The other day, I was talking with Lynn, a woman whose husband had left her unexpectedly about a year ago. She was past the uber-crisis period and slowly rebuilding her life. Although she had suffered terribly trying to recover from the loss, she confided in me that there was a surprising up-side to the fact that she was now suddenly alone. She realized that during the course of her marriage and raising a family, she'd lost herself.
She was so used to accommodating everyone else that she'd long ago stopped factoring herself into the equation. To keep the peace and to keep everyone happy, she had become so accustomed to putting herself last that she no longer really knew what she wanted. Her mind would automatically calibrate what others wanted without even checking in to see what her choice might be. "Where should we eat? Well, he doesn't like Italian, so let's go for Thai - he likes that." "What movie should we see? If we go to the one I want to see, there'll be so much complaining that it'll ruin it for me, so we might as well see the one my daughters wants to see and at least everyone will be happy."
Women are so phobic about feeling guilty that they're much happier making sacrifices than having to face the guilt of people complaining about their choices. The worst thing you can call a woman is selfish. But when you think about that word - self-ish - isn't it about taking care of your self? Can't you both take care of yourself and take care of your family?
Now that Lynn was on her own and didn't feel she had to suppress her wishes to keep her husband happy, she was able once again to hear her own voice. She could go where she wanted and do what she wanted to do. But how do you get back in touch with yourself while you're married and in the midst of all the demands of family life?
The key is to have the courage to state what you want, even if you already know that others in the family might want something else - to be able to face some push-back and still present your case. You need to become comfortable with disagreement. Things won't always go your way, but at least you won't forget who you are and what you want.
Another way to find yourself again is to follow some pursuits that are for you alone. Spending time with friends, devoting yourself to hobbies or work, and, very importantly, getting away from the family from time to time, to reconnect with your own voice. When you can temporarily decouple from your spouse and the family, you will refresh yourself and remember what you're all about. You'll see things from a different perspective that can be energizing.
Many women have a lot of trouble spending time away from the family. They're afraid that problems will arise while they are gone and they'll feel guilty that they're not there to make it right. But even a weekend or a few days out of town will go a long way towards helping you recharge your batteries and when you return, your family will benefit from your less stressed outlook. Plus, while you're away, your family will learn to become more independent and the bond between your husband and the kids will grow stronger.
In March, I'll be leading a women's self-discovery retreat to Sedona, Arizona in order to give women an opportunity to step back from the demands of their lives, re-examine where they are and refresh their outlook before heading home. If you'd like to learn more, please visit our website at www.CentreSedona.com/sedona-retreat.
I'm a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves.