All You Need Is Love–and a Few Ground Rules by Christina Knowles

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Everyday I am stunned by another friend getting a divorce. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but more often than not, it is a tragedy that could have been prevented. I’m all for leaving oppressive, abusive relationships. I can even concede that once in a while a couple has grown apart to the extent that there is no reason to put it back together again. What I don’t get is how someone can walk away from someone they once loved without really trying to make it work, especially when there is still love, when hearts will be broken, and when there are children who will be irrevocably damaged.

We all walk down that aisle with high hopes and idealistic predictions, but how do we prevent our own relationship from deteriorating into just another statistic? There are hundreds of thousands of books written on the subject, some by marriage and family counselors, some by psychologists, and others by theologians and pastors, all giving their warnings, advice, and wisdom. It would seem someone who had been married for years and years would have some good suggestions from experience. I’ve been told you have to have a regular date night; you have to keep romance alive. I’ve heard many of them say, “Love is a choice,” and “You have to commit to stay even when you don’t want to,” and my personal favorite (insert sarcasm into the narrative voice in your head), “Marriage is hard work.” Yeah, that sounds like fun.

Before I embarked on my second marriage, I read all the books, talked to old successfully married couples, and even went to pre-marital counseling. I was ready for the struggle. But it never really came. True, I have not been married for that long—a little over eight years, but isn’t there supposed to be trouble around year seven? Another little tidbit I picked up somewhere. But certainly I would hesitate to give advice this early in the marital scheme of things, and yet, we are doing something right. I mean my husband and I have endured a lot of things since we first married, but our love has only gotten stronger, and I can honestly say that being with him has been the easiest part of my life ever since we got together. It’s never been difficult. Of course, we’ve had disagreements, even a few fights, but we quickly got over it, and they were nothing that caused any damage at all. Honestly, I was really surprised how easy marriage could be.

Maybe because we’d both been divorced, we made our expectations clear, or maybe it is all the ground rules we established. Maybe it’s our work schedules or just our personalities. When we got married, we set certain rules in place to protect our marriage. One of the things we established is that neither one of us would have close friends of the opposite sex in whom we confided. Hanging out with friends of the opposite sex would be limited to group settings, preferably with our spouse present. We even have social media rules for Facebook in particular. We do not friend anyone whom we previously dated. If we are friends with single people of the opposite sex on Facebook, we encourage our spouse to friend them too. We don’t ever cathartically complain about our spouse to a friend of the opposite sex. We share our passwords, so we have access to each other’s emails, texts, and Facebook page. It’s not that we don’t trust each other. But things could change. Knowing we have no secrets from each other gives us security and keeps us from making foolish mistakes. And it isn’t just about preventing jealousy or cheating.  By limiting emotional intimacy to your partner, it keeps the emotional intimacy where it belongs, in the relationship. I have only one confidant who knows all my innermost feelings and fears. Doing this creates complete trust and deepens the level of attachment. Which brings me to honesty, the most important trait of a good marriage.

Without honesty, we’re just strangers. I want my husband to know me. I want to know him. I want to share the embarrassing, the unflattering and humiliating mistakes that I don’t want anyone to know about me. Because when he loves me despite them, I am experiencing true acceptance, and we grow even closer together. And being this transparent with another individual creates the truest form of intimacy I can imagine. It also means that we don’t store up resentments. We talk about something as soon as it bothers us. We solve it and move on.

We also try to put each other’s needs before our own. It is almost impossible to not love someone who treats you better than they treat themselves, when they care more about your happiness than their own. Which means we never stoop to name-calling or lashing out in anger. The one thing that is okay to hold back is words spoken in anger. No matter how mad you get, be careful what you say. When you are putting someone before yourself, his feelings are more important than your need to vent your anger.

One piece of advice sticks with me. I think it was Benjamin Franklin’s wise little aphorism that states, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.” When you’ve chosen your life partner, don’t look for things to drive you crazy. Purposefully ignore them. Tell yourself that in the scheme of things, they don’t even matter. I remember once hearing a story of a woman who was so disgusted by the little hairs her husband would carelessly leave in the bottom of the sink after trimming his mustache. She always nagged him about it, and they’d even had some fights over it. After he passed away unexpectedly, she would cry every time she looked down at her clean sink.

Which brings me to that piece of advice that says, “Love is a choice, not a feeling.” Well, I think it is definitely a feeling, an emotion, and it should be, but it is also a choice. I choose to love my husband. That means overlooking his flaws, looking for the best in him, recognizing his highest qualities, being careful with his heart, and being willing to share all of myself with him, and accept all of him in return. And if we keep this up, we won’t grow apart. We will change, but the change doesn’t have to distance us if we share all the minuscule changes along the way.

My husband and I have been through the death of four parents, estrangement from family members, depression, illness, job stress, and several changes in core religious beliefs on my part, but we have only grown closer together. Leaving him now would mean ripping a part of myself in two.

But we do give each other space. We both enjoy being alone and doing our own things. I write, read, paint, and do many other solitary activities. He writes music and plays guitar. We are not threatened by time alone. It makes us that much more anxious to be together. When we are together, we really enjoy it. We look forward to it—just like when we were dating, except without all that nervous excitement. Now it is a peaceful, comforting feeling, but it’s actually better than when we were dating. It’s richer, deeper. The butterflies in my stomach have been replaced with something else—a swelling in my heart that feels, at times, like it will burst with how much I love him. That’s the only difficult thing about being married to him—realizing what it would feel like to lose him. He feels the same about me, and so we protect our marriage in every way we can.

So, I’m not saying we have it all figured out, or that we are some kind of experts on marriage after eight years, but these things work for us—love and a few ground rules.—Christina Knowles

The Dog That Taught Me How to Live Again by Christina Knowles

Mulder flowersEveryone knows I’m a dog lover, but not many know that I owe a big part of who I am to one special dog. I’ve tried putting these feelings into words so many times and have given up every time, but it is long overdue, so here goes. Mulder Pitman-Knowles passed away in May of 2008 at the age of fifteen, and broke my heart in a way I didn’t know was possible. I put off writing this memoir to honor her because I was afraid, afraid to feel the emotions again, the grief, the gut-wrenching loss. You may, but I hope you don’t, think that that is an over-dramatic reaction to the death of a pet, but Mulder was not a pet. She was my friend, and I loved her as much as any other friend I’ve ever had. I know some people won’t understand what she was to me, but those of you who have had the privilege of loving and being loved by at least one extraordinary animal, will know what I mean.

You see, Mulder unexpectedly changed my life. She saved me, really.Mulder window

I adopted Mulder in 1994 from the Humane Society, or rather, she adopted me. The week before, I took my kids there to look at the animals, and we saw an adorable little male beagle. He was sweet and friendly, but he was a stray, not owner-surrendered, so I had to put my name on a list and wait five days to see if the owner came for him. When I called to check five days later, they said I could come and pick him up. I was so excited and had already picked out his name, Mulder, after the main character on my favorite TV show, The X-Files. In nervous anticipation, I followed as a staff member led me in to the dog holding area, but she couldn’t find the male beagle. She told me that the one I wanted must have mistakenly been given to someone else. I was terribly disappointed, but just then I saw the most beautiful beagle I had ever seen. The staff member told me she was a female who had been owner-surrendered because she was “un-trainable” and hated cats. The cat part turned out to be true. I didn’t care what her previous family said; I knew this was supposed to be my Mulder. She immediately came to me and laid her head on my bent knee and gazed at me with her huge soulful eyes. It was like we connected instantly. There was an intelligence and wisdom in those eyes, and I knew she was meant for me.

Scan 36I was a little anxious when I took her home because my ex-husband (current at the time) did not want a dog in the house. We had a golden retriever, Clancy, that he wanted basically for hunting, but he insisted that the dog be kept in a small dog run because Clancy had a thing for digging holes. It broke my heart, and every day I would let him out all day until my ex came home from work, but then one day, a man I hired to paint the house fell in love with Clancy. Every time this painter took a break, he would chase Clancy, then roll in the grass, wrestling him. This went on for a week, and on the last day, I asked the man if he wanted to take Clancy for his own. He had ten acres in the forest, and he was thrilled at the offer. He promised to never lock him up. I cried my eyes out as I said goodbye to my golden retriever that day, but I knew I did the right thing. I couldn’t live long without a dog, and I never wanted to put another dog through what Clancy experienced, so I talked my ex into letting me get a small dog that we could keep in the house. My ex agreed to let Mulder live in the house as long she didn’t do anything wrong-ever; however, he insisted on locking her in a kennel at night or whenever we left the house.

I don’t know why her previous family thought she was un-trainable because Mulder was house-trained within a week; she learned to sit, lie down, and stay in the first week as well. Right away she was “my” dog. She followed me everywhere. We ran three miles every morning, rain or shine; she did whatever I said, but listened to others only when she wanted to. She curled up on my lap every evening, and she knew exactly what she could do when my ex wasn’t around. When he wasn’t home, which was most of the time, she could sleep on the furniture or the bed, and she had free run of the house. As soon as she heard the door open in the evening, and he walked in, she would jump off the couch and take her place on her pillow. He never knew because she was so good. She never chewed up anything that wasn’t hers. She wouldn’t even touch a toy until I told her it was hers to play with.Scan 34

During those years, Mulder was my solace. My ex-husband was manipulative, controlling, angry, and intolerant. Nothing I did was correct, but Mulder thought everything I did was right. She accepted me with no make-up on, wearing old sweatpants, and she was okay with whatever I wanted to do—going for a run, snuggling on the couch while I read, sitting on my lap watching TV. She was good with my kids too. I remember one year my daughter wanted to make a calendar of Mulder pictures. She dressed Mulder up in a different costume for every season and took pictures of her. Mulder was not happy, but she didn’t complain once.

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In 2004 I left my ex-husband and filed for divorce. By this time, I was pretty beat down from seventeen years of being screamed at, seventeen years of being told to change who I was, seventeen years of being controlled like a child, used, humiliated, and devalued. I was tired of walking on eggshells just to make sure he didn’t get upset. He was okay with the kids. I was always the target of his anger.  I told him I wanted fifty-fifty custody of the children because I knew he would never give me full custody without a fight, and I couldn’t afford a lawyer. I told him he could have virtually everything we owned if I could just have Mulder. I was so afraid that he would try to keep full custody of the kids or take Mulder away from me just to get back at me. He didn’t want the divorce, but he agreed.Scan 35

I bought a townhouse with a little yard for Mulder, and we moved in before I even bought any furniture. The custody agreement ended up being one week on, one week off, so every other week, it was just Mulder and I. Mulder was never locked in a kennel again, but had free rein throughout the house and was allowed on all the furniture. It was then, these times alone with Mulder, that she made me realize what kind of life I wanted, the person I wanted to be, and how to live and love the way we are meant to. She loved me unconditionally, she never expected me to be anything other than what I was, she listened to me quietly, she comforted me when I cried, she never judged me, she never screamed at me, or told me to change. She showed me how peaceful and calm a home could be, how to look forward to coming home, how to love without selfish expectations, how to accept people exactly as they are. She healed me and made me strong. She looked up to me and found me worthy. She made me realize I never had to settle for less than unreserved love and acceptance ever again.

When I met my soul-mate, Randy, Mulder’s approval was paramount. Mulder loved Randy instantly, and Randy loved her. Mulder accepted Randy into our home with surprising ease. Because of this, I knew he must be a good person. Randy and I lived there with Mulder for two years, blissfully happy. I remember when Randy first moved in after we married, he asked if he should put up his slippers, so Mulder wouldn’t chew them up. I was so insulted that he would assume she would do that! I told him Mulder never chewed up anything that wasn’t her own personal property.Scan 40

She did get into mischief once in a while though. She was an avid rabbit hunter, and she was fast. More than once, I found her eating her kill, much to my dismay. She also learned how to open the cupboard where we kept her treats. One time she pulled them out and dumped them on the kitchen floor and ate her fill. I came home to the remnants of broken treats on the floor. And Mulder loved Christmas, particularly the stockings. She got excited when we hung them and even knew which one was hers. I’m not making this up. Ask my husband. She would be so excited on Christmas morning when her stocking was full. She’d go straight to it and jump at it. But one year, a week before Christmas, while we were gone, Mulder found her bag of treats and toys in the closet, the ones that were to go in her stocking. She obviously knew they were meant for her because they were dog treats and toys. Anyway, she dragged the whole bag out of the closet and halfway down the stairs when, apparently, guilt overwhelmed her, and she abandoned the entire bag on the stairs and hid in the bedroom. We came home, found the bag on the stairs, contents spilling out, but no Mulder to be seen. I called and called her, and finally she slowly emerged, head hung low, and tail down, completely ashamed of herself. Of course, I just thought it was adorable and wasn’t upset at all, but she so wanted to please me and couldn’t stand disappointing me. She just couldn’t contain her Christmas anticipation. I’m the same way. That is one of my fondest memories of her.Scan 39Scan 41

It was because of Mulder that I was ready for someone like Randy in my life, someone kind, easygoing, loving, and honest. So many times I’ve seen people enter into the same type of relationships over and over because they haven’t worked out their issues or figured out what they want, what they need. Mulder taught me I was enough. If I was to let someone into my life, it would be only because they added something, but that I was just fine by myself, and I knew when I fell in love with Randy that, just like with Mulder, I never had to be anyone but me ever again. I would be loved and accepted just the way I was, and I could be that way for someone else in return. There never had to be any yelling, name-calling, any manipulation. No lies and attempts to control, only complete honesty and respect. Mulder showed me I deserved that and how wonderful and peaceful life could be. She taught me how to live again.

That sounds like a lot to learn from a dog, but then Mulder wasn’t just any dog. She was my friend, she loved me, and I loved her. I had loved her before, a lot, but after I left my ex and moved out on my own, we bonded so extensively, probably because of the trauma I had been through, and because she was the only one there for me. I’m glad she was the one there for me. I miss her all the time. I will be forever grateful to her, and I will cherish her memory in my heart always. I love you, Mulder, and thank you.—Christina Knowles Mulderold

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