I originally wrote this to be posted last week, but it was an incredibly difficult week, filled with so many emotions. Accepting our imperfections can be difficult but it’s an opportunity for growth if you allow it. That is the journey I choose, so here are the lessons I’m taking away from it. It’s a lengthy read; long enough to be broken into multiple posts, but it’s also thoughtful because I hope it will help someone else avoid the same mistakes and ultimately, outcome.
Alors, on y va…
Today is my birthday and Valentine’s Day; if you’re like me, it’s Singles Awareness Day. I thought it would be appropriate to continue my story by talking about some of the lessons learned in my last year of life and in particular, my marriage. Reflection with distance has given me liberation. Liberation from the negative thoughts and feelings I’ve had for so long; liberation to forgive my husband and to forgive myself.
Lesson #1: When someone shows you who they are, believe them.
On our train ride home from seeing Selma, a powerful movie recalling the time of segregation in the United States, a black man began yelling racist things at us. Although he was acting in ignorance, I am not the type of person who easily sits by while there injustice taking place before my eyes. So I said some things to him, however, my husband, didn’t move a muscle. He showed no emotion at all. Once at home, I immediately fell to the floor in tears; tears because of the terrible insults hurled at us and particularly at me because, “how could (I) sleep with the white devil, while looking like Angela Davis?” Moreover, I cried because when asked about the lack of response, my husband nonchalantly said that he didn’t catch what was happening because it was in English. Wait, what?!? We’re talking about a man who speaks English at least as well as I do, has been invited to prestigious universities that I could never realistically attend and has been living being fully fluent in English for a year; and NOW you don’t speak English?!? I trusted that explanation because I was always sensitive to the fact that English is his second language. However, it was a huge mistake on my part. That one excused incident became so many moments of being disrespected in his presence and there was never a reaction from him. I don’t need a man to literally fight for me, but at very least, show some solidarity with me. Tell me that what happened to me was unequivocally wrong. In the presence of others, don’t be afraid to speak up when you see that I’m enduring disrespect.
There was never a reaction when jokes were made at my expense about my difficulties learning, then speaking French; of course, according to him, he didn’t witness it.
Zero reaction to my hair being touched even if he was 3 feet away from me. Naturally, he was in a different conversation and didn’t witness it. How convenient. Then when it was brought to his attention, he made excuses for the offender, telling me that I was overreacting because white people are curious about hair that’s different from theirs. Newsflash:
I’m not anyone’s token black girl, here to “demystify” blackness for you and all of your melanin deficient friends.
Not one word was spoken from him when an acquaintance who was looking at my ass made me uncomfortable enough to call him out on it. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Rien; toujours rien. If I knew then what I know now, I would have never embarked on this journey with someone who lacks the ability to be supportive, the way a black American in Europe would need: in action; and that action means speaking up and speaking out; showing some solidarity. Those moments and others fostered a sense of distrust.
Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to make your expectations clearly known.
I wish I’d spent more time preemptively discussing my expectations. I should have more clearly expressed to my husband that my expectations of him as a husband had very little to do with finances. What meant so much more to me was feeling like I wasn’t alone in my experiences. It meant more to feel like he was on my team in all things, rather than against me. It meant more to me that my black experience was not reduced to his hashtagging and Facebook shares. It meant more to me that he walked that talk. However, I thought that would come naturally with marriage, which was pure naivety. I thought that he understood that part of being married. He didn’t and worse, I couldn’t figure out how to get through to him. But people aren’t mind readers and I shouldn’t have expected him to be- he’s only human after all. Moreover, I needed to lose my fear of stating exactly what I needed and wanted from a marriage before we married but, I would have run the risk of us not getting married. Never getting married to him at all would have been better than getting divorced, hands down.
Lesson #3: Any 2 people in the world can be married; they just have to want to be married to each other.
My grandfather used to say this all the time. I believe it now, more than ever. I come from a family of people who have been married forever. My parents have been married for 32 years; my grandparents were married for more than 50 years; my aunt and uncle have been married for more than 20 years. Even my younger brother has been married with children for several years and my married friends, the same. None of these examples are successful by magic.
Meanwhile, my husband did not grow up viewing marriage the way I have. I grew up seeing marriages all around me endure difficulties, both great and small. I have seen marriages that seemed as if divorce was inevitable and imminent, get back on track and become stronger than ever with time, patience and commitment. The key to all of these successful marriages is that everyone truly wanted to be married to each other and were committed to doing the work necessary to remain in them.
In hindsight, it had a profound effect on me to know that when he discussed marrying me with his mother, her response was that he should marry me and if he wasn’t happy in a year, just get a divorce. As if I weren’t changing everything in my world- ‘just get rid of her if you’re not happy’, as if it is so simple. This perfectly captured they way they think of marriage which is why I didn’t even live in Geneva for a full 2 years and he sent me packing; meanwhile, I was constantly trying to find the right balance, because I wanted to be married to him. It also always left me feeling like with her, I was dealing with a woman who thought me and my life to be disposable, leading to strange interactions at best. I don’t know what she ever said about the matter after that; she almost never spoke to me and when she did, she rarely had a kind word or encouragement to offer. As for him, I never had the courage to tell him that I felt like he had no true desire to be married and that maybe he just liked the idea of it, which left me silently questioning his intentions.
On the other hand, my mother was busy explaining to us both that the first year of marriage is extremely difficult and is only made more difficult because I moved to a new country and turned 30 and the myriad of other changes I went through in the name of being with the person I loved. In spite of my own exhaustion, my experience growing up around marriages always gave me the energy and motivation to continue working towards change because I saw that it was possible to work things out. It also fed my feelings of failure; everyone else around me seemed to make great choices in a partner, while apparently, I made the worst. As a result, I found it difficult to trust myself and my decisions.
Lesson #4: Say what you mean and mean what you say.
4 months into living in Geneva, out of fear and sadness, I told my husband I thought we should get a divorce. My grandfather, with whom I shared a very special and close connection to, had just died. Then, an aunt that I was also very close to died one week later. I had exactly 1 week in the States to deal with the heartbreak of accepting that living so far away meant that my trips home would often mean that those I love have died, without a chance to say goodbye. In losing my grandfather, I lost a massive part of my life. When I spoke with my in-laws about it, their response was, “but he was old…”, as if that was supposed to comfort me. It didn’t. It only reminded me that the way I think of relationships and loved ones was dramatically different from the way they do.
I didn’t want a divorce, but I did want my marriage to be different. And that’s exactly what I should have said, because from that moment on, nothing was the same and despite my best efforts, they certainly didn’t get better. He is the sort of man to wear every moment on his heart like a tattoo and I don’t think that bell can be unrung…for anyone. From that moment on, he went down a completely different path than I was on. While I was on a road that was hopeful, overcoming almost all of the obstacles I was facing, I faced them alone because he had shut down and shut me out in fear of me leaving. As I gained independence, he was sliding down the slippery slope towards divorce.
Perhaps the greatest problem in communicating with him, was that I was never truly able to pinpoint what I felt to communicate it appropriately. Extreme change will do that to a person because it confused everything I knew about myself as a person and my identity was lost in it all. On top of that, I was seeing a therapist who was completely unhelpful in unpacking my emotions and as a result, more harm than good was done…
I learned so much more about myself and my interactions with others in the last year; stay tuned for lessons 5-10!