I grew up in New York state, and we had to take a mandatory five-hour course in order to get our drivers licenses. Most of it was about drunk driving (texting still meant a desktop computer or a pencil and paper) but one thing they said stuck in my mind:
No matter what the insurance company says, both parties are always at fault in every car accident, and if you can’t see your part in causing the accident, you are doomed to repeat it.
Of course we all argued with the instructor. We were teenagers—we were well-versed in finding loopholes and avoiding responsibility. After I obtained that sacred license I had many minor accidents and a few major ones, and lo and behold, my instructor was right. I could see in retrospect how I had contributed in every instance, even the one where my car was parked and I was not even in the vehicle. (My stepmother was quick to help me understand that if I actually used my garage to store my car overnight as it was intended it would not have been hit.)
When I got divorced from my first husband, someone suggested something similar about marriage, but I was having nothing to do with it. The only thing I was willing to admit was that I had chosen a mate poorly, everything else was his fault entirely. I was one hundred percent the victim, and I would not hear otherwise.
Our divorce was finalized nearly twenty years ago, and I can see many things more clearly now. I was so young when I met him—just eighteen—and so unsure of myself and immature. I’d been living on my own for one whole year by then, and felt as if I were very grown up. He was ten years older and I thought wiser and I trusted his opinion over my own in nearly everything. I went along with things because I didn’t know how not to. When we were careening down a hill towards a ravine, I knew I should apply the brakes, but instead I only watched the crash happen.
But there was more than that. I didn’t yet know how to manage being a grown-up. Sure, I worked and went to college and occasionally cleaned the house, but when I look back at that time in my life, I’m struck by both how little I actually knew and how overwhelmed I felt by everything. I thought the fastest way to become a grown-up was to marry my way into it. I didn’t want to slow down and enjoy my college years any more than I had wanted to linger in my unhappy childhood. But maturation can’t be rushed. I got my drivers license at seventeen and my marriage license at twenty, but I can say now I didn’t have the requisite experience for either one of those. I totalled two cars and one marriage by the time I was twenty-six.
Oh, I grew up quickly enough in that marriage, living a life of more bills than income, nursing my husband after a motorcycle accident left him permanently disabled, and surviving a house fire. I very easily blamed him for all of it. But I can see now how I thrived on chaos, how I lived at a level of intensity that catapulted me from one crisis to another. I can see now how very little would have been different if I had married someone else, because I was only attracted to men who seethed and raged in their brokenness.
I didn’t like nice boys, good boys, or boys who didn’t live on the edge. It wasn’t that I didn’t know any—it was that they didn’t light me up inside. I was a needy kind of broken girl that needed filling up by someone else very badly. I’d learned from my parents that in relationships, one person ducks, the other person screams, and I wasn’t a screamer, so of course I had to find one to uphold the balance.
I didn’t bring much to the relationship besides my desire to love someone so much that I lost myself in them. Romantic notions of love conquering all are best left to fairy tales. Real life involves far less conquering and far more mundane minutiae. I was great at taking notes at doctor’s appointments and holding vigil in hospital rooms but couldn’t bring myself to mow the lawn or mop the floor. I painted my bathroom several times a year but rarely cleaned it. I wanted big, showy changes, but couldn’t stand the daily upkeep. I was undisciplined, scattered, unfocused. But moreover, when that evil ex-husband found me tucked away in the corner of my closet sobbing behind the longest dress because I had gained five pounds and hated my body, he gathered me up and held me as I cried. He didn’t say it was a small, foolish thing to cry over, not that time, nor the time after that.
I wasn’t exactly a treat to be married to, either, but my brokenness wasn’t as loud or visible as his was. Everyone—including him—agreed that I was the “nice one” in our relationship. I was the little mouse. But he was the only one who saw the darkness inside me that kept me in bed for days as the dishes piled up in the sink. And he never made me get out of bed on the days when standing upright was too much to bear.
He didn’t yell when I melted plastic dishes on the stove or got paint all over the basement floor. He didn’t complain about all my half-finished projects, like the rooms that needed one last go-round of paint at the ceiling line, or the floor stain I never got around to blending into the adjacent hallway. I liked to get 80% done with a project—just far enough to see what it would be like when it was finished—then run out of energy and never return to finish the job. I would have been beyond exasperated with my younger self.
I had plenty of faults as a wife, but it took me years to see them. Oh, there were little things and there were big things, and don’t get me wrong, I still think he was “more wrong” than I was. But I was wrong, too, maybe even 48% wrong. And perhaps more importantly, we were 100% wrong together.