Normal is Relative: How My Parents Lived Separate Lives

Aaron Burden/Unsplash
Aaron Burden/Unsplash

No topic is more talked about than relationships. Society has its views on every type of relationship there is, especially marriage. What’s right. What’s proper. What’s normal. And there’s the rub. In the context of relationships in general, what exactly is ‘normal’, and why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by someone else’s definition of ‘normal’? Normal is relative, for each and every one of us.

Having witnessed my parents’ marriage take on some unimaginable twists and turns, I’ve come to believe that if you let others’ opinions and biases (unconscious or otherwise) influence you, your relationship can’t grow into a ‘normal’ that works for you and your partner, and more importantly, a ‘normal’ that allows you to be true to yourself.

A different kind of relationship

From a young age, I realised that my parents’ relationship functioned very differently from those of my friends’ parents. I remember wondering why this was so, but it didn’t really upset me, probably because I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in school and amongst friends. So if I’m on the fringe, it seemed completely logical that my parents would be too.

My parents’ romance began like a rom-com. My father first caught a glimpse of my mother on a public bus and from that moment, he just knew she would be his wife. Even if it meant eventually convincing her to leave her fiancé (who was a friend of his) for him. From the day they got married, there was an imbalance of give-and-take, with my father doing most of the taking. Generous to a fault, my mother sacrificed her savings to see him through law school, establish his law firm, and even secure the first family home. But perhaps the biggest sacrifice she made was giving too much of herself.

For many years, the imbalanced give-and-take was my parents’ normal, along with the embarrassingly loud arguments, the spontaneous disappearances of my mother which usually lasted a few days, and the long silences that eventually broke with my mother asking my father if he’d eaten (fill in time-appropriate meal) yet.

Conditioned to a new normal

As with so many things in life, people become conditioned. And so my siblings and I became so conditioned to this sense of normal that we were absolutely dumbfounded when our mother asked for a separation. It shook me to the core. I felt like I didn’t know my mother. Why, after all these years, was this normal now not ok with her? (I was 16 then, happily immature and ignorant, you must understand.)

As if to further confuse their children, they continued to live in the same house, share the same friends, yet to them, they “lived separate lives’”. The next life-changing chapter for us as a family centred around Dad migrating to Australia. What was so incredible about this was that he made the decision while on holiday with friends. During this same holiday, he also purchased a house. And returned to Singapore to inform my mother of his decision and her need to migrate with him because he needed her to pay for half of the house. Oh, and as for us kids, we were to stay put, seeing as how we were all (young) adults and needed to build our own lives.

Despite having to give up the family home she loved, move to a country she barely knew, co-purchase three houses in Australia in total because Dad was very fickle, she grew into yet another new normal with him. And together, they transformed themselves and their marriage. They entered a different phase of Becoming which stretched well over 20 years. In this time, I observed how my parents grew to become true companions to one another – loving, loyal, and emotionally open. Thinking back on this, I suppose it dissolved a fair bit of cynicism in me. Perhaps some relationships just go through more phases of normal than others.

An evolving relationship

When they decided to return to Singapore to live out their “last lap” as they liked to put it, I thought we would all finally ease into a quiet, no-more-surprises sort of normal. But a few years after their return, Mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and my parents’ marriage went through yet another transformation. Dad grew into a role he was, for most of his life, unfamiliar with – that of a caregiver. His purpose in life was to make Mom smile every day and to never let her feel like she was going through this stage alone. The last nine days of her life as we went through palliative care with her were the most painful for Dad. But seeing him so remorseful and broken, I knew he had become a person, a husband, and a father whom I now have absolute respect for.

I couldn’t begin to delve into just how relative ‘normal’ is to each of us without sharing the story of my parents’ relationship. Some may have given up reading this story halfway through, concluding that the relationship was toxic and my mother was crazy to stick it out. Whatever your perception of normal is, that – all those ups and downs and painful challenges – was what normal was for my parents. But they chose to find a way to work with this normal, without becoming despondent, unloving or bitter. And from there, they continued to finetune what normal meant to them, as a couple and as individuals. I doubt they ever worried about what others thought of their marriage, or maybe they did but ultimately, they didn’t give a damn.

Whatever your normal is, I sincerely hope it leads or has led to a healthy relationship and a happy you.

 

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