I knew moving back to the US would be a difficult transition. I loved so many things about the Azores that despite my intentionally positive outlook, I knew moving to Grand Forks, ND would be hard. I’d mentioned perhaps pursuing grad school before the move. As much as I loved our time living abroad, it created layers of difficulty for pursuing my own career artistically or otherwise. I told my husband that maybe, once we were back in the US, it’d be good time to advance my education and career ambitions by attending grad school. He never really said anything one way or the other. He wasn’t disparaging. He was wasn’t enthusiastic. He just sort of listened and we moved on to talking about whatever else.
Once we had settled in North Dakota, I began seriously looking into my grad school options, comparing rankings, locations, alumni comments potential financial aid, and cost. I requested information from a couple, and took a trip to Minneapolis to meet with Admissions, tour the campus and get more information about their program. At this point it became evident that my husband was clearly pessimistic about this idea.
Where would I live?
How could I make it work?
What about the dogs?
What about the long hours he worked?
How could we afford it?
For the first time since we’d been married (nine years at this point) I was very seriously and actively considering a pursuit to advance something for myself, for my career ambitions, my goals–and he automatically put up a wall that is was impossible.
But it wasn’t impossible. My brother is from Havre, Montana. Yet, he received a degree from Stanford Law. He received a full-ride scholarship to Oxford for his doctorate. He’d gone to school in Ireland, worked in East Timor, Washington DC, had law internships in London and New York. A middle-class kid from nowhere rural Montana had achieved a prestigious education and traveled throughout the world–somehow. I have no idea how someone even starts to work toward those sorts of goals. But I did know that, for my husband and I, if we worked together and he was supportive–a 1.5-2 years of grad school was definitely possible…
I could find a place in the cities to live with roommates, I’d crash with a friend until then. My husband and I could see each other every other weekend, and alternating the 5 hour drive back and fourth between Minneapolis and Grand Forks, I could find some part time work in the cities…
My husband never expressed any real interest in pursuing his education after military retirement (he had often mentioned finding contracting work adjacent to the military or some civilian jobs that held his interest). He had told me several time that “college just isn’t for some people, and I’m probably one of them.” In fact, he had already mentioned places he would like to live because of potential contracting jobs with the military–another heart-dropping realization that after his retirement it was still the pursuit of his goals, not ours.)
Active duty military are able to transfer their GI Bill to a spouse or dependent. I felt awkward at the very idea of his bill paying for my schooling. But we were a team, right? I’d been supportive of his career, understanding about his long hours, patient during deployments, right?
But as he rose up the ranks, building a retirement, gaining marketable skills and certifications, my life felt so stagnant. I was still working hourly jobs with no benefits, barely earning over minimum wage. I was turning 31 and despite some wonderful and unique experiences living abroad, as an individual I felt stunted.
I still remember where we were sitting when I finally broached the subject of asking if my husband would be willing to transfer his GI Bill to me for schooling. My friend’s husband had offered his to her (and they had only recently become engaged, and only been together about 4 years)–It was okay to ask this, right? We were a team? We should want to grow into our better selves together, right?
So, I asked…
The question uncomfortably hung in the air…
“I knew you were going to ask that”, my husband finally said. His face in a growingly familiar frown, his brow furrowed and his voice measured and stern.
Well–it doesn’t seem unreasonable—the little voice in my mind responded.
Then it came out. An avalanche of gaslighting and future ambitions he’d never mentioned before (but I didn’t know it was gaslighting at the time, I just knew I was flooded with guilt for days after).
He was so hurt I would even ask. How could I? How could I be so selfish? The GI Bill was his ‘carrot’! His prize at the end of all of this. And I would even consider taking that from him? Once he finished his 20+ years of service, this was his fresh start. He gave up all the creative things he liked for his military career.
How could I even consider taking that from him? I had the ‘luxury’ of already having my college education (before we married). I’ve been able to make art whenever I wanted. He’d been carrying our marriage, he was doing all of this for me, for us. How was I not grateful for that? How could I take the one thing he was looking forward to.
How could I even consider taking this from him?
My heart dropped. I felt my stomach knot. I was being selfish.
We aren’t our friends, I am lucky I get to make art whenever–wait–he has free time, he spends it puttering in his garage or working on random projects (which are creative, but if he wanted to make art–he could.) And this was his fresh start. His?
So…these past ten years? What was all this? If he didn’t want any of this, then why the fuck were we here? My life ambition certainly wasn’t being a military spouse. He didn’t have to reenlist and reenlist and reenlist. He never conferred with me about our future options. “He would be in the military as long as they would have him.”
And that was that.
So, wasn’t this was where he wanted to be? Where the military took him? Took us? Because of his choice?
But now, apparently, once he was out of the military–then his real life could begin? So, what about me? Where was I in all this? In many ways I was still waiting for my start–let alone a ‘fresh’ one. I’m not getting a pension, retirement benefits, additional schooling, training and certifications for spending my twenties supporting his career.
“You could take out loans. I suppose we could do that, if you really want to go. But we aren’t asking your parents to help with any money. You know I’m not okay with that,” he finally said, indignantly.
I wouldn’t take out thousands of dollars in loans for a Master’s Degree in Art. And he knew that. This was a way of shutting me down without actually shutting me down. And he was right, I decided not to pursue further education. He provided a solution, he forgave my selfishness, his benevolence knew no bounds.
I was the bad guy, but he helped keep me in line with his expectations.
At that point in my life, I couldn’t get a job that would even pay $15 an hour, why would I risk taking out all that money, when we have unused GI funds–in fact, couldn’t we take out loans later if he did decide he wanted to go to school after retirement? Wouldn’t that make more sense for us as a team? He dismissed that idea. He just “wasn’t comfortable with that”.
Looking back, I realize this was a defining moment of clarity. Indicator after indicator that my future was only regarded in terms of convenience. My idea of our shared future, planning together to meet both our ambitions had been a delusion. A delusion that I’d held as my metaphorical carrot. For almost ten years. That, at the end of following his career, we could have the future we wanted–together.
Later, when I tell him I’m leaving–he’ll say he should have supported me for school. He should’ve supported my own career growth, but he was scared I’d end up leaving him.
At that point, I didn’t realize the full extent of his controlling behavior while we were married. He was particular, yes. He liked things done his way, yes.
On that night I realized, deep down that it would never be my turn. It would never be our plan for our future.
I would always be a supporting character in my own life.
I would be the tag-along in my own marriage.
The quirky girl people like, but her role is to move along the plot for the main character, my husband.
But I wasn’t quite ready to admit to myself it was all over–not quite yet…