As I was preparing for my first wedding, a wise married friend said, “People are going to give you a lot of advice — and bowls.”
She was right. When you’re getting married, many people feel compelled to present you with a vast number of tasteful dining receptacles at a mid-range price point. Additionally, they will tell you all the stuff they believe has helped or hindered their own unions. While most of it is perfectly reasonable (“Don’t forget to appreciate the little things,” “Respect each other,” “Never go to bed angry”), hardly any of it is useful when you find yourself, a few years later, resenting the hell out of your husband for going out and getting drunk while you tend to a colicky baby. Or for continually forgetting to splash out the sink after shaving.
No, the only good advice anyone ever gave me about marriage came from that same wise friend, and it was this: Bite your tongue. Bite it early and bite it often. A peaceful marriage is mostly about letting stuff go — not big stuff, you understand, but little stuff that can quickly snowball into big stuff if you don’t learn to silently breathe instead of snapping out whatever is crackling through your overtired mind.
I know whereof I speak because I have been married twice, and the first time, it was over before it began (we divided the bowl collection and parted). There were many reasons for the split, but the major one, on my part, was a refusal to follow my wise friend’s advice. My mistake was that I believed the whole point of marriage — and indeed of life — was that I should have permission to simply “be myself.” And while it’s true that pretense can be tiring, the fact is most of us have more than one “true self” that we offer to the world: There’s a work self, a home self, an out-with-friends self and a bumping-into-Jamie-Dornan-in-the-elevator self (which is to say a fantasy self).
Most of us are many different people crammed into one body, and the challenge of life is to present the best version of ourselves at every opportunity, especially at home. Instead, what happens in many marriages (and it certainly happened in my first) is that people often start presenting their worst self to their partners in the mistaken idea that this self — the bitchy, cranky, tired and angry self — is the most “real.” Meanwhile, our other selves — the charming, funny, flirty, helpful, curious, engaged selves — are the “fake” selves to be saved for company, like the fancy decorative soaps your mother wouldn’t let you wash your hands with as a child.
Turns out I had it the wrong way around. The best self is actually the self we should be presenting to our spouses most of the time. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to relax or let our guard down in our own homes, but the opposite: that in order to create a feeling of safety and joy in our relationships, we should strive to be more patient, more understanding, more empathetic and more fun with our chosen partner than with anyone else. Because isn’t that the whole point of companionship?
The question, of course, is how to do this. How do we routinely step up for our loved ones — the people who most deserve it? I didn’t stumble upon the answer (or a version of it) until after I’d had a baby with my second husband. I was on a strict writing schedule to complete the first draft of a long-overdue novel. And because I am a freelancer, I had taken on a few other writing jobs to help pay the mortgage and child care costs, even though I was also breastfeeding around the clock. Exhausted and stretched to my very limit, I realized my baby — whom I loved so terribly that it felt like prodding a fresh bruise — had absolutely zero interest in how busy and stressed out I was. All he knew was that he needed me, and it was up to me to decide how to respond.
Would I give my son my anxious, worn-out “real” self? Or would I dig deep into my psyche to find that lovely, fragrant, unspoiled bit of decorative soap I’d been saving up for someone special like him?
In the absence of feeling like a confident mother, I simply pretended to be one. I smiled and cooed and cuddled and bathed and fed my son when what I wanted to do most was collapse face first into bed and cry myself into 20 hours of unbroken oblivion. I faked it hard and I faked it well. And the more I did, the more honest I felt. I quickly understood that my infant son didn’t really care about the “real me,” and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. By caring for him, and by effectively sublimating my own wants and needs, I was becoming a better version of myself. I wasn’t just faking it to make it. I was changing into the person I wanted to be, simply by pretending to be her.
As this was going on, I was writing a novel with a parallel story. A Better Man follows the early mid-life crisis of Nick Wakefield, an unhappily married workaholic who wants out of his decade-long marriage. On the advice of his lawyer and in order to ensure a better divorce settlement, Nick pretends to be the perfect husband for six months. He encourages his wife, Maya, an anxious, perfectionistic stay-at-home mother, to resume her demanding career as a lawyer; he spends an unprecedented amount of time with his young children and generally quits acting like a jerk.
But with Nick’s ruse comes an astonishing change of heart. To his own enormous surprise, he transforms into the better man he was cynically pretending to be. Suddenly his life is perfect. Until Maya finds out it was all a lie and leaves him for good — after which he must convince his wife that what began as a mask has become his true face.
And while it works as a fictional conceit, I think the same lesson holds true in the rather less dramatic realm of real life and real relationships. My second marriage, though far from perfect (how can it be, when I’m a part of it?), has proven a calmer place than my first. Some part of this, I’m convinced, has to do with how much better I am at biting my tongue and pretending to be a good partner even when I’m feeling not quite amazing. It’s as difficult to compare marriages as it is to compare cultures, but when I once would not have concealed my dismay at, say, a dirty sink, now I just get over it. Small children also do wonders for lowering domestic expectations, it must be said.
I haven’t become one of those happy-clappy smug marrieds endlessly posting holiday pics of my perfect, tanned family on social media. I’m still prone to dark humour and general complaint. But I’ve learned that the only way to become your better self is to simply act like it. I can’t say I’m there yet, but I’m faking it as best I can. As decorative soaps go, I scrub up good.
This piece was originally published in 2015.
A Better Man, Leah McLaren, $20.