Carcinogenic Radioactive Waste and Oranges: Marriage at 19 vs. Marriage at 29

Jake: “So, we’ve been married for four months now, give or take. Do you ever look back and compare it to your first marriage and realize how different it is?”
Me: “Well, honestly, I try not to think about that time in my life, but even if I do, it’s just… apples and oranges. Yes, I was legally married and have never claimed otherwise, but that wasn’t actually a marriage in any way.”

When I was a senior in high school, my mother let my boyfriend move in with us, and a few months later, she took off to live with a man she met on the Internet. Because years earlier, she’d seen to it that I had no relationship with my dad, I didn’t really have anyone else. Sure, my Gramma has always been an amazing presence in my life, but it wasn’t the same as having a parent in the home every day to help me through the huge transition that was the end of childhood. Graduating high school, leaving those friends, going to college: those things are really hard with a supportive and loving family… or so I heard from friends. At 18, though, I felt like I had nothing and no one to hold onto as my mother prepared to sell the house she’d left behind, less than gently pushing me out the door, and my high school boyfriend was… there.

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Looking back on my reasons for getting married at 19, it’s no surprise that said “marriage” deserved air quotes. I don’t know that “apples and oranges” is even a fitting phrase, considering those are both fruit. Being “married” at 19 and married at 29 are more like… carcinogenic radioactive waste and oranges. For instance…

The Wedding Day

At 19, on my “wedding day,” I tried to look five years into the future and determine whether or not I’d still be “married.” I couldn’t picture it, but… I also couldn’t think of any other options. The college I was attending would only let us continue to live in family student housing if we were legally married and I had nowhere else to go… or so I thought. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that I could’ve called off the wedding, even the day of, and the rest of my family would’ve supported me. I’d have been able to stay with my Gramma or my dad (who I fortunately reconnected with in time), until a dorm opened up the next semester. There was always an option besides getting married at 19, when it didn’t feel right, watching a troubled young man become a sociopathic grown man, derailing my life because I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable or be the subject of gossip. I couldn’t see this, however, and there was a chapel full of people…

On my real wedding day, as I like to think of it, I was so excited to join my life with Jake. The only nerves I experienced were the result of knowing that in just a few hours, a lot of people would be staring at me… and I’d have to dance. Jake though? He has never been a question. The day I married Jake, I’d already moved past fantasizing about our newlywed days and well into day-dreaming about the complacency and monotony of everyday married life that everyone dreads. I haven’t just looked five years into the future and felt certain I would still choose Jake. I’ve imagined growing old together a thousand times… and not in some romantic Noah and Ally from The Notebook sort of way, but one that includes the horrors of childbirth and dead pets and money troubles and funeral arrangements and prayers and tears and heartbreak. I don’t need a romantic fantasy. I just need Jake. I’ve never doubted that he was the right choice; not when I walked down the aisle with my dad, as he assured me I had chosen right this time, not when Jake elbowed me in the head during our first dance, not when I was seasick for most of our honeymoon, not even the dozens of times we’ve argued since. Jake has consistently been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

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The Religious Implications

As a confirmed Catholic, for any marriage to be valid in the eyes of the Church and God it has to be blessed by the Church. Now, even practicing Catholics elope or get married in beautiful wedding chapels or at pricey outdoor venues. However, their marriage has to ultimately be blessed by a priest in a convalidation ceremony. I knew this when and after I “married” in a wedding chapel at 19 and yet, something prevented me from ever actually going through with the process. In time, I distanced myself, not just from the Church, but from my faith in general. It’s difficult to call someone Godless without drama or exaggeration, but it’s a fitting term for my ex. Unlike an Atheist or an Agnostic, the man truly lacked any moral center. He stole, lied, cheated, and he did so indiscriminately from friends, family, enemies, and strangers. Simply being associated with him as a person made me feel unworthy and yet, leaving him would also be wrong in the eyes of many. It took two years after my divorce for me to shake my shame enough to return to the Church and I promised myself that my next marriage would be official in the eyes of God.

When Jake and I married, we decided together that with his Protestant family and my Catholic family, moving and career changes, our short engagement due to rodeo season (no really), a Catholic wedding wasn’t for us. We were married at a beautiful and rustic outdoor venue, by a friend of Jake’s, who’s a youth minister and faithful husband and father; which was preferable to me over a minister to whom Jake felt no connection if we couldn’t get married by a priest. Jake might not be Catholic, but on this we agree: God’s authority is superior in every way to that of the government and the approval of my faith, as well as his, is crucial. So,we’ve already met with our new priest and scheduled to have our marriage blessed, the day after Jake’s birthday. Because I’m a confirmed Catholic, my previous “marriage” was never recognized by the Church. I have some paperwork to send in to complete my “defect of form” annulment and then, in the eyes of God, my marriage to Jake will truly be, my only real one.

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Our Standing in Life

When I was 19, I had worked a couple of minimum wage jobs and had nothing to show for it. My ex had even less, with no work experience at all. I had no savings, no assets, no real job prospects. I wanted to be a teacher, naively insisting that the money didn’t matter, making a difference in the world did. My ex didn’t and wouldn’t work or go to school, which I hoped would change. I tried not to think too much about the future, because any level of stability seemed so distant. We were renting married student housing, which was about to be condemned by the city (literally) and counting on financial aid to house and feed us. My mother paid for the wedding, because if I was married, she could sell her house guilt free and wash her hands of me. I had no real concept of money, myself, and ultimately accepted all the loans I was offered. It was Future Belle’s problem, as were many things, as I coped with how drastically my life had been derailed since the beginning of my senior year.

At 29, my wedding and honeymoon were always paid in full. At 32 years old, Jake had ample savings from his days in the oil field and zero debt, which of course meant zero credit. At 23, I’d begun working to improve my credit score and after six years, it somewhat made up for my debt, particularly when coupled with my Income Based Repayment Plan and the fact that I qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. While Jake is beginning a new career in hydrology, his bachelor’s degree in the field, his experience in oil, and his crazy work ethic have already been assets to him. Because I make just under $50k myself, in one of the cheapest states in the country, we can afford for him to start at the bottom and I’ve every confidence he’ll move up quickly. We do have debt, but we’re both committed to paying it off and we’re currently saving to buy a home within the next year. The future is looking bright and Present Day Belle handles her problems like a big girl.

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Our Actual Relationship

It’s easy for me to put that first relationship in air quotes, not just because I was 11, but considering the motivation, the fact that God wasn’t looking, and that its primary funding source was financial aid and prayer. I feel those reasons invalidate the union plenty. The foremost reason, however, that my first “marriage” was no marriage at all, was the relationship itself. At the best point, we were extremely codependent. I don’t know that, looking back, I’d claim to have ever loved him, so much as I’d say that I needed someone, anyone, and he was the only one present. 

As time wore on, though, I moved closer to Shetland and my Gramma. Gail and I reconnected after that initial graduation drift, and even any sense of codependency faded. I once explained to Gail, that you get different things from different people, that I trusted and loved her and my dad and my Gramma. All I needed from my ex was for him to work. Literally, I didn’t need love or support or trust or fidelity or goodness or strength of character or a partner or someone to lead me closer to God. I just needed him to feed himself. I was actually completely willing to continue taking care of myself, if he’d stop stealing from me. I used to joke that I’d never get married again, that marriage is miserable, that my next wedding would be on a snow covered mountaintop in hell. However, no matter how hard some readers may judge me for claiming that any marriage can not count (in which case, they can go fuck themselves), I cannot stress enough that the relationship that spanned those four years was not a marriage in any sense. 

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Today, happily and healthily married to Jake, I’ve had to get used to a few things… like the fact that my Gramma and Gail are second and third in my life. It’s strange, having not just an additional person on my list of people I’m willing to see on a weepy and frustrating day, but having someone actually upstage them. Gail has been my best friend since the 9th grade and she still is… but the dynamic has shifted. Jake comes first for me and Terry comes first for her and in neither of our previous marriages was that ever the case… nor could it or should it have been. We were married to scary fucking dudes and were both somewhat distant from our families. It was us against the world… and now it’s not. We still talk every day and have some pretty fucked up shared history, but we’re not 20 and married to psychopaths, eating fish we grilled in a public park because we don’t want to go home. When I get pregnant, she won’t be the first to know. I’ll never drive her and her baby to the ER again… and that’s weird to imagine and sometimes even weird in practice: having someone. Being married.

I’m not driving around with food from The Dollar Tree in my backseat anymore. I don’t sleep with my wallet in my pillowcase. Zetus lapetus, y’all, I trust this man enough to share a bank account with him. What the fuck happened?!? When I went home crying from the stress of my first week at the Cherokee library, Jake was the only person I wanted to comfort me. When I had food poisoning and threw up all over myself in the car, I was only mildly embarrassed that he was present to see me miserable and covered in vomit. If I have good news or a secret to tell or a funny meme to send, Jake is the first person to come to mind and that’s so weird. What is this fantastical adventure they call marriage?!?! I ask, because this is truly the first time I’ve experienced it.

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The most I can say, in defense of 19-year-old Belle, is that she was not an adult. Nineteen-year-olds are teenagers, whose brains function differently. They still need guidance and I didn’t have that. In theory, it would’ve been nice if I did, but then I might not be here… and here is really good.

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Losing an Unwanted Child

Eight years ago this week, I found out I was pregnant. I know, because it was my brother’s birthday, and also because I’m the guy from Rain Man and can remember exactly what I was wearing the first time I saw Jurassic Park, when I was five.

Miscarriage is a common topic for bloggers. Women everywhere grieve through writing, discussing their struggles with infertility, their fears that they’ll never have a child, and perhaps even previous losses. When we know them personally, we weep for these women and pray for them, as we should. We tread lightly and try not to look their way when someone else announces their own pregnancy. Hopefully, we celebrate with them when they refer to their first live birth as a “rainbow baby.” It’s really quite beautiful to see how kind and loving people are to a woman who loses a wanted child.

At 21 years old, married to a lazy sociopath, one year from my college graduation, which I intended to follow with grad school, I did not want my baby. I hadn’t figured out how to take care of myself, yet. I couldn’t imagine another human being relying on me, particularly when I could expect no help from my ex-husband, who I suspected was lying about his employment, again. I was heartbroken that another thing hadn’t gone as planned in what was a pretty wretched existence, at the time. I prayed. I did not pray for the strength to be a good mother. I did not pray for my ex-husband to shape up, as those requests had previously seemed to fall on deaf ears. No. I prayed for God to take it back… to make me not pregnant.

I was supposed to hear my baby’s heartbeat on my 22nd birthday. My first trimester was coming to a close and I needed to pull up my big girl panties and get happy, because there was going to be a baby. I cleaned out a room. I began to look forward to the ultrasound. I tore the tags from the clothes I bought and registered at Baby’s R Us. I tried. In spite of all this, on the first day of my senior year of college, at eleven weeks and one day, my prayers were answered. I started to bleed.

No one ever talks about what actually happens during a miscarriage. I never gave it much thought, myself. I had always just vaguely understood it to mean a woman went to the doctor and wasn’t pregnant anymore. Being on state insurance and having visited the worst emergency room ever, no one told me what to expect. The pain, the amount of bleeding, the baby coming out in the toilet… I had no warning. No amount of prayers reversed the course of the one that was being answered. I had no one with me as I lay on a beach towel and my body ripped apart my child… just as I had requested.

When you lose an unwanted baby, there are no flowers. There are no tears, at least not from anyone else. People still have good hearts, but they’re… well, they’re glad for you. Perhaps they wouldn’t word it that way, but you can hear it in their sighs of relief, in their condolences. Your life is back on course, just a little bumpy, and you’ll get through this… certainly more easily than you’d have gotten through that unplanned pregnancy. Despite any pro-life convictions, they even speak of the baby in less significant terms, as if you weren’t really pregnant. There’s a lot of emphasis on how “sometimes this happens” and “chromosomal abnormalities,” things they would never say about a planned pregnancy. Now, I know each scenario is different, but I promise there is no woman on Earth who wants to hear that the baby she just flushed was probably defective or that it’s “for the best.” In general, it’s a safe assumption that, regardless of the circumstances, you should just keep your fist bump to yourself.

When a woman loses a wanted child, she feels guilt and even betrayal from her body. She feels as though God is punishing her. Years later, when she’s melancholy after looking at an ultrasound photo of equal gestation to her own pregnancy, people mourn with her. For me… well, I quite literally asked for it. I should feel guilt. I should be punished. I should feel heartache when I look at the same photo. I didn’t want the baby and God reclaimed that blessing.

My reasons for asking God to take my child back, have only been validated over the last eight years. My ex-husband is still psychotic and neither I, nor a helpless child, have any ties to him. I had only just gotten to a point where I could afford to take care of myself before my wedding. Despite two incomes, I don’t feel we could fund a baby, even now. Although I married a wonderful man, we have financial and career goals. Personally, I’m still a couple of years away from being in a place where I can properly prioritize the needs and wants of another little life with mine and be a truly good mother. No one talks about what it means to lose an unwanted child, to feel grief and relief simultaneously, even years later. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still weep over tiny overalls as I thank God for the way things turned out… just that I do it confused and alone, as I deserve.

Seeing Each Other at Our Worst Through Unemployment

At 19 years old, I married the only boy who’d shown any interest in me, because facing adulthood alone sounded scary and he was there. That’s really the simplest, least dramatic explanation. Of course, since I neither grew up in the 1950s or a Nicholas Sparks novel, at 23 years old and three days after Valentine’s Day, I sat in an office alone, holding back tears, as a judge signed my divorce papers. There were a lot of reasons for said divorce, but the most… well, not notable, but quotable in polite company, was that the man I married refused to work or contribute in any way. In fact, toward the end, I was sleeping with my wallet and keys in my pillow case and driving around with all of my valuables in the car. Ah, young love.

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On an average day, I have few, if any, significant thoughts or feelings about my previous marriage. It, in itself, could barely even be titled as such, equating to many other toxic long term early twenties relationships. It is what it is, though, and if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be here. The last few months, however… really haven’t been made up of average days.

One year ago, Jake and I saw each other twice a month and the future of oil was bleak. That’s when he made a promise to me that if things hadn’t picked up by September, he’d get out. All through August, Jake worked the manual labor side of oil, two weeks on and one week off, 12 hours a day, with an hour commute each way. Though he was staying with me, we were lucky to get a half hour together at the end of the night, before Jake would succumb to exhaustion… and unlike other exhausting oil jobs, this one didn’t even pay well. Since this allowed no time to apply for new positions, let alone interview, Jake kept his promise. Starting in September, he was officially unemployed; and although he was applying for positions in the Metro, they tended to be ideal scenarios, as opposed to ones that would provide immediate income.

You see, Jake comes from rodeo people. That’s not a joke or an exaggeration. His dad ran away at 15, to become a bull rider, where he met his mother, a trick rider (you’ll have to Google that, I’d imagine), and together they built a cattle ranch and traveled the country, with their three children in tow, like the Partridge Family, if Shirley Jones fried more stuff. His brother is a bronc rider, his sister a retired trick rider, his brother-in-law a retired bull rider, and his uncle runs a wildly successful rodeo company. Every one of them run their own cattle. Even his nieces are third generation trick riders. Meanwhile, I’m trying my best to help Jake see that any spawn of mine is unlikely to possess such coordination. It seems athletic country folk tend to marry other athletic country folk, and well… a few weeks ago, I fell over putting on Uggs.

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The thing about country folk, and I mean genuine country folk, not the “country folk” in my family, who board their horses because they live in subdevelopments thirty minutes from Downtown, is that they’re often not beholden to a Monday through Friday, 9-5 schedule. For Jake’s family, in fact, this is a pretty foreign concept. I mean, sure they know that city people lead more regimented lives, but it’s in the same way I know that there are people who live off the grid in travel trailers: because I saw it on TV one time. The Grangers do not define “steady work” in the same way the librarian daughter of a nurse and lineman does… and to an extent, neither does Jake. That’s why, when Jake wasn’t immediately able to find work, he wasn’t especially worried. He had plenty in checking from his last paycheck and plenty more in savings, that he knew he wouldn’t have to touch for months. In the meantime, he could just work cattle on the Granger Ranch, for $100 a day tax free. That’s a financial plan, y’all. I couldn’t argue with that, particularly considering I begged him to quit is job in the first place.

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The trouble is, as much as I’d love to claim otherwise, I can never truly break free of 22-year-old Belle, evading those pesky questions about her partner’s employment and working two jobs, herself… not in my own mind and not in the minds of some of those who witnessed that struggle. So, while Jake’s family and friends considered working the family ranch to be legitimate employment; I knew that, at the very least, the man who opened the door to his daughter to hear “ImgettingadivorceI’msorryIruinedChristmas” was struggling with it… and so was I.

Jake is not my ex-husband. He’s nothing like him, nor is he responsible for any of the damage done. It’s not his problem. That’s what I told myself all through the holidays, as I defended his work ethic and decisions to people who, quite frankly, probably weren’t even worried. I’m no longer an idiot teenager making promises I can’t fathom, because I’m out of ideas. They know that. I know that… but that knowledge didn’t change the turmoil and stress I felt and tried desperately to hide.

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I tried to explain to Jake, that his unemployment was wearing on me. I did. I was also careful not to really draw any obvious parallels to my previous situation… so it sort of canceled itself out. “I really need you to get a job… but I know you’re working hard and I trust you.” I was too rational and it wasn’t the clearest expression of where I stood on the issue.

I couldn’t figure out how to tell Jake what our situation was doing to me, without nagging him or sounding manipulative… or just revealing things about myself and state of mind that I wasn’t comfortable acknowledging. What kind of woman begs her guy to quit his job and then complains that he’s unemployed, when he spends all week doing physical labor on his family’s ranch for pay?!?! A batshit crazy one… one who’s a little bit broken… one who can’t quite let go of the past… and I did my best to hide that part of myself. Jake was under his own stress from working for his family and it was starting to show, as well. We started bickering more and more, as I tried to keep a hold on my feelings and he tried to juggle his familial obligations with the new ones he had to his fiancé… sometimes poorly.

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I spent New Year’s Day furious with Jake for getting drunk and embarrassing me in front of his friends, people I barely knew, the previous night. It’s one thing to hear his crazy college stories, but a completely different one to live through them at 29, as a witness to his complete regression. He was not responsible for how I felt about his technical unemployment. He wasn’t responsible for the flashbacks to my previous marriage. He wasn’t responsible for the nightmares, but he was damn sure responsible for not being a drunken asshole and I told him as much. I’d planned to just save my breakdowns for when he was at his parents’ house and only share just how much his unemployment was getting to me, when he’d found local work, but there was always a new need for him on the ranch. It was always urgent and if he turned his parents down, they’d tell him he was selfish and lazy, even though they made no moves to hire anyone for the long term, knowing Jake was looking for work here. He was becoming more inconsiderate and I was becoming shorter tempered. It was really starting to wear on us… and eventually, I just couldn’t abide by my cardinal rule that feelings are for the inside.

Me: “I know it’s not your fault, but I spent years thinking things would be different in six months, in a year, in five years, and I can’t do it anymore! You’re working and you’re making money and I know it’s not the same and I’m sorry I’m so fucked up, but I didn’t sleep for days after the nightmare where you turned into my ex-husband during sex! You have to get a real job.

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Jake: “All I wanna do is help my parents and my brother. I want to get a job up here, stop living out of my truck, and find us a house. I’m just trying to help people and everyone I love is pissed off at me.”
Me: “I know you want to be there for them and I’ve supported that for four months, but you asked me to marry you and I can’t do that if you don’t have a job. I don’t mean that as a threat. I love you so much, but this is too hard for me. It’s been too hard for me.”

Ultimately, we compromised. Jake would spend the next week on the ranch, one week looking for work here, and one more week on the ranch, when he’d tell his dad that he couldn’t rely on him for daily help. By the end of that first week, he had a start date for spraying lawns. It’s not his dream job, but it’s income. It’s local. We survived seeing each other at our worst and Jake’s officially moved in with me. He can stop drinking like when he was 22 and I can stop having deeply disturbing sex dreams about my ex-husband, like when I was 22.

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Why Everyone Needs to Stop Telling Me Marriage is Hard

Maybe it’s just my Facebook friends or the blogs I follow, but it seems that the Internet has devoted itself solely to telling me how hard marriage and motherhood will be, lately. Just the other day, Lacy told me how it irritates her that so many people “glamorize” motherhood. Um… I must be reading a different Internet or talking to different moms, because from what I understand, birth looks like this…

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and motherhood looks like this.

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I had my IUD inserted Wednesday and after two months of Summer Reading in a library full of unattended rabid babies, I was tempted to ask the doctor to shove a whole fistful of Mirenas up there, just for good measure. Add in that Facebook post about your four-year-old threatening to throw her dinner plate across the kitchen, those memes about how moms never use the bathroom alone, and passive aggressive remarks about your baby daddy’s XBOX usage and I’m rethinking my entire position on parenting. People make parenthood sound miserable, because all they do is bitch… and the same goes for marriage.

Jake and are getting married. We’re not engaged, because his job is in flux and his hours suck, but we’re no longer speaking in terms of “if”, but “when.” While he still speaks in the hypothetical to his parents, his sister has invited us to attend a marriage seminar at her church, with her and her husband. We’ve discussed dates and venues and argued about how insane it is to suggest an open bar for 200 people, because I’m apparently dating one of the Windsors. No money has been put down and no rings have been bought, but we’re in agreement that it’ll likely be official by the holidays… and that’s wonderful… or at least it would be if I wasn’t constantly hearing comments and reading articles about the impossibility of marriage.

I know, I know, these comments are generally coming from good people who mean well and 80% of the time, I’m more than happy to look past a person’s words or actions and analyze the intentions. Then, why does it get to me so much this time?

It’s just all so generic and… cliché.
I’m getting countless marriage related Facebook ads. I don’t know if it’s because my relationship status changed approximately a year ago or if it’s the fault of all those times I’ve Googled barn venues while bored at work, but nearly every suggested article is about engagement, weddings, or marriage. There was also that one about joining the “cat lady” subscription service, which felt like an implied threat, if I don’t get married yesterday, but generally they all have titles like “7 Things to Discuss before Getting Engaged.” Spoiler alert: children, religion, money, sex, location, family relations, and career should all be discussed before planning to spend the rest of your lives together. Zetus lapetus, I should light a candle at Mass for HuffPost, because I nearly saved that talk about my absurd student loan debt for the honeymoon!

Wait. No. We brought up religion and career before we met, family and kids and location on the first and second and third dates, sex on the sixth, and finances after three or four months… because we aren’t complete morons.

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What the fuck do people think we’ve been doing for fifteen months? Is it really so preposterous to think that in lieu of spending the first year having sex, we’d choose to actually get to know one another, discuss our goals and values, introduce each other to friends and family, and really assess whether or not we could build a life together? Must people actually be told that they need to discuss these things? Does anyone actually find this advice helpful?

It would’ve been nice if someone had told me that birth control could make me sick enough to Google how to cope with chronic pain. I’d have liked a heads up that him turning me down sexually doesn’t mean I disgust him, before I burst into tears while naked in bed about how I’m bad at sex for not understanding these things. It would be great for someone to write an article on how to explain to your future mother-in-law that you’re not inviting your own mother to your wedding. I’d love a how-to guide on letting him take the lead in a traditional relationship without occasionally feeling like I’m being steamrolled. An article with that combination of information wouldn’t appeal to the masses, though, because not everyone needs the same things. 

People assume everyone needs the same things.
Gail and I have been through some frighteningly similar life events, from marriage and divorce to lost babies to money, dating, and career struggles. Interestingly enough, however, these things have shaped us into very different people with completely different needs. Gail needs to know that she is always in control of anything pertaining to her. She needs to be asked not to do something or have it suggested that she might benefit from a specific choice. I need to know that I’m with someone who will take charge and make a decision. I need to know that he cares enough to tell me that I need go to sleep when I’m blubbering from job stress in the living room in the middle of the night. Gail needs to know that she is still in control of her life and I need to know that I’m with someone who will take an active part in our lives. The concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but our priorities drastically differ… and that is okay. 

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I have several friends who will openly admit that they wear the pants in the family, others who insist that both people are equal, and some who believe the man should be the head of the household. None of them are wrong. Just because one perfect view of marriage means the woman works 70 hours a week and the man stays home with the kids, doesn’t mean the opposite is archaic and degrading. We’re all so quick to point out that there is no right way or wrong way to parent, but no one ever says this about marriage. They just talk about how hard it is in general terms, because everyone has different needs and therefore different struggles. I’ll never have to worry about crying in frustration, because Jake won’t put down the XBOX controller and discipline his kids or help me around the house, but I will cry after a ridiculous fight over the fact that I threw out a carton of expired milk without even tasting it first. My marriage will not look like anyone else’s marriage, so they really can’t give me advice about the ways in which it will be hard.

I’m divorced.
It’s actually pretty cool that everyone in my life seems to have completely forgotten about the four years I spent married to Lord Voldemort, but it’s still one of the primary reasons that receiving generic marriage advice gives me such a burning desire to be a patronizing asshole right back. Oh, he left a glass by the sink?

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You know what my ex-husband left?

My ex-husband left…

  • … a lawn full of dead pets after he burned our house down.
  • … me alone while I miscarried.
  • … my dog chained to a wall for a week, while I was on vacation with my mother.
  • … a window unlocked after our divorce, so he could break in and steal things to sell.

I could go on, but I’m not actually trying to belittle anyone else’s marriage struggles. Yes, being treated like a house elf for twenty years is a legitimate problem, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to trivialize the pain I suffered. I know that marriage is hard, but the broad reasons cited are usually ones I’ll gladly face if it means my pets are all alive and well at the end of the day. So, if you don’t want a copy of the fire report, while we compare marital woes, then…

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But… again, I know these comments are generally coming from good people who mean well. There were things about their own marriage that genuinely surprised them and they want me to be prepared. That is so very kind of them and I hope they’ll invite me to the marriage seminar at their church, lend a supportive and non-judgmental ear when we do have struggles, and tailor their advice a bit more specifically to the situation and people involved. Most importantly, I wish they’d just celebrate when we do get engaged and married, because  I research for a living, so I promise I’m getting plenty of the doom and gloom marriage prep material. We’ll have problems one day, I’ve no doubt, so let’s be joyful while we don’t.

 

Getting My Tattoo Removed

At 24 years old, I sat in a Sonic drive-through with Gail.

Gail: “What do you wanna do?”
Me: “Let’s get tattoos!”

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Now, perhaps, if I’d actually had a tattoo in mind, this wouldn’t have been such an inevitably regrettable decision. I am not anti-tattoo. My first was not my last. I also have my Gramma’s signature of her first name, which is my middle name and hopefully one day my daughter’s middle name, on my left foot. I will genuinely cherish that tattoo for all time, particularly when she’s gone, though she still insists that she’ll live forever. At 24, though, I had just divorced my ex-husband, lost 90 pounds, was dating again, nearing graduation for my master’s degree, and felt like I’d gotten my whole life back. I wanted to commemorate that, so when put on the spot, I chose something that spoke of life to me. The fact that it was a Logan’s Run reference was just an added bonus.

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Today, I look at this tattoo and you know what I see? I see a girl who needed to start her life over and all the reasons why. I see a 260 pound 22-year-old fantasizing that her psychotic husband will kill himself. I see two part-time jobs substitute teaching and cleaning gym equipment with a bachelor’s degree. I see myself driving around with all of my valuables in my trunk, because the man I live with will pawn them. I see a 24-year-old who desperately wants to distance herself from the most terrifying years of her life, by getting a tattoo that symbolizes their end.

You know what, though? I did get my whole life back. I got to be young and reasonably fit. I got to go to bars with my friends and giggle through bad date stories. I finished my master’s degree and built a career. I fell in love. I’m going to get married and have babies and buy a home and it’s just going to be… my life. I don’t need a reminder that I ever had another one. I’d love to say that I came to this conclusion, gradually, over the last four years, and in a way, I did. However, I also went home from the tattoo parlor, looked at my cliché white girl ankh, and Googled how much it would cost to remove it. Maybe a part of me knew, even then, that this symbol wouldn’t be relevant for the rest of my life. Knowing removal would be costly and painful, of course, I tried to rationalize. This was my Gail tattoo. This was something crazy and impulsive we did together. Had I just gotten something silly and fun, like an elephant or a flower, then sure, it would be. But, as Jake and I have become more serious, I can’t deny that this is a reminder of a time in my life that it hurts to remember. Those years still cause me nightmares and I think about them every time I look at this tattoo. I just… don’t want it anymore. I also know that, when it comes to removal, it’s now or never. If I still have this tattoo when I get married or especially when I have kids, it’s not going to be a financial priority. So, a couple of months ago, I bit the bullet and scheduled my first consultation.

Speaking of time and finances, do you have any idea how long it takes to get a tattoo removed or how much it costs? Perhaps I shouldn’t have built my expectations for this procedure on a season of How I Met Your Mother, but I felt like it was a two to three month process, of 10 sessions. No. In fact, there must be eight weeks between each laser removal session and patients are advised to expect 10 sessions. So, in a year and a half, I can hope to see a mostly clear-skinned foot. That’s right. Results cannot be guaranteed, so the decision must be made to pay the price and hope for the best. That price, at the only clinic in the city, is $35 per square inch, with a $50 minimum. Because my tattoo is thankfully small, that makes it $50 per session. I’m no mathematician, but even I can figure that it’s going to cost more than $500 to  get this tiny little ankh off my foot. So, how much does it hurt?

Thiiiiiiis much.

The first picture is of the scorch marks from the laser. The second is of the blistering that happened later. I did a little bit of research online, about how much the procedure hurts, trying to get an idea of whether or not it would even be bearable, before investing money. The comparisons ranged from “popping like a rubber band” to “small droplets of hot grease hitting your skin.” In my personal experience, the latter was dead on. Fortunately, I have a great technician, who will stop and let me take a break. The first session took me three goes, the second only two.

Does it hurt more than getting the tattoo? Yes, but it’s a much quicker process. Because my tattoo was so small, it would’ve taken, literally, about 30 seconds to do the whole thing, had I not needed breaks. Getting the tattoo took about five minutes and was also quite painful. Personally, I’d rather the extreme pain of removal for 30 seconds than the substantial pain of application for 10 times that. That being said, were this tattoo any bigger, I’m not sure I’d bother, partly for the price and partly for the pain.

As it stands, now, I’ve been through two tattoo removal sessions and I deem it bearable… but only just. I’m cheap, though, so even if it did get more painful, I’d be completing the process, because I’ve already invested $100. Fortunately, it’s supposed to get less painful, but pretty much always be awful. I keep having nightmares that I have larger and uglier tattoos to remove. Will this one be worth the time, pain, and expense? For me, yes. My advice overall, is simply not to accompany a divorce with at tattoo.

Normal: I Never Thought I Would Be Here

In a country where divorce has become an inevitability, it’s no surprise that, as a society, we’re pretty damned reluctant to admit how much it screws us all up. As a divorcee, with divorced parents, I’m not throwing stones, here. My childhood, though, like that of half of North America, is split into two points: before the divorce and after the divorce.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I have no illusions that my life would have been improved by my parents staying together. Those two… it was like if Archie Bunker of All in the Family had married Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Sure, there were times when they were good together… or more accurately good separately, but zetus lapetus, all I remember after age seven was hate and insanity. The most obnoxious thread in any divorce discussion is the erroneous claim that these marriages shouldn’t have ended. Had my parents not been allowed to part, I’d have been orphaned in a murder/suicide by age twelve. I’m not really exaggerating. Despite divorce sometimes being the best option, however, that doesn’t mean those involved aren’t damaged from it.

3ed6673b748b2e9208e960af20a81decI literally cannot watch this movie, because she reminds me of my mother.

Before my parents divorced, I was… normal, for lack of a better word. I was ornery and a bit bossier than the other kids in my class, but I didn’t get in a lot of trouble at school or home. I never wore the cutest clothes or the most complicated hairstyles, but I was dressed in clean and matching outfits and I fit in with the other kids, well enough. Then, everything changed and I was too young to understand why. The other kids didn’t like me, because no one was making sure I was bathing or brushing my teeth. I was putting on weight, so I grew defensive and mean. I got in trouble constantly, because I acted out in class, wishing more than anything that I could be the petite teacher’s pet or the cute blonde girl who was good at sports. I was the smelly, chubby kid, who was always sitting out at recess for one reason or another. Of course, at age eight, I didn’t understand that this was the direct result of my parents’ distraction during their divorce. I thought something was wrong with me.

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I get it, y’all. I don’t hold a grudge for any of this. If anyone understands the consequences of choosing the wrong person, it’s me. My parents tried… mostly… sometimes? Regardless, I still had my Gramma, food in the fridge, and plenty of material wants provided by said Gramma. I’m not typing this while weeping over Sarah McLachlan’s Angel (or I wasn’t until I got the craving to listen to that song… fucking emotions). What I didn’t have, however, what affected me most deeply, was the sense of normalcy I enjoyed for the first seven years of my life. I’m not being dramatic when I tell you that I never got that sense of belonging back, even after the dust settled.

I started showering, wearing deodorant, brushing my hair… but those formative years of being outcast and bullied, set a precedent. If I wasn’t going to fit in, it would be because I chose exclusion. I eventually made friends, many of whom were equally defensive, and gained a sense of inclusion from the refusal to conform, but it wasn’t the same as feeling truly accepted, even if my friends or those looking in saw no difference. With a still unstable home life, it’s no surprise that I clung to a true outcast, mistaking him for a kindred spirit, instead of a man who was being rejected for having no good in him. I married him at 19 and I have never felt more alone. If being chubby and unwashed and bad at sports made me feel excluded at age 10, being morbidly obese and plain and married to a sociopath at age 20 made me feel like Will Smith in I am Legend. Like, literally, I had the dog. That’s it.

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Y’all, I never thought I would be here. After Gail’s and my shockingly similar divorces, I was pretty convinced that all of the “happy” people were… lying. I don’t mean that in some catty way, mocking the Facebook statuses and family newsletters, so much as I mean that I never witnessed true happiness. I assumed the people complaining about their relationships on Facebook were being tacky and the ones who weren’t just knew better than to air their dirty laundry in public. I didn’t want everyone to be miserable, but of course they were. 

Then… I lost 90 pounds, graduated with my master’s degree, started my career, and life was good. Things were really working out. I was headed in the right direction. I had great friends and coworkers. I felt like I actually fit into society, for the first time in nearly 20 years. Sure, I hadn’t met a good man, but… how many of those were really out there? Why would they want me with all my mouthiness and baggage? Still, I prayed. I asked God to help me to get over myself so I’d see a good man when I found one. I asked for a man of strong character to love me and take care of me and let me love and take care of him. I prayed for someone who would bring out the best in me and for whom I could do the same. I wanted a good father for my children and even bargained, promising it would be okay if I couldn’t get a full time job, if I could just get him; because more than anything, I still yearned for the traditional family unit comprised of a husband, wife, and kids… “normal.” I knew many women who were fulfilled and happy without these, but I would never be one of them. I followed up said prayers with bad date after bad date, often crying to Gail about how it was “never going to happen,” while making self-actualized blog posts about why people wouldn’t want to date me… and along came Jake.

Just shy of one year ago, I headed out on what would undoubtedly be just another funny blog post. Instead, I met a guy who more or less looked like his picture, opened the door for me, paid for an actual date, laughed at my jokes (even the unintentionally offensive ones), and was charismatic and fun. I left to take my Gramma a birthday present and told her it wasn’t love at first sight, but I liked him, he seemed to like me, and I’d go on a second date if I ever heard from him again.

One year later, I make no exaggeration when I say that Jake is everything I never knew I needed and wanted. He’s responsible, independent, adventurous, funny, intelligent, unbearably obstinate, considerate, attentive, generous, affectionate, impossible to offend, driven, hardworking, charismatic, rational, even-tempered, and good to his core. He both tells me and shows me that he loves me. He makes me strive to be a better person, while encouraging my passions and relationships. He gives me a sense of stability I never knew I was missing. He has strong, healthy friendships with good people and so much love for his own family, that I know that being with him will never make me feel excluded, isolated, or worst of all damned. I still don’t believe in soulmates, but I do believe in answered prayers. Is it sappy to say all this? Does this completely defy all of my claims that emotions belong with the last Horcrux and feelings are for the inside? Sure. But sometimes that’s what gratitude looks like.

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Being Out of Communion with the Church

 

On a scale of one to ten, with one being the guy who checks the box because his great grandma dragged him to Mass every Sunday until he was eleven and ten being a nun, I am a relatively devoted Catholic, landing at about a six. To define more clearly, I go to church every Sunday and confession at least twice a year. I’ve never blatantly sinned, only to declare that all was well the next day, because I asked for forgiveness with no intention of changing my ways. I try not to say God’s name in vain. I pray and give thanks. I aim to be honest and good. I’m not perfect, but I don’t knowingly break Catholic teachings… or I didn’t, until now.

Jake and I are having sex. I’ve told you that, without too much detail. It wasn’t a slip up and I didn’t get caught up in the moment. I didn’t change some kind of vow I’d made, because my feelings surprised me. No. In fact, I made a conscious decision, long before I met Jake, that I wasn’t going to wait until I was married to have sex: a mortal sin, that requires absolution from a priest, through confession, for one to be considered in communion with the Catholic Church and receive the Eucharist.

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All you non-Catholics are either scratching your heads or rolling your eyes, but as Christ granted the apostles the ability to absolve mortal sins, so goes the way of the Catholic Church with priests. Furthermore, despite all the jokes to the contrary, if the confessor does not genuinely intend to avoid further sin, true absolution cannot be received. That’s the deal for Catholics. It’s non-negotiable and this is my faith.

Having been divorced young, I’ve heard a dozen stories about why others’ marriages ended and a sad number of them directly related to sex. A high school friend’s ex-husband had a general, but whopping porn addiction; another acquaintance waited until she was married to have sex, only to find out her new husband wasn’t interested in the slightest; Gaily’s ex-husband was just into really weird stuff; in addition to numerous other issues, even my own former marriage suffered from my ex-husband’s complete lack of interest, because sex is exercise. Of course, a healthy marriage goes far beyond the physical, and each of the above had other severe issues, but there are so many variables that can make or break that relationship, that I just couldn’t bring myself to promise not to explore any and all that I could before making a lifelong commitment, again.

At 23 years old, I sat crying in a judge’s office and I did make a vow. I vowed that the next time, I’d make an educated decision on my partner and over time, I came to decide that this included sex. I’d often read an online dating profile that elaborated (usually far too much) on sexual preference. One man declared himself a dominant, while others revealed that they’d like to act out rape fantasies, and most would simply admit to their appetites and how often they’d like to engage. I consider myself pretty open-minded sexually. There’s not a lot that I think Jake would suggest, that I wouldn’t try. However, if his suggestion was that we only have sex, missionary style, twice a month, I’d object. I’m young and healthy and have the sexual appetite and sense of adventure to match. I don’t want to be with someone who feels guilty at trying new things or lacks interest in that connection. I also don’t want to be with someone who can’t enjoy it without props and gimmicks. I just want to be with someone sexually normal and I’ve known for some time that I could never discover what that meant to either of us, while clothed.

In a lot of ways, the decision has come down to with which sin I could most comfortably live. My previous marriage was never acknowledged by the Catholic Church, but my next one most certainly will be. I won’t get off so easy if I find myself divorced again, because unless you receive an annulment, you are still married. Any relationship pursued, beyond this point, is adultery, so getting a divorce (and living as such) despite the Church’s teachings, is a mortal sin… and one I can never rectify. With Jake, I can once again be in communion with the Catholic Church on the day our marriage is blessed, typically one year after having a non-Catholic wedding. That may be a couple of years away, but if we waited until marriage to have sex, only to realize that some element of our sex lives would lead to divorce, I’d be out of the Church’s graces for good. I know there are a dozen other factors that could lead to divorce, but we’ve explored those as well. Jake knows my financial views and priorities and I know his. We’ve discussed parenting styles and religion. Why wouldn’t we explore a fundamental aspect of marriage, like sex, as thoroughly as we could?

I’m rationalizing. I know I am, just as I rationalize using birth control, because I’m already breaking one cardinal rule and can’t imagine being pregnant and feeling so alone again. According to the Church, my priest, my fellow practicing Catholics, my reasons don’t matter. I don’t know better than God and I am truly remorseful for the weakness and pride behind my decision. I am not criticizing the Church. I love the Catholic Church and I understand and agree with their rules, even this one. God does not negotiate. I just can’t bring myself to risk the pain I felt, sitting in that judge’s office. It far outweighed the pain I feel sitting in the pew, as everyone else partakes in Communion… and I’m sorry for that, as well.

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The First Time He Sees You Have a Panic Attack in Bed…

That’s a relationship milestone, isn’t it? Wasn’t that an episode of Sex and the City?

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that, in addition to my dated television references, I have… difficulty processing negative emotions.

Me: “All kidding aside, I genuinely think that if we just bury our negative feelings, without discussing it, there won’t be any long term consequences as long it doesn’t happen often.
Gail: 

So, last Wednesday, when I topped off my already terrible day by running into my ex-husband for the first time since he signed the papers five years ago, I coped as only Belle can… which is to say I didn’t. It was only 4:00 in the afternoon, y’all. I was already overwhelmed and still had a night at the library head of me. I chose not to process such unpleasantness. After all, no words were spoken. We only made eye contact and kept walking. It was easy enough to compartmentalize and label it Future Belle’s problem.

Indeed it was. That night, after work, lying in bed, I had an… episode. Though it’s been almost five years, occasionally, I still have nightmares about my marriage. Usually, I’m still married, he’s still a sociopath, and the worst part is that I have trouble waking. Even more rarely, I wake and have trouble convincing myself that I’m in the present day and in no danger. Last Wednesday, however, was… severe.

I’m talking, Lifetime Original Movie severity, here. It was epic, in a way it has not been in years. So, naturally, once I’d come to my senses, emotionally and physically exhausted, I assumed the drama was out of my system. Everyone gets one meltdown every decade or so. Fortunately, I’d had mine that night, as opposed to the next, when my boyfriend would be staying over. What luck!

Jake came to town the next day and I conversationally explained a bit about why the previous day had been so awful, including that seeing my ex-husband “rattled” me. We went to dinner, watched a couple of movies and an episode of The Walking Dead, and we went to bed. Once there, we fooled around for a little bit and then I started to feel a bit… off. I feared I knew what was happening and went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face. I told myself to get control and went with my usual inner mantra.

It’s 2015. Your’e 28 years old. It has been almost five years and you are safe.

It wasn’t working. Of course, I shifted my focus to hiding my breakdown from Jake as I got into bed. It seemed easy enough to do with the lights off, even if that was making my little PTSD-worthy flashback worse. I told myself to keep my feelings where feelings belong: on the inside…

… as I started shaking. To Jake, there was no catalyst. The room was cold and he assumed the shaking was shivering… for the first few minutes.

Jake: “Are you okay?”
Me: ::nod::
Jake: “Belle? Are you alright? Say something.”
Me: 

Without a response, Jake reached for the light… and I lost it.

Me: ::hysterically crying:: “I’m fiiiiiine.”

I don’t remember a lot of the conversation, honestly. It’s sort of a blur beyond Jake finally getting frustrated with all of my apologies for crying.

Jake: “Will you stop apologizing and just please tell me what’s wrong?”
Me: “Sometimes, I just… I feel really panicked and just get really… scared. I’m sorry. Yesterday just really freaked me out. I promise this never happens!”

Jake was impossibly sweet, as he stroked my hair, told me I was okay and that I was safe. At one point, he actually feared I couldn’t breathe as my throat started to close and I wheezed through my cries. He just held me as I apologized again and again for showing negative emotions.

Me: “Do I have too much baggage?”
Jake: “No. Jude’s not too much baggage. He’s close, but not quite.”

He made a joke. The guy realized how much I don’t like to talk about feelings and he joked about my clingy dog being too much baggage, instead of forcing me to take the situation seriously.

Once I’d calmed down, Jake kissed the top of my head…

Jake: “I want my tea.”
Me: “What?”
Jake: “I’m thirsty.”
Me: “There’s a water bottle right there.”
Jake: “I know, but I have tea in the fridge and I want to get it.”
Me: “Okay? Why are you telling me this?”
Jake: “I just didn’t want you to think that I was getting up to put on my boots and leave, because I would never do that.”

More than once in the night, Jake actually woke me to make sure I was alright. The next morning, I brought it up first.

Me: “So, did I freak you out too much last night?”
Jake: “What? No. I’m just glad I was here.”
Me: “Yeah. Me, too. It was a lot worse the night before last. Don’t worry, though. I only cry once a year. If feelings were meant to be talked about, they would be called talkings.”

An Open Letter to My Engaged Teenage Cousin:

Recently, you announced to the world, via Facebook, that you are engaged. I thought you were joking, not only because you just celebrated your first boyfriend, first job, and 18th birthday, but because you’re regularly announcing engagements to your best girlfriends. But no, you clarified… this time you’re serious. There’s even a ring. I had a ring as a teenager, too. I didn’t say that, though. I didn’t respond at all, because I had a ring as a teenager, too. You are a brand new baby adult and there is absolutely no reaching you on this subject. I’m sure that your aunts have tried… your dad… your grandmother. My name was possibly even brought up as a cautionary tale.

If I thought you would hear me, I’d remind you of what you’ve surely heard in health class: that 60 percent of marriages for couples between the ages of 20 and 25 end in divorce.* I won’t though, because you’ll insist (as did I) that your relationship is different. What I’d like to tell you, is that it isn’t. Your relationship is not different from any other young marriage, in that you are not the people you will be in 10 years… not even close. We live in a society where individuals are encouraged to grow the absolute most between the ages of 18 and 25. So, while you’ll grow as a person throughout your life, you’ll likely never change so much as in the next seven years or so. Everything about who you will be, who he will be, is unknown. You are working with unmolded clay, and the odds are infinitesimal that, after seven years, you’ll exist as two pieces who properly fit together. It is entirely possible that this teenage boy, through much influence from the world beyond his teen bride, will be molded into a screaming liberal, a soldier, a vegan, a drug addict, an online gamer, an Atheist, a smoker, a pro-lifer, a techie, a role player, a devout Christian, an alcoholic, a workaholic, a thief, a cheater, or an abuser.

Maybe you won’t be crying over another mysterious phone call, wondering where the Blu Ray player went, or icing a fat lip. These are obviously pretty extreme scenarios. Perhaps you’ll just find, at 22, that you love British comedy and sushi, have a strong passion for animal rights, and aren’t totally sure if you want to bring children into this world. Your young husband will grab a beer, sit down on the couch next to you, ask what the hell you’re watching and bring up the baby conversation again. You’ll look at the man you once considered adorable and see a simpleton… the reason you can’t join the Peace Corps or take that job out of state… the only adventure you’ve ever had. 

I know, I know. I’m jaded and broken, after two years of sleeping with my wallet in my pillowcase and wondering why the dog was bleeding. I’m hardly one to give marital advice. Maybe you’ll be just as in love at 28 as you were at 18. Then what will I have to say? Then… I’ll be happy for you. I’ll be thrilled that you don’t know the soul crushing effect of divorcing a monster in your early 20s, or the fear and nerves of going on your first Grown Up Date at 23, the awkwardness of stumbling over the “I’m divorced” conversation in a new relationship. However… I’ll still be thinking of all that you missed; like the vacation you never got to take with your girls, that trip abroad that wasn’t even up for consideration, the boy at that party you had so much in common with, maybe even the bachelor’s degree that got pushed aside when the babies came.

You can always get married and have children (pre-menopausal), but you can never undo the decision you’re making right now. You’re only 18, which means that you’ve never made any decisions that will effect the rest of your life and, happiness or despair, getting married will effect the rest of your life. You will make more choices, based on that decision, and they will effect the rest of your life. Perhaps the wedding won’t be soon, but then why even get engaged? Engagement is a time to prepare for marriage, not a pseudo commitment to provide security in a time of upheaval. Your life is supposed to be scary and unknown right now. I guarantee that it’s a lot more fun right after high school, than it is at 23, when everyone else is finding stability in the world.

Those are the things I would say, but I know they’ll fall on deaf ears. I know they already have as other family members have made the same points. If I could get just one thing across, though, it would be that they’re saying these things for a reason. They love you. They’ve watched people make this choice again and again. Maybe they even speak from personal experience. They want you to be happy, just as they wanted me to be happy. Your engagement announcement shouldn’t require the assurance that you’re serious, because you’ve barely outgrown faux relationship status updates to your best gal pals. It shouldn’t be met with cautionary tales and pleas to wait. Marriage, under the right circumstances, is a wonderful thing and your family wouldn’t warn you off a wonderful thing. It hurts them to see you make this mistake, just as it hurt them to watch me do the same. I just hope you don’t shut them out, because you will need them, if the worst occurs and your world falls apart, leaving you to start over as all of your friends announce that theirs are finally coming together. I wish you could understand this, but I know you can’t, because I had a ring as a teenager, too.

* http://www.drphil.com/articles/article/351

Life Without Soulmates

The Saturday before Halloween, I had a night out with a high school friend and some of her pals. The initial plan was to go to the downtown parade, but we ended up at the cowboy club instead. Halloween at the cowboy club was not my intention. Ladies, just so you know, when you take those angel wings off, you’re just wearing sequined panties and heels on the dance floor. That’s not a costume. And Gentlemen, the half-assed cat ears I threw on with a homemade “Salem Saberhagen” collar do not suddenly morph “meow” into a sexy come-on. Sigh. I will never be a party girl. So, after said exhausting evening, I looked forward to chilling in my T-shirt and leggings with Ava and her mother, on Halloween night; where we gossiped about boys, while horror movies played in the background.

… and now, I’d like to introduce Ava and Trent.

Everyone has those friends who’ve been together since they were teenagers and have only really dated each other. We love them, because they’re so very happy and that’s awesome. We also hate thembecause even if we found a wonderful partner tomorrow, we’d never share that level of history. Bitches.

My senior year of high school, I shared one class with Ava, as she was a year younger. When she told me there was a job opening at Walgreen’s, where she worked, I applied and accepted the position; and we worked together for the next year. Ava is that girl that I’m always surprised is still in my life. It’s not that she’s not wonderful. Quite the contrary, Ava is such a genuinely sweet person that she has trouble making friends, because they’re all waiting for the catch. I’ve known her for eight years, though. This kitten just has no claws.


Ava

It would be sort of difficult to be a nasty person when your family performed in community theater together. They really are a nauseatingly and adorably functional group. That’s actually part of the reason I’m surprised we’re still close. I’m sort of a bitch. I’m not cruel to my friends or anything. In fact, my loyalty is damned near impossible to match. I just have an abrasive sense of humor and women are rarely receptive to it. For instance, one day in high school, Ava had a rare catty moment, when a girl she didn’t like was mentioned in conversation. She went on and on about how fake and grating this person was, including doing an impersonation. It was dead-on, too, because the girl in question truly was irritatingly false. Only when she finished her rant, did I bother to catch my breath from laughing, to inform Ava that the girl’s boyfriend was sitting right next to her. She was mortified. It was fantastic.

Regardless of our differences in personality and background, we just mesh. I get along great with Trent, as well, having known him in middle school during his chubby, talkative phase. Today, he’s the one who will assist me in prank texting Ava’s mom that they’re expecting twins. He’s a good guy and, most importantly, he’s good to Ava and she’s good to him. I was at their wedding. I celebrated Ava’s last birthday with them. They’re good people and they are as genuinely happy as Ava’s adorable parents. That having been said, it was shocking to hear Ava’s take on soulmates. She doesn’t believe in them.

You see, all around the world, single men and women are looking for “the one.” I suppose this is pretty strictly the developed First World, as everyone else is looking for a meal or less cholera, but you get my point.

Haiti Disease Outbreak
I know she dropped her glass slipper somewhere in here.

Though Ava is an endlessly practical person, I sort of expected her religious background and her experience with Trent and her parent’s relationship to put her firmly on the side of “we were destined”, when it came to the soulmates discussion. I, however, was entirely wrong and her insight was fascinating. Hopped up on candy and sleep deprivation, Ava and I discussed exactly why we don’t believe in soulmates and what the implications for their make-believe status means for relationships.

I really can’t speak for Ava’s lack of conviction in the soulmates smokescreen. I can only assume that she doesn’t believe, because she’s a friggin’ Chemist. Her entire career is rooted in science and practicality. Ain’t no room for unicorns and pixie dust. I am just not a romantic. At all. My lack of belief, is almost always worded the same way:

“Everyone believes in soulmates, until they’re crying in the judge’s office.”

Please. Let me speak at your wedding.

This conversation really got me thinking, though. What does it mean for us, to live in a world without soulmates?

We are not the only influence in this person’s life.

Throughout our lives, we’re growing and developing. Just as I am not the 16-year-old Belle who wore overalls every day of high school, neither will I always be the 26-year-old Belle who watches three episodes of Bewitched and dramatically texts Jane about how she’s going to die alone. Even after I remarry, making (ideally) a lifelong commitment, who I am as a person will shift over time. I, literally, will no longer be the woman my husband married after 25 years. The same will be true for him… and that’s okay. People should grow. We should move forward. Life is fluid.

Scientists say that personality is 50% hereditary and I agree with that. I am just as willful, at 26, as I was at 6 and 16. My opinions, my passions, my belief systems, however, have been shaped by the people and world around me. Yes, I have a mind of my own, but we are all a product of our environment. My marriage to a man, who once tried to blackmail me into getting on food stamps for him, developed many of my political stances on social services. The excruciating experience of losing my baby without any pain medication, at nearly my second trimester, helped form my opinions on socialized healthcare, as I was on state aid at the time. Watching Gail sleep at her dying infant’s side and gazing at a tiny pink casket days later, cemented my faith in Christ. Working with the public has shaped my thoughts on how we treat our elderly in this country. A thousand experiences and dozens of people are creating Belle and the addition of a romantic relationship will not change that.

Sure, when I do find someone, I’ll have an additional voice and more love and care urging me in one direction or another, but I’ll still have Jane, Gail, my Gramma, my dad, my faith, my work experiences, and the media I consume shaping who I am. Similarly, he’ll still have his brothers, his uncles, his mother, and his career moving him on his path. It will take constant effort to make sure those paths regularly intersect, to avoid veering in completely different directions… because we won’t be soulmates. We’ll be two people who found someone, fell in love, and decided to make it work. As a religious gal, I believe there is the magic of Christ in any spiritual union, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need cultivating. That doesn’t mean it can’t become withered and trampled if two people let it.

So, we have to work harder, emotionally;

You come home from work and trip over his boots in the entryway and snap at him to clean up after himself. You head into the kitchen and see that he did not take the trash out, as he said he would, and now the trucks have already run and you’ll have to wait another week. You sarcastically thank him for his contribution. He sees the shopping bags you carried in and comments on how strange it is that you couldn’t afford his fishing license, but apparently had the disposable income for new shoes. The two of you argue over who will fix dinner and spend the night taking care of your own chores or melting into your own media and don’t bother to connect at all, before turning in for the night.

Everyone has bad days. They do. If you’re not destined to be together, however; if there’s no fairytale pull over you, enough of those bad days and your relationship begins to degrade and morph into something less beautiful. You can’t make catty remarks about his belly, nor can he ask if you’re too old to be wearing that, without consequences. His confidence takes a hit. Yours takes a hit. Neither of you feels safe and protected from criticism after years of wearing each other down.

Then, one day, you find another of the millions of people with whom you’re also compatible. Only, this person doesn’t think your sudden passion for Going Green is stupid. He doesn’t think there’s an age limit on hot pink. Unlike his wife, you don’t think his receding hairline should be covered. You both even like Indie movies and Thai food. Though you still love your husband, this man makes you feel better about yourself than your spouse has in years. Pretty soon, your heart is being pulled in two different directions, because you let your bond wilt… and he wasn’t your soulmate. He was just someone to whom you chose to make a commitment. He’s just the man who held your hand, while you brought your babies into the world. He’s just another person with whom you could’ve developed effective communication skills while you built and cherished a life together. Only you didn’t cherish it, because you thought destiny would take care of that.

… and we also have to work harder, physically.

A few years ago, I was talking to my aunts and cousins, at Christmas. I declared that I felt like a person (not a woman, specifically) owes it to their spouse to remain within a certain weight range in relation to what they were when they married. My cousin was horrified and declared that NO, you should love your spouse unconditionally, no matter what they look like. I didn’t say 70 pounds is a valid reason to stop loving someone. It just might, however, be reason enough not to want to see them naked, any longer. I’m not advocating a return to the days where Fred makes jokes about the size of Ethel’s girdle in public. Despite what anyone tells you, however, physical attraction is an important part of a relationship. I understand that a woman’s bones shift during childbirth. Weight displaces and we all earn our battle scars, otherwise known as stretchmarks. Just as he’ll put weight on in the middle, my breasts will dip with each child. That’s fine. Wear your age proudly. I said proudly, though. He shouldn’t wear those pajama pants in Wal-Mart and neither should you, if it’s not something you did when you initially became attracted to one another. Put on some make-up, buy a flattering blouse, and actually try, every now and then, whether you’re 28 or 48. Hopefully he’ll throw on a button-up and some nice jeans, once in awhile, too. 

In regards to weight? I don’t know why this should be the exception to keeping the attraction alive. Maybe it’s because we’re in an obesity epidemic and damn near everyone has put on a good 50 pounds since the wedding day. Fifty pounds on my 5’5′ frame, though, completely changes the way I look. I know. I once weighed 260. Furthermore, when I was so overweight, there were many things I couldn’t do, from sexual positions to taking the stairs. Unlike wearing those pajama pants in public, weight affects both physical attraction and quality of life. I think it’s fair to set some limits. I’m not saying it’s good enough reason to leave your marriage, but it is one of those things that adds up over time. When coupled with a tendency to bitch at her, constantly complain about money, and never wanting to leave the house, that 80 pounds and those pajama bottoms can really kill the spark. The same goes for that 60 pounds and oversized t-shirt.

… because love is conditional.

Seriously, Disney won’t even let me in the park, after typing that. I am not talking about the love I have for my dog, my Gramma, my daddy, or my Gail, here. That’s a different discussion. What I’m talking about is the idea being sold to me by Nicholas Sparks, that there is nothing I can do to make a man who loves me turn away from me, and vice versa. Don’t get me wrong. It works beautifully in a country song, but it’s just not a reasonable expectation.

Me: “What if she sleeps with your bother?”
Jay: “I would never marry someone who would do that.”
Me: “That’s not what I asked. What if she does?”
Jay: “She wouldn’t…. and he wouldn’t.”
Me: “Which proves my point. If you’re not even willing to consider the possibility that someone could tear you apart like that, then clearly, it’d be a deal breaker.”

No seriously. Let me speak at your wedding.

The idea of a one for us, or a soulmate, is actually super appealing. They’re huge in paranormal romance. In fact, many of those characters have nothing in common and often start out hating each other, and no one cares, because they must love each other. It’s a biological law. I, however, am not half Greek princess and fortunate enough to stumble upon a super hot descendant of Heracles, who has been cursed by the Goddess Hera.

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I could probably make this shit up if I tried. There’s just no need.

There is no magic that says a man is compelled to love me. Just as my love for my ex-husband withered and died with every item he stole from me, every job he fabricated, I understand that I can, absolutely, turn my next significant other away from me with similar acts. This ain’t a fairytale. If we don’t treat each other well, there are other people who will. If we don’t put in a genuine effort to communicate, there are are other people who might. If we don’t try to appeal to each other sexually, there’s an entire friggin’ industry dedicated to filling that gap. Just as we can’t take our friendships for granted and expect them to thrive, we can’t treat our romantic relationships as a given. Whatever magical or Godly aspect there may be in a marital bond, we still have to care for it, because that is life without soulmates.