By Esther Mann, LCSW
I broke up with the guy I was dating a while back, and I’ve had some trouble getting back into the swing of things. I’m in my twenties—so, sure, I still have time, as they say. But I’d like to sort out my feelings of discomfort so it won’t hinder my ability to move forward and get married one day, iy’H.
In the relationship, I had found myself hiding points of who I am in order to make the relationship work. Or trying to be someone I just wasn’t, again, to make it work. I realize why we didn’t work, and I don’t wish to go back to that relationship, nor one similar to it. Over time, I have gained more self-confidence, b’H, and I have been able to acknowledge myself as an individual, rather than a person who is a someone because of someone else.
I’m afraid that marriage will cause me to lose that. I want to be able to be “me” a little longer, before marriage, kids, etc., take over all that. Marriage isn’t freedom, although it’s not quite slavery either. I need advice as to how to adjust my mental framework of marriage so marriage is seen as a place of constructive growth (as we’ve always been told in seminary), rather than simply a loss of self.
My first reaction to your letter is curiosity as to why you feel, on a deep personal level, that marriage will be the end of your sense of self. That you will somehow have to give up your ability and personal choice to exist as an individual with separate thoughts and identity from whomever you eventually marry. Perhaps you’ve been exposed to such a marriage either by observing your parents or maybe you have certain friends or relatives that have become role models for you—unfortunately, not the good kind. Wherever you’ve picked up this notion, it’s time to put it down. Though some marriages may look that way from the outside and some marriages are that way on the inside, it’s definitely not what marriage should look like or feel like.
When people talk about getting married so that their spouse can “complete them,” I always get a little nervous. Yes, we want our spouses to inspire us toward healthy growth and to support us. Marrying someone who can teach us things that we haven’t as yet figured out, or encourage us to continuously evolve into the best we can be, is a fantastic thing. However, the most successful marriages are usually those that exist between two people who are already complete unto themselves in the most fundamental areas. With age and experience, we hopefully are always tweaking ourselves in order to progress to higher levels. But from the start, it’s important for each person to know who he or she is unto themselves, separate from the “other,” so that their true identity can remain intact and authentic. Bringing out the best in one another is ideal. But no one should feel forced to surrender their true essence in order to get married, or feel so insecure about themselves that they believe if the person they are dating knew the real “you” it would get in the way of building a relationship. It’s just not the way a good marriage should start out.
Though you’ve gained some confidence through your recent relationships, you still don’t sound convinced that you are totally lovable just the way you are. And you still believe that in order to make a relationship work, you have to comply with the checklist of the person you are dating. If you find yourself twisting yourself into a pretzel to impress your date, something is very, very wrong. This is clearly not the person you should be dating. Ultimately, there is someone out there who would cherish you just the way you are. As they say, “there is a lid for every pot.” Clearly you are not meeting or going out with the right men.
Which brings me to the following question: Why are you being set up with the type of guy who doesn’t appreciate you for who you truly are? Have you been feeding family, friends, and/or shadchans the wrong information about yourself? Are you describing a young woman who you believe is more marketable than you but doesn’t resemble the true you? I think you have to look very closely at the messages you are putting out there and decide whether they are honest or whether they mask some hidden agenda or insecurity. So many young women (and men) are fed a list of ideals that sound great on paper. Not everyone fits the bill to a tee, and that has to be OK also. None of us are perfect, and sometimes it’s our imperfections that others find charming and lovable. It’s what makes us human.
You mentioned that marriage isn’t “freedom.” Certainly the freedom a single woman has does not mirror the life of a married woman, especially one with children. You are no longer accountable to only yourself. Your responsibilities grow significantly and sometimes it feels like everyone else’s needs suddenly become more important than your own. If that’s what you are referring to when you talk about “freedom,” then you are absolutely correct. But try not to confuse this concept with the freedom to still think the way you’ve always thought, to still feel passionately about the things you’ve always felt passionately about, and freedom to be you. Regarding the concrete task of doing for others and putting others’ needs before your own, I think most happily married women would agree it’s a small price to pay for a happy marriage.
I’m hoping that you can now see that marriage does not have to be a place where one is forced to conform to the other in every important area. That way of thinking would be scary for just about anyone. Rather, it’s about two individuals coming together with enough shared beliefs and mutual life goals so that there is a healthy foundation in place. But there still needs to be space left over to accommodate differences in opinions and attitudes. And those differences could and often do galvanize each individual to work toward being the best they can possibly be.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.