriage. If you didn’t resent them before, you more than likely will when you are squabbling about who gets the kids on Labor Day weekend or fighting over whether someone’s 1990 baseball cards are a marital asset.
I’m not suggesting you stay married, particularly if the truest versions of you can’t find the kind of love for each other to create the home you need. What I am suggesting is that many couples call it quits at the stage of insight where they are fighting all the time and have no idea what they ever saw in each other. It’s a stage that’s raw and painful and most of us will do almost anything to get out of feeling it.
But in shutting it all down at the height of that stage, we might cut ourselves off from understanding something that could be vitally important to know – whether or not we choose to stay together: What part of me chose this person once upon a time? What did that part of me need? Can I bring that part of me compassion for needing this?
And, is it possible for this newer, hopefully more healed or evolved me to build a life with this person as we are today? The question is not can I stay married to the same person forever but am I willing to choose the same person over and over again as I evolve?
I don’t think these are answers that come easily for most of us, which is why taking it slow can be a gift to past, current, and future selves. But yes, slow means being in the muck for longer.
It’s worth acknowledging too that for some of us, perhaps myself included, the answers weren’t going to come until we could find the regulation and emotional safety of distance. Until the retirement plans have been split or a new love reveals new truths.
Would I choose this path for myself again? I hope I don’t have to. I hope that the work I’ve done to excavate my own needs and wounds and desires and insecurities have helped me to operate from a fuller version of myself, someone who is able to engage my most important relationships with my eyes clearer but my heart still wide open. Someone who unabashedly asks for cups of water. But also someone who knows when to get them herself.
Would I choose this path for myself again? No. But I know why I did, and I fiercely love that girl who made that choice because she wanted to survive.