The grace to grow



Over a decade ago I, a freshly minted high school teacher, married a handsome young American medical student. Both fresh out of University, we had plans to travel, probably get a cat instead of kids, work and maybe even live overseas—New York always sounded good. There were many plans. A couple of handfuls of years later and I’m a writer and history lecturer who is now married to a filmmaker. I’ve travelled a bit, got a dog two months ago, and have two wild boys (human) running around my house—which is in Sydney, not New York.

Those two couples have so little in common. Most of their ideals have changed, they have realised that life is full of grey areas, that finding your place is hard and veering down the overgrown, less travelled path is even harder. In fact the only thing they do have in common is that they are exactly the same people. Oh, and they still love each other.

I hadn’t thought about marriage very much when I walked down the aisle into it. It was something nebulous, something with a warm filter over the top of it—a place where the flowers never died. What it actually was—was pressurised. I discovered we had dozens of responsibilities—we were paying rent, electricity, we had to feed ourselves, make sure our car worked (it often didn’t) and on top of all of that, we discovered that my husband couldn’t work in Australia until he completed an expensive and lengthy accreditation course so that he could work as a nurse while he finished his medical degree. He hated it. Hated it enough that his entire life-plan changed in those few months. It was something neither of us had anticipated and suddenly paying the rent and feeding ourselves was more of a problem than we had counted on.

It wasn’t a reinvention for him. He had always loved story and film. For him the change in direction fit perfectly with changing countries and getting married—it was a fresh start. For me—it was earth-shaking. I was now the sole provider and I was working two jobs watching the man I had all packaged up and labelled, breaking out and wandering off around the world to make documentaries and films … without me.

I felt, to my core, that his growth as an artist diminished me. I felt less as he became more.

Sure, I still loved him. But I didn’t feel as though I had any idea how to be a part of a partnership with him. I didn’t know how to allow myself to evolve separately and still stay close to each other. It was an emotionally swampy mess of a time and I approached it without grace.

Finding our identity is hard enough on our own. We are both lucky and blessed to live in a country and a time where we have a great many options about who we want to be and how we want to live and if we find that a part of our lives isn’t working for us—we can change it. We can explore new career paths, learn new skills, make new friends. But none of it is easy. There is a sense of being in an over-lit change room, naked and surrounded by mirrors, each exposing flaws you’d forgotten you had.

In a marriage you are negotiating two of these complex journeys and trying to make sure they stay intertwined. What if they come to love something you have no interest in at all? What if you develop different political passions? What if your partner fails at the one thing they desperately want? Worse—what happens if your partner becomes incredibly successful, and you don’t? According to psychoanalyst Beverly Engel, when their partner’s identity evolves or shifts people tend give up a part of themselves to make things work in the new dynamic. People tend to try and fit in with the new identity of their partner, whether it suits them or not, just to make things work. And this rarely succeeds. When you try to conform to someone else’s identity you can lose your own, and as Eckhart Tolle said, “When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.” Trying to fit someone else’s identity will leave you depleted and empty and your partner may feel exhausted by having to be the centre of your world.

The importance of continually developing and expanding your identity as an individual within marriage is as important as realising that this identity will change as time passes. I didn’t realise this until I became pregnant with my son. And it wasn’t the pregnancy that really gave me an understanding of the way identity changes, though motherhood is one of the greatest shifts in identity any woman will face. What changed things for me, was leaving my job. I realised in the space of walking away from something I thought I would do for most of my life, that I wasn’t that person anymore. That I wanted to do something different. This gave me a new understanding of my husband’s explorations of his own identity. I wanted to write, and the shake up of having a child gave me the chance to reconfigure a life that allowed me to do it. We forged our new paths separately as a writer and a filmmaker, but also together as creatives and parents. I climbed out of my swamp by realising that as time passes, we change or we stagnate.

When someone changes it is a chance to love them all over again, to learn from them and to push them to be better.

It is also a chance to allow yourself to be inspired, and supported. I also found that in stepping away from the fear of being left behind, I understood that the journey isn’t about who is ahead or behind, it is about being beside each other, and having the grace to allow the other to grow their own way.

So we wrote and we made short films. We changed nappies and were broke together and we became a new partnership. We found that there is a tremendous serendipity in supporting others in finding their place. My first novel was published just six months before his first feature film was released and with those cocoon emergences came new identities again, ones that this time, we were ready to see for what they were—not threatening to our partnership, but just the next evolution of it. We found the truth in the wise and beautiful words of Michael Wood, who said that identity is “always in the making, never made.”


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