I’ve always been suspicious of those couples who have that parent-child thing going on. It makes me nervous when I see some old guy treating his much younger trophy wife with condescension—or when I see a spouse treat her partner like some misguided child who couldn’t possibly survive without her organizing him or her.
But there is a sense, I’ve decided, that really strong marriages often involve partners providing the kind of love and acceptance their parents weren’t willing or able to offer.
The other day, for example, I was talking with a friend about how fortunate she felt to have married a man who is unfailingly supportive and loving. “It’s like I married the opposite of my father,” she said. “I loved my dad, but he was incredibly self-centered and narcissistic. And when my parents divorced just as I was starting high school, they both emotionally checked out. My sisters and I were basically on our own. It was bleak.”
Having gone through some bleak times in my own childhood, I could relate. I really loved my dad, but he too was not what you’d call an emotionally available guy. Hell, he didn’t even like children. And with a mentally ill mom who was institutionalized for the first ten years of my life, things at home were not exactly warm and fuzzy.
Life vastly improved when I was twelve and acquired my stepmom. As I’ve often said, she was the first parent I’d had who wanted the job, and I adored her. Still do. But even she had very definite ideas about how I should think, feel, and behave. In my family, acceptance tended to be conditional on how well you played your part.
So, when I married my husband, it was an astonishing experience to feel it was okay to be me and not edit out all my unacceptable parts. This has been a transformative gift in my life.
A really nice thing is that I feel I’ve been able to reciprocate and give my husband the loving support and encouragement he missed out on. Despite not enjoying children, his mom had four of them. As for his dad, he treated my husband like a great disappointment for preferring music and the arts to calculus and engineering.
My husband and I are both flawed, eccentric people with tons of foibles. But we’re also pretty damned nice, and my husband is hilarious. He makes me laugh every day. I adore him, and he feels the same way about me.
In a way, I think we have done a fairly bang up job of re-parenting one another, of binding up all those vulnerable places.
Viva unconditional love!