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Just because your parents had a toxic marriage, doesn’t mean you have to

I’m not aiming for a perfect marriage — there is no such thing as a perfect marriage because there is no such thing as a perfect person. Put two imperfect people together, add a lot of bills, a couple of kids and a set of different goals and desires and you’re more or less creating a sensational mess of a stew, one in which you’re forever experimenting with different spices.

My parents’ marriage stew was heavy on the salt and pepper. They could never dilute it quite enough to just simply let it be. As a child, my earliest memories of my parents’ relationship involve my mother having more enjoyable relationships with people who weren’t my father. To say she had an active social life was an understatement. Our home was constantly filled with guests. She went out a lot. I spent many nights watching bad TV with my dad on the couch. I resented my mom for not feeling like we were enough.

In her defense, she was made to feel like her one great accomplishment in life would be to marry a man who shared her cultural and religious background. She was and still is a wickedly smart woman. Born into a different family, she would have become the attorney you desperately want fighting on your side. Instead, she and her group of friends skipped college. The early ‘70s feminist movement hadn’t penetrated into their suburban New York City neighborhood and the parents of these young women didn’t see the benefit of higher education.

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When you marry a strong woman who hasn’t been given the freedom to use her strength and intelligence in satisfying ways, it’s a lot like trying to capture a queen bee in a Mason jar — you haven’t trapped a graceful butterfly that will eventually surrender. You’ve got yourself an insect that will bang its head against the trapdoor. My mother constantly acted out and the person she was acting out against wasn’t my dad; it was her past. In my dad’s defense, how the hell do you compete with ghosts?

Instead of fighting about things like money or mean words that were passed, she’d bicker with him about painting the hallway a different shade of gold and, three gold shades later, a fourth undesirable shade provoked the kind of anger most people could only muster if their partner squandered their money. He would respond with silence and he would attack back by pulling away his affections. Days would go by where they’d sit at the kitchen table without a word passing between them. They’d focus all of their attention on what and how we were eating and were probably relieved when my older brother, a class clown, took up all of dinnertime impersonating Kermit the Frog. As a child, I couldn’t describe or analyze the agonizing ways they were flattening each other’s worlds, but it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room.

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I’m thankful to my mother for erroneously equating strength with an inability to admit her faults or apologize to my dad when she messed up… because it has taught me that the complete opposite is actually true. It isn’t easy for me to mend a problem with my husband when I know damn well I’m right about something. I just see how much time and energy is wasted when I hold a grudge or he pulls back his affection. I hate the way I feel inside and it may be purely a selfish move, but I will, more often than not, approach my husband after a fight and say, “Come on, this is dumb. Let’s drink vodka and go watch Veep.” It almost always works.

In both my parents’ defense: They separated at one point — and got back together. How many couples can say that? I’m sure their way works for them in ways I’ll never understand. But I know it won’t work for me. I’m choosing to view my parents’ marriage, warts and all, and to model only those behaviors that I think will make my family healthy and happy. I have no doubt that 20 years from now, my daughter will have more than a few gripes about her mom and dad and how we refused to sit with our pain and suffering.

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