“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” -C.S. Lewis
Another powerful way to ground the idea of holding on and letting go in our intimate relationships is to reflect on our memory. The things that we choose to remember about the people we love, as well as what we forget is literally the road to forgiveness or ruin. Today I am celebrating my 32nd wedding anniversary with my husband, Franc. It’s strange that the longer we have been together, the more that people will often attribute our longevity together to luck. How does that old saying go? The harder we work, the luckier we seem…. While I do feel blessed to have built the life and family we have created together, people who know us well would say that it was the relentless effort we dedicated to staying together that made us look lucky.
The most meaningful part of that effort for me has been in the conscious shaping of my memory. Shaping our memories begins with selecting our thoughts. I learned early that I had to vigilantly focus my attention on the expressions of love that presented themselves instead of the ones that I wished for or imagined. So creating memories happened easily around small gestures, like the late night or early morning moments when one of us gave more than we had and said yes when we wanted to say no. These were the small bricks that built the sense of home in which we grew our family. Although it was never easy, it brought a lot of rewards to focus on what was working even if it didn’t have the soft emotional connection I craved.
And yet, this trained attention to what worked, did not entirely avert my eyes from all the many places where my marriage was painfully disconnected and lonely. The enforced forgetting that I practiced alongside my selective memory was more challenging to maintain because it required me to disengage with and, in a sense, not believe my own emotional experience. For all the ways that my husband showed up, his inability to participate with the daily activities in the family or, worse still, his disinterest in me and what I did was a continuous isolating contradiction that made my selective memory feel hollow. What I remember most about trying to forget about the emotional distance that took hold between us were the mental gymnastics I would go through to accept life as it was.
All that enforced forgetting is catching up to me. When I look back at my life, all of my work at Good Clean Love and the community activities I created over the years, it is clear how all of those efforts were part of the same intent- to help me forget. All of the positivity work- the club, the kitchen and the courtyard were ways for me to build a sense of community and connection that I longed for in my intimate relationships but couldn’t find a way into. Getting busy has always been my go-to solution and it kept me from remembering what was missing for me at home. All of the passion that I brought to the work that has evolved in Good Clean Love, has been seeking the same resolution.
For most of those thirty years, each time I couldn’t succeed in forgetting and suppressing my feelings of estrangement, the arguments turned personal and ugly. He became more defended about all the ways he overextended himself to meet the many challenges of our busy life and I was left in my loneliness, blaming myself for my inability to fill up my own emptiness. It was a lose–lose argument that shook the family. There seemed to be no way through besides the forgetting.
Yet, now that our nest is empty, this never quite forgotten place is visible in a new light. All of the hard edges between us, my longing remains unanswered, and his defensiveness has evolved into something that is consuming the relationship from the inside. There is no forgetting of our emotional truth. What we ignore in favor of what we want to remember becomes the shadow, with the same power, maybe more, of what we have focused the light on. All these years we have built our love, by looking outward in the same direction and deliberately remembering all the ways that our efforts have worked, marveling at our children’s successes, holding onto the real efforts of love that come from staying with our promises. And none of that remembering is less true for what we have tried to forget.
But here at year 32, I can testify that there is no true letting go that comes from contrived forgetting. Letting go is only real when it is connected to what we hold, not what we force ourselves to not look at. The grace of forgiveness cannot be received into an emotional experience that is not allowed to be felt, to be held. I have long said that we don’t get to choose the love that comes to us, we only get to choose whether to accept it or not. But even in accepting love as it is, we also have to accept ourselves as we are. We have to remember the parts of the love that are broken, as well or, maybe even more than the parts that are beautiful, if we ever have any chance to truly let them go.
My marriage is on a new path. Instead of looking outward in the same direction, we are now having to look inward to the space that has filled between us with all that we tried to forget. But this time, bringing our attention to what has come to overshadow much of the loving work we have accomplished together, it is without the drama, gone is all the personal sting of blame and guilt that only made it worse. Dismantling the defenses that he has relied on to feel safe is very similar to my work of patching the inner leaks that keep me feeling perpetually empty. It is painful work, but there is no forgetting it. Onward to a whole new kind of remembering.