When we started dating, I described Chris Graham to my friends as quiet and confident. He didn’t care what others thought and he was easy to get along with.
Thirteen years later, I sat in my therapist’s office with this new knowledge of Chris’ Enneagram number, the pain he was finally addressing in rehab, and the devastation of our lives with the realization that none of the confidence or self-esteem I saw was real. It was a mask then, and it was a mask now.
In actuality, when we started dating, Chris Graham was a wounded and lost kid who no one paid attention to. His parents were wrapped up in their own pain and unhealthy habits so no one was telling this incredibly smart boy to go back to college and get an education. No one was telling him the house he was buying wasn’t a good financial move or that he was paying too much. No parent was parenting him. No one was telling him he was loved or helping him recover from the chaos he had lived in for so long. No one was healthy enough to care for him. He had been ignored growing up in a house of addiction and enabling/co-dependency, the oldest child who was taught to be quiet, tiptoe lightly through life, and stay hidden because it was safer that way.
And here comes Mary Ritter: loud, opinionated, confident, sure, dependable, and doing every single thing she says she will. Things foreign to Chris’ world.
“You understand that because of his childhood, your dependability, routine, and stable nature was attractive to him, right?” my counselor asked, “How does that sit with you?”
Answer: not well.
Without making this post 10,000 words long, a lot of my Eight-ness and disgust from indecision comes from seeing influential people in my life unable to make strong decisions and stick with them. I see things in black and white (to a fault) because I witnessed so much waffling growing up.
And those wounds from childhood led me, in some way, to marry a waffler. Coming to terms with this knowledge has been hard.
Enneagram experts go back and forth on how our numbers come about, but most agree we’re made with these God-given tendencies (literally mirroring attributes of God), and then we have defining childhood experiences that force us to develop coping mechanisms to survive. All of us have these defining moments, it’s just how life and sin work. Once we become adults, if we’re self-aware and healthy enough, we begin to look at the survival skills we learned in childhood and we reevaluate them. The skills we needed to get through childhood are, more than likely, now doing us a disservice as adults. This theory is echoed in all the Enneagram books I’ve read as well as with most therapists and counselors. I’ve heard it from mainstream therapist Esther Perel on her podcast, and I’ve heard it from my own Christian counselor.
In The Road Back to You, Cron and Stabile write “A common story from Eights is that something happened in their formative years that required them to prematurely abandon their childlike innocence in order to take responsibility for their own lives and often the lives of others.”
In very different ways, Chris and I grew up feeling out of control. He reacted by hiding. I reacted by taking charge. And here we are, thirty-somethings still living those roles. Chris hides. I control.
If we wanted to heal our marriage, if we wanted to bring balance to our relationship and live more in tune with the way God created this thing to be, I had to tone down the control and Chris had to stop hiding.
Easier said than done, friends. Easier said than done.
For the Grahams, we get the added element of addiction. The more Chris disengaged, the harder I worked. I would like to say I was aware of what was going on, but I wasn’t. I’m used to picking up the slack everywhere I go, not because I necessarily want to be in charge of everything, but because I can’t let things go undone.
To begin restoring balance (I use the word “restore” loosely here, I feel it implies there was originally balance and there was not), two very specific things have started to happen in the Graham house.
One: I’ve had to learn how to shut up. Literally, stop talking. Not in a silent treatment sort of way, but in a way that allows space and time for Chris to determine how he feels or what he thinks before I tell him my opinions. Nines want to please you. Nines want to agree with you to avoid conflict. Chris’ Nine-ness wants to please me and keep the peace at the expense of actually acknowledging or voicing his own wants, needs, and thoughts. Keeping my mouth shut is the opposite of my Eight nature. I am not just opinionated, but quick with my opinions. I don’t have to mull things over, I know what I think immediately. Chris Graham needs 3-155 days to determine what he thinks.
This drives me crazy. But it is not going to change so I have to instead.
Realizing this, I’ve started introducing a question, hard topic, or a concern to Chris by saying here’s a heads up, we’re going to talk about this tomorrow so he can start thinking about it now. This doesn’t always work, but it has given him time to begin to decide what he thinks so he can not just accept my thoughts as his own and move on. He has his own thoughts and opinions, and we know keeping them inside will result in damage to him and those around him.
We need both of our opinions for this marriage to run better. We need both of our hearts to be better parents. We need both of our ideas to come up with the better plan.
I don’t and can’t do this well on my own.
So I am learning to be quiet. This is LITERALLY killing me so if you see me sitting in my car crying, it’s because I held a thought or opinion inside and I’m trying to recover from the effort it took. Also, when I go to my counseling appointments, I have a list of things I wish I could scream at Chris, but I don’t because it’s not helpful or beneficial so my poor therapist gets them.
I apologize afterwards, but damn it, it’s hard. (Side note: Counseling, in more ways than I can describe, is saving our marriage and saving me right now. On levels I won’t ever be able to write about and in ways I can’t find words for. The idea we can be healthy on our own is so preposterous to me I’m not sure why every single person isn’t in therapy at this point.)
Sometimes Chris makes choices about the girls, and I don’t think it’s the right choice. But he’s making a choice without coming to me first (which used to annoy the shite out of me), and he’s deciding something on his own as a parent and human, which means I have to accept it and not override it. The girls aren’t used to this and neither am I.
We’re all living in this discomfort that leads to positive change. It’s hard and good.
The second thing happening right now is I’m paying attention to punctuation. Weird, right? OF COURSE, the English teacher would bring a writing lesson into this post. Gag. But here’s what I mean: Eights often end their sentences with exclamation points! Everything is high energy! Everything is a demand! Everything is the greatest idea they’ve ever heard! Nines end their sentences with question marks. I think this is what I want? I feel this way? I want that? I believe this? That is good?
So we’re working on Chris making bolder statements, using exclamation points with abandon. In the past, Chris would respond to everything with “sure.” It was, like I explained yesterday, a non-committal way of agreeing and disagreeing with something without causing a conflict. I refuse to accept “sure” now. He has to say yes or no. He’s in charge of himself and what he wants/thinks/believes, but he has to pick a side. Don’t want to do that? Say no. Don’t agree with the decision I’m making? Speak up.
For me, I’m trying to speak slower and with a few more question marks. As my kids have grown, I’ve had to ask myself a million times what’s worth fighting over and what is not. Mismatched clothes to church? Not worth a fight. Long fingernails to school? Worth a wrestling match. Picking out a weird birthday present for their friend? Not worth the breath to contest it. Only half-washing your butt in the bath? Totally worth the redo.
I have started asking myself what’s worth the fight in our marriage too. It is different because while my kids will spar with me and stand their ground (GOOD JOB, GIRLS), my husband won’t. So sometimes that means not making a decision so he is forced to.
You need to decide where we’re going for dinner.
Pack the girls lunches; I don’t know what’s in the fridge, figure it out.
You live here too, what do you need to work on this weekend to make sure we’re not living in filth. Use your eyes. I’m not giving you a to-do list.
And if something isn’t done right, Chris deals with the aftermath and consequences, I don’t swoop in to make things right. Made a mistake? Fix it. Learn from it. That’s how life works.
Less Mary Graham control and more Chris Graham control.
One great thing about my counselor is she’s able to step back and see change or growth in a way I can’t for myself. There is no before or after picture for mental health. There is no standardized test married couples can take so you can chart improvements and setback. Things are less concrete and harder to notice.
When you’re working to change patterns and thought processes you’ve lived in and with for years, you are literally rewiring your brain. You are establishing new pathways and consciously picking less easier ways to handle something. It’s like that for addicts working to break addiction, and it’s like that for people learning new coping mechanisms. The old ways don’t work and the new ways will, but it’s going to hurt for a while.
Learned behaviors from childhood are hard to unlearn. Marriage patterns established years ago are hard to re-train. But that’s EXACTLY what you have to do if you want change. No one gets to change a marriage and also stay the same inside. No one gets to unlearn wrong coping mechanisms while also keeping them in their back pocket.
Sometimes I feel like we’re not making progress. Chris will do something I connect with his drinking and it will act as a trigger for me. I will get angry and he will shut down.
I feel like this will never get better, and Chris mirrors my opinions.
And then we’re back to the old Graham marriage, the one that felt hollow and sad. The one I wanted to end. The one Chris drank to get away from.
But then my counselor steps in and says, here is where you were and here is where you are now. You are healthier, Chris is healthier, and this takes time. Stop expecting things to suddenly be better without the hard, painful work.
Creating new rhythms and pathways is exhausting. Actually exhausting. Not just for us, but for anyone fighting their old self to become better. Change is hard. Healing a marriage is hard. Staying sober and feeling things is hard. Not responding to everything with anger is hard.
But we’re choosing hard now in hopes of health down the road. And while I can’t see healthy yet, I can feel moments of it, and it’s just enough to keep going.
Books I’ve referenced in this post & I highly recommend you read if you’re intrigued by the Enneagram:
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz (I just skimmed this for the post and haven’t read the whole thing yet.)
The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert
Principles of the Enneagram by Karen Webb
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PHOTO CREDIT: HUFF PHOTOGRAPHY
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