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I Don’t Want to Be the Me You See

I’ve had an exhausting time trying to explain to inquiring minds, including my friends and family members, why I think my marriage is over.

The dissolution of a ten-year marriage is a tough thing to articulate when there isn’t a single, horrendous precipitating event like cheating or abuse, just a lot of little things that add up to the one big thing: We don’t work together. Hell, trying to describe why a relationship works is hard too. The nuances of why a particular union does or doesn’t jive often defy definition—it’s just more of a feeling, a knowing, an awareness. When it works, you’ve heard people say "We just click!" and when it doesn’t, people say things like "It just stopped working."

Relationships are a patchwork of personality parts stitched together—sometimes sloppily—and when the quilt starts wearing thin and isn’t as warm as it used to be, you take a hard look at the blanket that you’ve been wrapping around yourself without paying much attention and you begin to really see the frayed edges you didn’t notice before. Popped stitches, hanging threads: Pull one thread and it can lead to an unraveling. An undoing.

There is Before-Separation Serge and After-Separation Serge and, for the longest time, I didn’t know which one was the real guy. Was he faking the change in some last-ditch effort to get me back?, I wondered.

Serge made such a drastic life change in the wake of our decision to separate; a complete personality about-face. He became calm, cool-as-a-cucumber, ultra-Zen-Buddhist-guy, regularly quoting from a Thich Nhat Hanh book he ignored when I first tried to get him to read it several years ago. So not only are the initial reasons I have for requesting a separation confusing ... essentially, I am now divorcing an entirely different guy than the one from whom I asked for a separation.

As you can imagine, it confuses me. Who was this new man, I wondered when, while in the midst of divorce, I found myself charmed by him very nearly against my will. It’s disconcerting. Divorce is hard enough, but add to that the fact that the person you are divorcing no longer exists and it makes for one hell of a bewildering time. There is Before-Separation Serge and After-Separation Serge and, for the longest time, I didn’t know which one was the real guy. Was he faking the change in some last-ditch effort to get me back?, I wondered. No. The separation just prompted him to take a good hard look at things as well and he is legitimately a changed man. Change like that is extremely difficult. Some people never manage it, going to the grave the same selfish asshole they were in their twenties, so I have to stop questioning his process and honor who he is now. He is very nearly everything I was looking for him to be during our marriage, so why are we still divorcing?

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I think I’ve finally been able to formulate an answer. We were arguing mildly on the phone about something and he started to tell me why I was saying the thing I was saying. He was explaining my personality to me, which, as every half of a couple knows, occurs often in a relationship. “Well, you’re the kind of person who does this because …” Or “I’ll tell you why you do that. Because you’re blah blah blah.”

As I sat there, listening to my estranged husband explain my motivation for certain behaviors and why I was reacting in a certain way, my stomach began to churn—an old but familiar roiling and it hit me like a fastball to the cheekbone: This. THIS. This is why I can never be with you. The way you view me.

He’s made all these changes in his life but the way he sees me has remained the same. Which makes me THAT person, still. The shell of a human being I eventually became while married to him. I can never be that person again.

I mumbled something on the phone and quickly hung up. He immediately apologized via text and without really thinking too hard about what I typed, I sent back a message I now realize bubbled up from the depths of my soul and illustrates, quite simply, why we can’t be together:

In a relationship, who your mate sees becomes who you are. I don’t want to be the me you see.

That sentiment has been lodged deep in my mind for years, I just wasn’t able to articulate the concept. It’s why I felt so goddamn terrible during my marriage. His view of me doesn’t feel like the real me. Maybe I displayed a particular trait during year one or two or five of our marriage and that view of me overshadows who I am now. He took a snapshot of my personality during a specific time in my life and, for him, the photo is who I am and always will be.

It wasn’t intentional on Serge’s part, and I certainly provided him with a vast array of assholish behavior to reinforce his negative notions of me and that’s where we are now.

When I was 19, I dated a man twice my age. A conservative businessman who was more in love with the idea of me than the actual me. He was constantly describing me to me. For example, he’d point to the conservative pantsuit in the shop window and say, “Now that, THAT outfit is so you. You like to pretend like you’re this liberal, wild girl but you know you’re just pretending. As you get older, you’ll become more comfortable being the real you, which is that outfit.”

Here we have a man who wanted me to be conservative, straight-laced arm candy so he threw away my real personality and created one in his head that matched who he wanted. He wasn’t dating me—he was dating a creation of his imagination, constantly ascribing me personality traits of his dream woman. I realized this and eventually broke up with him.

The same thing happened in my marriage. It wasn’t intentional on Serge’s part, and I certainly provided him with a vast array of assholish behavior to reinforce his negative notions of me and that’s where we are now: a decade spent locked in cages we built for each other out of our negative beliefs. You can apologize for saying hurtful things to someone, you can say you didn’t mean it, that you only said it to hurt them, but the thing is, it came from somewhere. Those thoughts you give voice to during an argument don’t exist in a vacuum. They come from somewhere and the way they make someone feel can’t necessarily be wiped away.

The takeaway—aside from the obvious "don’t say mean things to someone because it’s always leaves a mark, even if you apologize"—is don’t recreate your partner to fit some version of what you want or need in a relationship, like the older guy I dated did to me. Conversely, don’t lock them into your negative perceptions of them because, in a relationship, your partner’s opinion of you is, perhaps, stronger than your own. Instead, allow them to change for the better and accept it unquestioningly. Give them TOO MUCH credit for being a beautiful person. Lock them into that box instead because, just as you have the power to imprison your partner behind the bars of your negative perception, you also have the power to lift them to greater heights. Focus on the positive and you just might find them striving to live up to your inspiring image of them.

I can’t be with you because in your eyes, I see a reflection of myself that feels wrong. Untrue. I don’t want to be the me you see. I am not her any longer. Maybe I never was.

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