Three years into our marriage, halfway through his senior year of grad school, my husband came home from school one day and told me he wanted out. I don't know if I love you, he said. I don't know if I've ever loved you. We separated. Six weeks later he had a change of heart and we began the long, painful process of putting our relationship back together. Everything about it was agonizing, from the words themselves to the idea of being divorced after only three years of marriage to simply living alone. When we stayed together after all, I took it as a testament to the fact that we belonged together.
We should have let it die right there.
Alright, maybe I don't totally believe that. After all, we have three children we adore who couldn't have gotten here any other way. And I'm willing to overlook a lot of hindsight regrets simply because at the end of the day I have my kids. But the cold hard truth remains. This has never ever been easy. For either one of us. We've turned a Starter Marriage into a twenty year journey.
I'm not even sure how to explain it. There are just so many things we never got. He's been away so much in our marriage and I've had to handle so much by myself that I told myself for years how nice it was that we were able to be so self-reliant and independent. We became so self-reliant and independent that I was almost happier when he was gone, and I suspect he would say the same thing. Every time things got rough we would turn on each other. For years, I pleaded and said Why can't we ever do the united front thing? You know, the one where it's us against the world? Why does it always turn into you vs. me? Everything - from the way we handle money to the way we present ourselves to the world to the way we deal with our stresses to the way we problem solve - is diametrically opposed.
Somehow, somewhere, we stopped wanting to spend time together. I would go to sleep early. He would stay up late. For years, I went to office parties and film wraps feeling very out of place and alone, while he schmoozed and basked in the attention of his peers. Eventually, he stopped asking me to go. Rather than being upset, I was relieved. I would always skip my work parties, and rather than encourage me to get off my ass and go, so he could meet some of the people who became so important to me, he just shrugged and said Whatever you want. It was less work that way. At get- togethers with family and friends, more often than not the kids and I went by ourselves. He hid behind work and I hid behind the kids. We were the couple who sat in a restaurant and had nothing to say to each other. One of my friends said to me last week that she had never once heard me say I missed him when he was on a shoot, no matter how long he was gone. I was always happy to see him get home, but only when I actually saw him. There was no wonderful anticipation of his homecoming, even when he'd been gone for a month.
Even the things we both loved turned into things we didn't do together. Take travel, for example. Between us we've been all through Europe and the United States, been to Russia and Mexico. But almost never together. Always separately. I think I can count the plane trips we've taken together on my fingers. There was the trip to San Francisco a couple of years into our marriage, the "second honeymoon" to Hawaii after our separation, a trip to Vegas to meet up with my dad, and I think there's maybe one more I'm spacing out on. That's not a lot in twenty odd years. There was always something wrong with the timing, or money was too tight or the kids were too little. The last trip we took together was a few years ago when he had a film in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He was there for the run of the festival and I flew out the weekend the film opened. Even though we stayed in a condo with some of the other workers from the film, and were surrounded by people most of the time, that may have been the last time we really had any time just the two of us. It was nice. There were moments on that trip where we actually clicked.
For years, he had a stock quip when people would ask us how we'd managed to stay together this long. Inertia, he'd say, and then we'd both chuckle. How dense can two bright people be to see that the answer was right under their noses for years and no one ever caught on? And rather than focus on the how of it, what the hell about the why?
We're both very stubborn. We're both children of divorce. We both hate to admit when we're wrong. And, lets face it, it was familiar, and, in its own way, comforting. When your expectations are low, they're more easily met. For years I smugly viewed people who wanted to be with their spouses as clingy. I've given my mother endless grief because she and Stu talk on the phone constantly when they're apart. I've rolled my eyes when a friend would moan about her husband's four day business trip and how much she missed him. I just figured that we didn't have that kind of marriage. We were self-sufficient.
And lonely. Oh, my god, so very lonely, the kind that goes to your bone. I always told myself that I didn't have a romantic or sentimental nature, but my daydreams and my fantasies told me something far different. I'm not talking white horses and heaving bosoms, but something far more elusive. A connection. An intuitive understanding of another person, and, even more intoxicating, a person with an intuitive understanding of me. I've had males like that in my life. Some of them have even been straight. Two of the best friends I've ever had have been males who "got" me, males who were always "just friends", as if you can consider that a bad thing.
I love my husband. I do. I always have. I always will. He's a good person who is passionate about what he does, and very focused on the things that interest him. I'm just not one of those things. I haven't been for a long time. Once upon a time, we met on a film shoot. He stayed in film and I ultimately went on to the field I always wanted to be in. Sometimes I think it would be easier if we both worked in the same field still, but I don't know. He's always been competitive, and I've always thought I wasn't, but am realizing now that that may not be so true anymore. I think with us, with the way we are with each other, it would just be one more rock in the road. I'm the woman who started out being his partner and somehow, over the long haul, became the woman who took his freedom away. So many of the choices he's made in his life that he now regrets have been laid firmly on my doorstep. Well, you can't change the past. It's such a cliche, but it's true. All you can do is try your best not to make the same mistakes in the future.
There was a pivotal moment in our "marriage" counseling that should probably be engraved on the headstone of our union. I had, in a moment of anger, made a snotty comment about what would constitute his "perfect day". I didn't give it a second thought. But for him, it was the dawning of the end. He explained it to me last week. I'd never realized, he said, how well you know me, how much you understand me that you could say that and be absolutely right. But I also knew that if you knew that was what I wanted, and you weren't doing it, it must mean that you never would, because you didn't want to. And I said, Why in the world would I go out of my way to make your life everything you want it to be when you won't go out of your way to make my life anything I want it to be? Consider yourself lucky that I know you that well, because at least I know what would constitute your perfect day. You don't have a clue what would constitute mine. When he agreed with me you could almost hear the coffin slamming shut.
We've had some good times, he said. We really have. I know, I replied, but you shouldn't have to work so hard for every one of them. Later I thought maybe with someone else we won't have to. In a strange way, I owe him one, and I told him so. I would never have left this marriage, whether it was from a sense of obligation or a need to protect my kids or whatever. I would have ridden it out to the bitter end. I would have continued to convince myself I was happy forever. He took that option away from me. And I can't thank him enough.
For years I've said that if my marriage ever ended I would never again venture into the male-female waters. I would become the crazy lady who lived on the corner with big, scruffy dogs and countless knitting projects. I would spend my days with books and friends and writing and of course my children. But no men. Never again. Strike one. You're out.
I mentioned this to a dear male friend who has gone through a divorce of his own in the last few years. I could see all kinds of emotions swirling on his face as he contemplated what a newby I was to the whole divorce game. In the end he spoke kindly, but with years of experience I don't yet have. You might want to wait a while before you decide that, he said. You may be surprised.
And I am. Already. I'm not talking today. I'm not talking tomorrow. Not next month or even next year. But I want to experience it before I die. The connected marriage. To a guy who "gets" me. To a guy who loves my independence but pulls me back when I get too far away. To a guy who thinks I'm more exciting than work, and a hell of a lot less confining. To a guy who loves me for me. And lets me love him the way I'm dying to love someone.
Is that too much to ask?