Brett and I are high school sweethearts. We started dating just after we turned 17. Seventeen-year-old-me bleached my long hair blonde, loved schoolwork, and could hardly get out a sentence due to being painfully shy. Seventeen-year-old Brett loved making friends more than doing his homework, straightened his hair, and played bass guitar. He found me interesting and crossed the divide of social circles to chat with me. Despite his genuine kindness, the feelings I began to develop for him scared me and I pretended I didn't like him for as long as I could. Thankfully, that didn't deter him and he worked really hard to earn my trust so he could have a friendship with me and, eventually, we started dating. Eight years ago this coming Valentine's Day, Brett got a ride (cause we were babies and still in drivers-ed) to the Starbucks I had a part-time job at and presented me with a handmade card, a burnt CD, a homemade meal, and a Starbucks drink from another location that said "Will you be my Valentine?" on it. We've been together ever since. Three years later, Brett proposed to me. We had our reception in Assiniboine Park and our first dance as husband and wife to "You and Me" by Dave Matthews Band.
And that's it. Happily ever after. The end. Pure bliss.
That's what we thought, at least. We thought if you did the things you're supposed to do in a relationship, then everything would be perfect forever. As though, marriage success could be boiled down to some kind of formula and the equation mostly involved focusing your attention on the other person instead of your self. And we really, really, wanted everything to be perfect forever, so we stuck to the formula.
Being the perfectionists we are, we took on this challenge with determination and worked really hard to make sure we were doing everything right. Weekly date nights, set chores, and flowers once a month. I obsessed over what I thought the Brett wanted and needed. On top of our lofty marriage goals, we are both extremely ambitious and career-oriented, so we quickly immersed ourselves in responsibility. After three and a half years of marriage, we'd moved three times, managed a 60 suite apartment building together, opened a business, had a child, and acquired a second dog on top of the one I already had. We had no chill.
We opened our business and had a baby within the same week. The timing was terrible, but we're alive to tell the tale. Aside from the obvious mental and physical exhaustion that all entrepreneurship and parenthood bring, this new season also came with a unique set of challenges. Brett and I felt extremely out of sync with each other and were causing each other deep frustration. The worst part was, we couldn't figure out why. The formula we ambitiously followed was no longer producing the same results. We tried going on dates, doing nice things for each other, and spending time talking. Nothing worked. I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. So, why were we so unhappy together?
I figured it was due to our life being busy and stressful, so I began to make large compromises hoping it would make things easier for everyone. I worked harder. At this point, I was staying home with Emelyn and looking after the household duties, but I was also working forty hours a week. We had delegated responsibilities by default (and the fact that I was breastfeeding our baby) and didn't take the time to actually figure out what worked for us. I didn't realize how crazy this was because I sincerely believed that when the going gets rough, you just give more and you'll get through it. After six months, I just couldn't do it anymore. I was so physically and mentally exhausted by playing two roles for our family simultaneously, plus I felt cooped up and wanted to be at work so badly. So, we found childcare and I took on freelance clients to pay for the new costs. It felt excruciatingly selfish in the beginning. Leaving Emelyn with someone else. Taking work hours away from Brett so that I could work and, sometimes not even on paid work, just to write fiction. Plus, I was worried that it would add to the tension building between the two of us.
With time, I stopped feeling guilty for things that Brett would never be expected to feel guilty for and we equally shared the load of caring for our daughter and the house. I put equal value on my own work and interests. I started writing again. Reading again. I started feeling more myself. Less claustrophobic. When everything had settled into a new normal, I realized I wasn't the only one who was happier. Brett and Emelyn were happier, too.
Had I just solved a marriage problem with selfishness?
With my newfound space, I began to do some major soul-searching (that seems to be one of the side effects of becoming a parent) and, through that, I quickly discovered that I didn't know who I was apart from Brett, Emelyn, and the business. In the first three and a half years of our marriage, life had brought an avalanche of events and I had let myself get buried somewhere under all of it. I felt blurred at the edges. Wife. Mother. Business-owner. Who is Meghan? When I tried to reflect on who I was before baby, business, and, even Brett, I had to think way back to an unfamiliar 16 year old version of myself. I realized I had some work to do to figure out who I was apart from the roles I played.
In talking with Brett about all of this, the two of us realized, for the first time, that we skipped the stage that most people take in their 20s to enjoy their freedoms and figure themselves out, whether it be dancing on Saturday night or taking a trip overseas. The things we did do during our unconventional early 20s, we did together. The beautiful part is that I grew into who I am with Brett at my side through every bad haircut and exciting milestone. I was the first person he took for a drive when he got his license. I helped him move out of his mom's house. I picked him up when he got his wisdom teeth out and he did the same for me. We're both the oldest of our siblings and have attended all six of their high school graduations together. We have shared memories of a car accident that could have killed us, a one room basement suite, being students and working side jobs to pay our bills, family vacations, becoming parents, countless trips to Rona while building our business. We remember every awkward and/or wonderful phase and curiosity that the other person has had. I am bonded to Brett in a way that I don't know I'll ever be able to put into words. He is my dearest friend and the love of my life.
The challenge that comes with this is our identities had become intertwined and our frustration indicated it was time to untangle ourselves. To do that, we would both have to be selfish. It took me awhile to wrap my head around it, but, I remembered how happy it had made all of us when I took a leap and prioritized my work. We agreed that no degree of selflessness would fix what we were dealing with. Instead of sacrificing and striving to love each other, we needed to take a break to look after ourselves. This required both of us to let go of control of the relationship and each other. And the unknown made this hard.
What if we discovered that the 25-year old versions of ourselves were too different from the 17-year old versions of ourselves? What if we really had been too young when we got married? What if our relationship was actually based around our kid and our work? What if I stopped doing all these things for Brett and he didn't love me the same way?
Despite the fears, we knew that giving each other permission to answer all of those questions would be important and healthy. With that, we began a really important process. One that required some solitude at the start. So, we started by agreeing to not talk for a week. We didn't tell anyone about our little exercise; we just planned our calendar in a way so that we wouldn't run into each other at work or home. I had space to navigate my day to day without always finishing my thoughts with, 'I wonder what Brett needs.' It made it easier to see what I needed. Plus, the free time was good for journalling and reflection.
We went for dinner at the end of the week and both of us were buzzing with newfound energy. I had a clear head and a long list of reasons I was grateful for Brett. For the role he played in my life just by being himself. But also, a list of things I knew I brought to the relationship by staying true to myself. Being a wife doesn't require me to play a supporting role to Brett. I can be my own person even though I've chosen to intertwine my life with his. I didn't need to lay down my life to be a positive addition to his. Or anyone's, for that matter. I could just be myself. That was enough. I am enough.
That dinner date was the first of many conversations, small and large liberations, and changes to our habits. It spurred everything from me spontaneously getting a pixie cut to making some pretty major changes to where I see myself in five years. Making choices for myself, not just us, and allowing myself to take up space, not just being considerate of who and what was around me, was the best thing I've ever done for myself and my marriage.
The fact that we were able to grow together, even though it required letting go of all expectations on who we thought the other person was and how our relationship worked, instilled a whole new confidence in the longevity of our relationship. Brett doesn't need me to be a certain way or fulfill a specific role in his life. I can pursue my interests. I can grow, change, and shed skins without intimidating him. In fact, he finds it fascinating. That's how I feel about him, too.
I gave up on the formula we clung to in our early years of marriage. I gave up on the idea that marriage only works if you're giving everything you've got to the other person. I can see now that generosity and selflessness are important, but not the foundation. I bring the person that I am to our marriage, more than I bring helpful actions. And, as the person that I am continually evolves, Brett will be there at my side. We'll keep going through this "series of deaths and rebirths" together until we're old and wrinkly and don't recognize the 40-year-old versions of ourselves, much less the 17-year-old ones.
So, happily ever after? Bliss? The end?
If that happened, I'd be worried that one of us was compromising too much. Or that neither of us were growing.
All I know is this:
"Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings- all in the same relationship."
(Clarissa Pinkola Estes)
Meghan Zahari is a donut shop owner by day and a writer by night. In between, she does photography and social media accounts for other businesses. Motherhood and emotions are a 24/7 gig. She lives with her husband, Brett, daughter, Emelyn, and cousin, Laura. (Plus, a pug and a puggle.) It’s a full life with a full house, so her introverted soul seeks refuge by hiding away with a book or watching Buffy or Grey’s.