In the March seminar I talked about how I married my mother. Someone who was perfectionist about the house to the point where you COULD NOT ever get it right. The story I told was that when I was 12-18, my job in the house was to clean on Saturdays. The house had to be SPOTLESS top to bottom. Had you hired a professional housecleaner to clean the house for 8 hours, it could not have been cleaner. Everything was washed, waxed, vacumned, fluffed, buffed and polished. About an hour before my mother and sister got home from work, I started dinner being sure to not make a mess while doing so. I remember frying chicken cutlets on the stove and spraying the oil splashes as they occurred. When they came in the dinner was on the table, all the pots and pans already washed and put away.
My brother was in charge of the animals of which we had many. I believe at the time of the night in question, we had 4 dogs, 4 cats, a chicken and two murderous ducks named Mason and Dixon, and a few tankfuls of fish. Maybe some random turtles or birds. I am not quite sure, our numbers constantly changed but there were always a lot.
Well my brother’s Saturday chore was to change the various coops and litter boxes and tanks and whatevers and then have them all fed by the time they got home. Well this one night, everyone was fed except one cat who meandered home later that night. About 15 minutes before my mother came in, my brother opened a can of cat food and put the fork, with cat food on it, in the polished stainless steel sink. AND FORGOT ABOUT IT. We typically ran around like nuts making sure everything was picture perfect before they came in.
This night the house was spic and span, the dinner that I spent hours on was on the table, the table was set and everything was put away. Basically all they had to do was come in and sit down and eat. But my mother, being the crazy person she was, spied the fork in the sink and all hell broke loose. I remember being angry at my brother that he left that fork in the sink and ruined a perfectly good evening. My dinner went cold, the house was in an uproar which was not an unusual state for the house. It never occurred to me that my mother was crazy.
On these Saturdays my future husband, who was a friend, would often visit. He would see me cleaning and cooking and he would envision, in his pointed little head, the perfect wife (except the perfect wife also had a job). It was like those Warner Brother cartoons where Elmer Fudd looks at Porky Pig and sees a pork chop. I didn’t know I what I was turning into in his head. He had to have known I was cleaning like this under martial law and not of my own accord. He didn’t know that or later when he would berate me for not cleaning like this when we were married and had 3 kids, would act like he didn’t know that.
He thought that the 16 year old who cleaned like a maniac because she had a nutty mother would just morph into the wife with 3 kids and a full time job who would clean like a maniac on Saturday. He also had issues with his own mother who had boys and didn’t have a clean house most of the time. I remember going over there and they would be going to bed with dishes in the sink unlike my house where a dish got washed before you were even finished eating off it. To me that was pretty cool. To my ex, it was horrible, but neither of us were saying anything like that.
So I became like his mother, wanting the freedom to leave dishes in the sink overnight and he became like my mother controlling and unhappy no matter how much you did. He wanted the house and dinner of the 16 year old friend. I wanted the house and dinner of the 16 year old friend.
But if you clean you are always “right” as opposed to the person who doesn’t. So I continued my cleaning on Saturday thing, trying to please and he was never pleased.
It was not until the exact same thing happened that I connected it. I was almost 29 years old. We had lived together for almost 10 years…this insanity had raged on all that time and after spending the whole day cleaning, and dinner was on the table and the 3 boys were looking handsome and clean and awaiting his arrival, he marched in and yelled about a cup or spoon or something I left in the sink.
I stood there blinking and thinking, “ OMG I married my mother.”
And it ALL became very clear to me.
Trying to satisfy the person who could not be satisfied.
Arguing with the person who pulled out the laundry lists of things I had done wrong my entire life, the controlling crazy person who blamed my imperfections for our unhappiness.
The person who said “Jump!” and when I said “How High?” they said “3 Feet” and when I jumped 3 feet they said if I really cared about them, I would have jumped 4 feet and the fact that I didn’t proved what a jerk I was.
And it suddenly occurred to me that I was sick of all these people who wanted me to jump. And I was sick of jumping. And I was sick of however high I jumped not being good enough.
I didn’t leave the next day or even the day after that or the day after that. It was many months and many more slides down the “Wait, look, I’m perfect” pole before I finally decided to point my gun at the thing that was our marriage and blow it all to smithereens.
He was actually attracted to me because I WAS like his mother but he wanted to WIN over her housekeeping…and he was like MY mother and I wanted to win by being good enough without housekeeping.
And so it went. Badly. And on and on and on. But because of the DRAMA and the EMOTION, we each mistook it for LOVE and the INTENSITY for how we couldn’t give it up. As I got better it was clear to me. LOVE? Not so much.
In another relationship, as I’ve blogged on here, my partner had an enmeshing mother and I had an abandoning mother. So when I wanted to get close to him to resolve my abandonment, he saw enmeshment. And when he tried to move to get some air, I saw it as abandonment…we both actually worked on that stuff together because unlike Mr. Bananahead No. 1, he was actually interested in not blaming everyone of our problems on me and getting better about everything. We both did a lot of work in the relationship. But we were both doing enormous amounts of work on ourselves and trying to figure out what a healthy relationship looked like.
So the dances that couples do usually has to do with their unfinished business and need to win over that and chances are, it ain’t gonna happen.
So the questions are: what struggles with your partner or partners are recreations of struggles in the past that are unresolved? And what projections onto your partners are you making?
This is where the Life Inventory comes in handy but I would also suggest books by Harriet Lerner and Maggie Scarf (though the Maggie Scarf one is really difficult to read).
What struggles and unfinished business have you been mistaking for love?