Technically this falls under the category of wedding undergraduate, because Leona is not married yet. But, that’s not really the right category. This is written by someone who’s been to hell and back, and even at the young age of 22 could teach most of us a thing or two about marriage. As you might remember from our wedding (cake), I’m the daughter of two military brats. Both my grandfathers were career officers, and veterans of multiple wars. Both my grandmothers were military wives. So this is for all of the military wives out there, those of you carrying a burden that the rest of us can’t even dream of. And it’s for all of us battling with mental illness, big and small, in our marriages, and winning (whatever that looks like).
I’m a twenty-two year-old and I’m getting married next month. As someone who is pretty young, when I announce this fact, however casually, about eight out of ten times I get two questions: “Why?” and “How do you know it’s right?” As every couple’s story is unique, the answer for these questions simply has to vary…but, whatever it’s worth, this is mine.
My fiancé and I took a leap and got engaged when I was 19 and he was 22. In retrospect, at that point, we really couldn’t have known that it was “meant to be.” We were in love, but we would later find the depth of our commitment in a difficult way. In the middle of my junior year as an undergrad, we got the news that my fiancé was going to deploy to Iraq for seven months. As the daughter of a man who deployed twice during Desert Storm, I wasn’t worried because my experience never gave me reason to suspect anything bad would happen.
Those seven months turned out to be the most miserable months of my life. The changes I saw (well, heard, more appropriately) in my partner ripped me apart. Without making any statements about the war and the nature of what my fiancé had to do, it was very apparent to me that he was manic depressive and completely helpless in his situation. I watched in total agony as he changed from the happy, optimistic, refuge of my life that I knew and loved, to a person I feared would hurt himself or others. When I tried to get him to talk about it, the only response I could get was, “you just wouldn’t understand,” and I hated him for it. I felt like he subjected me to his feelings instead of letting me share in them. At my worst, I ignored his calls, wished that he would be wounded and sent home, or even worse, I wished a couple of times that he would die (not because I meant it, but I desperately wanted to be happy again). He pushed me away and instead of being the sensitive, wise version of myself, I pushed right back.
I could keep telling you about how dark those days were for us, but instead, I’ll just say that despite all of that, we came through. Amazingly, somehow I always knew we would—somehow I had the constant conviction that it would pass and that after this, we would know, just know, that we could rely on each other. We would know that one of us was bound to break and that when it happened, things wouldn’t stop. We would go on, spiraling forever toward some uncertain future like a marvelous double helix with two sides always turning and the two compensating for each other. I believe very much that if you stay in a relationship long enough, you will have ample opportunities to pay each other back.
If/when you find yourself in a situation like mine, I truly hope these things will help you:
Trust yourself first: Remember that you are the greatest authority on your relationship. Sometimes people will not be supportive when you need them to be—in fact, sometimes they will turn into the worst possible versions of themselves. My fiancé and I thought very seriously about eloping before he deployed but when we talked to my parents about it, they squashed it with the force of a shoe against a cockroach. After that, my mom especially could not be counted on for any kind of encouragement in my relationship. In fact, once when I was at the very end of my rope, she said, “You know you don’t have to stay with him just because he’s the only person you’ve ever slept with.” I cried and cried and didn’t talk to her for at least a couple weeks. It’s hard when you’re hurting to feel like you don’t have support and it’s even worse to be criticized by your family, but remember: everyone is human and no one likes to see a friend or family member hurt. Sometimes it’s just as hard for the people around you to watch you go through something as it is for you to go through it yourself. I bet you know when something has value to you, though, I bet you know when someone doesn’t mean what they’re saying. So try to be gracious and discerning when taking advice. Think wisely and trust yourself to know when something is important and needs to be heard.
Do not lose your own importance: Whenever you feel like you’re drowning in your partner’s problems, tell yourself this simple phrase: “You are NOT responsible for his/her happiness.” This was the hardest lesson that I’ve had to learn. You always want to feel like you make your partner happy but every now and then, I think every couple encounters a time when one person is so miserable that the other could be absolutely perfect and it wouldn’t help anything. Life happens. No matter how much we try to counter it with romance, the truth is, a relationship alone cannot make a person whole and sometimes those other things will drag a relationship down. Don’t be like I was—don’t blame yourself for the other things, even if your partner blames you. It will only intensify your pain if you take responsibility. Try to separate the things that you can do to help from the things that are beyond your ability and do NOT feel guilty because you are equally important.
Know when you need to talk: Unfortunately for me, I was in an incredibly lonely situation around the time that all of this was going on. I had just transferred to a new university and only had a few friends, all of whom were either single or very casual in their relationships. I didn’t want to talk to my parents because I felt like it would give them more reason to judge us. To make things worse, if I had confessed my concerns to a military counselor or anyone affiliated with the military, my fiancé would have been given a dishonorable discharge on the grounds that people with depressive tendencies are not supposed to enlist. I just didn’t have many options. If you are young and in a similar situation, please find someone, no matter how far you have to go. People become very vulnerable when they feel alone and you will crumble to temptation if you are not careful. I never felt like I would cheat but when my fiancé turned jealous and suspicious for no reason at all, it made me want to cheat. I never did or even came close, but I still can’t quite forgive myself for being vindictive enough to want to. Having a friend or a counselor, helps tremendously with those feelings.
Be honest. Know when it’s time to leave: My partner and I struggled so f*cking hard during this time and there were a ton of moments when I didn’t feel like we would make it. There were even more times when I didn’t care if we made it, but I NEVER wanted to leave him. I was tired and emotionally void by the time he came back, but I loved him. It was a long, hard road to see our relationship come back from the grave. We fought, I kicked him out, he went to counseling, and we spent a lot of time crying and holding on to each other. We were not more virtuous than other couples. We were not smarter than other couples. We just got so, so lucky that while we were in the dirt, we found gold beneath us. Part of me believes that getting through these situations is almost always a matter of luck. Of course I knew my fiancé was a faithful and devoted partner, but I didn’t know that this level was even possible. All of this advice comes with a warning, though. Not everyone comes back. Not everyone can return to the way things were. I can’t tell you how to know when this is the case but I feel like if you truly doubt that it will happen—if you have serious feelings or a strong belief that your partner will never be the person you love again—do everything you can without destroying yourself and then give yourself permission to leave. Give yourself permission to be better off on your own. Only you can know what your limits are and how far you are willing to go, but remember that it is never impossible to get out.
Today my fiancé and I are better than ever. We’ve learned to communicate and trust each other to understand. We know exactly how much we can rely on each other and I feel like I know the meaning of that poem someone posted:
Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and a garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its way
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed
provided we stay brave
enough to keep going in.
And bravery is not something I believe either of us are in danger of running out of.