The Marriage School

Today’s Lesson: The High Cost of Ignoring Yourself

image from

As a four-time wedded woman to three different men, you may think me either a wise woman or a fool when it comes to relationships. Perhaps I was just a slow learner. But learn I have.

The most challenging lesson I’ve learned about relationships started when I was in my late 50’s, and I finally I accepted that the relationship you have with yourself and the stories you tell yourself about who you are and what you need is the most important part of your relationship with the “other.” And being in a relationship with “the other” is one of the best and most challenging ways to learn about yourself.

My first husband and I met in college and our relationship accelerated thanks to the Vietnam War. Married men were safe from the draft, or so we thought. Did I love him? Yes — and he fulfilled the story I had been raised with: You marry the family as much as the man.

But I didn’t look at the man enough. And when I realized that his family had been more important to me than he was, and drinking was more important to him than I was — I couldn’t stay.

And that’s when I met the love of my life — a handsome, large-and-in-charge Latin. He was my best friend and mentor and believed in me before I believed in myself. We met in New York and moved to Caracas, Venezuela to start a fun and exciting life. The story I unconsciously told myself with him was this: I am seen, I am safe, and I am enough. I felt loved and adored, and indeed I was. We were happy for twenty years…until we weren’t.

Health problems — physical and mental — kid problems, money problems.

When it started to go to hell in a handbasket — I had to be the decision-maker. I was capable, but I was also angry and afraid. My story was that I needed him to make things right and he couldn’t.

In the fifteen years between when I divorced the love of my life and I got back together with him, I married someone else — a creative and talented advisor who helped me rebuild my house after it burned down. Even though I’d learned something about trusting my own judgment and taking responsibility for myself and my money, I didn’t want to do it alone, and I didn’t have to. Plus, he was a great kisser.

For nine years, we went to multiple sessions with multiple therapists. I had tried to be loving, unselfish, and considerate but my husband couldn’t see it. And I had defined his displeasure as my failure. I was exhausted.

And that’s when I learned it was fruitless to be responsible for someone else’s happiness.

When I was 64, the stars aligned and the love of my life re-appeared. We spent seven glorious years together. He passed away in March. They were some of the most contented years of my life. Why? Because during the time I’d been apart, I had learned the most important lesson of relationships: I didn’t need a partner to create a social context. I didn’t need him to be the breadwinner. I didn’t need him to be the decision maker. I didn’t need his approval.

All I needed was someone who saw me and loved me both because of and in spite of who I was.

But first I had to see it in myself.

Looking for more insight from your hard-earned life experiences? Check out Live Large: The Achiever’s Guide to What’s Next.