What is a "normal" marriage?

As a feminist and a child of an alcoholic, I'm not sure how this is supposed to work.

Published September 6, 2005 7:29PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family -- alcoholic, abusive father and passive, codependent mother -- on a farm in a very small town in the Midwest. I like to say that the '60s never happened in my hometown. While growing up, I knew that my family was not "normal" or healthy and I felt determined to escape and break the patterns I was raised in and develop my own life. I seem to remember always knowing that my family was screwed up and never imagining growing up to live the life they live.

My initial plan was to avoid the traditional family structure altogether. I went to college (the only person in my family to do so) and moved to a bigger, much more progressive city. When I dated, I mostly dated men who were clearly not marriage material. I never planned on getting married and having children. I focused on intellectual pursuits, traveled, and developed wonderful friendships. I focused on my career and became passionately involved in politics, especially issues related to gender -- violence against women, reproductive rights, etc. I gave up Catholicism shortly after going away to college, and after experimenting and learning about other religions, decided I was an atheist. I went to years of therapy and read a ton of self-help books and am feeling pretty good about myself.

After I turned 30, my priorities started to shift and my perceptions of "reality" started to change. After working in the women's movement for 10 years, I started to become disillusioned and lose my idealism. I continue to work in the field, but see it more as a job than a passion. Where I saw my mom as an innocent victim not only of my father, but of "the patriarchy" in the past, I'm now starting resent her and see her as weak. I'm still a feminist, but for the most part, feminist organizations now seem shortsighted to me and I'm not interested in taking part in the debate. I find it difficult not to see all sides of an issue and find myself at this point almost apolitical. On the career front, I always wanted to go to grad school. I applied, was easily accepted into a challenging program, but decided that I didn't want to have to take out a bunch of loans to get a job like I already have.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that maybe what I needed to do was "settle down." That maybe, in fact, I could be the type of person who gets married and has children.

So, I set out to meet a husband and, luckily for me, I have met a most wonderful man whom I truly love. He is nothing at all like my father -- in fact, he doesn't drink at all. He thinks it's stupid. He is kind and loving and sweet. He will be a wonderful father. His family life was much more "normal." Nobody abused anybody and he and his brother were supported and encouraged as children. He has a wonderful relationship with his family and I am developing a very nice relationship with them myself. We were married this summer and just moved into our new house and are talking about when we will have children. It's all really good and I feel very fortunate and approaching "normal." Which leads me to my question.

What is a "normal" marriage? (I do understand what I should be asking is "what is a healthy marriage?" but I continue to use "normal" to highlight how abnormal you feel when you are a child in an alcoholic family.) In my experience, married people abuse each other and fight and scream and drink a lot and disappoint each other. In my mind, marriage meant fights about money and constant stress and fear. In my mind, marriage meant a domineering husband and a submissive wife. Of course, I realize that that is in the past and is not what I need to have, but I'm finding it extremely difficult after all these years of being away from that, not to revert to that way of thinking. I never planned on getting married so for the most part, avoided dealing with these types of quagmires. I kept the men I dated at a distance, which was easy considering that most of them were not available. I have had a couple of very good relationships with male friends, but that's not the same.

Sometimes I find myself acting like my parents -- I say mean things knowing that they will be hurtful. My husband has a very assertive manner of communication. He's never hurtful or rude, but always speaks his mind and is confident in his opinion. While I admire that and normally communicate in the same way in professional settings and with friends, I find that it's difficult on a daily basis with my husband. Many times when we have stressful discussions, I'll say something nasty. I'm jealous of his ability to communicate. I'm afraid that I will do the wrong thing and chase him away. I'm most afraid that I will either become my dad, or worse, become my mom, in this relationship.

So, I guess that's my question: What is a good wife/partner? What is a good marriage these days? How do you interact with somebody on a daily basis and not revert to childish ways of communicating? What is a normal marriage?

Not Sure What's Normal

Dear Not Sure What's Normal,

First of all, it is quite normal in marriage to find yourself repeating patterns from your own family life. It is also quite normal for a child of alcoholics to wonder what is a normal marriage. Perhaps it's best to say that a normal marriage for you might be one in which you struggle frequently to feel normal. A normal marriage would be one that frequently does not feel normal.

I would venture to guess that one of your objections to marriage, as a political person, has been that marriage is not a magical fairyland that will fix all a young woman's problems, that it is, instead, a political construct that offers decidedly mixed advantages for women. Add to this the tremendous psychological hazards marriage presents to a child of a bad marriage, and it is easy to see why you have begun to question what's going on now.

So the questions we ought to ask ourselves, it seems to me, are: Is marriage the magical reunion of self with other? Is marriage magically transformative? Is it transformative at all? Does it confer on the individual any new life understanding, or any new ability to cope? What existential problems does marriage solve, and what ones does it create? Does it help or hinder our development as people?

Perhaps you have already considered these questions, and the answers led you at first to reject marriage. So what has changed, and how can you bring your questioning, skeptical self into this marriage without disrupting its foundation?

Here is what I would suggest to you. I suggest that you remind yourself of some things you already know: You have to create your marriage just as you have had to create the rest of your life.

So what has led you to confusion? Perhaps the childhood fantasy of a magically transforming marriage is so seductive that otherwise tough and rational people such as yourself occasionally get lost in it. In your case this may have come about partly as a result of political disillusionment. You have probably been wise to question some of the excesses of your political work. But political struggle is not silly; it may be prone to excesses just like any human endeavor, but it is not silly and it is not something that a child discards in favor of more adult activities. So I hope you carry into your marriage that same skepticism about social and economic conditions for women as well as a continued determination not to repeat your family's problems.

You are going to have to learn how to communicate when you are upset. You are going to have to learn lots of things you didn't learn in your own family. But if you want to stay married, I'm sure you can find the advantages as well.

You know there is no such thing as a normal marriage. I suspect what has happened is that you have allowed yourself, after many years of fighting it, to begin to feel again that intense longing for an understandable world that is the peculiar fate of the child of the alcoholic. It is always there, but sometimes we can keep it at bay for a long time by avoiding certain social arrangements, primarily marriage and family, that seem to spark it. As long as we stick to political work and the academy, relying on reason and emotion directed toward intellectual and political matters, sometimes we find we can function fairly well.

But there is always and forever that longing, isn't there, for the imagined comfort of a normal home, a home in which one instinctively knows what is the proper thing to do, in which harmony reigns unspoken, a "Father Knows Best" home where dinner is served every day at 6 and the lawn is mowed on Saturdays and Sunday we go to church just like everyone on our block. Who does not harbor that secret dream -- perhaps only those whose childhood was not rattled and insecure? And what do we do, those of us whose childhoods were a bit rattled and insecure? Without denigrating political activity, I would suggest that for some of us it is a retreat into reasoned anger, a shelter for our denial of the original hurt, where we do not have to listen to that childish longing because we are busy changing the world and everyone in it.

And yet for all that it is still there, that voice still calling to us: I want shelter! I want comfort! I want to know what is normal!

So I say: Embrace that longing! Do you need comfort and serenity and order? Create that in your home! But do it consciously. Recognize that what you need, when you feel that crazy uneasy feeling that you don't belong, or you feel suddenly that you do not know this man you have married, recognize in this moment that you need something, something perhaps that he can't give you, and seek it out. Take responsibility for your own life! For that is the most insidious offer of marriage, I think: That we can finally lay down the existential burden.

Sorry, not in the contract. Read the fine print. You're still on your own. You're still alone in the world. It's still up to you. You were right the first time. Marriage is not a preexisting category of existence into which you enter. Marriage is something you create, as you have created the rest of your life.

Marriage will not fix you. But you can fix marriage, if you're willing to work at it.

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