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ALL OF US, at one time or another in our lives, have been told, "Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it." I certainly heard that message. Too bad I didn't pay attention. When I said "I do" to my fairy tale prince, I had no idea that I was simultaneously agreeing to a long and painful process of losing my identity. I had no idea that I was plunging myself headlong into Powerful Mate Syndrome. After all, my husband James was at the top of his field (professional basketball). He was strong, handsome, and respected and admired the world over and he professed his undying love for me. That's all that was on my mind. Wouldn't our marriage bring me a greater sense of my own personal power, support for my goals, joy like I had never known, and also form the basis of a formidable, lifelong partnership? The short answer is no. In fact, no one can perform that kind of miracle in anyone else's life. But I didn't know that. I didn't know that my betrothal was the beginning of my betrayal not his betrayal of me but my betrayal of myself My marriage to James sent me on a downward spiral psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and even in some ways, physically.
Like so many girls growing up in this culture, my dangerous wish was to meet my prince, fall madly in love, marry him, and live happily ever after and oh, let's not forget the extravagant wedding gown, awe inspiring ceremony, and dream honeymoon. Of course, not every woman dreams of marrying a sports star as I did, but the Cinderella fantasy still runs strong. We think that by marrying a star whatever kind of star we wish for our dreams will come true.
This myth is perpetuated not only by our friends and family but by countless books, magazines, and television shows, including who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette, which gave us the modern version of the Cinderella story featuring Trista and Ryan. On a conscious level we may not be aware of how fully we have integrated this fairy tale into our collective unconscious, but the archetype of the powerful hero who comes to the rescue of the "damsel in distress" is alive and well in the psyches of pretty much every woman I know.
i0Let's get this straight once and for all. Cinderella is a myth. There are no guarantees of "happily ever after" even if you do marry the prince. A happy marriage is based on hard work, not hope; it takes common sense and commitment. Cinderella and the prince get to live happily ever after in our imaginations because the beginning of their life together is also THE END. We never get to "ever after"! It's not part of the story. No, Cinderella never had to deal with the challenges of living with her prince, and we never had to witness her struggle to maintain her own integrity and identity in the shadows of power.
Too bad I didn't know that. My Cinderella fantasy lasted for years. For years I clung to the fantasy of being a helpless princess who would be taken care of by my omnipotent prince. That fantasy kept me from realizing that there is a world of difference between being cared for and being taken care of. A healthy marriage is all about being cared for, allowing each other room for independence, intellectual growth, and emotional expansion. Being taken care of, on the other hand, fosters dependency, intellectual atrophy, limited life experiences, and stifled creativity; it certainly does not cultivate self reliance. When we make our mates our gods we end up worshipping them and lose sight and sense of ourselves. In my marriage to James, I sacrificed my own career ambitions. I came to rely on my husband to validate me as a person. I stopped voicing my own opinions on things that mattered to both of us, and I did not believe that I had the right to "complain." In short, I became a glamorous appendage to a powerful man.
Believe me, I didn't consciously choose to become the pitiful creature that I evolved into. My lack of knowledge about the reality of marriage, my denial of my need for achievement and acknowledgement in my own right, my naivet6 about the temptations in the world of professional sports, my lack of experience with money, and my failure to think about life after James's career ended all had deleterious effects on me, my former husband, and our marriage. My marriage didn't have to be that way, and neither does yours.
Ironically, when I was growing up, every woman In my life worked outside the home. None of my friends had moms who stayed at home. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. Every woman whom I considered a role model, from my grandmothers to my mom to Barbara Jordan, the erudite Texas congresswoman who served from the mid1960s to the late 1970s, and even the fictitious Mary Richards on Mary Tyler Moore, was a working woman. I never imagined that my life would be any different. I knew from the time I was ten years old that I wanted to have a career that afforded me the opportunity to do three things: First, I wanted to meet new people every day; second, I wanted to learn something new every day; third, I wanted to work in television journalism.
I was probably the only child in my fifth grade class who went home and watched the Watergate hearings every day. I found them fascinating and entertaining. Watching those hearings gave me great respect for Barbara Jordan. Her eloquence, her laser sharp recitation of passages from the Constitution and Bible verses, and the hypnotic cadence of her speech mesmerized me. She and Barbara Walters were the two famous women whom I idolized and wanted to emulate. Through high school and college I carried my dreams of being like "the two Barbaras." I still had those dreams when I came to Los Angeles to begin my life as James's wife.
Los Angeles was the Promised Land for James. He was firmly ensconced in his role as a starting forward with the Lakers. He was manifesting his childhood dreams of success, fame, and fortune that first came to him as he played at the Boys and Girls Club in Gastonia, North Carolina. I reveled in his success, too. It was a joy to watch his transformation from basketball apprentice to master of the hoop. In my eyes, there was no one who played better at his position than James. He was simply the best.
On the other hand, Los Angeles proved not as instantly promising for me. Unlike James's job as the member of a team where most career related issues are planned and well defined practice schedules, travel itineraries and fitness regimens for me there was no clear path to accomplishing my career goals. Should I go to UCLA and study broadcast journalism, try to sign with a modeling agency, enroll in a commercial workshop, or take some acting classes? I had landed a Pepsi commercial while I was still in Chapel Hill, which had enabled me to join the Screen Actors Guild even before I moved to Los Angeles. I thought that acting classes might be the place to start. Even though I had no intentions of being an actress per se, I knew that getting into a class where I'd have to get up in front of other people and perform would be good for me, no matter what I did in my career.
I enrolled in a scene study class and a commercial workshop. The classes met at night, which meant that I would sometimes miss James's games. That was no big deal. I didn't believe that he needed me to be at every game. After all, he'd spent two seasons playing in Los Angeles while I was still in Chapel Hill. I plodded along, always looking for the opportunity that would catapult me into the working world the world in which I knew I belonged.
Now I'm not saying that every woman needs to work outside the home to feel whole and fulfilled. If being a stay at-home mom is your calling, then that is what you should do. But that doesn't mean that you can't take a vacation alone to Paris and study all the architecture that you've longed to see since you were an art history student in college. More and more women are starting their own businesses right from their homes. Do it if that's what calls you! This is not about being rich, famous, or bigger than your partner. It is about doing whatever makes you feel whole, challenged, and validated. It's about giving birth to your dream and doing what it takes to nurture it, grow it, and have it give something back to you.
I never thought I'd hidden my intention to pursue a career in television from James. He knew I loved being in front of people. He'd seen me in front of twenty thousand fans every weekend while I was a cheerleader at Carolina. I had even spoken of trying to go to New York to pursue my goals before we got married. I thought we had a meeting of the minds, that we would both strive to be the best we could be in our chosen fields of endeavor. Before I got married that was a realistic goal. After I got married, even that became a distant fantasy.
For a woman who grows up believing in the Cinderella story, the ultimate coup is to marry the prince who can make it so that she does not have to work outside the home. He provides for her every need, want, and wish. He is her sun and moon, her god, her protector, her lover and friend. Heck, with a catch like that she doesn't need anyone else in her life. For me, the ultimate coup truly would have been a happy marriage and a fulfilling and challenging life outside of that marriage. But sometime shortly after I got married, the adventurous and independent woman that I was during my teens and in college got suppressed. Oh yes, amid great fanfare and anticipation I became Mrs. James Worthy and I lost my way. I cannot pinpoint the moment in time that I went AWOL, but I know that it mysteriously happened shortly after I took those vows. I enthroned him as the king of my world and, rather than doing what it took to be a powerful queen, I assumed the role as the king's subject. There was an obvious imbalance in the power department of our relationship. He had ninety nine percent of it; I had the rest.
Why? Because I gave it to him. I became an appendage of James, as opposed to being my own person. You see, "appendages" no longer give their own goals priority status. Instead, they become complicit in their own invisibility.
I've know too many women like me, who have abandoned their own dreams in favor of helping their man achieve his. Such is the case with a woman who desires to be a medical doctor herself but then marries another medical student and decides to take a job "Just for a while," in order to help him attain his goal, in the belief that someday he will return the gesture and help her realize hers. But "someday" never comes. By the time it gets around to being "her turn," if they are even still together, there are often children in the picture, which requires a new set of responsibilities, the lion's share of which typically fall to her.
In some cases, a woman will give up the pursuit of her dreams so as not to draw attention away from her partner. Rather than subscribing to the belief that the spotlight is large enough to encompass both of them, she exits stage left while he takes his place at center stage. Oftentimes a man feels threatened by his spouse's success and either consciously or subconsciously attempts to quash it. It is amazing how a man who is powerful out in the world, either through his career achievements, family legacy, or wealth, can become absolutely terrified by the prospect of his wife creating her own power base, being able to take care of herself, and having a life that revolves around more than him.
I began to live an almost split existence. One part of me lived in denial so that I could push down the sadness and rage that I felt over becoming, for all intents and purposes, a servant. The denial also helped me adopt the belief that it would be enough to live in the reflected glory of James's career. My life had become about living vicariously through him. It's hard to become the next Barbara Walters when you're at home doing a bad impression of a Happy Homemaker.
The most baffling thing about our situation was that I don't even know exactly when the shift in our roles took place. It wasn't as though there was a sudden change in my actions or thoughts. I didn't wake up one day and declare, "Today I am going to become subordinate, complacent, weak, and unfocused," but that is exactly what happened. I had gotten myself into quite a mess, and it would be up to me to get myself out of it. I had no clue at the time that eventually I would have to get out of that relationship in order to regain myself a fact, by the way, that certainly isn't true for every woman who experiences Powerful Mate Syndrome.
You see, in the world of powerful partners, even in these times of independent women, there remains an unspoken rule that wives are to put their mates' careers first and foremost in their lives. No, there is no official rulebook by which wives must abide, but there is an unspoken, subtle expectation that once you join the sorority of "Power Partners' Wives," your first priority should be to support him and his career. Everything else should take a back seat. Just think about what happens every time a man decides to declare himself a candidate for a political office; one of the first things people start speculating about is his wife. If she happens to be in the middle of performing brain surgery, she'd better finish that up pronto and get out there and campaign with that powerful partner of hers. You're supposed to attend every social event possible looking like you Just stepped out of Vogue magazine make your home his castle, satiate his conjugal and culinary needs, and pretend as though you don't have anything that's as worthy of your attention as being the good little wife.
Of course I don't necessarily think that ending a marriage or a relationship is the answer for every woman who finds herself in this difficult situation, and James and I certainly had other issues that brought our marriage down. But had I approached the marriage more clear eyed and with a strategy for success I would have been aware of the potential pitfalls inherent in a marriage to a powerful mate. At the time, though, there were no books, no therapists, and certainly no other wives I knew who were exploring what I have come to call Powerful Mate Syndrome. In fact, there existed a tacit understanding that "you just don't complain" about problems in your marriage, home, and family, especially when you seem to be living the fairy tale. Even in the face of public revelations of adultery, domestic violence, and reckless behavior, there is still a certain amount of stigma attached to the idea of refuting the existence of the fairy tale. Much like families with an alcoholic member, many women are apprehensive or ashamed about admitting that the very thing that they hoped for the most (to be married to a powerful mate) is bringing them so much pain, anxiety, and depression. But this is a problem that won't go away until we are willing to release our fantasies and get real about the bargain we are striking and the challenges we face when we marry "powerful" partners.
If you relate to my story or feel "lesser than" your powerful mate, no matter what kind of power you feel he possesses, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I like the person I am today? Do I know who that person staring back at me in the mirror really is?
2. Have I put my own personal and professional dreams and goals on hold?
3. Do I rely on my partner as the sole source of validation?
4. Do I fail to voice my opinions on matters that affect both of us?
5. Have I surrendered my interest in financial matters or allowed unqualified people assume control?
6. Have I turned to destructive, nonproductive habits to mask the pain of feeling out of control of my life?
7. Have I become complicit in creating my own invisibility?
8. Do I believe that I don't have the right to express my displeasure, disappointment, and disillusionment with my relationship?
9. Am 1 willing or able to fight for my right to have the ca reer that would make me feel fulfilled?
10. Have I made my partner my "God" and made worshipping him my spiritual practice? (Really be honest with yourself on this one.)
If you answered yes to more than a few of the above, you may be suffering from Powerful Mate Syndrome as I was. Believe me, all is not lost. I, along with the many other women whose stories I will share in this book, have traveled through the dark, daunting tunnel that is Powerful Mate Syndrome, and we have emerged smarter, more confident, more fulfilled and mature women. I wrote this book to offer you a lifeline because this is the book that I wish had existed before I married my powerful prince. Had I known then what I know now, I'm sure that I still would have married James. After all, I was very much in love with him. But I would have had a much greater understanding of the forces and challenges that lay ahead. Most importantly, I would have known that despite what the outside world considers powerful, within my marriage I had a right to be just as powerful as he, and that being an equal participant in the relationship was not optional. It was a prerequisite, and a nonnegotiable one.
When my marriage ended, I went back to school and attained a Master's degree in Clinical Psychology. In my work as a registered marriage and family therapy intern, I have seen many other women with PMS, and I have certainly known dozens of women in my life who fit the definition, too. While most women have some sort of power imbalance in their relationships,
f0PMS is marked by an imbalance of power in almost every area of the relationship. It is a condition that involves betraying ourselves, and that's where the healing has to happen too within ourselves. Whether our relationships are fixable or not, when we rid ourselves of the rescue fantasy,' we learn to tap into our innate power to author the stories and: situations that both empower us and fulfill our needs.
My detractors will say that I am overanalyzing marriage, making it all too complicated, and taking the romance out it. I know from my own experience that this is not true. Rather, I am disseminating some hard won knowledge. Knowledge is power, and you can never have too much of it.
If you are in a relationship with, considering marriage to, or are already married to a powerful person, don't go another day without reading this book. It will encourage you to think in a more realistic way about what it means (and doesn't mean) to be in the relationship, which will enable you to consciously create a partnership that is more fulfilling, rewarding, and joyful than anything you ever dreamed or hoped for. You may not believe me yet, but you have the power and the courage to give up the fantasy and create a brilliant reality tale, a story based in real life, not fairy tales, a story that reflects your truest passions, your authentic values and desires, your deepest integrity. Here's to creating that reality tale, complete with a happy ending that lasts the rest of your life.
Copyright 2004 by Angela Wilder