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. Click here to Email email@example.com to submit a letter. Please make it as detailed as possible) 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 author Gina Frangello, my dear friend.
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 xo
I’m a somewhat successful college student, a writer, daughter, sister and friend. Being in college is like being in a fish bowl. I am surrounded by like-minded people studying the same things that I am, with similar dreams, goals and passions. I am being encouraged each day to learn, grow and thrive in my environment. But I have a problem.
When I was growing up, I was sexually abused. I hate even using that term, because it makes it sound like I was powerless and weak. In some way, I knew what was happening. I knew it got me attention, and made me feel valuable in some way. Over the next few years I had a string of toxic relationships (some physically and emotionally abusive, some just plain negative). I battled depression, anorexia, and various forms of self-injury.
I’m currently at a state in my life where I want to have a healthy, positive relationship. I’m thinking about marriage, ready to move forward in life and stop repeating the same negative cycle I was taught in my early years.
The problem is, I don’t know how. I’m working on healing myself, I’ve been working on my issues and I finally feel like I’m in a place where I could sustain a relationship. I’m ready to work and have that be a part of my life. But whenever I get into a relationship where there’s any real chance of commitment, I freeze. I self-destruct and sabotage the entire relationship.
I don’t know how to move past this response, or why I keep repeating the same cycle. I feel progress in so many other areas of my life, and I don’t understand why I am so stuck in this one area.
How do I get to a place where I can trust myself in relationships?
The day I received this letter, I was sitting at a great little sushi spot run by a famous Chicago chef called “Sushi Mike,” across from my husband, with whom I’ve been in a relationship for 25 years, since we met while backpacking the summer after college. We had the quintessential “meet cute” story of talking to each other for the first time in a train station in Avignon, France, and within the next 24 hours he had left the two friends he was traveling with in order to join me and my best friend trekking around Europe. By the end of a few weeks of that, he and I were a couple, and he ended up following me to England, where I was working under the table as a receptionist and maid at some hotel, and we drew the romance out a few more weeks in that fashion, before he finally had to go back to the States and begin his PhD program. To make a long story shorter, some four months later I joined him (in rural New Hampshire) and we began living together and got married three years later. To make a very long story at all condensable into this letter, I will skip the part about how during that four-month absence, I also took up with a South African with whom I lived, or how my husband was still hung up on his former fiancée, or how his mother was a vitriolic alcoholic who had emotionally terrorized him for most of his life, or that I had an eating disorder and was prone to panic attacks. The thing is, while those things are all true, what is also true is this: we got married three years to the day after meeting, and over the ensuing years we had three children together, we both developed busy careers, we shared many friends, we traveled the world and here we were ordering the Sushi Mike special and discussing your letter…
My husband’s advice to you was simple yet smart: he said that you needed to love and forgive yourself before you were going to be able to be in a true relationship with someone else. My husband knows a little bit about such things, having nurtured enough anger and shame over his childhood with his mother to have spent the better part of the last eight years trying to work on himself to undo that damage and get a point of loving himself. I think there is little disputing that he is on to something there, and though I’m sure you already know all that intellectually, the fact is that if self-love and acceptance isn’t something you’re yet feeling emotionally, in your core, you’re likely to keep running in to the same wall over and over again.
So, okay, problem solved! Love yourself! Now, presto, you’ll be ready for that amazing, long term, leading-to-marriage relationship…
If only it were so simple, right?
Loving yourself is a complicated nesting box that keeps opening in on itself into deeper and smaller spaces. We all find so many dark corners to hide our kernels of self-loathing that maybe it’s simply fucking impossible to ever find and heal them all? And certainly someone who is single is easily able to look around her at all the seemingly-happy couples and think, Give me a fucking break! Don’t tell me all these people are so self-actualized and so much better at loving themselves than I am! I know for a fact that such-and-such has this-and-that problem and she’s been married to a great guy for ten years! This is bullshit.
And here’s the thing: you would be right about that. My husband is 100% right about the immense importance of self-love and forgiveness in achieving one’s goals and leading a happy life. And you would also be right in any vast skepticism that a shitload of people out there in your own particular monkey sphere are dragging around the albatross of their own demons just like you are, and that their demons are no lighter, and that somehow some of them still manage to have something you don’t have and want, and that this makes, on some elusive level that self-help and advice and therapy can’t cure, no real practical sense and can be painful and infuriating.
What we know: self-love is hard.
What we also know: finding someone with whom you even genuinely want to be in a relationship is just as hard. For example, your letter talked about how ready you feel, but how you tend to self-destruct when you get too close to having the real deal. These are impulses to which I can relate, and to which many people out there, of both genders, those with histories of sexual abuse or with histories of some other kind of trauma (which basically means almost everyone) can relate. What your letter didn’t say precisely is whether or not you were madly in love with any of those good, stable people with whom you attempted to have a leading-to-marriage liaison. What your letter doesn’t say is whether those people made you blindingly happy, breathlessly aroused, excited to be alive, and whether you liked yourself better when you were with them. Maybe some of them fit that bill. Maybe some of them only looked on paper like they were supposed to fit that bill, and when you failed to feel the way you were “supposed” to feel about such a great catch, you self-destructed in order to avoid actually having to live the rest of your life in a relationship that didn’t rock your world. Maybe you want your world seriously rocked off its axis and you haven’t met someone yet who can do that. Maybe everyone you meet who seems able to do that is someone who looks so bad on paper that you think maybe you must be crazy, because what sane, self-actualized woman who is trying to get her shit together would hook her wagon to that guy. Maybe your friends tell you your “taste” is off, that you like bad boys, that you’re going to get hurt and you should go for “that kind of guy” instead. Maybe you’re trying but it’s not working for you. Maybe—your letter doesn’t say, though it says you’re in college—you’re also simply not ready, because a lot of women (Christ, a lot of men, too, but this does seem to be a problem more epidemic among women due to societal pressures) think they are supposed to be ready to make the biggest decision possible about the rest of their lives when they are maybe twenty or twenty-two years old, but in fact they are not ready, and some part of them knows it, and they find other ways to avoid locking themselves in, because even though our cultural narrative tells us that well-adjusted people about to graduate from college are supposed to know who they want to marry and what they want to “be” professionally forever, and have such a goddamn great handle on themselves, when really such great handles are rare, and you will continue to evolve and explode and change, and most of what you believed you wanted at 22 will not shake down to be something you recognize at 44…
A handful of weeks after the lovely sushi dinner at which my husband and I drank sake and discussed your letter, we decided to separate. Our separation is a month old now, a little more, and I’m not sure how to describe the chasm I now feel between my historical self, to whom this marriage has been formative and core, vs. the person I am now, standing on the other side of this enormous hole in the ground, feeling both as though my skin has come off in a blast, and also feeling a heart-pounding relief because that skin that “protected” me had also become a kind of armor through which I couldn’t feel much anymore, and now I am raw and it hurts, but I can also…feel so much of absolutely everything.
I don’t want to make this letter about what “went wrong” in my marriage. The truth is that I find the narrative in which anything that doesn’t end in a permanent state of Sameness is a “failure” to be false anyway. (There’s a beautiful line in the poem “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert that goes like this: I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.) My husband and I had seventeen pretty amazingly good years. We had five years after that that were extremely hard and painful at times but still contained much beauty, and in which we both still believed with everything we had that our marriage would and should last forever. In the final three years I—like you—managed to self-destruct in the relationship, lying and doing every possible thing to blow down my own house, which is of course also a way the writhing human brain concocts to “save itself.” And now here we are, separating.
What I know: you can be ready for marriage and not ready for marriage at the same time. You can be genuinely in love with someone and want desperately to be with him, and yet also be “settling” at the same time. You can have a beautiful, vibrant, adventurous relationship with someone for two decades and that still won’t be any guarantee that the monster lurking in your basement won’t rear its head at some point and that you won’t undo everything you’ve built, nor will it guarantee that you and your partner will remain the same people who fell in love, or would even be likely to date had you met 20 years later. You can have absolutely not one single solitary regret about having chosen the spouse you married and had children with and the years you spent in each other’s care and company, and you can still need, at some point, to go. You can spend time in individual therapy and couple’s counseling and unearth all your deep baggage, and then something else can happen that triggers it all and turns your psyche into an echo chamber of the past. You can be happier alone than in a relationship you’re not ready for or that doesn’t meet your needs. You are never too young to love totally or too old to make mistakes, and sometimes you can also love your mistakes totally and they can end up being the best choice you could possibly have made. Sometimes our mistakes save our lives, and sometimes they are just mistakes, and sometimes they are somewhere in between, and we have to live through them before we can really know.
You are a young woman on the brink of your future. Your letter seeking advice went out to a middle-aged woman in the process of undoing a future you are actively seeking. Still, what I would say to you is to embrace your future with both hands. Marriage is a complex, shimmering, precarious thing. It is a thing that should also never be embarked on for its own sake (unlike art!), but only because of the two individuals involved, and the urgency and joy of binding your lives together. I was very lucky to be truly in love with my husband when we married, and for many years afterwards. I am also lucky not to be a static person, and that life continues to change us all if we let it. Your growth and self-love and forgiveness and understanding is a process that will ebb and flow and last forever, and different past issues will present more heavily at different times, as new happinesses and challenges develop in the story you tell yourself about yourself.
My (former) husband likes to say that everything we carry has a “shadow” and a “gold,” and that by learning to recognize both, we can move into a place where we love and accept ourselves not only for the gold but the shadow, too, and in that way release some of its power over us. This is true even of trials we never chose, like a history of abuse, which can teach people grit and strength and tenacity and resilience and survival, in addition to causing pain. It can be true of our choice to blow up certain relationships, which may have offered us security and happiness for a long time, but for whatever reason are not a place we can stay forever.
I wish you every luck in your daily happiness, and in finding sustaining and invigorating and accepting love in yourself and others—whether this leads to marriage or not. More than ever, I see life as a process, not a product. I wish for you a beautiful process.
Gina Frangello’s forthcoming novel, Every Kind of Wanting, will be released on Counterpoint in September 2016. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program in Creative Writing, and also has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews and journalism have been published in such venues as Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Fence, FiveChapters, Prairie Schooner, the Chicago Reader, and in many other magazines and anthologies.
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.