Love and Marriage: A Cautionary Tale

As a woman approaching 37 years of age, I have been thinking a lot about my life experiences and the difficult things that I had to experience as a young adult. My hope is that others can learn from my life’s chronicle and pass any wisdom they should glean from it to others.
My mother died when I was 18, and at the time it happened I knew that it was a catastrophic loss regardless of the age at which I experienced it. The fact that she died when I was at the cusp of adulthood portended worse for me than I imagined at the time. In a strange way, I felt liberated from a lot of the expectations that my mother had for me, and less bound by guilt-based mother/daughter relationship dynamics that are common in Latin families. I grieved a gradual grief that hit me in profound waves as I progressed into adulthood, but the full processing of my emotions was stunted and delayed by other pressing difficulties and trials in my life at the time. As a young undergraduate, I was busied with meeting deadlines in the classes I was taking, working at part-time jobs, and trying to develop a social life. Because my parents were divorced and my father’s financial situation was not as favorable as it had been in previous years, I did not have other sources of economic help on which to rely. A few years after I graduated, my father’s house was repossessed and he left the country, going back to live with relatives in his native country, in an effort to avoid facing the reality of the economic loss that he had sustained. I was left to clear out any items that I wanted from the house before the folks from the bank were scheduled to lay claim to their newly-acquired asset.
During this time period, I found myself wrestling with a lot of difficult emotions that were associated with the absence of my parents. My family members on my mother’s side had for the most part become estranged from me after my mother’s death. My father’s family lived in Europe, thousands of miles from where I was in California. In order to cope with the absence of family, I became increasingly involved in the church and sought emotional comfort in evangelical worship services. This was familiar turf because my mother had adopted evangelical Christianity after she came to the U.S. Years before she met my father, she experienced a bad first marriage to an abusive alcoholic and struggled as a single mother in her late 20’s and early 30’s. It was no wonder, then, that she sought refuge and comfort in the Church in the midst of the personal challenges she faced.
The churches that I attended during these years gave me a venue for expression of some of my personal interests like music and drama. I participated in charitable activities and felt like I was part of something bigger, helping to bring God’s good will about on earth. In this context, I sought to date someone who was like-minded, who had similar interests and to whom, of course, I was attracted.
I also experienced depression for the first time, and even though it was easy for me to identify the causes of the emotional troughs I was experiencing, I had a great deal of difficulty climbing my way out of the figurative pit. My feelings of loneliness were exacerbated by a very brief but painful relationship I experienced in my mid 20’s, and it was in the wake of this pain that I met “Bob”. We had traveled in the same social circle for about four years before I took notice of him. There was something about this man that attracted me, a ruggedness and youthful demeanor despite the 14-year age difference between us. I gradually learned that he enjoyed the outdoors and was also involved in drama at the church we attended. He had pursued acting for many years, both on stage and in film, and this was another element that attracted me to him. It was only years later that I realized the dangers of being drawn to a highly skilled actor.
In looking back, I see that I did not properly deal with my issues of depression prior to entering this relationship, and as a result, the entire footing on which it was based was weak and unhealthy. Apart from my attraction to this individual, the relationship served as an escape from feelings of loneliness and I proceeded to justify my continued involvement because of the emotional security that I gained from it. I’m sure there are a lot of psychological labels that can categorize what I was experiencing, but I will not attempt to use them here. I have had to analyze the events in a personally relevant way in order to reach my own internal understanding of what happened.
After a few years of dating, we got engaged, and in the course of the relationship, I ignored many problematic elements that arose repeatedly between us (this is where the cautionary part of the story begins). One of the first areas where problems arose was in our view of the roles of men and women. This was an issue that was close to my heart, and I wanted to know that this man that I was considering making a lifelong commitment to was on the same “page”. I was looking forward to reading a particular book and sharing my perspective on issues that I considered important. Early in the reading, however, we began to have arguments that were painful, non-productive and emotionally exhausting. Despite the fact that we couldn’t get through the book together, I listened to Bob’s rationale and minimized the chasm that lay between us philosophically. Repeatedly, we would argue, but just as tensions became unbearable, Bob would assume a soothing tone of voice, repeat back to me my side of the argument, and thus temporarily resolve the conflict between us. Arguments regularly ensued about a number of trivial subjects, but in my foolishness and desire to maintain the relationship, I decided to leave things as they were despite our toxic communication dynamics.
Shortly after we married, I was very disappointed to discover there was not an equitable division of costs between us, or agreement about who would pay for what. Most of the costs were deferred to me, and I was the one in the relationship who ensured that bills got paid on time. This immediately ate away at my trust in Bob and whenever I attempted to address the topic, another argument would ensue. Early on in the marriage, I realized the profundity of the mistake I had made by minimizing our communication problems and ignoring the troublesome signs I had seen while we were dating. I was, however, willing to continue working on the relationship and tried to be patient with Bob so that he could meet his educational and career goals. I maintained a hope that he would follow through on the intentions he had expressed from the beginning (paying off his personal debt and school loans, contributing financially, etc.)

The irony of this is that I was aware of my father’s economic difficulties and I intentionally tried to avoid getting into a relationship with someone with similar problems. Bob, a very articulate and intellectual persuader, assured me of his educational and career plans and repeatedly affirmed his belief that the husband should be the economic provider for the household. I naively believed what he said, not so much because there was evidence for it but because I wanted to. This is one of the primary perils to identify in this ill-fated scenario.

After we married, the arguments continued, but in desiring to minimize tensions, I adopted a stance of dropping the subject and passively agreeing with him in order to bypass the predictable knock-down-drag-out arguments that led nowhere and resolved nothing. This diffused tensions in the short term, but left me feeling unheard and without a venue for expression. We had seen a premarital counselor, but gained little from it and didn’t seek counsel again until tensions flared in our marriage.
In spite of our communication problems, the issue that was most important to me was economic responsibility, and I repeatedly attempted to focus on this issue. When we sought counseling, I was frustrated by Bob’s ability to steer the conversations away from what I saw as the primary problems. The second counselor we saw gave us a helpful framework in which we could communicate in a more civil way and give each side a time to be heard, but it only helped the arguments become more manageable.

Eventually, I sought relief from the emotional pain of the marriage and sought counseling on my own. The counselor helped me identify elements of my personality that had been perpetuating the problems. She helped me understand the differences between passive, assertive and aggressive behavior and tendencies. She also recommended an excellent book called Boundaries in Marriage that helped me see that my situation was not unique and that there were proactive ways to end the feeling of constantly being “victimized”.

After six and a half years of marriage, we separated, and I knew that ending the relationship was the only way to stop the cycle of hurt and end the unfair economic division in the marriage. The things I learned in the days that ensued, however, serve as a warning for anyone who is contemplating marriage and may not be aware of the risks involved (I sure wasn’t).

After the separation, I sought the advice of a legal secretary, who informed me about California state divorce laws and the financial ramifications of my marriage. I learned that among the 50 United States, there is a broad disparity between laws and rules that govern marriage, separation and divorce. A person who is married in California is at risk of inheriting or being held responsible for their spouse’s debts and can lose, for example, 50% of real estate because all property is considered “community property” (with certain exceptions, like an inheritance). In my case, I purchased a home as “sole and separate” buyer on the loan, but if the divorce required a judge to divide assets, my spouse could be awarded 50% of the value of the property, regardless of whether his name is on the loan (or title) or not. Here is another “kick myself” element to the tale: I married without a pre-nuptial agreement even though I was aware of these risks.

In addition, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that a judge can award half of a spouse’s retirement funds to the other spouse under the “community property” umbrella. Another risk is liability for medical costs, which was particularly relevant to me since my spouse did not have health insurance and had recently had some serious health problems.

Over a year after separating, we agreed to a “Stipulated Judgment”, which is a way to avoid having to go before a judge and allows spouses to agree on the financial terms of the divorce. Another complication that I encountered, however, was that he delayed the finalization of the divorce because I had moved out of state and there was a California law requiring 6 months of residence. I was essentially geographically bound until the issue was resolved.

In my situation, there were no children from the relationship, but I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to go through this ordeal with kids caught in the middle.

In order to summarize the important lessons from this series of fateful choices and actions, I will focus on elements that I hope will be useful to others who are currently in a relationship or will be in the future.

-Don’t allow loneliness or hurt dictate your actions; address your pain in healthy ways and deal with it proactively rather than seeking relief through a relationship.

-Make no assumptions based on what a person tells you about their religious faith or their religious history. Their beliefs should manifest good “fruit” if they are backed by steady actions.

-Don’t minimize communication problems. These will not simply “go away” if they are not resolved.

-Never “defer” if you inwardly feel you are being “squelched”. Assertive is healthier than passive.

-Be aware of the ramifications of your financial union. Make sure you are aware of all your partner’s debts and financial obligations.

-Make sure your spending habits are similar. Are you frugal and your partner a big spender or vice-versa? This is a potential area for much conflict.

-As a friend once advised me, “Look not at what s/he says, but what s/he does”. Most of all, be informed before making a decision that carries as much weight (and has such powerful consequences) as marriage.

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