My parents divorced when I was 13 years old, and while it was for the best, there were ramifications that I didn’t realize until years later.
My mother and I didn’t talk much about relationships. I saw how dysfunctional my parents’ marriage was and knew it wasn’t good, but didn’t know or have an example of what might be better. Instead my mother became a model for me of the capable career woman — financially self-sufficient and socially independent.
As I dated over the years, my mother never pressured me to get married; on the contrary, she stressed the importance of holding out for the “right man.” Who was that right man? What qualities was he supposed to have? That part wasn’t discussed. All I knew was that wanting what I wanted (whatever that was) was not only permitted, but practically required. There must be honesty and equality! Don’t settle for less!
My father similarly put no pressure on me to marry. Once when I was distraught over a break-up with a guy, he tried to offer support by saying “Don’t sweat it. Marriage isn’t all its cracked up to be.” That was the sole sum of his advice on the subject. No wonder I hadn’t a clue what a committed relationship looked like.
My father never did remarry, however, years later when I was in my early 30s (and still not married), my mother did. She married an older gentleman she had known as a friend since I was in my teens. I was happy for her, and relieved, actually, that she had someone besides me — her only child — to tend to.
Funny enough, it wasn’t six months into the marriage, when I began to hear a different tune from her about men and marriage. “You know,” she said, “marriage is really about compromise. You can’t expect to get everything you want.” Was she giving me advice or just telling herself a new truth to cope with her own adjustment to married life? Being of a certain generation, my mother also advocated a touch of “what they don’t know, won’t hurt them” when it came to buying things she wanted or manipulating things behind the scenes.
I was startled, then amused, at this sudden about-face in her advice. What happened to holding out? What happened to honesty in a relationship? What happened indeed. My own mother had finally grown up herself and entered into a truly mature, healthy relationship. It isn’t her fault that it didn’t happen earlier, but it didn’t help me any in the years up to that point. I finally realized I had to think for myself and be strong enough to admit I was sabotaging my own chances by continuing to search for that elusive perfect man (who naturally did not exist).
Over the years, both my parents suffered on the sidelines through a series of relationships I had with men who were generally nice people, but not “it.” I had also long since reconciled myself to their inadequacies on the subject of marriage. They had married with the best of intentions, but alcoholism, poor communication skills, different values, and money problems doomed the relationship. They rarely offered advice and I certainly never asked at this point. Knowing what made their marriage fail was somewhat helpful, but I still didn’t have a model for what a healthy relationship looked like day to day.
By age 40, I despaired of ever finding someone and had actually quit looking.
At age 41, I met my husband.
As they say, it’s when you aren’t looking that the right person comes along. Or rather, when I finally stopped looking for perfection — in myself or a partner — I finally had eyes to see the great catch that he was; someone for the long haul, someone to depend on and enjoy life with despite our differences and occasional arguments.
We will celebrate our 18th anniversary next year and I am pleased to say with certainty that our 14-year-old daughter is light years ahead of where I was at her age in understanding the give and take of marriage.
But while I won’t feed her any fairytales about the perfect man, I’m still going to tell her to hold out for the best. She’s too special for any less!