When my husband, Eric, started his first ‘real job’ as a physician, he was gifted with a large plant for his office. He proudly showed me the 3-foot tall plant while giving me the tour of his new workplace.
It was an exciting time for us — we had moved across the country to follow his dream of being a small-town physician. Although I was still in culture shock moving from a big metro liberal city to a small town, I was determined to make this new adventure work.
For a while, it did. I couldn’t find a job in my field, and we decided I wouldn’t work but instead would concentrate on becoming integrated into the community. I volunteered for the hospital, the animal shelter, the farmer’s market, and the library, getting to know people in our new hometown and helping to grow my husband’s patient base.
Often I would decorate the plant in Eric’s office, hanging mini Christmas ornaments on it in winter, little hearts on it in February, and fuzzy bees in the summer months. We would celebrate each new leaf the plant produced and carefully wipe the dust off the broad leaves every month.
Two years later, not having a career was beginning to take a toll on me. I started a huge garden and sold produce at the farmer’s market. I took dance lessons and made some friends among the women dancers, but my husband would not allow me to socialize outside of dance class; eventually, the friendships shriveled. I thought about professional school and took some courses, but I gave up after discussing the logistics of going to a school 5 hours away for four years.
The plant grew and grew, soon hitting the 8-foot ceiling in Eric’s office. Eric cared for it on a strict schedule. The plant received ten drops of fertilizer in one bottle of water per week- no more, no less. This schedule did not change during the summer months when the sun was out for 16 hours a day, nor when the snow piled up and blocked the window in February and March.
I regularly rotated the plant, so it got sun evenly, but it started to suffer after a few years. The top branches hit the ceiling and twisted down to the window. It was still in the small pot it had from the beginning and was terribly root-bound. Some of the branches started dying.
Five years into our new life, we moved to a larger house with a 20-foot high foyer ceiling. I asked my husband if we could bring the plant home and put it in the entranceway. It would look gorgeous and get plenty of light. He didn’t want to move the plant, so I asked if I could at least re-pot it, as the pot had split from root growth. Eric explained that he would not allow me to re-pot or move the plant because the plant had to adapt and live by his rules, or it could die. Those were the only choices.
In a flash, I realized I was that plant. I was celebrated and cared for as long as I stayed within the bounds of my husband’s comfort zone. When I wanted to grow by making new friends or taking on new life challenges, I was blocked. I had a wonderful life — if I followed the rules he set out. I dressed as my husband felt a physician’s wife should. I wore my hair the way he thought I should. I could spend as much money as I wanted — on things that he approved of. My hobbies were husband-approved. My LIFE was husband-approved. Outwardly I was 35 and flourishing, but inside I was withering and dying.
I made a conscious decision to stay married and work to break free from the rules my husband created around my life. After all, we had been together since we were teenagers. We could make this work. I started a business with my brother and started traveling for business. I even cut my hair short and dyed it blonde. Some of the decisions had my husband’s blessing; many did not.
Because I was so busy, I visited my husband’s office infrequently, but I saw the plant slowly dying when I did. I no longer decorated it for holidays, and there were no baby leaves to celebrate. The image of the plant still bothered me. When I was traveling for work, I flourished. I made friends, learned new things, and grew. But when I brought home my changed attitude, I was called a cunt or a bitch. Verbal abuse escalated to physical abuse. One day Eric threatened to kill me and my pets. The next day I began planning to leave.
Fourteen years after Eric received the plant as a gift, I left my marriage. By that time, the plant was nothing more than a bare trunk with some leaves plastered to the window. But I didn’t have to choose between adapting to Eric’s rules or dying. I chose freedom.
Audrey Zetta is a writer living in LA. She uses a pseudonym when writing about her marriage. You can connect with her on Twitter @sweetandzesty.