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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Marriage Lies and Mrs. Mike

One of the most common misunderstandings of marriage, and romantic relationships in general, is that you should never have to change yourself for the one you're with. Be yourself. Don't compromise who you are. Don't let him change you. If you have to change to be happy with him, he's not worth it and he doesn't deserve you.

The thing is, to a certain degree, all of those things are true. But it all depends on how you go about it. Yes, you should be yourself. Yes, you shouldn't allow someone else to forcibly compromise who you are. You shouldn't let him change you. But what it the best version of being yourself? Being someone who chooses to change for someone else. Being someone who sacrifices their own will for the sake of another. Being the you that changes for him.

(Pronouns - I'm a woman, so I'm writing from a woman's perspective. Guys, in case you're wondering, you have to choose to change for her, too. It's a two-way street.)

A few years ago, on one of my visits to see my Sister sister in the convent, I was having tea in the kitchen with one or two of the older Sisters. One of them asked me, "So, sweetie, do you think you might have a religious vocation, too?" "Well, no, not really, Sister." "So, then, tell me about the men in your life!" And suddenly there were five or six bright-eyed cheery little old Sisters gathered around me, giving me dating advice from their walkers. What a situation. One piece of advice has stuck with me, though, not because I necessarily have any control over it, but because of the wisdom nugget in there: "Well, dear, just make sure you don't wait too long. If you do, you'll be too set in your own ways and you'll never be able to change enough for each other. You have to grow up together, you know."

Have you ever read Mrs. Mike? It's one of those books that my sisters and I read a million times over in high school. I picked it up again recently because I don't have to give it much thought. Is it "high literature"? Well, no. But it's an easy read, and a really really good read. The heroine is Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a young woman from a Boston-Irish family who goes to live with her uncle in the Canadian wilderness. She ends up marrying Sergeant Mike Flannigan, leaving her family in Boston, and travelling far out into the frozen tundra to live with her new husband. As you might imagine, it is not an easy adjustment, and at one point she has a bit of a nervous breakdown. Mike is worried for her, and tells her that night that he's taking her back east in the morning; they'll work something else out together. But here's what happens:
Mike and I lay awake with our own thoughts. And in the morning he took me on, not back. It was that night that I really became his wife, for I knew that this white land and its loneliness were a part of Mike. It was a part I feared, that I didn't know or understand. But I knew that I had to know it and understand it, and even love it as Mike did. Because I wanted to be like Mike and then, after our lives had been lived, maybe I'd be Mike.
When he held me, we were crushed into one, one body with one heart beating through us. And that's the way it had to be with our minds and our feelings. It was much harder because they get tangled in thoughts and caught in emotions. But in the end that's the way it had to be.
So I lay there, my second night in Taylor's Flat, and told myself, "If you love Mike, you'll love the things that go with him. And if you can't love them, you'll understand them -- and until you do you'll keep the fight to understand them in yourself, and not be carrying on and worrying him like you did tonight." I was cold and trembling under my covers for fear I'd talked to myself too late, that Mike would really send me back.
But Mike must have been talking to himself as hard as I was to myself, and he must have decided that I was still worth the trouble I caused, because in the morning he said nothing about sending me home. 
One night cannot dispose of a feeling or settle an attitude, and many a night on the way up to Hudson's Hope I had to fight back the thoughts of my home and my mother and the tears that came with them. Yet, it was a happy time and an exciting one, full of love and adventure and a new life opening up. The fears grew smaller, and all they could do was peck at my happiness.
Mike told me I was stronger. I knew I was. "And you've adjusted quickly in a country that is usually too hard for women." He was proud of me, and he acted proud in front of the men because where were their wives?
It's easy to crush bodies together. Melding minds and feelings into a unified one is a little trickier. But that's what's got to happen. Time for a platitude that we all keep forgetting: Love is sacrifice. It means cutting bits of yourself off because something else is more important than those bits. So get to it.


  1. I am reminded about what a young seminarian whom you know well said to me when asked whether his first year at seminary had changed him much. He said, "I am more myself than I have ever been." I think that is good to remember. You are changed by one another, but like the sisters said, 'You have to grow up together,' That is what the change is about, not changing in a way that makes you something you aren't, but that makes you more what you are.

  2. Apropos nothing in particular, this reminds me of the old myth of Njord and Skathi, the Norse god and giantess who fall into an arranged marriage and bicker over whether to live in the mountains or by the sea. Njord's remark is, "Hateful for me are the mountains, / I was not long there, / only nine nights. / The howling of the wolves / sounded ugly to me / after the song of the swans." And Skathi retorts, "Sleep I could not / on the sea beds / for the screeching of the bird. / That gull wakes me / when from the wide sea / he comes each morning." So they go their separate ways, and of course ultimately the gods and giants slaughter each other at Ragnarok. Anyway, Kate turns out to be stronger in character than a Nordic ocean deity, so, you know... props.