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“Who's in my Corner?” (marriage issues)

Marriage  experts agree that relationships are affected when spouses have  differing views of money, religion, and how they should discipline their  children. But when it comes to parentless parents—and the men and women  they’re married to—I think marriage experts are overlooking a critical  factor: the differing experiences of parental loss. No matter what our  backgrounds and experiences, losing our parents has the potential to  shape us as mothers and fathers and husbands and wives as much, I think,  as anything else.

Which  is why, according to the Parentless Parents Survey, nearly 50 percent  of all respondents feel their spouses don’t appreciate what it’s like  for them to be a parentless parent. And, it’s precisely the reason  parentless parents say they’re much more likely (nearly doubly so, in  fact) to find the kind of support they’re looking for among friends who  have also lost their parents—than their own husbands and wives.

This  could explain why even the ordinary task of choosing a baby’s name can  be so problematic. “Naming our daughter was a horrible process,” Amy, a  former journalist told me in an email. She and her husband, Bruce,  struggled for years to have a child, eventually conceiving with the help  of a donor egg. “I wanted her middle name to be my maiden name. My  husband was furious, saying that I was ‘stealing’ his chance to name his  child. He demanded that we have two middle names so that he could  choose a name too. Never mind that she already had his last name, and  genes, and that his parents would play a huge role in her life. I felt  two middle names detracted from the honor to my parents. How could he  not get that giving her this middle name was an important way to honor  my family? Eventually, I guilted him into legally dropping the middle  name he wanted. The name is still a sore spot in our marriage. I am  STILL stunned a year and a half later by his lack of understanding.”

In  some cases, parentless parents are just less willing to compromise. Amy  dug in her heels. Catherine Hays wasn’t prepared to negotiate her “core  values.” And Colleen Orme, the mom from Virginia with those three  sports-crazed boys, refused to settle.

About  twenty years into her marriage, Colleen’s husband, Tom, started pulling  away, and nothing she could do seemed to bring him back. The rift got  so bad the two separated for four months. “I didn’t want to be  roommates. I wasn’t interested in staying in an unhappy marriage.  Emotional intimacy is very, very important to me because of the loss of  my parents. I don’t think we have all the time in the world like  everybody else thinks they do, and I want to make the most of it.” While  the couple has since reunited, and Colleen still refers to Tom as the  love of her life, she says she’ll call it quits for good if their  relationship deteriorates again. “I know from personal experience that  life can be over in a flash. I’m not interested in wasting time.”

No  matter how much a couple tries, some marriages simply don’t make it.  Julie Hallman in Florida was married when I first met her, but told me  during the writing of this book that she and her husband were getting  divorced. Both Catherine and Julie say the fact that they’re parentless  parents, and their spouses are not, contributed to the termination of  their marriages.

But grief can also make relationships stronger. Scott Stanly, co-author of the book Fighting for Your Marriage and codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the  University of Denver says spouses can adjust to differing experiences of  loss in much the same way couples fine-tune their relationships after  one partner develops drastically different interests. “We call these  changes ‘world-view differences.’ When a wife decides to become a vegan.  When a husband abandons or changes religion. These represent major  shifts, just like losing a parent, that redefine you as a person and  change who you are as a spouse. Couples are rarely on the same path  throughout a marriage. Those who recognize the differences and accept  them, not resent them, will have more success than others.”

Ultimately,  I’ve come to terms with the fact that Mark and I have been forced down  different roads. I’m even glad. I know all too well what we would have  had to go through if we’d been able to walk arm-in-arm.

One  day Mark will know much more fully what I’ve been feeling—perhaps not  everything, but at least more of it—and I will be there for him, just as  he’s been there so willingly for me. In the meantime, and even though I  love him completely, I still feel as if I’m standing alone and there’s a  sharpshooter trained on my side of the family. One by one the gunman  lines us up, fixes us in his crosshairs, and takes us down. I parent  with the expectation that I’ll be next, and it’s because of this that I  mother the way I do. I need to create memories. I must teach lessons. I  have to be both parent and grandparent to my children.

Mark doesn't bear the same fear or urgency. He can just be.

Pp. 149-151. Excerpted from: "PARENTLESS PARENTS - How the Loss of our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children" by permission of the author, Allison Gilbert. Published by Hyperion. Copyright 2011.

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