The five little words that keep my marriage healthy when my parents' was toxic

Mar 22, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. ET
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From a very early age, I had a certain vision of marriage, a vision tainted by the examples of my adult family members. Even the happiest marriages were the result of a second, third or fourth attempt at matrimony. My own parents, my biological mother and stepfather, each had previous marriages under their belts before they met at a young age. At their happiest, they were a pair of good friends, and at their worst, bitter adversaries drawing lines and claiming territory.

My mother always made it clear I should find a spouse who could support me financially. This was more important to her than my being in love. Romance was never a part of her real life; she preferred to get it from the movie theater or television in small doses. Emotional vulnerability was equal to weakness in my mother’s eyes, and marriage was viewed as a business relationship instead of an everlasting love connection. On more than one occasion, even after I met my husband, my mother would suggest I marry random people she thought could give me the life she saw fit for me.

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There were a lot of elements to my parents' toxic relationship: his alcoholism, her borderline personality disorder. Their shared lack of anger management and continued misery only escalated over time. Without acknowledgment of their core problems, growth as a family remained impossible. What I realized early on was that if I ever were to marry, I would only do so if I could be completely honest all of the time. When I met my husband, I felt that I could trust him implicitly, and this in itself was scary. Coming from an environment of constant distrust and being told repeatedly not to trust any man, I was predisposed to being guarded.

Money can be an especially sticky issue in a volatile situation when you find yourself having to keep things from your partner. No matter how many jobs my stepfather worked, no matter how tirelessly he labored, there was never enough for my mother. She thought her advanced degree would quickly translate into higher income, and was more than frustrated to find that it did not. Despite the fact that they each made a decent salary at one point, they never attempted to agree on a budget (at least not for more than a few days); that mixed with their own individual secret behaviors did not equal a financially secure situation.

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Because of this, my mother often leaned on me for money. This wasn’t as big of an issue when I was single and making a salary, but I was a full-time student at the beginning of my marriage. Her requests for financial help were met with a no for the first time, and she blamed my husband. She told me that it was none of my husband’s business, and I could give money to whomever I wanted. This caused the first heated discussion between my husband and me, the first of a series of brutally honest conversations.

The crux of these conversations, and what was most difficult for me to comprehend, was that my husband was my family now. He told me the only way we could move forward as a married couple was to avoid letting my parents over-reach and poison our progress. It was easier for him, because his own parents respected our new life together, while my own shamed me for ignoring their needs. Over time (and with a lot of practice), my husband showed me how to put my needs first without feeling guilty about the possible outcome.

“It’s us against the world.”

Those words may seem simple, but they are what has kept us together.