Blackberries – Part Three

Photo above of local blackberry bushes, taken by the author

Read Part One here

Read Part Two here

Pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted.

Richard Rohr

Our break came to an abrupt end in June for a number of practical reasons. We’d been living apart for three months. We hadn’t made any solid commitment to each other, and didn’t have any clarity around what a ‘better marriage’ would look like, or how on earth to create one. I was unnerved, but we cannot separate our emotional experiences from the reality of existing in the world – work to do, food to buy and prepare and eat, money to save, and without any close family in the city we live in, a dwindling group of friends who had the space (physically and mentally) to host a housemate for an indeterminate period of time.

And yet… and yet. Mum kept saying to me, “Day by day, Jemma. And if that’s too hard, then just take it hour by hour.” And as with all Mums, she was right. We took things day by day. Conversation by conversation. It is a wonderful mantra, and it was exceptionally hard for me, as a Type A.

I talked with many people who helped me see that the marriage I was living was not what I had been promised. My faith had lied to me. And for that, I was allowed to express my disillusionment, my grief, my rage. But it was not fair, right or kind to take those emotions out on my husband. I had a responsibility to claim my story, but in order to grow as a human and as a wife, I needed to take ownership of my behaviour.

I tried to put into practice a new approach with an old husband; I had to start living out what I had learned in the time by myself. The break forced me to face up to how little I know, how small-minded and dogmatic and arrogant and cruel I am. Some of my ways of being needed to change, and that was hard. I was rewiring neurons and breaking habits. I was leaving behind behaviours I’d had modelled to me since childhood.  I was considering how my actions or words would impact JCB. I was relearning what kind, generous and gentle meant.

Image from Ruby Jones’ All Of This Is For You

So this, this, was what change felt like. It was hard. I have failed more times than I have succeeded. In this unlearning (deconstruction, if you will), I had every right to feel betrayed by a religion that had sold me a lie. But as I wrote earlier, I couldn’t stay wallowing in resentment or bitterness.

She may not have been able to choose what happened to her, but she did get to choose what it was going to mean.

p. 17, Shameless
Nadia Bolz-Weber

Even though mundane practicalities felt like they robbed our next step of the depth and reverence I was expecting it to hold, I got to choose how to interpret our separation and our coming back together again. I got to decide what “right” and “good” and “healthy” and “whole” was for me. This time, it included JCB.

A ring and a vow and a shared last name are symbols for what we promised each other years ago. We could have broken those promises for the best. If I understood multiverses, I think there’s a time and place in which we do. And, more importantly, it would not be wrong. It would have led to heartbreak and loneliness and that achingly hollow feeling of grief and maybe even regret… and also freedom from monogamy and permission to chase wild experiences and discovering new depths of bravery within ourselves. It will never be perfect, but it (life, relationships, creativity, divorce, family, spirituality, sex, friendships, career, wholeness) is what we make it.

Whoever we choose, we’re giving up something else. I am still trying to be a better human and a better wife, to relearn behaviours. I now expect every day to require effort – not in a despairing way, but in a realistic way. Because I am still failing, but no-one has a right to expect perfection. In The Course of Love, the best relationship book I’ve ever read, philosopher Alain de Botton writes that “there can only ever be a ‘good enough’ marriage.” He pulls on this thread in his New York Times article, ‘Why We Will Marry the Wrong Person’ – the most read article on their website the year Trump was elected.

“We need to swap the Romantic view [of marriage] for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

And it’s true. More than before, JCB and I now make a conscious choice to be with each other. Every day. Living separately, while exploring separation, together (what a weird sentence) instead brought a deep gratitude for the simple daily act of waking up next to each other. It was love, fed by smouldering embers instead of white-hot emotion or reticulated gas regularity. We still bicker and tease one another and get annoyed that the washing didn’t get hung out and gladly point out each other’s inconsistencies. We are starting to rebuild trust and solve for our lack of intimacy, but this marriage will never fully satisfy either of us – our break helped me to see that no marriage could do that, even with the strongest foundations in the world (whatever that means).

So how did we know that we were on the other side of this… experience? Slowly but surely, over the weeks that followed, winter slowly gave way to spring, and we softened and compromised. We chose to the variety of suffering that meant that each day, we would stay together. There wasn’t an agreement, or a recommitment ceremony, or even a ‘Define the Relationship’ conversation. We are not magically fixed. We still find almost everything hard. And still, one evening comes to mind for me.

10th October 2022.

The practical separation that JCB’s trip in March offered us was one of the catalysts for our break – if you remember, he was heading overseas to see his family. And so, that Monday night in Spring, way past my bedtime, I booked to travel 14,000 kilometres with my husband to see his family in 2023. Together. And it felt right.

We’ll start packing for that trip next week. And when we get back, it’ll be right on blackberry season.

I can’t wait.

I tell my patients that most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person.

After the Storm
Esther Perel

HT: My Dad sent me a NYT article a few days before JCB moved back in. Tish Harrison Warren put words to what I could not, and gave me the courage to take another deep breath, and to show up both to my marriage and the page – bruised, broken, and trying my best to be brave.

One Reply to “Blackberries – Part Three”

  1. Wow – what a journey of discovery! What you write is bourne out of long periods of (often painful) self-reflection, and this has clearly led to honesty with self and others. This honesty redefines the reality (or our stories of reality) in our heads, helping us to re-engage with the world with truth.

    I love the discovery you have made that the ‘romanticised’ story of relationship is just not honest. Relationships are the hardest things to maintain and I hate watching couples struggle with a sense of failure when their own experience does match the stories in the fairy tales. That we are honest about the fact that relationships are really painful at times is important, as is the belief that they are also worth fighting for too.

    Thanks Jemma for all you have shared here.

    Enjoy the blackberries!

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