I used to be a free spirit with a laissez-faire attitude toward most things that fell in the category of “practical stuff.” I was the kind of person who would drop everything on a last minute invitation to backpack in some far-out-of-the-way place. I wasn’t too uptight about paying my bills on time or making sure the toilet paper never ran out. I was fun. I was carefree. I was single and childless.
But once I became a wife and mom, I pivoted. Driven by the same concerns and responsibilities that most new moms face, I became a worrier and a list-maker. The keeper of the family calendar and the much-discussed “mental load.” Just like on those forms you fill out at a new pediatrician’s office: I became the responsible party.
Yes, this is par for the course. Yes, many moms would say they’re the exact same way. But you have to understand, my 180 was extreme. I embraced my new ways wholeheartedly and dove into the role of caregiver. Consequently, my brain grew quite full of my family’s many needs. And I was good at holding all these needs. At any moment, I’d know that my son required new shoes and a field trip chaperone for Friday. My daughter needed a dermatology appointment and a heart-to-heart about a friend issue. My husband’s driver’s license was about to expire so I’d remind him about it a dozen times before he’d get around to doing something as simple as visiting the DMV website. Scratch that. He’d never remember, so I’d just go online and do it all for him.
And that system worked okay for us. Sure, I’d sometimes wonder where all my energy had gone, but I also took pride in my ability to juggle everything. Sometimes my husband would get annoyed at my frequent nagging and by the fact that I stepped in to do many of the adulting tasks that should have been on his list. But, mostly, he used the freed up time to perfect his fantasy baseball lineup. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a great dad who works really hard for all of us. But after kids, he and I took on our respective roles because it seemed easier and because—it turns out—I excelled at taking care of everyone. Like a lot of couples, we fell into a pattern.
And none of this was weird to me. Just as I’d grown accustomed to anticipating my children’s needs, I’d grown accustomed to anticipating my husband’s needs. I feared that if I backed off even a little bit, he’d let a ball drop and we’d be left without health insurance, or our car would get repossessed. So to quell my own anxiety, I kept doing all the things.
But my relationship with my husband suffered. My behavior enabled him to not take responsibility for his own health and happiness, which isn’t good for anybody. As for me… I believed that I was the only one capable of taking care of everyone in our family. In other words, I became a martyr—which, in case you were wondering—is very unsexy.
So, one day, I chose to let it all go.
A perfect storm of circumstances brought me to the conclusion that I can—and should—cease all nagging, encouraging, and doing for my husband. First was the fact that he and I ended up living in different states for three months; the kids and I moved ahead of him to a new home, and he remained at his old job until a project was finished. And during that time—when I didn’t collect his dry cleaning, or pressure him to go to the gym, or call in his prescription refills, or remind him when his car needed gas—he survived. Maybe not according to my exact standards, but no matter. And our long-distance relationship felt better; it was less clouded over by the minutiae of everyday life, less bogged down by the many things I was keeping track of for him. It felt less… well… less codependent. And I kinda liked it.
The second thing that moved me on this issue was reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, which — despite the fact that it’s absolutely written from a guy’s perspective for other guys — contains a lot of wisdom, including a lot on the importance of boundaries in a healthy relationship.
Now, I’d heard of boundaries before, but I also come from a long line of people who wouldn’t recognize a healthy boundary if it jumped up in their faces, screaming, “I’m a healthy boundary!” Truthfully, I didn’t understand the concept until Manson laid it out in utterly simple terms: His sh*t is his sh*t, and mine is mine. That is, I shouldn’t try to solve my husband’s problems any more than I should move into my kids’ future college dorms and spoon-feed them mashed bananas. I don’t know why it finally clicked—maybe Manson has a gift for teaching relationship skills. Maybe I was just ready, finally, to hear it.
I guess I’m a bit slow, but I’ve been coming to truly understand that I’m responsible for my own health, happiness, and functionality as an adult human, and that my husband is responsible for his. If he needs help, he can ask. Otherwise, it’s his job to take care of all of his own stuff so that I can take care of mine; then, we can parent our children together. I’m not doing anyone a favor by pretending I can run his life better than he can.
What’s more, I’m not responsible for his moods. He can be happy, annoyed, eager, resentful, or sad, and it’s not my responsibility to do triage on the way he feels, or to fix or change anything. I can empathize while making my own choices about how to show up in that moment. His moods are not mine.
You know, boundaries.
It’s been good for our relationship and for my own mental wellbeing to relinquish my tight grip on what I thought my husband needed from me. Turns out, he didn’t need it at all. So that’s my secret weapon for a healthy marriage: I. Learned. To. Back. Off. Now I let my husband’s license expire. I let him make his own decisions and—sometimes—mistakes. I started trusting him to figure out his own priorities and plans. And our relationship feels more alive because of it.