by: E.B. Johnson
It wasn’t the morning I had intended, but it was the morning that happened.
Hot coffee and a 7AM wake-up call. I was in front of the computer by 8 and was typing away by half-past. I stopped for a moment. Through red eyes, I clicked on the TV. The blurred face of Bethenny Frankel appeared, and the faintly familiar sound of New York-ian shrieks filled the air. I looked back down at the screen and continued my work.
Now, I want to quickly follow this up with a clear justification: When I write, I like to have a bit of background noise to engage with in the lulls. I can’t listen to music I enjoy, because I’ll end up distracted and singing along in my own private concert.
I can listen to shallow drivel, though. Easy to block out, and a study in warped psychology — it’s the perfect fix for my need for sound and something to engage with (and check out from) at-will.
The bomb drops.
That’s how I ended up in my living room one snowy morning, watching (for the first time ever) season 3 of The Real Housewives of New York.
I tell you this only so that you understand the setup that I’m going to give you next. When I describe to you the record-scratch moment that stopped me in my tracks and revealed a truth to me that was so intense I knew I had to share it.
As I typed away, I heard it. A character called “The Countess” (who does she think she is? Lady Gaga?) said one of the simultaneously most tragic and nonsensical things I had ever heard.
While talking to her daughter about her recent divorce (from a French Count) the topic of “moving on” came up. Turns out her former husband had moved on fast with an Ethiopian woman of noble descent, and “The Countess” was thinking of doing the same.
Her daughter encouraged her to do so, but the ever-so-proper “Countess” was hesitating.
“I don’t know,” she told her daughter very confidently. “It’s just different for the man.”
It all sits wrong.
For a moment, I pondered this statement.
My own mother had said this phrase a thousand times. I had heard it from girlfriends and seen the same trope on TV a thousand times. It’s just different for men. They move on fast. Women move on slow. That’s the way it should be. Women pine and men have options.
When my dad left my mom, she died. She was never the same woman again. Her courage left her and her strength seemed to leave her too. It wasn’t 2 years before she was in the hospital and on the edge of a deathbed.
“I don’t know. It’s just different for the man.”
My dad remarried, my mother never did. He had friends and took trips. My mother left the house to work and took 3 trips that I can ever remember in my lifetime with her.
I was stopped in my tracks and brought back to that childhood as I stared at this woman with a plain brown bob on my TV screen.
I put the laptop down and stared at the smiling face of a woman who had just said something so soul-strikingly profound and (at the same time) toxic and self-destructive.
Wrong. So, so wrong. Something about it all was so wrong.
I rolled the question around in my head, tossed it around in my hands, and got the taste of it under my tongue. I couldn’t quite get why it sat so wrong with me. And then it hit.
The husband of “The Countess” was moving on from what I could gather, and he was doing it easily. Why hadn’t “The Countess”? Why hadn’t my mother? Why hadn’t so many other women that I had seen dwindle away?
I’m usually able to dismiss the outdated beliefs of vintage TV, but this one struck me because for the first time, I couldn’t really dispute it.
Hadn’t I seen that happen time and time again? Hadn’t I seen my own lovers move on while I crumbled in heartbreak and confusion?
That’s when I got it.
Of course the life of “The Countess” ended when her husband walked away. Of course my mother disappeared when her husband of 30 years called it quits.
I rolled the question around in my head, tossed it around in my hands, and got the taste of it under my tongue.
They had built their entire lives around their husbands. The men had not done the same. While the women made their lovers the center of the universe, the men they invested in went on living their lives.
Their wives were a part of their lives, they weren’t the center of it.
When they walked away, they were able to do so wholly and without trouble because they weren’t walking away into anything unknown. To them, they were simply closing the door on a room they didn’t want to use anymore, in the same comfy home they had always known and loved (surrounded by the same cherished people and possessions as always).
For the women, it was not the same.
Conditioned for years to put their husbands before themselves, women like my mother and this “Countess” had their lives completely removed from them. The monument was removed from the center of the temple. Their god and their source of faith was destroyed.
Not only did they lose their livelihood — these women were left spinning untethered in space because they had anchored themselves to something which was changeable, variable, and completely unreliable. Now it was gone, and they had nothing.
So what was the answer?
Wake up and build something.
This moment reinforced to me an important lesson I had been mulling on since I was a young woman.
It’s crucial that you don’t live your life in revolution around another person.
You need to have money of your own. You need to have property of your own. You need to dig deep and find the strength and the skills to build something that is entirely your own. We cannot build our entire worlds on shifting sands. We are the only people who are always there for us, no matter what.
Whether a partner dies or they leave us of their own accord, we are the only one we can absolutely rely on to be beside us at the end. You need to be able to rely on yourself financially, mentally, and emotionally too. You need to be strong enough to stand on your own and brave enough to build a life that is authentically our own.
There’s no other way.
We cannot build our entire worlds on shifting sands.
Unless you want to end up divorced, miserable, and sitting in the middle of an empty life searching for meaning that seems lost — you need to wake up and you need to wake up fast.
We are — each of us — responsible for our own happiness and stability in this life. No one is responsible for giving us the quality of happiness we want. A husband isn’t responsible for paying your bills or healing your past pain…you are. A wife isn’t responsible for ensuring her husband is a whole and present person…he is.
I’m thankful to women like my mother and (abstractly) “The Countess” for teaching me these lessons, but I’m primarily grateful that I’ve taken them to heart as early as I have.
You aren’t anyone else’s fount of endless fulfillment and gratification.
Personal accountability is the true path to happiness. Recognize who you are and build a life (and relationships) that are aligned with your values, your joy, and your deeper truths. Don’t be beholden to anyone else for your happiness.
Especially not French nobility.