To Save My Marriage, I Had To Stop Trying

by Natalie Feulner
A female and male hand placed one next to the other on a wooden table.

I blame my parents.

Their divorce made me believe that marriage was something guaranteed to work, if only you tried hard enough. For years, I watched them try. He apologizing; she giving him another chance. There were periods of unrest, fights and things thrown. Each was followed by a honeymoon of sorts. Dates were planned and babysitters called. Flowers and chocolates would appear on the kitchen table followed by a conversation with us kids the next morning about “marriage taking work” and “the importance of forgiveness.”

It was always cyclical and I never thought it would end.

But it did.

And because they tried so hard and still failed, I knew I’d have to try harder at my own marriage. For years, I perfected wifelihood. I cooked and cleaned. I made lunches for my husband to take to work with cutesy little notes that said things like, “Thanks for working so hard for us.” How nice, right?

But I also placed the burden of a successful marriage on myself. It worked, for a while at least. I’d have dinner on the table when he got home from work, and I’d stay up late planning at-home dates complete with handwritten invitations. He told me he appreciated it all and loved how much I showed him love. That fueled the fire. If he was noticing me go the extra mile, this could really work.

Then, I had a baby. Being a perfect wife became exponentially harder. He would come home to dirty diapers that didn’t quite make it to the garbage, a wife with bags under her eyes and milk stains on her too big T-shirt. But it wasn’t just the house and my appearance that fell apart. My emotional health went out the window. The baby cried all night, and it was my fault. Our marriage was doomed to fail if I didn’t “figure her out.” She only wanted me when she was upset, so I bought books about how much Baby loves Daddy and read them to her constantly.

I was failing at being a perfect wife and mother, but I didn’t know how to try any harder than I was. The moment of truth came during a particularly nasty fight. Like most fights between couples who’ve been married for any significant length of time, neither of us know how it started. But at one point, I was yelling that I was doing everything humanly possible to make our marriage work and I guessed it just wasn’t enough. What did he want? Better dinners? More money? A cleaner house? More sex?

No, he wanted me to stop trying so hard. In trying to be perfect, I was pushing the man I loved far away. Instead of watching a movie together or relaxing with him after work, I’d find myself anxiously flitting about the house putting away baby toys that were just going to be played with again the next day. I pushed friends away, inadvertently isolating myself, making me vulnerable to fits of loneliness and jealousy when he told me about fun happenings in his own social life.

Our marriage still isn’t perfect, but these days, I’ve stopped perfecting. I still send notes in his lunch. But I also make him pack it if I’m too busy. If I want to finish just one more episode of Modern Family, the dishes can wait—until he comes home and does them, if necessary.

In letting go of being in control, I’ve found myself falling head over heels again for the man I fell in love with nearly 10 years ago—the one who I didn’t have to worry about cooking for to impress him, the one who loves me completely and wholly for who I am. And the one who reassures me more than he should have to that we won’t be my parents.