I’m glad I didn’t marry my ‘soul mate’

Serious business.
Serious business.

Today my husband and I are celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary. And as much as I love to celebrate and love to love, I also love to remind people that choosing a marriage partner is serious business. Sure, it involves those butterflies and fireworks, but it also involves solid doses of reality.

Here’s one: finding your soul mate is not a prerequisite for marriage. Sometimes, even, that person who feels like your “soul mate” may end up not being a good partner for you.

I love this reminder from a psychology professor at my alma mater: “Stop looking for a soul mate.” Scott Braithwaite said that when you have the idea that your soul mate is out there somewhere, and if you feel you’ve found him, you may think that the marriage relationship will be easy. Or later on when marriage does get hard (which it will), you may feel you made a mistake and thought you’d found your soul mate but didn’t. What happens then? Either looking outside the marriage for the “real” soul mate or ending the marriage to do so.

Back in my teen years and early 20s, I dated a lot. I had fun with plenty of young men. I had several serious relationships. I thought a couple might lead to marriage. They didn’t. I could even say that I probably had kind of the notion that one of those was my “soul mate.” We were a lot alike, were best friends, and had that “connection.” But it didn’t work out. While I mourned the loss of the friendship for a long time, I came to realize I was blessed not to end up marrying that person. In fact, one quality lacking in that person was something that I realized was important to me, and when I was dating my now-husband, he showed he had it.

Honestly, my husband and I don’t have what I would call a “great love story,” one that seemed fated, or meant to be, or in the stars. I probably was “crazier” about some other guys. I don’t think of him as “my best friend.” He’s not my soul mate. And that is OK. More than OK. It’s a good thing. I chose him. I chose him because of the qualities he exhibited, his dedication to me, his desire to be a good husband, his desire to be a father. He put me first. That he made me grin, was an easygoing complement to my type-A personality whom everyone can’t help but like, was a great dancer, was a great kisser… well, all those were icing on the cake.

Today, 22 years later, I am so grateful that I chose him. He wasn’t just “meant for me.” Our love story wasn’t out of our hands. It has been completely in our hands: we have written it together over all this time. We made three gorgeous babies and adopted another adorable one. We’ve moved, traveled, made friends, experienced life together, laughed, cried, supported each other. This year is particularly sweet because we got to see our oldest make her own choice of a fine husband. Today, I celebrate making a fabulous choice.

How much of life do we ‘sign up for’?

It’s difficult for me as a mother, period, and as a fellow mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, to read the words of Hallie Levine, who says she would have aborted her daughter during her pregnancy if she’d had the diagnosis then. Sure, she says now she’s grateful she didn’t, but she asserts she should have been able to and that others should be able to do so as well. Aside from all my other feelings on the subject (and I have many), I’m going to focus on one phrase she used: “I never signed up for this.”

Having heard a man whose wife is now paralyzed from the midsection down say the same thing in regards to being married, and other people in tough situations make the same remark, it strikes me that we live in a society where we really feel we should only face things we’ve agreed to. We’re so focused on freedom of choice, on contracts, on knowing so much about outcomes and possibilities, that we feel we can and do control our lives.

Assuming some equal opportunity (and that’s a topic for another blog post as well), let’s say we all get to choose the level of education we attain and what we study. We get to choose our line of work. We choose our marriage partner, if we marry. We choose how many children we have and how to raise them. We plan for and choose when to retire, and what to do in retirement.

We “sign up for” these things. We sign on the dotted line for many of them. Life is a series of contracts that we choose to accept or deny. And we’ve written escape clauses into the contracts. Many of us spend years choosing whom to marry, and when to do it, but even a few years into the contractual relationship, divorce is readily available to let us out of that signup. Pregnancy? We can avert it with birth control, we can terminate with abortion.

But how about we step back a moment and consider that life is not really within our control. It’s not just one contract after another. And when events in our era are finalized in this manner, stamped with a legal seal of approval, they often get boiled down to simple terms that don’t fully encapsulate the “real deal.”

Life is messy. It’s complicated. It involves all kinds of unpleasant surprises that we tend to think of as happening to “other people.” Even aging and death seem distant to us today, that somehow they’ll never happen to us. But they do. And the older we get, the more we experience, the more we realize that death will happen. Aging will happen. We’ll get sick, we’ll be limited in some way physically. These same things will happen to our spouses, and eventually our children.

Levine says she wouldn’t want to see someone else “forced into” her situation. But simply being alive forces us into all kinds of situations we’d rather ignore or pretend don’t exist or won’t happen to us. Choosing to get married leads us down a path in which we may very well have to care for a spouse who becomes disabled physically or loses his memory, among a host of other scary possibilities. Choosing to have children leads us down a path in which we may care for a child with a physical or intellectual disability or mental illness or any number of possibilities we never envisioned for ourselves. But those paths are real.

I don’t deny that it can be overwhelming at times to parent a child with Down syndrome. That’s just one of those “scary possibilities” I know firsthand about. I grieved for a few days when I received the results of my amniocentesis. It was an experience I didn’t count on. It was a loss, the loss of a “typical” child-rearing experience I had counted on. But life presented me this path, and I’m on it.

I don’t have any idea what other challenges lie ahead of me on life’s path, as a person, as a wife, as a mother. I won’t deny that I’ll grieve, be scared, be overwhelmed, be frustrated … any number of normal reactions. And I definitely won’t “sign up for” any of these challenges. But that’s life. And we’re all in it together. We can’t (and, yes, while many disagree with me, I heartily say “shouldn’t” when it comes to aborting in most cases) prevent these difficulties. We can learn from them, do our best to deal with them, and support each other through them. I hate to see others go through tough times, but I’ll eagerly “sign up” to lend a shoulder to cry on, a hand to help.

Education problems? Families are the solution

If you’ve read my blog much at all, you may have noticed that I have a few passions: I care about and advocate for mental health issues, education, and other issues related to the media (content that’s suitable for families and kids, better accountability on issues like image and portrayals of women).

In the 14 years or so I’ve had kids in school, I’ve been involved in different aspects of education. At times, I’ve attended school board meetings and advisory meetings; at other times, I’ve been involved with specific organizations like the band boosters. I’ve always gone to my kids’ parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights and open houses and so on. I’ve helped out in classes sometimes and gone to activities. In all this time, I’ve observed all kinds of problems, some of which I’ve written about.

But in all I’ve done to participate, read, ask questions, and educate myself about education in the United States today, I’ve realized one thing underlies most of the problems and concerns: families aren’t playing the role they should in the development of children and their overall education.

I’ll say that again: Taken on the whole, families (i.e. parents) in this country aren’t teaching, supporting, and nurturing their kids. Why? Lots of reasons. But to be brief and try to get at a core issue, families simply aren’t “whole” anymore. I read a great overview of how there is no “average American family” anymore and it provides a few revealing statistics, taken from a new book: “Take 100 children who are representative of American life, … and 22 live in families where mom stays home and dad earns the income — the ‘typical’ family experience of 65 percent of kids in the 1950s. Another 23 live with a single mother; it’s a 50-50 proposition whether that single mom was ever married. Seven live with a cohabiting single parent and three each are being raised by a single dad or grandparent.”

If many kids are living with just one parent, and that parent has to do the job of two parents, and is necessarily away from the home working to provide for the family, it follows that those kids won’t have the level of involvement in their day-to-day lives and school lives as a household in which there are two parents. And in those households in which both parents are working (because that’s their choice or because of economic necessity), kids will have more involvement in their lives than the families with one parent around, but they simply won’t have the time dedicated to them that a family has with two parents with only one parent working outside the home. I’m not casting blame here at all; I’m simply looking at the realities of time constraints and what kind of actual QUANTITY time kids have with parents, as opposed to the oft-talked-about “quality” time.

The reality is that quality is great, but a certain amount of quantity is vital. As a stay-at-home parent (I do editing work from home on my own schedule, which is a luxury I really appreciate), I get lots of face time with my kids, who are all in formative periods of their lives. They come home from school and have questions or comments or needs, and I’m there for them. They are lucky to have a parent there to help them with needs and to do informal teaching. Kids’ learning really happens during moments they have questions and someone can answer tailored to their interests.

So with the new reality being kids living in homes with single parents who must be absent and with two parents who are both often absent (during those crucial times of afternoon into early evening), kids aren’t getting as much time for informal learning from their parents. That learning includes all kinds of topics: building character, learning to manage finances, learning about interesting topics that schools don’t necessarily provide classes in, getting opportunities for family “field trips.”

Schools are places to learn the sciences, literature, math, writing, history, etc. I was quite good in all the school subjects when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching advanced math or sciences to my kids; I’d rather they have teachers who specialize in each subject and who are particularly adept in those to help them learn about those topics.

I guess I sound rather old-fashioned. But the reality is that it’s not the job of schools to teach character, for instance. Schools can’t take my kids on trips very often at all to learn about different areas of our state or country. Schools can’t teach faith, and they don’t often have time to focus on basic life skills that are more easily learned informally at home.

Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn't enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.
Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn’t enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.

Time in school is finite, and as I’ve observed at a variety of meetings with other parents and educators, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fit in during a school day all the core subjects, let alone other things schools are having to teach kids because their families aren’t doing it very well or at all. In our town, elementary schools focus on a different character trait every month to teach students: respect, responsibility, caring, trustworthiness, fairness, citizenship. Why? The “Character Counts” program was started to “combat youth violence, irresponsibility and dishonesty” by stressing positive character traits. This means that the community and schools were finding that kids and teens were acting badly and needed to be taught values; families weren’t doing the job.

Over the past dozen-plus years I’ve been actively participating in community education, I’ve seen all the problems that exist. I’ve also seen all the programs school systems have started or turned to to combat the problems. I’ve seen how little time and money exist for schools to be able to surmount all these issues by themselves. And the simple fact of the matter is this: no matter how much schools try to do to “raise” kids into good, contributing members of society, they simply can’t parent kids. Parents parent. And no one else can do that very challenging, intense, nonstop, VITAL job.

I’ll continue to be involved in school meetings and advisory panels and so on. I’ll continue to give ideas on how better to teach and support all kids, mine and everyone else’s. But nothing I or the schools can do will take the place of the home. The solution is to support families and homes. Our nation, our communities, absolutely must find ways to strengthen families. In the article I mentioned earlier, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says this: “Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish. Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States.”

Until we change our attitudes about marriage and family life, our children (including their education) will continue to suffer.

A wedding is a promise of best days to come

The wedding of my littlest sister gave me the opportunity to remember the start of "best days" in my life.
The wedding of my littlest sister gave me the opportunity to remember the start of “best days” in my life.

This weekend I had the privilege of witnessing a wedding. Weddings are such happy occasions, filled with love, friendship and support and the opportunity to further cement ties of various kinds. At one point after this wedding, someone commented that the day would be the “happiest day” of this young couple’s lives. I thought immediately, “You know, it is a great day, but there will be many more and even happier days to come.” I can definitely say my wedding day was not the happiest or best day of my life; it was 21 years ago, and I was 23, and I loved my husband and was excited for the day and all it meant, but I have had so many wonderful days, better days, since.

The groom in this scenario was the next-to-youngest of eight children, and his parents were blessed to have all their older children married already, and these couples were all in attendance. I’d venture to say, from my own experience, that this day may very well have been one of the best days of the groom’s parents’ lives to date, as they were able to celebrate a beautiful, meaningful occasion not just as a couple, but as a family: the family they themselves created and nurtured.

My view is that marriage isn’t just about putting a legal or cultural stamp of approval on a romantic relationship. It’s meant to be the start of a family. And my faith teaches that families are forever: that marriage is a vow between a man and a woman that can be “sealed” in the presence of God in a temple and last forever, more than just “till death do you part.” And that promise to be faithful to each other and support each other and grow together includes having children and teaching them and loving them. That big picture, the years spent growing together as a couple in love and being able to rear children, is what brings the best days of all.

I definitely appreciate the sentiment expressed by Bruce Hafen in one of his excellent books, The Broken Heart: “One new bride reportedly said to her mother on her wedding day, “Oh, Mom, I’m so happy! I’m at the end of my troubles.’ ‘Yes, dear,’ replied the wise mother, ‘but which end?'”

A wedding day may seem the culmination or the end of a courtship, the fulfillment and denouement of romantic love. But it’s really just the start of something much bigger, deeper, and wider. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful days with my love of 21 years, as well as a bunch of stinky ones. We’ve had our share of troubles and stresses and real difficulties. We’ve had our share of disagreements and I’ve had moments or even hours during which I’ve been very frustrated with him (and I’m sure he’s been in the same boat with feelings about me), to the point where I was beside myself and unsure where to go next, how to resolve our problems, how to feel less angry or disappointed. But I’ve had moments of pure contentment, absolute satisfaction, utter bliss. I’ve been satisfied that despite the difficulties, I made a good choice of spouse and that despite everything, I still just LIKE him a lot almost all of the time.

We’ve been blessed to have four daughters, three biological and one adopted. And we’ve had days and weeks of frustration in parenting, of being at wits’ end, of not knowing how to proceed with parenting challenges. As our kids have gotten older, these moments have become more frequent and intense, because they’re more and more their own people with distinct personalities and very definite plans to exert independence. They can and do make their own decisions, and it’s our job to guide them and provide meaningful consequences, discipline and teaching, combined with big doses of love and compassion. But the whole job has gotten almost exponentially harder and more challenging with each year each gets older.

At the same time, these independent people we’re rearing are also sources of immense joy and happiness. At the best of times, when everyone is getting along, when we’re just having fun, simply being ourselves together and laughing and being distinctly us, the unit that is uniquely the Marce and Cathy Lim family, it is the best of anything I’ve ever experienced. It really does feel like heaven on earth, the best version you can dream up.

Here’s why these years can contain the best days I’ve ever had: there are more of us than just the two we started out with. Our little couple expanded into a sixsome composed of some amazing people who are wonderful to be around as individuals but even better when combined. I cherish our wedding day as the start of what we have now. But it was just a seed, an embryo, of what we were meant to be and to have. And as time goes on past today, past this year, past these moments where I can enjoy other young couples’ “seed” days of weddings, our Lim tree is growing and growing. There are far more “best days” ahead, and I look forward to them with great anticipation.

Celebrate love on Valentine’s Day and every day

So it’s that time of year that happy couples generally enjoy and singles either ignore or protest. Me, I’ve been married to a pretty great man for more than 20 years, and I’m a celebratory type of person, so I embrace it.

I found myself a bit sad the other day to read a Dear Abby letter in our newspaper from a young woman who’s been with her serious boyfriend for more than 2 years and who is disappointed that he refuses to celebrate the day with her. He says that it’s a trumped-up holiday that exists solely for businesses to make money. And get this, Abby actually told her to leave him alone. She said it’s true about the origins of the holiday, and if she were being pressured to give a present, she’d feel annoyed too. What?!

Here’s my take: pretty much every holiday has become commercialized. Christmas? Hello? It’s a religious holiday that celebrates the birth of the Savior, and its date is set around a pagan holiday. And it’s the biggest merchandizing season of the year. Easter is similarly a religious holiday and has been overtaken by the bunny and baskets full of candy and other gifts. So using the excuse that a holiday’s origins and/or commercialization negates its value ain’t gonna fly.

Excuses aside, here’s what I think is the real crux of the matter: if you love someone, you will do whatever you can (within reason and whatever’s healthy) to make the other person happy. If she enjoys gifts, you’ll get her gifts on special days and even other times for no occasion whatsoever. If he just loves hugs and kisses, you’ll hug and kiss him. If she likes to be told she’s beautiful and smart, you’ll tell her that. And so on. (Just read The Five Love Languages: it’s simple and absolutely true.) You won’t begrudge her what makes her happy.

In our society today, we should celebrate happy relationships and families every chance we get. I am of the conviction that society’s success rests on the backs of successful families. Marriages that endure and are happy are the backbone of those strong families. So just give in and share the love on Valentine’s Day and every other day. It doesn’t have to be expensive, fueling the economy and those “greedy businesses.” I love to celebrate every chance I get because it just makes life sweeter. Celebration at its heart is just gratitude, and every expert says that being more grateful makes us happier.

So today, Feb. 12, as I have for the past 20 years, I celebrate the anniversary of the first kiss I shared with my husband. 21 years ago, we had a date at my apartment, just eating a meat lovers’ pizza from Pizza Hut and watching “The Princess Bride.” And every year on this date, we watch that movie and usually eat pizza. (Small wonder our family quotes so much from it. See the fun we had making mashups of PB and “Star Wars” on a previous post….)

Eat your heart out this year.
Eat your heart out this year.

If you’re in a relationship, celebrate it. Have fun. Share the love. Do something special. If you’re single, then show gratitude for the successful relationships that are in your life and help make you who you are. Don’t be a love Grinch. Let your heart grow three sizes this holiday.

Marriage is for all of us

When the “Marriage Isn’t for You” blog post by Seth Adam Smith started appearing on friends’ Facebook feeds the last week or so, I didn’t really read it, just took a quick look. It just seemed so simplistic and obvious that I thought it was kind of silly people were making a big deal out of it. Yes, marriage is about selflessness. It doesn’t work too well when two people are selfish. OK.

I suppose I’m still a little flabbergasted by how big it’s gotten. I mean, 24 million views (as of two days ago)? That’s ridiculous.

Here I am with my husband. He's often more self-sacrificing than I am, but we've taught each other.
Here I am with my husband. He’s often more self-sacrificing than I am, but we’ve taught each other.

I think what the success of this post tells us is that people in our society have lots of differing views of marriage, in addition to just wanting to clarify a couple of things in this simple post. One point is this: the post was written by a man, and as one woman wrote on Bustle, that’s kind of why it’s gotten so much attention. Women generally have been expected to be the ones to sacrifice, to give all of themselves, for their spouses and families. Men have been asked to provide. So for a man to say he needs to remember to be self-sacrificing is news (as goes the old journalism trope: it’s not news if a dog bites a man; it is news if a man bites a dog).

Another big point people are wanting to make is to clarify that we can’t do well in marriage if we ONLY focus on our spouse; we still have to do what’s important for our own well-beings. I don’t think that Smith meant to say that we shouldn’t be whole, mostly mentally sound people on our own or that we shouldn’t continue to make ourselves the best we can be as individuals; he just was making the point that in our society today, too many of us probably worry too much about ourselves without taking sufficient care to be selfless. This brings up a point I’ve thought about frequently after reading it in a book years ago: when someone is given advice, it’s tailored specifically for them and what they lack and could be totally wrong for someone else.

As an example, my parents never needed to lecture me about being more responsible. I was so overly responsible and focused on planning for the future that they had to encourage me to relax and have some fun in the moment. When I went to prom, they stood at the door and admonished, “Do NOT come home before midnight!” Now this would have been the opposite of what they would have done for my sister, who was more of a have-fun-in-the-moment kind of gal. She was better (and still is, I think) at carpe diem-ing. She’s been a good example to me in that way.

So what I am saying is that this young man needed to hear the advice his dad told him to stop with the anxiety about whether his upcoming marriage would be right for him and to consider more how he could give to his future wife. That’s what he needed to hear and it made such an impact on him that he felt the need to share it on his blog. And there are rightly going to be plenty of people who read his blog who are like him and will need that reminder; others will not need it for themselves because they are already very self-sacrificing. Those readers need a different, almost opposite, reminder that they should take time to make themselves more well-rounded, more complete, etc. And those people (or those who know and love them, it seems), who may very well be primarily female, are those who responded so strongly that Smith shouldn’t forget that point of view.

At the same time, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to read from other bloggers that marriage isn’t about family and children. One guy writing for SFGate.com said this: “Many people enter marriages without a desire to procreate and this just doesn’t hold water for the ever-growing numbers of childless by choice couples.” I can only say that I essentially consider this to be just plain sad. I am still of the belief that marriage really is about creating families, about having children and rearing them to be great people and contributing members of society. (I won’t even get into the problems that this attitude is having on society, just one of which is that countries with low birthrates are now facing serious issues with there being too many elderly and not enough young people.) Yes, I do believe that a very few people really are not cut out to be parents, it seems, but far more who choose never to have children thinking that they fall into this category very likely would be the ones shocked to find themselves enjoying, appreciating, and learning from the experience of parenthood. Through parenting, we contribute to society and we grow as people through both the challenges and the joys we experience. I am one of those who really does consider those who choose deliberately never to have children to be a bit too selfish.

So marriage is for all of us. It’s for husbands and wives, it’s for children, it’s for society. Each of us can stand to do a little better to be selfless and help others; some of us can do a little better in developing ourselves as individuals.

20 years and counting

Wedding 1

What to say about 20 years of happy married life? If it’s true that all happy families are alike, as Tolstoy put it, perhaps all happy marriages are alike and I have nothing to write about.

Perhaps I’ll write about what our marriage isn’t, to start. I hear so many people saying they are so lucky that they married their best friend. To be completely honest, I don’t know if my husband is my absolute bestie. Sure, I tell him pretty much everything, and we spend the most time together talking of anyone else in my life, but I think a couple of my female friends are still who I’d call my “best friends.”

I definitely don’t consider my husband my “soul mate.” There may very well be people out there who truly are married to their soul mates, and I guess I consider them lucky. But that’s not me.

My husband isn’t who I always dreamed of marrying, either. I didn’t picture myself with an Asian guy (I guess it never occurred to me); I suppose I assumed I’d end up with another Caucasian like myself, dirty blond, maybe, perhaps on the tall side, but not more than 6 feet. Maybe hazel or blue eyes. Nope, that didn’t happen either.

The person I did end up choosing to marry is 5-foot-8, Filipino, trim, good-looking but probably not someone who stops traffic. He has a laugh that cracks me up, and I love when he really smiles and it makes his eyes crinkle. I don’t get to catch this real smile in most photos because usually he strikes a funny pose (gah!), but when I do, I love to go back and look at the picture again and again. He has strong hands, very masculine.

I chose my husband not because I was hopelessly in love with him (though I definitely am in love with him, even 20 years later), but because I knew he would be a GOOD HUSBAND. After other dating experiences that disappointed me, I knew from dating Marce that he would do all he could to take care of me, to be kind to me, to try to do better when he did something that hurt or frustrated me. He was dedicated to being a husband, to someday being a father. He was excited for those roles. I had every confidence that he would always be there for me.

Twenty years later, I can say that I was right. He has worked hard to provide for our family, he has listened to my frustrations about all kinds of things and tried to do what he can to help, he has fully participated in taking care of our children (he changed diapers before I even did with our firstborn!).

We’ve had struggles; we’ve gone through trials. I’ve had moments, even days, where I’ve been angry at him. Our love story has sometimes been romantic enough for a movie; other times, it’s been laying low in the background as we’ve just gotten by, gotten through, raised our kids, tried to work, tried to sleep, tried to just make do. Some days I’ve disliked him a bit; most of the time, though, I’ve been reminded of just how much I do like him, for how fun he is, how laid-back, how pleasant to be around he is. He hasn’t made me laugh out loud a lot, but he’s made me smile far more times than I could possibly count. We’ve shared thoughts; we’ve completed sentences; we’ve understood each other well enough we haven’t had to say anything out loud. (At the same time, though, I’m flabbergasted by how he can somehow not hear and/or forget what I’ve told him three times or have absolutely no idea what I might like for a gift. Go figure.)

I don’t consider our married life any kind of fairy tale. Pretty much no part of our courtship was; the proposal left me wanting more (don’t get me started on that story). But we have shared a lovely 20 years and I expect many more in this life. Even better, I expect to spend eternity with him, because we believe that a marriage performed by the proper authority in our temples can truly last forever. (This short explanation from Mormon.org may be of help:)

Most people think of a marriage made in heaven as a rare occurrence in which both parties are deeply in love and highly compatible. We like to think that all our marriages are made in heaven. When a man and woman enters one of our holy temples to be married, they covenant (or promise) they will stay together forever—on earth and in heaven after they die, if they are faithful to each other and their promises to the Lord. A temple marriage doesn’t include phrases like, “Till death do you part” or “So long as you both shall live.” If we keep these promises, our children also become part of this heavenly promise—sealed to us forever. Read more about the importance of family at Mormon.org.

In short, it’s been an eventful 20 years. It’s not been easy, it hasn’t been a fairy tale; it’s been hard work. But I am grateful for every moment and for this good man who has been so good to me.

We never fully know what we’re getting into, do we?

In some of my most challenging hours, I’ve told my husband I feel it’s unfair to him he’s had to deal with me and my mental health issues. (This cuts both ways, though, since I’ve also told him during similar moments that if he thinks it’s hard to deal with me — which he’s never said but which I assume he must think, since that’s how I roll [and we know what they say about assuming] — that it’s even more difficult to be me and to deal with me because I have to be with myself 24/7. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just leave the room or the house and leave myself behind sometimes? Sigh.)

Sure, we’d talked about my issues before we married. Sure, he seemed to be OK with them. But honestly, how much experience did he really have with them? Even I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience with them — at 23, looking back, at least, I was just in the early years. Yes, I’d had some bad episodes, but in part I think I felt they were behind me because they came after some really big challenges, including a major heartbreak and beyond-disappointing treatment by the best friend I thought I’d marry. I really had no idea just how much a part of me those episodes would become, that they’d keep visiting, keep creeping down on me from the darkened attic in which I’d locked them away. But as in those gothic tales I love, the crazy wives in the attic never stay away permanently. Mine screams and yells and sometimes escapes, even setting fire to my life on occasion. No, I might lock her up again, but I can hear her every so often up there, pacing the floorboards and sometimes even moaning.

Nope, if I had no idea what I was in for, there is no way my husband did. And my heart aches for him because of that. At those times of difficulty, when I’m overtaken by darkness and crying hopeless, bitter sobs, I wish he could have a wife who’s not incapacitated for hours or a few days at a time. I just feel bad for him. He’s a great guy. He’s a great husband and has been unflaggingly supportive. I know he’s felt utterly helpless, unable to do anything for me, but he’s there, always hovering and ready to do whatever he can. I always appreciate that. Lesser mortals would have packed up and left long ago, I feel.

But it makes me realize that none of us ever has any idea what life will hold. We can make the best plans, predicated on our best educated guesses and experience, and we can move forward with certain expectations. But life always has surprises up its sleeve. At this stage of my life, I know that spouses can be unfaithful; they can leave; they can change their personalities and life goals entirely; they can even die far too young. Despite great education and job training, unemployment can strike for months, even a couple of years. Illness or disability can effectively rob someone of a functioning spouse. Things happen. And not just little things.

I had no idea what hand I’d be dealt in life when I was still growing up in my parents’ home; I still had little idea when I was a young adult. Even now, I’ve got a better idea, but I also am much more aware that plenty can life ahead of me, supposedly halfway through this mortal existence. Yeah, I wish my husband hadn’t gotten handed the mentally-ill me. But he did also get the really amazing me, who’s capable and really useful and fun and cute to boot. I’m not as thin as I’d like, but I look pretty young still and I’m attractive. Not bad, I think! 🙂 Plus, I cook, I bake, I am a great gift-giver, I’m clever and creative, I pay bills, the list goes on … I’m really handy to have around.

So life has its challenges. It delivers a lot of unpleasant surprises. That’s the case for both me and my husband. But life has also been really good to us in so many ways, and we still have each other. There are yet many good and bad surprises ahead. In some ways, I’m not really eager to find out what they are. Yep, the disturbed wife in the attic will keep re-emerging; I’ll keep locking her up. And all kinds of strange things will emerge from the closets and from behind the bushes outside, even. But I’m just going to keep going and do the best I can to handle whatever comes a-knockin’. ‘Cause that’s life. And since I’ve made it this far, I’ll just try to make it further. 

Romance: real life vs. books

Yet another day when I’ve been thinking about a topic and I end up reading something closely related. Some of the hottest books flying off shelves (or e-shelves) are romances. The latest is not just a romance; it’s erotica: the Fifty Shades of Grey books are at the top of the e-book bestseller lists and feature not just loads of sex but bondage and domination, apparently (nope, I am not going to read them).

And it would be crazy to even discuss this topic without mentioning the insanely popular Twilight saga (which, apparently, in some way is how Fifty Shades was inspired). Not erotica, at least, but heavy on the romance, lust, making-out, etc. Sure, there are action scenes dealing with the bad vampires, but it’s really about intense teen love. The very interesting series I’m reading right now, Outlander and its many sequels, is historical fiction that has lots of great characters in many settings, but the primary focus is the intense attraction between the heroine and her 18th-century husband.

I think many people concentrate on TV and movies when they consider the effects of mass media, and they are right to do so. But books can be overlooked in the kinds of effects their messages have on readers. This Deseret News article, for instance, focuses on film: romantic comedies, specifically, and how viewing them can affect real people in real relationships. I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise to anyone that relationships and love are not portrayed terribly accurately in movies, and I can say as a reader that there are plenty of books that fit that pattern as well. At least in literature, there are many more genres and many more books to choose from, and many can be found that do portray life much more realistically than film, in part just due to their length, honestly. But there are lots of books that are just print versions of rom-coms or trite romances (Nicholas Sparks, you’ve done damage in both print and celluloid!).

I’ve thought many times as I’ve read books that feature romance how so many skirt realities most of us experience. I don’t know about you all, but after 19 years of marriage, I don’t feel the same intensity of nonstop attraction to my dear husband as I did at the very beginning. In fact, I probably never felt the same way as some characters I read about. I remember reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and thinking, Good heavens! These people have sex all the time! Do they not do anything else when the husband isn’t popping off into other time periods? And as much as I am thoroughly enjoying the Outlander series, really: does anyone (or everyone) feel like having sex with their spouse all the time? I’m not saying that isn’t a great thing between husband and wife and vital to a good relationship, but it isn’t the ONLY thing or even 50 percent.

The other main issue, I think, with some of these books is that they often posit that there is one “true love” out there for everyone, that love is destined, fated, that each of us must find THE ONE, our soul mate. This can cause a number of problems; for instance: if a relationship isn’t going smoothly, then our partner must not be THE RIGHT ONE (and we ditch a perfectly good partner and move on to find that elusive person); we might be fooled by temporary chemistry that someone we are crazy about is perfect for us (and we ignore all the signs that show he or she truly may not make a good spouse); we may never find someone who fits the supposed characteristics of a soul mate and end up alone.

One of my church’s leaders, Spencer W. Kimball, said something very wise but not what anyone might consider easy or exciting or the basis of a swoon-worthy story line: “‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”

Still, it’s hard to resist the siren song of these romance stories. They just make everything seem so intense, so easy, so larger-than-life. They’re fantasy. But we like fantasy. We like to read about things that aren’t like real life. At the same time, does reading these unrealistic stories do damage to us as readers as we go about our regular lives once the book is put back on the shelf? Do we end up with unrealistic expectations from our relationships? Research seems to show that the answer is yes, at least in film. I dare say the same is true for similar messages in print.

Yep, we look lovey-dovey and dressed-up here, but this is not everyday reality. I don’t care to take a lot of pictures of me (and us) during everyday reality…

Real life is harder, messier, more boring, more frustrating, more mundane, more work. Children can bring joy to our lives, but the work and the commitment involved can easily take away from our relationship as a couple (not that this is a good thing, but it happens easily if we don’t work to stop it from happening). The pressures of just making an everyday living and going about our usual day-to-day business can strip the thrill from our relationships. And time has a way of changing how we relate to each other, mostly for good. Love is a complex, wonderful, deep, multifaceted animal, and romance is only one of those facets. Sexual attraction is just a part of the romance. Infatuation and attraction occur strongly in the early stages of a romance, and real love develops past those, even though it is still desirable and a wonderful thing to still be attracted to our spouse 50 years after those early stages. My husband can still kiss me and make my legs turn to jelly, even 19 years into our relationship. But he doesn’t do it 10 times a day, and … well, I won’t go into any more private details. I don’t always look at him and think, Kiss me! I may just think, Thank heavens he’s home. Or I wish he’d do the dishes. After he’s home, the kids are in bed, and the dishes are done, then I am more disposed to think, Man, I wish he’d kiss me and jelly-fy my legs.

I think I have appreciated Anne Tyler’s books because they feel so much more real. They’re not romances, but they are about love. I was so profoundly moved by The Amateur Marriage, for instance, for its look at a less-than-ideal or smooth relationship. I love how Tyler can just dig right into real life, excavate some broken and dirty old shards, and hold them up to the light for our inspection. Yes, we think, this is how people lived then.

I couldn’t possibly write enough here about all the truths of relationships and longtime marriages. I certainly don’t have it figured out; 19 years is just enough for me and my husband to get in and get serious and tweak some rules so they fit us better. All I know is that media don’t often enough reflect real life. And that’s too bad. The shiny, glittery stuff that’s reflected to us off of film or the pages of books is too often easier for writers to portray and more desirable for us consumers. It’s just nicer or more appealing to consume a quick, too-sweet product than one that’s more subtle and layered. We want escape, all too often, not more of reality. But reality can be wonderful; in fact, it can be much better than the intense but one-sided stuff that comes at us from various media. I thank those amazing writers who have not just transported me to intriguing new places but those who have taken me right back to where I started and made it seem new and interesting in all its reality.

A tribute to a one-in-a-million man

Since he turned 45 yesterday, I decided today would be a good day to recognize the superhuman support and love of my husband, Marce. I met him when he was 25, and in a way it doesn’t seem possible we’re in our 40s now, that nearly 20 years have gone by. I’m quite sure when he fell in love with me and decided to propose he had no idea what his married life would have in store for him.

We did have some discussion while we were dating about my mental health. I had returned from my mission, gone through the heartbreak I did with my longtime friend, and been started on lithium after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. One evening we took a drive to visit my mission president, a man I love a lot and greatly admire, and who was sensitive to my needs. He and his wife sat and chatted with me and Marce; we had only been dating about two weeks at that point, and I didn’t really expect it to get serious. My president asked about how I was doing emotionally, and I told him so far, so good. His dear wife whispered to me, “He is a good young man. Hold on to him!” (She was more right than I could possibly have known that evening.) On the drive back to school, Marce asked me, “What did he mean about taking your medicine?” That gave me the opening to just tell him everything about what I’d experienced and where I was at that point. He listened quietly as he drove, held my hand, and seemed very reassuring and nonjudgmental, which meant a lot to me.

Sometime in the few months after that, I decided to stop taking the lithium because I just didn’t feel I had bipolar (I just didn’t fit the symptoms of the “bipolar I” or the typical disorder, as I think I’ve written about already). The medication could have dangerous side effects, and I needed to have regular blood tests to make sure it wasn’t damaging my liver. I felt since I wasn’t sure about the diagnosis taking a possibly harmful medication didn’t seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, around that same time I got engaged, finished college, and started my new life, and got so busy with a new full-time job and a marriage and new place to live and everything else that I neglected to consider my mental health. If I remember correctly, I didn’t do anything about it immediately (though I know I did find a psychiatrist sometime in that next year). I also started taking birth control medicine, which is chock full of hormones, which I have also learned was probably not a great addition to the cocktail of my personal chemical makeup. Again, unfortunately, I didn’t know any of this at the time.

My sweet love on our wedding day.

What my dear groom experienced in the first year of our marriage was a number of occasions of me flying off the handle at nothing. I remember one trip on a day off to an amusement park, where I went ballistic over something someone near us did and shouted at them. I don’t remember the details, and honestly, just thinking about the idea of it anymore and writing it down mortifies me. But it’s what happened. I was a mess. On that occasion and others, Marce would just quietly try to divert my attention and take me away physically. He rarely made any comments or judgments.

The two of us have very different temperaments and backgrounds. My family was very open and didn’t hold back our opinions. We argued and yelled and were loud. His family was a strict Asian family, and the children did not talk back. There was no argument between children and parents, and yelling wasn’t tolerated. On top of those differences, I had a background in speech and some debate and a need to win. Marce played basketball and never debated. I’m sure it mattered to him if he won basketball games, but he just wasn’t (isn’t) a competitive type. Put that together, and you have no arguments, sure, because it takes two to argue. But I’ve certainly hankered for it over the years. If he had been the arguing type, we’d have had some doozies. As it was, I’ve yelled and screamed and done wacky things, and he’s listened in silence with a nearly emotionless face.

I’m not writing any of this because I’m proud of it. Very much the opposite; I’m embarrassed as all get-out. In many ways, my yelling and anger doesn’t fit with what I consider almost my “real” personality. But it’s happened, and it’s impossible to say that it’s __ percent my hormones/brain chemistry and __ percent my personality/upbringing/etc. I’ve already written about how it’s not possible to separate my “true” personality from what’s been caused by my mental disorder. I just am who I am; what I’ve done and experienced makes me who I am now. I hope that all of my flaws (chemical or not) have at least helped to turn me into a better person over the years, rather than cement me into place as a meanie.

It could be accurate to say that Marce may have needed to be more assertive or actually discuss issues with me more rather than just be silent. But that’s an issue for his blog, if he were ever to write one. What’s important and relevant is that over the course of being together for 19 years, he has never yelled at me; he has never left. He has always loved me and been supportive. I don’t think he’s judged me harshly, despite my giving him good reason to do so. He has done that from the very beginning, up until now, when we can at least put some good labels to what we experience together. Because at this point, it’s not just MY mental health issue; it’s OURS. (Although I have said at times when I’ve had the worst moments that he’s lucky he can at least go to work or somewhere else and get away from me for a while, whereas I can’t get away from myself and what’s happening in my head.) We are in this together; we’re a team. What’s his problems are mine and vice versa; what are his strengths could also be mine, and vice versa. I’ve known from fairly early in our dating days that I just felt comfortable, myself, with him, that I didn’t have to pretend to be something or someone I wasn’t. I was at ease; I felt loved. I’ve also known that we complement each other perfectly. We have truly made a great team.

Many other men may have bolted long ago from what I’ve put my husband through. But he is not other men. Sure, he has weaknesses, but he is an unconditionally loving husband who is dedicated to the institution of marriage and to me, personally. He and I believe that our marriage can last forever, and we’re working on it so we can be happy together for eternity. I now have confidence that is truly possible because I have 18 1/2 years of knowing for sure that my husband is committed to that. I am very blessed. His support has made all the difference in what have been some really challenging times. So, happy birthday, my love. I hope that my strengths and commitment to you have shown you how much I love you and appreciate all you’ve been to me.