Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.
Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. To submit a letter, email firstname.lastname@example.org and please be as detailed as you can.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by the brilliant Amy Sage Webb.
Send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ‘em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.
(Well okay, maybe a little.) Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter. ps, I will see you at one of my workshops soon! xo
I have cold feet. They’re not so much cold as “frozen in a block of ice” and when archaeologists discover them a million years from now, I’ll be the 21st Century version of Lucy.
My wedding is three months away.
The dress is fitted, the flowers are chosen, the photographer’s adjusting his camera. Everyone is ready to dance and smile the night away. Everyone is texting me about how “excited” they are. How they just can’t wait to catch my bouquet, sing along with the DJ, watch us ride off into the proverbial sunset. (We live in the Midwest, we could be riding off into a snowstorm, even in June.)
Everyone is on Cloud Nine. Everyone but me. I’m stuck in some mental dungeon basement, where one day I want to run out of my bedroom like Monica Gellar in FRIENDS, screaming, “I’M GETTING MARRIED TODAY!!!!!!” And the next, I’m that chick from that Disney movie, with my feet frozen to the ground and no one helping her let it all go.
And it’s not any ONE THING, which just makes it worse. And there’s all this money and time invested, and there’ll be hatred – from myself and from my family and his family – if I called it off. But sometimes I take the ring off and it feels like I can breathe.
So you see? It’s 17 things, all on top of each other, until I scream and cry and freak out, falling apart, going “No I can’t do this, not no way, not no how.”
He doesn’t hit me, or our dog. He isn’t falling down drunk every night. He doesn’t leer at other women.
But then there are days…. Where we fight and he screams so loud I get worried our landlord will come and knock on our door. Where he just gets so angry and glares for so long that I feel I have to kowtow and apologize like a small child, just to get things to be “okay.”
And the fights aren’t over anything MAJOR, per se. It’s not like, I want six kids and he wants zero. It’s more like “you spend too much at the grocery store.” Or, I’m a really big planner, so I like to organize stuff to do on the weekends, and he just wants to sit on the couch. Or instead of spending time with me when he gets home from work (Right now he works and I don’t) he’ll make a little small talk and then go straight to video games until he’s ready to go to bed. And when I say that hurts my feelings, he says I get his weekends and he has so little free time anyways, just leave him alone so he can play games. And he’s always going “talk to me, work with me, you have to work with me.” But sometimes the words catch in my throat. Or I start to say I’m unsure, and he’ll say, “This? Again?” And it turns into a fight. So I scuttle around the house and leave him alone.
I have depression, and stopped seeing a psychologist when he (I know I’m “supposed” to say “we” here, but I don’t pay the bills, so it’s he) Anyway, I stopped when he couldn’t afford it. Which just increased my stress tenfold. (All the wedding planning has been on my shoulders because he says it’s “my” job)
As for affection, that’s been a struggle through the whole three-year relationship. I like a lot of it, he doesn’t even like holding my hand when we’re alone.
My last rough patch, which inspired me to write this letter, was when I told him after our marriage, I want to travel alone. I didn’t say often. I didn’t even say to where. Just someplace, alone. He told me to be prepared to sign divorce papers if I did it, and I completely lost it. I’m currently writing this from our bed, like some sort of near-fainting Scarlett O’Hara, which, if you knew me, you’d know I’m more “I am woman, hear me roar,” than some damsel in distress.
But then there are moments where it’s LOVELY. When he hugs me without me having to ask him for it. When he kisses me longer than two seconds. When we actually sit down and talk. When we return to the spot where we got engaged. When we spend time exploring our town. When I step out of the shower with nothing wrapped up but my hair and he just looks at me like he’s a parched man and I’m ice-cold lemonade. So don’t get me wrong, there are moments- but the closer the wedding gets, the further and further apart those moments seem.
Is that okay? Is any of this okay? Or am I just telling myself it’s all okay? Are my feet cold, like, a normal level? Are they refrigerator cold? Or is my racing heart really imploring me to run away from the lava that’s coming, that’ll bury me in years upon years of an unhappy union?
Dear Life, you tell me.
Dear Cold Feet,
I read your post, and I wrote a response to it really quickly. And then I re-read it several times, and it became increasingly complicated. I struggled to respond. The more I have read your words—your heartfelt and heartaching, smart and funny words—the harder it has become to answer your question simply.
I’ll start with this: forget normal. There is no such thing as normal. Normal is a myth. Normal is a bully. The hard truth is that human relationships dance on a fingernail’s edge of insanity a good portion of the time. Like you, I live in the Midwest. In Kansas, to be precise. It’s a state in which one puts forward a resolute face, even when inside one may seethe with resentment, self-doubt, fantasies of escape. It’s taken me a long time to see a value in that rather than classifying it as hypocrisy. Sometimes you have to just put yourself in motion: do the right thing until it changes you. Midwestern resolve can be like that: a commitment to put a good foot forward until one comes into stride. But that doesn’t mean that you should keep legging it out forever if the purposeful stride doesn’t come.
It doesn’t mean that those in your social context will change in their attitudes toward you from love to hate, either. First, most people who love us care much more about us being happy and productive and doing our best work as human beings than they do about us meeting some standard classifiable as “normal.” Second, it’s taken me a long time to appreciate that guilt is a form of egotism. It assumes that other people are wrapped up in a mortal struggle—life or death, love or hate—contingent upon our actions. That’s probably not true. Start by giving yourself a break as you think through your current situation. Painting it large, in assumptions about what other people want and what they’ll do, doesn’t help you to find yourself within the problem, and it’s yourself you’re hoping to locate.
In his writings on myth, Joseph Campbell warns us that we get into big trouble when we take our metaphors literally. Rather, he maintains, we’re supposed to look to them for instruction about being human. We spend a lot of time persecuting each other on the basis of figurative language like Eve being formed from Adam’s rib and therefore being merely an extension of him. In the process, we miss the bigger instruction that might lie in the image—perhaps that the yearning of a human for companionship is so great he will give up some part of himself to gain it. Yearning and sacrifice of something so much a part of us that it is almost our own flesh and bone: that’s what relationships cost. We give up some essential part of ourselves—maybe our convenience, maybe what we take to be our self-interest, or some version of ourselves we’re not going to get to be because we’re sacrificing it to be this other person in this relationship.
What parts of yourself do you feel like you’re sacrificing? Further, what version of yourself are you moving toward by doing so? It’s clear that you feel no sense of agency in this relationship, but it’s not clear what this relationship is helping you to become. If you were to sit down and make a list not of qualities of your partner but of what this relationship helps you to be and become, what would be on the list?
There’s a strong sense of barter throughout your letter. Your perception seems to be that because your fiancé is earning the household income, you do not have a right to your own feelings, or even to counseling or household expenses. In exchange for his earnings and the not-very-secure security they provide, you feel you must carry your weight by planning the wedding alone. You do not feel you can trespass on his weeknight relaxation time, and you feel guilt for bringing up your doubts, for needing more affection than he does.
If either one of you is operating from this type of perception, that’s the first assumption to question. How much of the guilt you feel is your own projection? How much of it is stated overtly by your fiancé? You are both worth something. You are worth each other’s most valuable sacrifice, but only if (and here’s the key) only if that sacrifice is moving you both toward becoming better human beings. We often gain our greatest wisdom at the price of our ease. But in reading through this letter, it seems as though each of you operates from a strong sense of sacrifice (time, finances, agency) without a sense of growth. How are you helping each other to grow?
And here’s a hard statement that I think must be said anyway: You’re not going to be able to give your best to a relationship until you can become your best self. And you are not going to become your best self until you can stand completely on your own, giving freely not because you need something in return, but because your cup is full. Right now, your cup is dangerously empty. You’re reliant upon someone else to pay the bills, and although that relationship could be symbiotic, it’s not right now. You aren’t going to see this relationship forest clearly until you work through the trees—the multiple, individual trees—of gaining your self-reliance: financially, emotionally, spatially, reproductively, etc. You can’t give away willingly something you don’t really have to give. You have to own it first. Only then, when you hand over the earning power or some decision making in the household, will it be with an open hand, because it is yours to sacrifice, yours to give.
Further complicating the sense of barter is the wedding. Because friends and family have invested in the wedding, you feel a strong sense of obligation to provide them with the happy union they have “purchased,” even though you struggle to match your feelings to anything the media has sold us as the image of the happy bride. So here’s a question: Are they buying a television character? Or are they investing in you? The dress, the flowers, the ceremony, and the dancing… these are elements of a communion that people who care about you want to partake with you. Ceremony is designed to bring the many into one. Your union in marriage is the means of creating common union with those you love. And if you think about it that way, the answer becomes clearer. There is no barter to it. Money and time are mere externalizations of what we feel. They are physical means to create the space for communion. They don’t buy your happiness. If you tell your friends and family that your happiness and productivity need further investigation, they may have lost their investment in the ceremony, but they can still be invested in you.
To back out of this marriage is so much at once. The end of a relationship. Financial upheaval. Confusion of family and friends. It’s hard to think through it when all of this is intertwined so completely. It’s no wonder you’re hiding in your bed and saying like Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll deal with this tomorrow.” But here’s the hard news: tomorrow is here. It’s right now. And it’s going to take every shred of strength you have—more than you think you have, actually—to call off or at least slow down this wedding for a deeper conversation. But if you can’t put the brakes on now, you’ll struggle a lot longer to gain control of your life.
I’ve been married twice. The first time I married out of the pessimism that this was probably as good as it was going to get, so why not go for it? We had nothing in common except that we played softball together on a city team, and we both loved baseball. Seriously. That was pretty much it. We were married congenially for nine years—nine innings—and we parted just as congenially as we had married. We had nothing for which to reproach each other. We were both nice people. We just didn’t have any means of moving each other a little further along.
Here’s a hard-earned piece of knowledge from that experience: We need to give up on that whole idea of finding any single “deal breaker” thing about the other person. It’s always possible to point to extremes that this person is better than. He doesn’t beat you? Well that’s setting the standard pretty low. But then, measuring a person and looking for a fulcrum point of rejection doesn’t serve much purpose. The two of you together are supposed to be able to accomplish something greater than you can accomplish alone. That has nothing to do with what’s “wrong” with or falling short in either of you. It has everything to do with where you want to go, and how you’ll help each other get there. There was nothing wrong with my first husband or me. Except we had no shared direction, or real understanding or commitment or means to help each other grow. We could have developed those, but mostly we didn’t. We just kept being congenial and “not terrible.” And you know what? That wasn’t enough.
Here’s another complicating factor: our culture gives us a skewed view of what we should settle for. If you make it to thirty without marrying, people start worrying about you. Marrying had never been one of my goals, but I hadn’t stopped to consider why. When a perfectly nice guy came along, friends assured me that I should give him a chance. He was already forty and still unmarried. He seemed interested. “He’s a nice guy,” my friends said, sufficient logic to justify standing up with this guy as a partner for life. I couldn’t point to any one thing that was too bad about this guy.
Why do we expect that we need to offer a rationale defensible in court? In part it’s our culture. All manner of movies and books and popular culture suggest that the nice guy deserves a prize. He merely needs to show up dressed and he wins–you. But here’s the thing: it tends to work one way much more than the other. I’ve not heard that logic applied to women even a fraction as often as to men. I don’t hear the rationales, “She’s nice,” or “she doesn’t beat you or the children” used quite so often to convince a man to stay with or marry a woman. On the contrary. There is a lot of encouragement to men to seek more fulfilling experiences and partnerships rather than settling because somebody’s nice. Meanwhile, for women, there still persists an expectation that if he’s nice, you ought to consider yourself lucky, because, you know, he could be so much worse.
What low expectations does that set for men?
What low expectations does that set for women?
You hear it all the time: “What did I ever do to you? I don’t beat you!” as if falling short of domestic violence, drunkenness, or infidelity makes someone a prize. The Isla Vista shooter operated from the same logic, marinating in a culturally-supported sense of entitlement until he had gone septic with rage and killed several people. He truly believed he deserved a good looking woman, because he was a nice guy. Your guy isn’t that guy. He has good qualities. He really does. But the fact is, you deserve more than niceness or not-violence, and anyone who wants to spend his life with you is going to need to work right alongside you through all the hard effort of a relationship. Relationships are living things. They don’t survive on auto-pilot, to show up only on weekends when you’re not tired from work, say. Neither of you is the prize the other one earned for showing up.
That tiptoeing, fretful stance you take in your own home? It’s telling you something really loud and really clear: you are disempowered in this relationship, and that’s not going to get any better until you are each bearing the equal effort of building this living relationship. He doesn’t get to buy his way out of that work by earning the paycheck, and you don’t get to withdraw from it on the basis of not earning a paycheck.
It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the challenge inherent in listening to one’s inner voice. It’s not that we aren’t smart enough or insightful enough. Rather, the smarter and more insightful we are, the harder it is to know when we’re lying to ourselves. Having the strength to question the wisdom of marrying someone “just because he’s nice” means we also have the strength to question our own position. “Am I being too perfectionistic?” On the one hand, if one doesn’t hold higher standards, one sells out. On the other hand, holding to a perfectionistic set of ideals about a partner can keep a person walking away from good opportunities all of her life.
The fact is, our true friends want us to be happy, but the people who love us the most are the ones who take it as their business to help us hide from pain. They take it as their job to root for us, tell us our good story, and build us up. They tell us what they like about our partners and our decisions. They’re trying to be supportive. They really are. But their advice becomes rather loud and obscuring, more than which, it’s often pretty one sided. Those who love us are often more aware of the truth than they feel they can say to our faces. They’re not going to say, “Well he’s not very smart. What are you guys going to talk about in five years?” They’re not going to say, “You are a little OCD about order, and so you’re settling for a guy who’s going to let you make all the decisions.” They’re going to tell us they love us, because they do, and one of the ways they find positives in our lives is to point to negatives in others. At least he’s not as bad as so-and-so’s boyfriend. At least he’s nicer than the last person you were with. And so on.
Everything I’m saying suggests uncertainty. There’s little comfort in that, I know. Why not make a decision now with a known entity and avoid all that grist and grind? I mean, what’s there to look forward to? Dating in middle age sometimes bears more resemblance to a used car purchase than a human interaction. The two of you, staring at each other across a booth, each with a drink in your hand, relating your mileage, your dings and major damage, assessing the remaining value and miles each other have. So, when you find someone who makes you laugh until Pepsi comes out your nose, you figure you’d better give this one a shot. More, you start to think maybe life isn’t half over. Maybe it’s just half started. You’re still young. You’re in great shape, and you’ve learned enough by now that you might actually be able to replay that youthful passion with the knowledge of an adult who could make something out of it.
I know what it’s like to be looked at like a drink of water on a hot day. Particularly when you’ve reached some point in your life, whether it’s age or some other factor, that has made you wonder whether anyone will ever look at you like that again.
But here’s the most important thing: If there’s one thing I’ve learned about love, it’s that it is supposed to make more of itself. Any time we try to hold it fast, love becomes anything but itself. It becomes resentment. It becomes anger. It becomes fear.
It worries me that your fiancé not only doesn’t want you to travel without him, but threatens to divorce you if you do. If he doesn’t get everything, he’s going to take the ball and go home. He will get even. Nobody will get to play. There’s a lot of fear in that position. Fear of loss, which is followed by the threat of how he’s going to get even. I can tell you that someone whose response to pain is anger will always tend to respond that way. Poor service in a restaurant? He’ll vow never to eat there again. Mistake by a coworker? He’ll swear that person off.
He’s not saying, “I’d like to have those experiences with you.”
He’s not saying, “Your desire to have experiences alone makes me feel rejected.”
He’s not yet able to identify what upsets him about your desire for something other than him. He’s just at the point of reacting out of anger. Anger is much easier than fear. You can rage around and make people respond to you rather than feeling rejected, worried, vulnerable.
What is the role of pain? What is it good for?
It is supposed to transform something in us. It is supposed to release things in us in order to make way for growth.
When we marry, we say for better or for worse, and that means going through pain together. We’re not just signing up for the mutually advantageous tax break, the shared housekeeping, and the occasional shared vacation. We’re signing up for the times when the biopsy comes back positive. The times when there’s a spot on the CAT scan. The times when the phone rings late at night and the news is bad. A person whose response to pain is to get angry is not the person you want to go through those experiences with.
Pain cannot do its work on us unless we bare our throats to it. If we keep telling ourselves that this just can’t be true, we won’t let it be true, this story can’t be happening to us? Well… the pain doesn’t go anywhere. We can get angry and rage about the injustice of it, but it’s not going anywhere. It’s still right there, waiting to do its work. In a day or a week or a year or ten years… there it will be. Pain is endlessly patient.
But if we can allow ourselves to experience it fully and without displacement or blame, just bare our throats to it, something else happens. Yes, we pretty much think we’re going to die. It’s incredibly hard to say, I can’t believe this happened. It’s incredibly hard to say, I feel utterly betrayed and alone. But when we admit the truth of our experiences and our feelings, something is released in us. We are not annihilated, and we do not annihilate anyone or anything else in the process of escaping fear. Instead, we become stronger, calmer. The thing that’s left after all the fear burns away is love.
I told you I’ve been married twice. The first time I married out of pessimism. The second time I married out of optimism. My cup was full. I understood the sacrifices I was making and what I had to give. I think he did, too. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t counting on the work that would be involved in negotiating with unresolved pain in order to bring all that optimism and knowledge to harvest. My second husband is an angry man. It’s an anger he has carried all his life, and it began with pain. I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up with a father in an iron lung. That image comes right out of science fiction for me, but my husband lived it, like so many Americans prior to the Salk vaccine. One weekend a family member would come down with a chill, and the next week that relative could become a head in a machine that breathed for him, pressure mechanisms maintaining the body. I cannot imagine the rage my husband must have felt as a boy at the unfairness of it. To live in fear at all times of what will happen if the power goes out. Imagine that! I do know that he wasn’t allowed to feel that fear. The expectations of adults for children, particularly boys, are that they grow up, stop worrying. Be a man. I do know that there weren’t any acceptable targets for the rage and frustration of that experience. What does one blame? God? Polio? And so the pain goes unresolved. We can be amazingly high-functioning and in excruciating, unresolved pain that is running like a rogue sub-program under the surface of everything we’re trying to build.
The way this manifested for my second husband is that he spent most of his life trying to get even. For everything. Every perceived slight and failure in the workplace, every injustice. He spent his life fighting against what he saw as avoidable pain. And in the process, he failed at two marriages and nearly lost his daughter and his third wife (me) to his rage. No matter how smart and passionate and self-aware and capable we each were, we couldn’t build a future without somehow resolving that pain. I couldn’t nurture it away, and he couldn’t battle it away. He suffered all the devastating health effects of that type of continual stress on the body, but it was not until my optimism and his health ran out that he finally changed. I’d like to say we’re “there,” but in marriage there’s no there. Just the decision each day to get up and do the work, whatever it is, and the evaluation of whether and how you’re able to help each other evolve. What I can say is that we’re doing the work.
Dear Cold Feet, what you have now isn’t working, and marriage isn’t going to change that. You deserve better. Your fiancé deserves better. You may be able to change it, but it will be the hard work of two of you—not this ceremony that’s coming up that will transform you. And if you can’t be the change you both need to see in the world, then you’ll need to find another path. Dear Cold Feet, get warm! The lancing pain of separation seems unbearable, but remember what pain is for. That terrible pain of loss and uncertainty and rejection borne in the short term is better than the chronic, low-frequency pain of depression borne over a lifetime. To confront this now opens a clean wound. The blood flows, and it heals. You and your fiancé have some pain to reconcile before you ought to consider marrying anyone. My hope for you is that you can help each other go through it, help each other get stronger, and find each other on the other side. I wish you both the strength to get to that better union—no longer cold feet but warm hands. That’s a ceremony I want to attend.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.
Amy Sage Webb is author of the short story collection, Save Your Own Life. Her poetry and fiction appear in numerous literary journals, and she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
She teaches creative writing, literature, literary editing, and pedagogy at Emporia State University, where she was named Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor. She directs the Creative Writing program in the Department of English, Modern Languages, and Journalism. She has edited several literary journals, including Kansas Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Flint Hills Review. She also serves as a consulting pedagogy specialist for Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Featured image courtesy of hmomoy.