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On Criticism and Love

I spend a lot of time worrying that by writing this site I’m glamorizing marriage. (I worry less about glamorizing weddings because, hello, I’m pretty sure the wedding industry has that covered.) But I spend a lot of time writing about the ways that marriage can be a really positive force in our lives, and I worry that comes off as, “Marriage is the answer,” and I really, really don’t think that. I think *good* marriages can be wonderful and empowering, and there are not a lot of places for smart women to discuss that honestly. But h*ll, when I was single in my 20’s (and I was *very* single for four years running… which is rare in your early 20’s in New York City) I would have written you a novel about why being single was wonderful and empowering.

I worry because I hear really well intentioned things in the comments like, “All weddings are beautiful” and “All marriages are wonderful,” and in my experience that has not been true. One of my sassy and smart girl friends had a story of being a bridesmaid and telling the bride, “I have the keys to the car hidden in my bouquet. And if AT ANY POINT you decide you don’t want to go through with this, give me the high-sign and we are so out of here.” And yeah, I’ve been there. And yeah, marriages that start with the bridesmaid hiding the car keys in her bouquet often don’t end well. So I was more then ready to hear it when reader Charlotte contacted me wanting to write about when you should think about NOT getting married. About when you should listen to those who love you. About how to differentiate selfish b*tching from real concern. So, here is Charlotte. I know saying, “Sometimes you shouldn’t get married,” is a little explosive… but I think you guys can take it.

About a week ago I contacted Meg asking if she or somebody else could write an article about people who give the bride undue criticism about her partner that is neither welcome nor appreciated. I got to thinking over the weekend of apartment hunting about two grand philosophical questions that have been bugging me for YEARS. One, how do you tell somebody you love that you think they are making a mistake and two, how do you know when to listen and when to ignore the concern of people who love you? I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have volunteered my services to Meg because I am thinking that these questions are perhaps larger than their answer. One thing I love love love about APW is that is provides women of all different backgrounds, sexual preference, age, and religion a healthy forum to discuss their future marriages. Comments constantly repeat some of my favorite words: commitment, communication, love, and companionship. All things that make a wonderful marriage. However, I have been the unhappy member of several weddings where these things weren’t present.

Let me give some back-story here. Ten years ago my older sister was coming out of a REALLY bad relationship (drug addicted guy who stole her college money, and spent it all on stuff going up his nose) and met somebody she considered the man of her dreams. They dated for two weeks, got engaged, and three months later were married. This conveniently coincided with the expiration date for his green card. Sure he didn’t do drugs and he had a real job, but he constantly belittled her and made her feel bad about herself.  So there I was, biting my nails at the wedding while everybody else glowed with congratulations. I don’t know how many times my mom tapped me on the shoulder and told me to shut my mouth. After six years of insults, neglect, and cheating they divorced.

Another case in point, my younger sister. At 19 she thought it was a great idea to drop out of college and get married to a drug addicted, pathological liar. When I asked her at the time “just why are you doing this?” she came up with a lot of the reasons we all give for getting married “we’re in love”, “I want to commit my life to this person”, “He makes me a better person”. All perfectly credible reasons to get married, right? They divorced 7 months later.

I could go on and on with case studies here, I’ve got loads. There are certain similarities in my friends and family members who entered into bad marriages that they knew (yes, they did know it at the time, they just weren’t honest about it, you can ask them yourselves) were going to be bad.

  • Reluctance to be alone. My sisters could never, ever be single. By that I mean a consistent stream of boyfriends from the age of 13 until today with very short breaks. Not that this means you are codependent, but it can be really big read flag. It’s hard this day and age to be single. Particularly when our entire culture tells women through constant advertising that our worth is based on what men think of us. If no boys are into you, you must be worthless. Our culture also places enormous pressure on women to get married. Just check out the Supreme Court hearings. If you don’t get married you don’t fit the mold of what a woman’s life should be. No big day? No poofy dress? No perfect family?*
  • “I’m going to prove them wrong” syndrome. My friend Amy, (not her real name) dated a guy 24 years older than her who trafficked drugs throughout the Caribbean, stole, refused to wear a condom, and forgot her birthday. When I asked her why did you stay with him so long she said it was because she wanted to prove everybody wrong. So many people kept telling her he was bad news that she needed to stay with him long enough just to prove to herself and others that he was a good guy.
  • Really low self esteem. Let me just say my friend Amy is hot. Blond, blue eyed, perfect skin, tall, and she looks stunning in heels. And she is an amazing human being. All her friends know this. Everybody knows this, except Amy. Because Amy thought she wasn’t worth anything she dated guys who treated her badly and made her question her self worth.

SO how do we know when to listen to our concerned friends or family, and how do we tell people we love that we are concerned for them?

The latter has taken me A LOT of trial and error. With my older sister I tried screaming at her “JESUS CHRIST, HE JUST WANTS A GREEN CARD”. Yeah, that didn’t work. Neither did any of the repeated attempts of screaming and yelling. With the younger sister I tried to explain in a calm, concerned voice that dropping out of college to marry a drug addicted, high school drop out wasn’t a good idea, but again the conversation ended with me screaming “CAN’T YOU SEE HOW CODEPENDANT YOU ARE?!” That just made her even more determined to marry him.

My friend Amy finally gave me some really good advice on how to handle this when she said, “Charlotte, you have to realize there is nothing you can do except love your sisters and be there when they need you. You don’t have to support her decision, but you do have to support her”. She then said that if everybody didn’t keep telling her that her ex was a loser, she probably would have broken up with him a lot sooner. I don’t think this approach would have prevented my sisters from making their decisions, but it would have let them know that I love and care about them. Voice your concern once, and then be there when the person you love needs you. Our choices are our own, and at the end of the day, they aren’t really anybody else’s business.

As for how to listen when people voice there concerns… there I’ve got my hands tied a bit. I’d like to think we all have a little Jiminy Cricket on our shoulders that lets us know when we are doing something that is wrong for us. Seven years ago I fell madly in love with a guy who considered it his job to make me feel bad about myself. Even when he broke up with me by shouting over the phone “I wanted a partner, not a bulimic headcase” I thought he was the bees knees. Yet somehow, in the back of my head, Jiminy was there, telling me he was no good. So were all my friends. My roommate confessed years later that she spent many nights crying herself to sleep with worry for me. I didn’t listen to her, or anybody else. I should have though…

If everybody, or at least 75-ish% of your friends, are telling you this guy is no good, maybe you should listen. Also, if you are afraid of telling your friends certain things about your boyfriend because you are afraid they won’t like him (example, he lies all the time, he has an addiction problem, he’s not sure of his sexuality) maybe you should also double think this. Friends and family aren’t yelling at you just for the sake of it. If anything you should feel really, really loved when somebody who cares about you voices a concern, because there is a difference between judgment and concern. One is a projection of one’s own experiences and perception of what is culturally acceptable, and the other is love with a spoonful of advice. None of us like to hear that the guy we are head over heels in love with is a loser. I hated hearing my roommate tell me that just because my ex sung lead in an a cappella choir that that didn’t automatically make him a good boyfriend.

The next wedding I’m going to is my own. My roommate has met my fiancé and gave him her seal of approval. If she hadn’t, I would like to think that I would have processed what she had to say and come to my own conclusion. Easier said than done. Sebastien isn’t perfect, and neither am I. The important thing is he loves me for who I am where I am and where I am going. He also takes out the trash without me asking him to do it.

Again, I don’t have all the answers to what makes a happy marriage, and neither does anybody else. Deep down though, we all know if the person we are standing across from when we say our vows is good for us. And more than that, we have to try to realize criticism is not necessarily hate and that you have many people who love and care about you whether you marry this guy or not. And with that, I open this to discussion. Let the wisdom flow…

*Editors note: I maintain, however, that in big cities – at least in more creative circles – this is *less* true (at least until 35 or 40). I could discuss possible reasons all day, and this is not the time or place. Suffice to say, I never felt pressure to get married, but I did feel a lot of pressure to explain why the h*ll I would get married, at a super young **29.**

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