marriage

Money-smart, marriage-smart.

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My husband and I left the room after two hours, spent, hungry and light-headed. Had we been arguing, engaging in “afternoon delight,” or working out? Nope. Just talking about money. We joked that we were “divorce-proofing” our marriage

I wasn’t always money-smart. My family didn’t buy lottery tickets, but somehow believed money would magically appear. Budgeting was for the bourgeoisie. My father spent as he wished, while my mother fretted, saved and arranged deck chairs as their ship slowly sank. Though they recovered financially, I was imprinted by their mixed messages.

Additionally, I was a math-phobic child. Multiplication tables caused me to white out with fear. I failed math every year of high school, barely passing it in summer school. My math illiteracy led to an avoidance of anything financial.

In my first marriage I was frugal, but like my parents, mostly ignorant or in denial about the state of our finances. My then-husband would tell me cash was low and not to spend until a check cleared. Instead, I’d hear “The apocalypse is coming. Buy cereal, toiletries and paper towels,” and overdraw our account.

I regularly engaged in financial infidelity — hiding purchases and misrepresenting my income. Yet, we rarely argued. Discussions about money were off-limits. Clearly, I had baggage I wasn’t ready to unpack. Money avoidance was only one of our issues, but a metaphor for lack of intimacy and transparency in other areas. For 25 years we arranged deck chairs on our own sinking barge. In 2006, I jumped ship to a new life.

My first act of financial transformation was preparing a budget for the divorce lawyers. I was terrified to find out my true fiscal state, and wrangled a girlfriend to walk me through this basic skill. I felt like that kid who kept failing math.

As we plugged in the numbers, I was stunned to find that a modest apartment, saving for both retirement and a down payment for a house were actually affordable. Expenses that didn’t matter anymore were gleefully slashed, like cable TV or a new car — making room for such luxuries as hair foiling, eating out and vacations. This math was fun!

As I started dating, I developed a checklist of desired attributes. At 46 years-old I got to pick. He didn’t have to be rich, but his finances couldn’t be a hot mess either — that was my old life.

My new boyfriend Dave and I had many wonderful things in common, but some not so lovely. We shared a fear of money and a checkered financial history. Aside from a small car loan, I had strangled the debt goose, but Dave still had money troubles; a good deal of debt and an upside-down mortgage. Though most of the debt was due to his late wife’s illness, his balance sheet was a yellow flag to me.

It wasn’t romantic, but some of our early discussions were about finances. Turns out, my new love was naturally frugal, but didn’t like to say no to his significant other — a recipe for money problems. I, on the other hand, was a spender, and splurged when fearing scarcity — often on useless items or impulse buys.

Instead of pre-marital counseling, we took a budgeting class together. We unearthed our inner money nerds and worked on changing bad habits — excruciating at first. The angriest we ever got with each other was in structuring our debt repayment. Having hit a wall, we hired a financial coach with Solomon-like wisdom to referee. Resolved and secure we were on the same page financially, we became one in the eyes of God, the law, and our bank account.

By tightening our belts, living in a cheap apartment and driving beater cars, we were debt-free in three years. Five years later, we are now on our way to paying off our simple home and securing a bright financial future. We still make mistakes, “forget” to mention purchases and impulse-buy on occasion, but quickly right the vessel.

Dave and I trust each other and don’t have secrets; it’s the basis of intimacy. Full-disclosure financially has also required us both to put our oars in the water and pull in the same direction — good for any couple. And that’s a ship neither of us are likely to jump.

 

In praise of cracking up.

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I was a happy but nervous child. Either hardwired or nurtured that way, I remember plucking out all my eyelashes at the age of seven, just to handle the anxiety — jumpy as a flea on a drowning dog.

Our home was loving, but chaotic and alcohol-influenced. Christmas was the worst. My understaffed mother was overwhelmed with choosing, purchasing, affording and wrapping gifts for six kids. It did her in every year with a torrent of tears and drama. Though my father was a structural engineer and made a lot of money (buying plenty of expensive cars, toys and alcohol) there never seemed to be much for clothing or gifts.

As the first-born girl in an Irish-Catholic family I felt accountable for, well, just about everything. The house was a mess? Clean it up. No money for clothes? Get a job at 12 and buy my own. I was hyper-responsible, taking on the emotional burdens of everyone around me, including trying to raise my two younger sisters and joining an oppressive, controlling Pentecostal church to provide the parenting backup I felt we needed. Mine was a short and serious childhood.

As a teen, I never dated, but married at twenty, short-circuiting a normal social life, and having no fun in college. I only wanted to work and become an advertising star, make my family proud and support my husband through his education. However, having two children by the age of 27 sidelined any desire to be a famous art director.

Becoming the next female Darrin Stephens was not to be, but I would excel as a volunteer in a lot of activities: elder in the Presbyterian Church, Bible study teacher, program creator in an advertising club and as a Rotarian. Trying to be everything to everyone, I freelanced to stay at home with the kids, make money and be Supermom.

As a life-long singer, music was an outlet at first, but at mid-life became a compulsion. I was recording my second CD under an impossible deadline with a bi-polar producer who kept losing everything — including much of the work we did. Money was running out and my husband’s patience was fraying. I could almost hear the thin cloth of my marriage ripping apart.

A combination of willpower and terrifying obligation got me though my CD release party, but afterward, the wheels really came off the wagon.

It started with muscle twitches and then I couldn’t sleep or eat — visibly trembling. An emergency room visit determined my problems were probably psychological, not physical. A visit to a neurologist confirmed it. I was sick, but it was all in my head.

The nervous tremors were now accompanied by agoraphobia and cluster panic attacks. Previously extroverted, now I couldn't even bear to leave the house. My first anxiety attack occurred in a grocery store. The bright lights and noise became unbearable. My body felt as though jolts of electricity were shooting through it. I thought everyone could see it. After that, all I wanted to do was stay home, but home was not a sanctuary. Unable to sleep other than for minutes at a time, when it did come, slumber was jagged and filled with nightmares.

While accepting that my illness was mental and not Parkinson’s, MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease was a relief, imagining everyone losing respect for me was horrific. The self-perception as a world-beater was quickly deflating. Making my life an admirable and unassailable structure had failed.

One morning, I laid on my bed, limbs stretched out to the edges like a starfish and thought ”I’ve lost my marriage, the respect of my kids, most of my clients and any idea of who I am. I am nothing.”  After 42 years, I gave up on being the perfect wife, mother, volunteer, daughter, artist. I finally surrendered and it felt … unbelievably good.

Breathing was easy and my body felt as weightless as a dry leaf. The sun shone bright through the bedroom windows, creating warm patches on the down comforter. Everything was perfect and complete. I was perfect and complete! That moment set me free.

A friend had once asked who I was without my accomplishments. There was no answer. Doing nothing meant being nothing. It was unthinkable. It was stunning to now realize I loved and respected myself in spite of cracking up and letting everything fall apart — fulfilling no one’s expectations, not even my own.

Healing was slow. A psychiatrist prescribed an anti-depressant and a tranquilizer, and while useful at first, meditation, dietary changes and a measured life soon replaced them. In a few months I was calm, mindful and definitely not back to normal.

Many changes resulted from that breakdown. Though I did lose my marriage, my career picked up where it left off, and the respect of my kids, family and friends were still there for me. The biggest changes besides peace and sanity were a new understanding of and compassion for mental illness, its causes, and the part balance plays in healing.

Though occasionally trapped by someone else's expectations, or volunteering reflexively for something that “must be saved,” I am no longer swept along in a slipstream of real or imagined expectations of others, setting my own course.

I had been on a mindless, relentless path to redeem my childhood and family legacy and finally got off. Life never looked so good or free.

On being loved fully and outrageously, like I deserve.

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First, a confession. For the first 40 years of my life, I did not feel worthy to be loved romantically. I projected an aura of superiority and self-confidence, but inside felt unlovable and undesirable. A lot of women do. We internalize slights from middle and high school and hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We find ourselves lacking.

What cured me of self-loathing? At first it was becoming a musician and singing out publicly — finding a passion and that audiences liked me, they really liked me, as Sally Field once said. This flew in the face of my old story about being unattractive. Secondly, it was going through a painful, unwanted divorce.

To heal I needed to fully love myself, faults and all. Early in the separation a memorable moment occurred in front of a full-length mirror. I assessed my body and finally embraced its beauty, uniqueness and flaws. I loved it — and me, completely.

Loving myself was an important step to being loved, but before dating, I also needed to map out what a successful relationship would look like, so I created a vision statement for my new life. It painted a verbal picture of my new home; the atmosphere, art and music that would live there — the social life, vacations and spirituality I’d pursue.

I also envisioned the man in my life. He would be kind, hospitable, generous and fit. I imagined a mutually loving relationship with a lot of sex and affection. I wanted a man who adored me, would lay it all down for me, put me first and powerfully desire me. I shot not only for the stars but the whole dazzling Milky Way before even setting a foot in the dating swamp. This became the road map for my future.

A friend who had been single for many years warned about the lack of prospects in our hometown. “There are no good men. They are all taken. The only ones left are losers. Trust me — I’ve dated them.” I envisioned better for myself. I reckoned it was only a matter of time before Mr. Right came into my life. The key was to not be entangled with Mr. Wrong when he finally appeared. The more I loved myself, the easier it was to lose the Mr. Wrongs. And while setting the bar high might result in singlehood, alone and happy was better than coupled and miserable. The bar stayed high.

It didn't drop with that first man I dated who noted I was “loving and feminine onstage, but vulgar and boorish offstage.” Bye. It remained high with the wealthy but incurious man with only one thing on his mind and it wasn't quantum physics. He was stopped at the second date. Significantly, the bar didn’t lower when dating the well-off, fit and sexy plumber who had anger and jealousy problems. It was sad, but I ended it and was alone again.

Dave was not an obvious choice. He was a recent widower of a dear family friend. He was an artist like I was and quiet, probing, funny and smart. We started out as supportive friends with no thought of dating while I kept looking for Mr. Right. To our surprise, over time our friendship became romantic. We were remarkably compatible, sharing interests in museums, theater and music. We both loved to read, travel, entertain and wanted to create a house filled with love, respect and generosity. Most important, Dave wanted me — was willing to do anything to get me. Nothing came before me. The more he loved me, the lower my defenses became and the more I loved him back.

Newly single, I'd been told that “statistic” that a middle-aged woman had as much chance of remarrying as getting struck by lightning. But, that was a mindset of scarcity and desperation. Instead, I determined there would be abundance and love in my new life, if not specifically a new man. However, it turned out that accepting myself fully, envisioning an ideal life and keeping high standards became the magic path to the love of my life.

 

12 tips for being an epic wife.

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Have you ever wondered what makes a good, or even great wife? How about an epic wife? One that Dictionary.com describes as being “heroic; majestic; and “impessively great.” How did I learn to be one? First, by leaving my husband.

We had been married 22 years and I was temping in a retail tile shop. It led to an unexpected revelation; all the couples that came into the store had better marriages than we did — more respectful, kind and polite. They consulted each other; were partners and friends — so unlike the adversarial, chilly roommates my husband and I had become. I wanted what they had. I knew then my marriage needed to change or be over.

But it was too late for us. In time we divorced and I found a new husband — taking the first (and most important) step to becoming an epic wife:

  1. Pick right: Unfortunately, for some, this might be like closing the barn door after the horse got out, but it bears saying; choose a man who is worthy of you: kind, hard-working, free of addictions and is devoted. Trying to be an epic wife to a cad, an addict, or a man who doesn’t really love you is a losing prospect.
  2. Enjoy sex: If you don’t like sex, it's difficult to be an epic wife. Epic wives realize that most men are very sexual beings, and while a lot of woman require wining, dining and flowers to be in the mood, most men just want you to show up naked. For God's sake, give him regular sex and enjoy it while you’re at it. And, how about actually thinking about sex (not about the grocery list) while you’re having it?
  3. Look fabulous: Did I say skinny? Nope. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new Mom and feel like a sack of potatoes. Take the body you have right now and find clothes that are flattering and inspire confidence. Men do not notice those extra pounds, so long as you are well-groomed, working at fitness and feel good about yourself.
  4. Get well: Are you miserable? Don’t dump it on your man. Got issues? See a shrink. Grew up in an alcoholic home? Attend Al-Anon. Too fat? Weight Watchers. Drink too much? Get thee to AA. PMS? They have drugs for that. Men are natural problem solvers — women mull things over. And over. We might circle around our issues for decades before getting help. Do him a favor and fix yourself. It’s not his job.
  5. Look at him with love: Smile at him at him like when you were first dating, with admiration, fascination, passion and desire. Forget the dirty socks on the floor and the oil change he forgot to schedule. Forget his flaws and discard old history. The world can be a soul-crushing place. Your genuine smile may be the only one your husband sees all day. showering him with warmth and acceptance. It makes you feel better, too.
  6. Ditch the backup plan: It’s been said, if you want to take the island, burn the boats. If you have no alternative for escaping your marriage, you will find a way to make it work. So, say goodbye to old loves, social groups that don’t support you being a couple, or friends that don’t like him. As they say in poker, go “all in.”
  7. Listen to him: Turn off the TV, your cell phone, get off Facebook, put the kids to bed and listen. Ask how his day was and really hear what he has to say. Don’t jump in on the pauses – wait. Listen uncritically and don’t offer commentary. Silently empathize. We give our mates a rare gift when we give them our ear without advice.
  8. Shake it up: A friend of mine tells her children “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.” Don’t be dull! Own your part in making your love life spicy and interesting. Try new positions, with interesting scenarios and outfits. Invite pizazz into other parts of your life, too. Suggest a new restaurant. Invite different friends over for dinner. Come up with an adventuresome vacation plan.
  9. Be a tightwad: Your frugality and money smarts take pressure off him to provide, and believe me, men feel that pressure. Whether or not you work, it’s likely you set the pace for spending, especially on household goods, clothing and your children’s needs. Women can be great economizers — so rock the budget and rock your marriage. An acquaintance of mine, due to his wife’s epic frugality, retired from his job at 50. He is the envy of other husbands — and in awe of his epic wife.
  10. Promote and praise him: Talk about your husband in a kindly light. Don’t roll your eyes when speaking about him or ever berate him publicly or privately. Praise him for the things he does right. A woman I knew routinely made fun of and criticized her husband openly while we all cringed. They were divorced within the year. Treat your husband with at least the regard you would accord a good friend.
  11. Let him be the man: Maybe you have a college degree and can negotiate the hell out of a car dealer. So what? It’s still good to let him take the lead and shine. Men like to feel useful and that you need them for something. It’s acceptable to lean on your husband and even feign a little helplessness at times. Because, really, you can’t do it all, can you?
  12. Make him #1: Put your husband before your children, friends, elderly parents, job and volunteer activities. Consult him on anything that impacts the two of you. In my old life, I was guilty of over-volunteering. My ex-husband never complained, but I robbed him of my time and passion. You belong to each other first. Everyone else comes second.

What’s the payoff to being an epic wife? Having a fulfilling, dynamic marriage and getting his devotion back 100 fold. If you have chosen the right man, he will more than likely rise to the level of excellence you have set. He’ll adore you and want to serve you — just like you do him.

As for the epic husband list? I’ll leave that to him to compile.