Marriage Advice by Mom and Billy Bob

For all the well-meaning bits of advice I’ve gotten from really wise people about marriage, only two have been helpful to me so far. The first one came from a homeless man on the streets of Chicago. The second one came from my mom. (Go figure.)

“You the problem.” – Billy Bob

When I was an art student, I’d regularly have assignments at the Art Institute of Chicago. Billy Bob was one of the panhandlers on the corner by the crossing to the Institute. I’d catch him on my way back to school, buy him one of whatever I was having for lunch and ask him about his three daughters.

One day I was with Brian (my then-boyfriend, now husband) on the corner, studying a map of downtown and trying to find Garrett’s Popcorn. Billy Bob saved us from looking like tourists by pointing us in the right direction.

Then he said, in the manner of a preacher starting sermon, “Lemme tell ya’ll somethin’. If you,” he pointed at me “and you” then at Brian “got problems, and ya’ll break up and go find someone else, you gonna have the exact same problems, ‘cause you the problem. Can’t run from that.”

We got him a giant bag of the best cheese popcorn in the city for that bit of advice.

Don’t misunderstand me and think I’m saying if you’re in an abusive relationship you just have to fix yourself and everything will be fine. That’s a whole different set of rules that I’ve never had to deal with and couldn’t possibly understand.

But now when I’m dissatisfied with something in my marriage it’s harder to blame Brian. (Hard-er, not impossible – I’m human. I’d generally prefer someone else take responsibility for my problems.) ‘Cause I usually am the problem, or at least a significant part of the solution.

“There were times when we just wanted one of us to die, and we didn’t care which one.” – My Mom

Maybe you didn’t have the words for how hard marriage is, but now you do, because my mom said them. This is less a piece of advice to me than it is permission to admit that sometimes marriage is really, really shitty.

Nobody can prepare you for how hard it is. No book can neatly outline exactly how all your failings and all your spouse’s failings are going to collide in a big fiery ball right in your living room.

And for some reason, people keep telling me that having a good marriage means I should be happy all the time. That makes me feel like a failure when things get hard, not because I failed, but just because they’re hard.

Then I remember what my mom said, how she worked through it anyways and came out ok, and that makes me feel like maybe I’ll come out ok too.


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