“Avant d’être, une mère, une épouse ou une amante, tu es une femme avant tout.”

Marie, my Parisian girlfriend, looked into my eyes and said: “In English, it means ‘Before you become a mother, a wife, or a lover, you’re a woman first and foremost.’”

I had no clue how to apply this saying to my life. So Marie explained: “Mother, wife, or lover. These are identities that you can have, but not all you have. These identities are like hats; you can wear one for today and another for tomorrow. You choose when and how to wear them other than letting any of these hats dominate you.”

At the moment, I didn’t know if I was more surprised by what Marie said or more surprised that I needed this reminder. My life seems to require a re-calibration before I can put my wife’s “hat” back on.

Since the pandemic sent everyone to work from home in 2020, I’ve been working alone. Around the same time, Jamie, my husband, and I moved across the country to a Midwest city where we had no friends or families. I felt pretty lonely spending most of the time at home, even with work keeping me busy.

Since most cities had lifted their COVID mandates in the US recently, business trips resumed. I left my home workstation to travel back to the office, spending several weeks in Chicago and Seattle. On this trip, I finally met with team members who only existed in video calls. I also reconnected with many friends in person. Friends brought me great conversations, which helped stimulate many self-examinations I’ve postponed.

What do I want in a relationship partner?

For a little over a year, or even longer than that, I was unhappy about my marriage. Last summer, many marital problems manifested from a small sudden crack. In no time, my life was sucked in by an unsettling black hole. I was wrong to think that I could process this incident quickly.

Jamie suggested one thing that could recover my frustration from this hazard, which was that we spend more time together. I assumed that he would try to spare more time for me. Soon enough, I found that this was not something that could ever be realized.

Jamie is a medical resident who’s expected to pull through 80hrs of work in the hospital constantly. He couldn’t just pause his busy schedule, nor did he try.

Jamie was absent for most dinners and often three hours late for the original time he told me. Even when he returned from the hospital, anyone could interrupt him by dropping a phone call. I found myself waiting miserably on his false promise of more togetherness. The original incident remains unresolved while new ones pile up. My unhappy days had become prolonged depressing months.

Can I take control of this downward spiral in our relationship? I thought to myself that maybe I could help fix our relationship. I jumped into the “how and what” immediately by scheduling a series of couple therapy sessions. I also tried to take care of Jamie more and change him. I failed, even more, this time.

Jamie told me he resented that I was trying to control every part of his life, and he felt pigeonholed in the relationship. We started doubting if we weren’t compatible from the beginning. Almost anything triggers my tears because of my fragile emotional state.

Did this change happen because we were drifting apart?

Or was I too impatient for Jamie? Conversations with friends, especially Marie’s reminder, pushed me to face a few even bigger questions lingering in my mind: Do I want to change Jamie, so I could go back to where we were? Or do I need to change myself to move forward?

Maybe even scarier questions: What do I want in a relationship partner? What do I want in a life partner, like a husband? Do I know about my purposes? I need to answer them before steering the wheel for our relationship.

Tiffany, my girlfriend, told me about a helpful exercise she did when deciding the next step for her relationship. She and her boyfriend both took a piece of paper, jotting down their dreams and fears in life in free form.

They listed their life purposes, three-year and five-year plans, issues/challenges, and fixes/opportunities. It built a matrix for them to compare priorities side by side.

They used to be unsure about how they could work things out, but the exercise helped them align that they were each other’s determined partners with matching goals.

My worst fear was that I would have no other way to escape this unhappiness unless I leave Jamie.

Thinking about this possibility already made me cry. But when I started the exercise, I was focused and surprisingly not sad. I wrote about my plan to live my life to the fullest. I have a lot of wishlist items, and not much requires a plus one. Instead of getting a relationship verdict, I arrived at a realization.

I learned that I didn’t need to rush to a decision on our relationship to prioritize my life. Being in a relationship, solving relationship problems, and living my life by realizing my dream are three distinct entities that I can/should treat differently.

In Seattle, my new friend Lydia offered to walk me to my hotel from Capitol Hill to South Lake Union. We walked into the beautiful sunset of the waterfront near Pike Place Market. Thick clouds were tattooed on the sky. A layer of warm golden light moved in slowly. Even as strong as the sun, it could not protect the city from the heaviness of clouds and rain.

“Have you tried creating new fun memories? If you want to stay in this relationship, you can shift your attention from issues to having fun.” Lydia pointed to a line of snow-capped mountains. My eyes were filled with tears from my relationship complaints. These mountains were almost only faint lines as the clouds entirely absorbed them. Large ships and ferries chased these mountains by going further and further away. “Look at what makes you both happy, do more of those things. It is hard now, but you could use a break from the negative feelings. Jamie might too.”

I snapped a picture for Jamie. Texting is the primary communication channel as we are not together every day. I used to send him many photos, but I stopped as we replaced them with quarrels. When speaking in thumbs, we only had short updates and long angry messages. It was a significant change from when we could previously joke and share about everything. Texting is quick to convey emotional responses but is not for conflict resolution. If we couldn’t chat face to face because of the scarcity of time, we should probably wait. Yes, we need to solve marital problems before it’s too late, but rushing them into iMessages could worsen everything.

“Wow that’s beautiful!” Jamie replied, “What else did you do today babe?”

These two short lines came through after my paragraphs of accusations. At that moment, I didn’t feel upset at him dodging. I was glad that we could derail the train of heartbroken thoughts. That might be what we need to do next. Or what I need the most. I will park our differences and non-stop arguments in the backlog of my life. Take a recess from blaming and fixing our relationship. I no longer want to lose sight of my own identity and happiness. This is a lesson that I learned and relearned: improving my happiness doesn’t have to work through another person.

“Avant d’être une épouse, tu es avant tout une femme.” I tried to say it back to Marie, with, of course, very broken and barely French. She just hugged me.

Special thanks to my editors: Laura Gaddis and Wen Zhang