Connecting: Confused

Carol has been reflecting on the relationships that have shaped her life.

November 10, 2021

[Recently, Carol has been reflecting on the relationships that have shaped her life from decade to decade. Among other insights, she has seen examples of how extraordinary relationships can be undermined by our ordinary, habitual responses.]

Ordinary or Extraordinary?

The phone rang. My son’s name appeared in the caller ID. “Dad had a terrible accident. He’s being flown by helicopter to the University of Maryland hospital trauma center in Baltimore.” I felt a jolt in my core. “Mark might die,” I thought. Immediately I was in tears. Never mind that Mark and I had been divorced for over 20 years.

Mark and I met in 1970 when I was almost 22 and he was 32. He was established in his career and had definite ideas about everything. He had a distinctive personal style (picture cowboy boots and hat, silver and turquoise jewelry, and bolo ties,) and he decorated his home with vivid Navajo rugs and gleaming ebony Santa Clara pottery. It was all eye-popping, like nothing I had ever seen. 

By contrast, I was a wilting Flower Child aspiring to be an adult, with no plan or guide or mentor to give me a direction, and virtually no known opinions of my own. 

Mark was working in government to make the world a more just place.  He had served as the first Executive Director of Kentucky’s brand new Office of Civil Rights in the 1960’s. His job was so controversial that he needed bodyguards as he traveled around the state meeting with civil rights activists in churches. I was in awe of his courage and commitment.

By contrast, I had a still-wet Bachelor’s Degree in music from a small Catholic women’s college in New York. I had worked as a waitress in Michel’s French Bistro, given a few piano lessons, and worked in a government contractor’s office as a typist, where I was fired for revising the badly written material I was supposed to type. 

Mark became my mentor and promoter. He didn’t let me get discouraged by the gender-based discrimination I encountered. After we married in 1970, he encouraged me to enroll in The George Washington University Law School, in the small but growing minority of students who were female. Mark took my success in law school and in landing a good job in stride, as if my accomplishments were nothing more than he expected. My confusion began when I brought home a rave performance review from the law firm. “That and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee” was all he said. Whoa. Why wasn’t he happy for me, and proud? I felt undermined and diminished, but I didn’t say it. 

When my salary climbed above his, he slammed his hand down on the table hard, and shouted “Now you ARE better than me.” I never had a thought even remotely like that. I didn’t understand why he felt that way. And I didn’t ask.

I tried hard to be what Mark wanted. He wanted to commute by bicycle, so I pedaled behind him on our daily 10 mile commute downtown. (“Does she ever ride in front?” called out a regular witness to our commute.) I swung the hoe down rows of beans, okra, corn, and tomatoes in Mark’s organic garden. I chopped and carried wood, tended the wood stove that attempted to heat our house, hoisted backpacks up trails in Colorado and Montana, and paddled Mark’s canoe in heavy weather on Georgian Bay like my life depended on it. I was determined not to let him see any weakness.

Memories of incredible beauty and delight still take my breath away: brilliant night skies in wilderness areas; the surge of strength as I pushed up a mountain in hiking boots or on my bike; the taste of Rainbow, Brook and Brown Trout pulled from a cold mountain stream and cooked over a camp fire; and the delights of steaming hot coffee delivered to my cozy sleeping bag in our pop-up tent, sweet corn picked just minutes before dropping into the boiling water, or roasted over a fire in a Delaware sand dune. With Mark I encountered the world in new ways.

In 1976, I got pregnant.  Pregnancy didn’t buy me any dispensation, until I couldn’t reach over my belly to grasp the handlebars on my bike. 

The birth of our son, Andrei, changed everything. When my baby studied my face with his unblinking, adoring eyes as he nursed, I felt uncomplicated and total love. Instantly I had a first priority that eclipsed every other demand in my life. Mark stayed busy outside, leaving me inside, with the baby. We each had no clue what the other was feeling or that there might be another way to live.

Five years later, Mark was surprised when I told him I wanted to leave him. I was stunned to hear him tell our mediator that “I just love the way she walks.” Who knew? He hadn’t told me.

As the movers loaded the van, I sobbed into my brother’s shoulder: “How can you love somebody so much, and not be able to live with him?” 

Our separate lives evolved in different ways, yet, sharing custody of our son, we never cut our ties completely. Our marriage came apart in 1982, but that couldn’t erase the years when we wove together the fabric of our lives, weaving that couldn’t be undone.

When I got that phone call about Mark’s accident in 2004, I was shocked at how much emotion I felt. While Mark was in hospitals for six weeks, I took the opportunity to acknowledge him for how he had contributed to my life and shaped the person I had become. I made sure he heard how deeply grateful I am. 

Looking back now, after years 18 exploring relationship with my husband, Paul, and almost as long with Sandy and Lon in RelationshipByDesign, I am struck by how completely ordinary were the ways Mark and I related to each other. Share our feelings? Ask how the other felt? Make decisions together? Not much. Share our fears, or dream dreams together? Hardly ever. Many times what we didn’t say or didn’t even realize led us away from the experience of loving and being loved. The unravelling of our marriage was so very ordinary, even though, for a time, we had a wonderful life together.

~ Carol

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