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About the Author
Dr. Robin Smith is a licensed psychologist, television personality and author, who appears regularly as an expert for The Oprah Winfrey Show. In addition to her private practice, Dr. Smith teaches as an adjunct professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives in Philadelphia.
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LIES at the ALTARTHE TRUTH ABOUT GREAT MARRIAGES
By Robin L. Smith
HYPERIONCopyright © 2006 Dr. Robin L. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter One"When I discover who I am, I'll be free." -Ralph Ellison
From This Day Forward
It was a beautiful day for a wedding. The church was packed with happy family and friends. The bride was stunning in an ivory satin wedding dress, the groom elegant in a fitted black tuxedo. The wedding party circled them in a color-coordinated cloud of taffeta and tails. As the couple stood before the silver-haired minister, they gazed deeply into each other's eyes. Then they each spoke the vows they had written themselves:
"You will be my best friend," she pledged, "except for Marcia, who will always be my very, very best friend. And my German shepherd, Spike, who will sleep at the foot of our bed."
"I promise to take care of you and want only what's good for you," he replied, "as long as it works for me and doesn't involve frequent visits from your mother."
"I'll treasure you for who you are," she said, "but once we're married, I'll expect you to drink less, work harder, start showing an interest in the arts, and shave off that beard."
"What is mine will be yours," he responded, "except for the money you don't know about and the cash I'll sock away in a private account, just in case thingsdon't work out."
"I promise to love you unconditionally," she said, "until you do something I find intolerable; to forgive and forget, although you know I come from a family of championship grudge-holders; and to never go to sleep angry, although I may have to stay awake all night fuming."
"I'll adore you forever, in body and soul," he said, "as long as you keep that gorgeous size-six figure."
"I promise to cherish you every day for as long as we both shall live," she answered, her eyes welling with joyous tears. "Or as long as I can stand to put up with you."
This exchange may sound comical, but often as I am counseling troubled couples, I find that similar thoughts and "but-ifs" were lingering just beneath the surface of their wedding vows. They made promises they could not keep and said flowery words they did not fully understand or believe, hoping that the magical aura of their lavish wedding would carry them through their lives and make everything okay.
What was going on? They were lying at the altar, lying down on the job of forging true partnerships, making up stories that they hoped would someday come true. They were swept out on the sea of love, carried away on a tide of sentimentality and emotion that would sooner or later return them to life's rocky shore in a crushing wave of reality. They were bystanders at their own wedding, speaking vows they wrote themselves without ever acknowledging the truth about their relationship and their real lives. They traded one glorious day for years of bitter struggle. At least half of these marriages would not survive to the tenth anniversary. Many others would stick together, serving their time until death, locked in a prison of their own design, never comprehending how unions that began with such optimism and joy could go so horribly wrong.
How can it be that people who want only to be happy can end up so completely miserable? What are the lies at the altar?
NAMING THE LIE
A dear friend of mine recently ended a marriage after fourteen years and three children. The man Cheryl chose as her husband was wrong for her in every way. Harold had problems with addictions, he was unfaithful, he was manipulative and cruel. Now divorced, Cheryl was tormented that she could have made such a terrible choice. "What on earth was I thinking?" she asked me. "How could I have married this man?"
"You were just standing there lying at the altar," I said. "Not because you were bad, but because you didn't know what you were saying."
She was shocked. "Lying" is a harsh word, and Cheryl insisted that she had really believed her wedding vows: "I meant it when I promised to be with him until death." She added quietly, "And it almost killed me."
What was Cheryl's lie? It wasn't conscious or deliberate. It was the result of unconsciousness. Her lie began with the self-deception that Harold was not really who he appeared to be. Cheryl is one of the sweetest, most caring women I've ever known. She always looks for the good in other people, which is a wonderful quality. But when you trust someone who has proved himself untrustworthy, you're choosing a dangerous form of blindness. Harold telegraphed his true nature loud and clear before they were married, and Cheryl didn't see it. He was mean and controlling, and he showed little concern for Cheryl's feelings. Even after they were engaged, he'd disappear for days at a time without telling her where he was, and Cheryl had reason to suspect he was with other women. When she tried to ask him about it, he'd accuse her of suffocating him. Once he said, "We're not even married yet, and already you're putting a noose around my neck." Cheryl always backed down, feeling silly for saying anything, and this is when the self-doubt began to build a home in her mind, spirit, and heart. This is when she made the lie into the truth. The pattern would repeat itself throughout their marriage. Harold did whatever he wanted to do, and Cheryl learned not to challenge him because he always made her feel like a fool when she did.
Cheryl had been raised to believe that a woman had to work hard to be desirable to a man. Her father had made her feel unworthy, with frequent taunts that nobody would want to marry her if she stepped out of line. Harold continued the pattern, blaming Cheryl when he became withdrawn or angry. "You drive me away," he'd tell her to explain his absences. "You make me so mad, no wonder I need to drink."
Cheryl took his words to heart and kept trying to do more and more to please him. Harold could not be pleased. "He constantly made critical little comments about how I kept house or took care of the children," Cheryl said. "I just never felt as if I was good enough."
Cheryl cried when she recalled a particularly overwhelming period shortly after she'd given birth to their third child. "It was Sunday, and I always cooked a big dinner that day. After we ate, Harold went and plopped on the couch in front of the TV. It was getting late, I was exhausted, and there was so much to do. I had a new baby, a toddler, and a four-year-old running around. So I asked Harold if he could help me by bathing the older children. He didn't even look up from the show he was watching. He just said, 'I don't feel like it.'"
Cheryl remembered that day in particular because she so rarely asked Harold for help, and she'd asked only out of desperation and exhaustion. His indifference cut her deeply. "I went straight into the bathroom and I cried like a baby," she recalled. "Then I wiped my face and went downstairs and cleaned up the kitchen. After I finished, I gave the kids their baths and put them to bed."
Cheryl felt real despair that day, but it took her fourteen years of the same treatment to finally leave Harold. Why so long? Because she had made a sacred vow at the altar, and she refused to break that vow. She didn't understand that a promise made to someone who isn't even there, who cannot reciprocate, is an empty promise.
Harold's lie was more direct. He promised to love, honor, and cherish Cheryl, but only as long as she put his needs first and allowed him to do anything he wanted. And here's the real lie: Even when she complied, he gave her nothing in return. He never expressed appreciation. He never told her she was beautiful. He never hugged her or said he loved her.
It took enormous courage for Cheryl to admit the truth and file for divorce. Harold never did get it. "Do you think someone else is actually going to want you?" he said derisively as she walked out the door. She didn't bother to answer. What was the point?
TRUTH: THE SECRET INGREDIENT
Let's agree that it's time for the truth. From this day forward.
Even if you've been hiding your real feelings for many years, burying your needs, harboring resentments, and deliberately denying what you know, you can make the choice to change. It doesn't matter if you've had a string of failed relationships, if you're suffering in a marriage that isn't working, or if you're divorced and hope to try again someday.
You can finally make a conscious effort to lay that heavy burden down. And here's an amazing fact: Hard as it is to believe, you can find love in the course of facing the truth. It's the secret ingredient to every great marriage.
Maybe you are planning your wedding as you read this, and have hopes of love everlasting. You want to know how to avoid the constant power struggles and unhappiness you've seen in the marriages of your friends and family. If you ever hope to live happily, you'll have to trust in the truth. You'll have to believe that facing the truth is going to get you a lot closer to living a life full of joy than the lies. In fact, truth is the only way to create lasting love, security, and real passion.
Let me help you. The truth will set you free.
WAKE UP TO YOURSELF
A lot of the time it just feels easier to curl up with a fantasy than to wake up to reality. But once you do wake up, it's hard to go back to sleep. And the longer you stay in a state of wakefulness, the better and more natural it feels.
The first step is to begin looking at your relationship-the one you have now or one that failed in the past-and ask yourself some basic questions. This examination may expose painful realities, but try to avoid feelings of shame or blame. Shame ("I'm a bad person") provides a comfort zone for many people. It becomes an excuse to give up. Blame ("He or she is a bad person") may feel temporarily satisfying, but it doesn't get you closer to the truth. Shame and blame are relationship exits. They kill your dreams, your spirit, and your passion. I invite you to stay in the room and stay awake.
As you read the following Top Ten Lies and corresponding truths, learn to recognize the difference between the lie and the truth, and do a reality check in your own life.
1. LIE: If the package is beautifully wrapped, its contents will be fabulous.
TRUTH: The packaging doesn't tell you anything about what's inside.
"She's not really my type," my friend Gerald said of Irma, the woman he had been dating for five years. I was surprised to hear it. Gerald and Irma had always seemed very much in sync. They were both committed to community activism, enjoyed working on the old house they'd bought together, loved children, and had similar senses of humor. Irma got along well with Gerald's large family, and he was close to her parents.
"You and Irma seem great together," I said. "Tell me what you mean when you say she's not your type."
Gerald shrugged. "I don't know. I always thought I'd be with someone different. I prefer petite women, because I'm not so tall, and Irma is a couple inches taller than me. Also, I always saw myself with more of an artistic type, not an accountant like Irma."
"Are you serious?" I asked, thinking he was kidding. He wasn't. When he broke up with Irma a few months later, she was stunned. So were their families and all of their friends. While Irma nursed her broken heart, Gerald began dating a dancer he met at a party. She was petite, artistic, and ten years younger than Irma. Within six months Gerald and the dancer were married.
It was no great shock when Gerald called me a year later, wanting to talk about his marriage. "It's like living in a war zone," he said bitterly. "She fights with me about everything. She hates the house, she refuses to spend time with my family, and all she ever wants to do is hang out with her stupid dancer friends. Now she tells me she doesn't want children."
I was sorry to see Gerald in so much pain, but it was the inevitable outcome of his fantasy. He'd chosen his ideal package, but when he opened it up, he didn't like the real woman inside. Sadly, she wasn't his type at all.
Most people don't intend to be shallow about choosing a mate. The facade is important, because it's what you see in the first moment of attraction. It's also terribly seductive. When a beautiful woman or a dashing man chooses you, that's heady. When your partner is wealthy, accomplished, or famous, you feel elevated. These feelings are not wrong. The problem is, many people don't dig any deeper than that.
A woman I know broke up with a man she'd been seeing for several years. They had been engaged to be married, but it just hadn't worked out. Their parting was amicable, and I asked if they would remain friends. She said, "No. He's not someone I ever would have chosen as a friend." I thought, Wow! She'd been engaged to marry someone who wasn't even her friend. Their attraction was only skin-deep.
If you fall in love with his dreamy blue eyes or her silken auburn hair, there's a rude awakening ahead. If you are not marrying the soul of your partner, there will be nothing to hold you together when the facade becomes less appealing. Trust me. It will. I think of the woman who sat in my office, crying her eyes out because her husband of six years had told her he was physically repulsed by her. She'd been slender when they married, but had gained about twenty pounds during two pregnancies. He took it as a personal affront, saying, "You knew when we got married that being overweight was a deal breaker."
Life brings hardships, sickness, aging, and stresses that are beyond our ability to predict. Bodies sag and hair thins. People want to put their best face forward when they're courting, but you need to be able to see each other as you are beneath the facade.
Ask yourself: Do you like what you see on the inside as much as what you see on the outside?
2. LIE: The past is over.
TRUTH: The past is driving you to the chapel.
"My real life starts on my wedding day," Stacey told me firmly, explaining why she wasn't going to tell her fiance, Frank, about the child she'd borne out of wedlock and given up for adoption when she was sixteen. She wanted to permanently shut the door on her old mistakes and start life fresh with the man she loved.
"The question is, why are you not telling him?" I asked. "Do you worry that he'll think less of you? Will he consider it shameful, when in actuality it is sacred and meaningful? What does that say about him? About you? Why would you be willing to go underground with your own sacred story?"
Stacey had hoped that she could present herself at the altar, "new and improved," without the baggage of her past. Life doesn't work that way. When we say, "My life starts here," we deny the reality that the past is the limousine driving us to the chapel.
After our conversation, Stacey decided to tell Frank about the baby. It was a big risk, because although she trusted him, she felt her secret was so big it could cancel everything out. Later, she called me to tell me what had happened. Her voice was shaking.
"He hugged me," she exclaimed, and she started crying. "He said, 'That must have been so hard for you.'" She couldn't believe Frank's response-his capacity for empathy. In an instant, it changed her life and lifted her shame. Stacey had been unaware that her shame was not something he evoked, but what she had carried with her as a result of her own family's response to her teenage pregnancy and adoption. I call it shame being paid forward.
A couple came to see me on the verge of separation. Amy said she didn't trust her husband, John. When I tried to get to the bottom of what had triggered her lack of trust, it was revealed that John had told a big lie at the beginning of their relationship. Although he had been married and divorced twice, he'd told Amy he'd been married only once. He was afraid she wouldn't be interested in him if she knew the truth. Unfortunately, Amy found out about his second marriage at the worst possible time-when they applied for a marriage license. She was shocked but didn't put on the brakes. She didn't say, "Wait a minute. Who are you, really? Let's delay the wedding for a few months while I find out."
She convinced herself that his lie didn't matter. The wedding proceeded as planned. But from the first day of their marriage, she couldn't trust John. He, in turn, hid other details from her.
"I don't mean to lie," he said, "but ... I don't know." John looked at me helplessly.
"You're afraid if she knows the real you, she won't want you," I said.
Excerpted from LIES at the ALTAR by Robin L. Smith Copyright © 2006 by Dr. Robin L. Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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